Australian comedy in 2014 did pretty much what it was expected to do: not all that much. The days of any local comedy connecting with a mass audience seem to have ended with the mass audience realising Chris Lilley only ever had one idea, while the ABC’s other crowd-pleasing mainstays either tossed off a half-arsed job (The Chaser) or didn’t even bother to turn up (Gruen). Don’t get us wrong, this wasn’t a bad thing: the less we saw of those guys, the more opportunities opened up for new guys. If only the new guys had been worth checking out.
You know it hasn’t been a strong year for comedy when people ask you what the highlights were and you find yourself torn between Kinne and The Bondi Hipsters. Yes, two series of Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell should have been enough to keep the sourest grumps happy, but how much longer can the entire Australian comedy business continue to be propped up by Shaun Micallef? John Clarke and Bryan Dawe keep on keeping on away in their quiet corner of the ABC (anyone else notice they had a DVD out late last year?), but otherwise we’ve got Micallef and company off making comedy that’s actually worth watching, then a bloody big gap, then a bunch of stuff that seems to get a handful of viewers more out of a vague sense of obligation rather than any real expectation of experiencing laughter.
To make matters even more depressing, Micallef started making world-class comedy in the late 90s. In the fifteen years since, who’s come up to challenge him? Working Dog still show signs of knowing their stuff, and they started in the 80s: did they start putting something in the water that stopped anyone funny being born after 1970? Even Adam Zwar’s no spring chicken these days, and Lawrence Mooney’s four hundred in dog years.
This is the point where you’re supposed to tear strips off us for being out of touch. There’s loads of great new comedy out there, you’re meant to say, but our ideas of what’s funny are so stuck in the past we fail to recognise what’s right under our noses. Unfortunately for you, this is also where we point to fucking Please Like Me and you go home crying your eyes out. What else is out there to back up your argument, This is Littleton? The cavalcade of dipshits the ABC wheeled out for their New Years Eve coverage?
2014 left us with the sickening feeling that we were watching the slow, gradual death of television comedy in Australia. While local drama has undergone a resurgence over the last decade to the point where we actually make shows people overseas want to watch, comedy has hightailed it in the other direction. Chris Lilley might have been shit for a decade, but for a while there his overseas success said that if you were good enough here you could maybe move onto the world stage. But his implosion at the start of the year and Please Like Me basically being an overseas show that happens to be made locally (on the ratings it gets here alone, we would not be getting a third season) may mean Australian comedy will now and forever be a local product. And in an increasingly international market that’s probably not going to be good enough to keep it alive. Enjoy those DVDs of Upper Middle Bogan while you can: we’re probably not going to see another attempt at a broad-based sitcom any time soon.
The big obstacle to getting a sketch show up and running this far into the 21st Century is that it’s not enough just to slap together a bunch of sketches – you need some kind of theme to hold it all together. So in theory the idea of setting a show in and around a City Council seems ideal: it brings everything together under the one roof without constraining the kinda of wacky nutters you can serve up. After all, Little Britain was a massive hit, right? And then if you have half an ounce of common sense you remember The Wedge and quietly shelve that idea forever, because sometimes what seems like a good idea is really just rotten to the core.
Ah, The Roast: was ever so much time spent broadcasting a show that achieved so little? There’s a reason 99 out of a hundred “satirical” university revues sink without trace: university students only think they know how the world works, and with Australian universities increasingly for the rich, not only are university students ignorant about how the world really works often they’re psychologically unprepared for the truth about just how useless and parasitical they really are. Or, to be more blunt, there are few things in life more annoying than a bunch of wealthy Sydney-based white males putting on a satirical review, and The Roast somehow managed to be one of them.
Hamish & Andy spent yet another year doing pretty much the exact same thing they’ve been doing for the last four (Five? Seven? Eleven?) years: going to someone else’s country and making a dick of themselves. It’s difficult to know whether to salute them for finding a form of comedy that commercial television audiences will actually watch, or roll our eyes theatrically at the endless skits involving them eating crazy foreign food then getting around in some wacky form of transport over and over again. We can’t wait for the episode where they go to Mars.
