Ever get the feeling you’re running in place? That was Australian television comedy in 2015. Not just in the usual “the only way forward is to bring back Fast Forward” sense either, even though once again hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in the firm belief that the only comedy “mainstream Australia” will embrace was made before a large chunk of the television audience was born. It’s not that comedy is always the most forward-looking of genres either: people need to know what they’re laughing at before they can laugh at it, and by definition the edgy, “alternative” material is always going to attract a smaller audience. Not that you’d know that from the ABC’s output; the national broadcaster seems to have decided that, with their drama slate fully booked with trad crime dramas, period crime dramas, cutting-edge cyber crime dramas and the occasional slice of middle-class ennui, it’s up to comedy to cover all the minority bases and if that results in a string of shows next to nobody wants to watch then at least no-one will notice they’re not funny. But we digress.
2015 was another year when it was difficult to get excited about Australian comedy. No matter what kind of comedy you like, the best Australia could manage in your area of interest was a half-hearted effort designed more to impress TV critics and funding bodies than to get actual laughs. We all know the reasons why: while a few reliable favourites keep creating quality work – Shaun Micallef and his writers, plus John Clarke & Bryan Dawe pretty much have that side of things all to themselves – the rest of the paying jobs are clutched firmly in the hands of tried-and-tested no-talents, leaving up-and-comers to flail around briefly before quitting or heading overseas.
Worse, the people who currently make up the bulk of what passes for Australian comedy talent are as bland a bunch as you could ask for (but why would you?). Sure, they can do their jobs to a standard of only mild embarrassment. What they can’t do is get anyone even slightly excited about seeing their smirking mugs fronting yet another series of some dull-as-dishwater collection of clips and panel chat. Every other genre of programming on Australian television understands the importance of “event television”: that’s the short but high-quality gear you put on to get the general public interested in the idea of actually watching television. Sport has various grand finals; drama has high-end mini-series featuring the three Australian actors people have heard of; news has political coups; comedy has twenty weeks of Charlie Pickering.
The end result is that while people will still occasionally trot out the old line that “Australians are people who love to laugh” – though have you noticed you don’t hear that anywhere as often as you used to? Guess there’s not much to laugh at with the current state of the nation – Australian television comedy has rarely felt as inessential. Considering how important comedy generally is when it comes to television, you’d think this would be a matter of some import to our cultural commentators. But no: they’re too busy telling us that The Weekly “nailed it” by repeating social media’s talking points back to itself and that Please Like Me is