If there’s one thing we can say about Die On Your Feet it’s that it tried to do things differently. It was a show about chaotic comedians living chaotic lives at the often chaotic Comedy Festival, so the makers decided to make the show itself chaotic – rambling plots, random interstitial talking heads, scenes that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of whatever the storyline was. You could see what they were trying to do – comedy’s chaotic, these characters are chaotic, let’s make the entire show chaotic! If only it had worked. Die On Your Feet‘s incoherence might have amused its makers and reflected the realities of stand-up during a festival, but it left audiences confused. And confused audiences don’t laugh…which isn’t a good thing in comedy.
At least Please Like Me got the “having a plot” bit right, kinda, but it was no less self-indulgent, especially when it went down the route marked “Drama”. Yes, all the stuff in the mental home did challenge a few stereotypes and allow us to laugh at a topic which is usually hidden from view, but as the rest of the show was an interminably unfunny look at characterless inner city hipsters and their non-crisis-filled lives…ugh. Look, there’s a reason Please Like Me series 2 plummeted rapidly in the ratings following its debut, and that’s because it wasn’t much good. And the fact that it stayed on air was largely down to a combination of American money, Fairfax puff pieces and the ABC comedy department’s personal pride. Naturally it will soon return for a third series.
Winners in this or any Tumblies category rarely receive more than 50% of the votes, and yet here stands Jonah from Tonga with a landslide-like almost 60%. How did it get there given it’s a show from international comedy titan and long-time veteran Chris Lilley? Well, a recent history of comic fails from its core creative team (that’d be notorious self-made man Lilley) was a clear factor. As was the slurry of unwarranted hype and crappy publicity stunts that traditionally accompany any Lilley project (make the entire series available on iView before it was broadcast, then hope that’ll drive the broadcast ratings up? Good one!). But Jonah had even less going for it than that. It had three episodes of plot stretched out over six episodes of show, it starred a character who never changed or evolved or even became interesting beyond someone who would occasionally come out with a half-decent dick joke, and yet again it seemed to be a largely improvised show where only Chris Lilley was allowed to have the “talking stick”. And because these characteristics have been present in pretty much every Lilley project since anyone can remember, and because, like his characters, Lilley never seems to evolve his thinking beyond what he first though of, and because an ever decreasing number of people seem to find this sort of thing funny or novel or interesting or in any way watchable…we give you Australia’s Worst Sitcom of 2014!
The sad thing about this show was that The Chaser can – and usually do – so much better than this. It’s not like it’s news that The Chaser team aren’t guys who can charm viewers off the cuff: they’re solid comedy professionals who can deliver material well, not actual entertainers like… well, most stand-ups for one. And this kind of format almost always stinks too – as we’ve said elsewhere, having to a): first have the host explain the set-up for the jokes then b): have the panel stumble around trying to think up one-liners means that unless you do a shitload of editing you have a show that’s a lot slower serving up laughs than just about anything scripted. Worse, this kind of show almost always feels like the producers simply couldn’t be bothered sitting down and writing the jokes themselves. So when your writing is your strong point (as it is with The Chaser), you end up with a show that feels like you just don’t give a shit.
The Project is always a tough watch in much the same way as reading a big old stack of News Corp editorials is always a tough read: smart people dumbing their shit down is never a short cut to a good time. At least after Charlie Pickering left… then came back… then left again, the show drifted towards just “talking down to the plebs” rather than “openly sneering at anyone stupid enough to watch this crap”, but with Pickering it’s always been clear that his ideal audience resides on the other side of a mirror.
Presumably this was listed as “topical” because the cast usually wore suits rather than because of the timely nature of their swipes at both sides of politics, because the jokes these guys threw out would have been right at home on some 60s-era local knock-off of That Was The Week That Was. The fake news show format is so firmly established now that any halfway decent comedy team can take it in all manner of insane directions safe in the knowledge that audiences will go there with them, and yet the best The Roast could serve up was a slightly dorky host and a bunch of utterly generic reporters who were somehow duller than the real reporters on real news programs. Which wouldn’t have been an issue if the fake news reports hadn’t almost always just been “ha, check out this odd side detail to this current issue… yeah sorry, that’s all we had to say, bye.” Apart from the ones that were more like “wow, the way this government’s going, it’s like they want all old people to work until they die… so here’s a news story about how the government really does want old people to work until they die”. That crap is funny maybe once: how this show got half a decade worth of nightly shows out of it should be the subject of a Royal Commission.
If your goal is to make news and current affairs entertaining, your best bets are to do either thoughtful satire or to make your jokes broadly controversial – or both. At 6.30pm on a weeknight on a commercial network, neither of those options are open to you: you’ve got to keep one eye on the ratings and the other on what the station legal team are telling you not to do. So with satire and controversy being really quite dangerous in that context, they need to be used sparingly. Which means you have to fill the rest of your 20-or-so minutes of on-air time with mildly amusing YouTube footage, the lightest of light looks at politics, and stories about Kim Kardashian. Oh great.
Making news and current affairs entertaining by gamifying it doesn’t seem to work either, judging by The Chaser’s half-baked efforts this year. If we wanted to describe their Media Circus in two words (and really that’s all it deserved), “drawn-out” would probably cover it, for this was a show that didn’t tell us a great deal (aside from that “real” news reporters are generally stiffs and that the Next Generation of comedians The Chaser’s been nurturing aren’t quite as funny as they seem to think they are) but took a very, very long time to do it. And loathe as we are to praise the likes of Gruen, at least that’s pacey.
What are people objecting to when they voted for Bogan Hunters in this category? More Paul Fenech? Reality TV? Ordinary Aussies being dicks? All three, arguably, are fairly offensive, but as a combination they add up to sheer cynicism: established star makes cheap show about a bunch of people who are going to keep mainstream audience glued to their TVs in horrified fascination. That’s one definition of “worst”, but it’s probably not one the commercial networks subscribe to.
With this kind of high concept – a drug smuggler refuses to take a shit, thus denying the cops the evidence they need to put him away – this should have been a lot funnier. Or maybe not: the decision to play this one mostly straight (thus avoiding a whole lot of scat-based humour) was almost certainly the right one, even if it resulted in the kind of grim, vaguely social-realist film Australia doesn’t really need any more of. Still, Hugo Weaving playing Bargearse is pure comedy gold: as a straight crime film with a few laughs this really isn’t half bad.
The fact this half-arsed portmanteau (imagine a worse Love, Actually) wasn’t very good was somewhat overshadowed by the media antics of its writer-director-star Josh Lawson, who seemed to think the best way to advertise his Australian film was by calling it the Australian film for people who don’t like Australian films. Then when it tanked at the box office because it was basically a bunch of mildly smutty comedy sketches a la The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting (you know what we mean: come up with an idea, spend the first minute setting it up, then just keep idling in place because no-one involved knows that a decent sketch actually develops from the initial premise), the producers whinged that the critics were “anti-Australian” in not supporting their brilliant film. Hey guys, it was a film featuring a woman whose sexual fantasy was to be raped: you pretty much got the box office you deserved.
It’s not so much the actual quality of this film that irks: Paul Fenech’s been doing his thing for decades now and we’re all pretty much up to speed on his work. Arguably it’s gotten worse: just about the only memorable thing about this film was the way the characters from Pizza had actual characters while the Housos mob were all just one-note shouty nutcases. No, what hurts is the fact that, rather than giving it away for free on SBS, he now expects us to pay cash money to watch his marginally competent crap. Haven’t we suffered enough?
Dan Ilic’s satirical show A Rational Fear made headlines in 2014 because it was successful in getting enough crowdfunding to turn itself in to a “digital comedy hub”. The money was used to pay writers and to cover the costs of producing videos, infographics and articles. As a model for making satirical comedy it was reasonably new and innovative, and A Rational Fear’s follower counter on social media suggests it was pretty popular for what it was. Everyone’s a winner right? Well, not quite: as to the quality of Ilic and company’s offerings, shall we just say “The Roast with slightly more edge” and leave it there?
Throughout its short history the internet has been the place to go for things the mainstream media won’t touch, from 20,000-word guides to individual episodes of Star Trek to types of porn you hadn’t, and didn’t necessarily want to, imagine. Online sitcom Dayne’s World was certainly comedy in a style you could call “niche”; some liked it, but many just found it weird and uncomfortable. Don’t get us wrong, weird and uncomfortable can be really funny, but when weird and uncomfortable that’s meant to be funny doesn’t really make sense as comedy there’s a problem. With Dayne’s World there were a few too many scenes where it felt like you were missing out on some kind of in-joke, or where you were meant to be laughing at a character who seemed to be in the middle of a serious mental health crisis. It was at those points that weird and uncomfortable didn’t add up to comedy – it was just plain old weird and uncomfortable.
From the people who churned out 10 minutes of poor satire 5 nights a week came a weekly 70+ minute podcast about how they made their 10 minutes of poor satire 5 nights a week! As an insight in to the making of a TV satire show – regardless of its quality – this was kind of interesting. Kind of. If the podcast had a bit more focus, and they’d edited it down to 30-45 minutes of interesting chat rather than serving up over an hour of unedited informal debriefings and general gabbing, then maybe this might have been worthwhile… but that’s true of most podcasts. The ultimate problem with The PodRoast was that the one thing that’s actually interesting about The Roast – exactly why this woeful program stayed on air for 5 years – was never addressed. There weren’t even some vague hints (blackmail? They knew the secret handshake? The ABC forgot to tell them to stop?). To be fair, there were a couple of times where they talked about their approach to topical comedy, and how they’d come to conclusion that robust satire of individual politicians was actually the same as bullying (no it’s not: they’re politicians), which is they didn’t like to go there, and this could lead cynics to suspect that in this era of massive ABC budget cuts the ABC found it useful to have a toothless satire on air. But when you’re turning minor insights in to conspiracies to make a podcast more interesting, that hardly justifies your use of bandwidth to download the thing.
We’re going to chalk this one up to “the general decline of the media”: The Herald-Sun’s coverage of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is below par not because the right-wing Herald-Sun is ideologically opposed to comedy and fun in general, but because they use blow-ins, drifters and saddle tramps to write the reviews. Considering the media’s general cost-cutting, and the Herald-Sun’s non-existent coverage of the performing arts in particular, this poor coverage is no surprise. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand better.
The role of the critic in our society is a difficult one. For many critics, “criticism” is a way for them to talk about what they love: unfortunately, the people who make what they love usually hold critics in near-total contempt, seeing them as incompetent parasites sniping at their betters. If you are Ben Pobjie, would-be comedian and television critic for Fairfax, this is a problem: how to reconcile your desire to join the artistic community with the fact you are being paid to criticise them? Some might say the only way out is to try and earn the respect of the artistic community by being the best critic you can be: educated, insightful, tough on works that are slipshod, full of praise for the rare successes, and always keeping in mind that a critic’s first duty is to the readers that come to them for advice, not the artists who see you as nothing more than an unofficial PR department. And others are Ben Pobjie. At least his semi-regular and somewhat revealing lapses into social media sexism are funny, which is more than can be said for his suicide-themed stand-up.
Helen Razer’s one-woman war on clarity is nearing its third decade now, though these days she’s better known for her remarkably predictable opinion columns than for being a notoriously disinterested comedy reviewer. Her problem is that despite the large amount of five-dollar words she sprinkles throughout her various quasi-middlebrow ramblings, she doesn’t really have much to say: her current insights into feminism and identity politics consist of “you’re doing it wrong” and “how can I stretch ‘you’re doing it wrong’ out to 800 words?”. Put another way, for someone who seems convinced the culture industry is a vampiric parasite on society that can’t change anything of substance, she sure does seem keen to continue working in the culture industry. To paraphrase Stewart Lee, even we’re getting sick of those controversial opinions that she has for money.
A sitcom staring Sammy J and Randy has the potential to be a bit twee, doesn’t it? Maybe not quite as twee as Woodley or the bits in Please Like Me where Josh cooks something, but almost certainly set in some downmarket-but-arty inner city suburb, where the characters burst in to comedy songs every 5-10 minutes. To be fair, we don’t get a lot of this sort of thing on Australian television so it’s good that the ABC is giving it a try, but yeah, it’s unlikely to challenge the likes of Mad As Hell and Clarke & Dawe for next year’s Best Comedy Tumblie.
Please see our earlier comment about how Please Like Me will be back for a third series due to a combination of American money, Fairfax puff pieces and the ABC comedy department’s personal pride. Now move on.
At the risk of annoying the large numbers of people who voted for this, last time Charlie Pickering had a crack at doing a satirical TV comedy series (2008’s The Mansion with fellow comedian Michael Chamberlin) it was… okay? Not amazing, but okay. Pickering’s a solid stand-up and presenter, he’s well read, he’s genuinely interested in news and current affairs and politics, and so it’s likely that this will be a cut above the likes of The Roast, with the aim of being as good as shows like Mad As Hell and The Colbert Report. Which all sounds great, so what’s not to like here? Well… on-air Pickering seems a bit of a smug bastard type who can often come across as an angry, pushy bully when he’s not being a glass-jawed, cafe society bore. And while it’s great to see we’ve finally produced our own Ben Elton, can we just have one that gives us The Young Ones and Blackadder (and maybe a few of those well-researched historical novels) and leaves the area of live topical comedy well alone?
We’re just as surprised as you are. In fact, probably more so: unlike a lot of people, we never rated The Bondi Hipsters all that highly. But their first TV series was smart, funny, and showed a grasp of something most Australian TV comedians seem to have forgotten: you can get an awful lot of laughs from creating comedy characters who have some character. So while this did get a bit samey at times and not all the storylines were winners, there was definitely enough going on here for us to look forward to whatever they get up to next. Unless it’s more jokes about how shit hipsters are.
Yes, we live in a world where a perfectly average sketch comedy show is one of the highlights of the year. Seriously, there wasn’t a whole lot going on here that you couldn’t have seen back in Full Frontal’s heyday – well, apart from the jokes about race, which were the one area where this show really did have something to say. But there was a lot going on here that was just your basic competent sketch material (and sometimes, as with the preening gay guys, it wasn’t even that good). And yet, in 2014 even we have to admit that merely being competent is enough to (deservedly) put you ahead of the pack.
As more than one voter noted, Utopia is the kind of show Working Dog can do in their sleep. And perhaps if you were looking for insightful takedowns of our political system, you might have wondered if Working Dog were asleep at the wheel. But a comedy that put laughs ahead of scoring points made for a nice change of pace considering the absolute crap sack that was every “topical” comedy out this year that didn’t have Shaun Micallef’s name in the title. And while the character stuff in this character comedy was occasionally a little lacking – in Working Dog’s world either you’re a long suffering smart guy or a glib moron, which is 100% fine with us (it’s an actual comedy dynamic, which is more than Please Like Me ever served up) but we did wonder why the show needed eight cast members to explore it – it still managed to do exactly what it was trying to do: be funny. Seriously, does anyone really want to learn about town planning from a comedy? We’re just torn between joy at having Rob Sitch (one of Australia’s great comedy actors) back on our screens, and disappointment that he’s stuck playing the straight man.
Upper Middle Bogan isn’t the greatest show ever – having spent a lot of time carefully and amusingly setting up its characters and premise in series 1, there weren’t quite as many “knock downs” as we should expect – but what you do get from Gristmill is something so often lacking in Australian comedy: craft. When you watched Upper Middle Bogan you know that real craft, real effort, real time and real care had gone in to every line, every character, every plot, every shot, every costume and every other thing in the show. And in a world where scripted comedy seems to have been kicked in the curb in favour of improvised lines and the off-the-cuff panel ramblings, that’s an approach to comedy to treasure and celebrate.
If there’s one positive thing that we can take away from the Charlie Hebdo shootings its that almost everyone values free speech and satire. Clarke & Dawe‘s pithy, intelligent, bullshit-nailing duologues haven’t inspired millions of people to take to the streets (yet), but all those who were kinda miffed that they’re no longer on 7:30 have certainly stuck by them. They’ll watch them on Thursdays at 6.55pm, they’ll catch the show on iView, they’ll watch it on YouTube, they’ll like them on social media, and they’ll make the effort because Clarke & Dawe is just that good. Nous sommes tous Clarke & Dawe!
In a broadcasting climate where heads of comedy departments seem to spend their time commissioning cheap panel shows and then spending the money they’ve saved on marketing campaigns to make sure people watch them, rather than, say, seeking out funny people and giving them enough money to make a good scripted show, its gratifying to see audiences plump for the latter style of comedy. Scripts, sets, performers, crew, costumes, wigs, make-up and pre-filmed sketches cost money (and even small change is lots of money to today’s bean-counters), but if you get them right they add up to priceless comedy. When you watch Mad As Hell you’re getting the best of everything, but most importantly you’re getting the best attitude: spend the time, and some money, to get the funniest, smartest, most original and most resonate end product you can. Want to make a winning comedy? Do it like Mad As Hell does it. Every. Damn. Time.
And now, having dished out all of our famous tumbleweed head statuettes, its time to turn our attention to the coming year in Australian comedy as we look in to the Australian Tumbleweeds crystal ball…
A normal service will resume on this blog soon. Happy Australia Day, everyone!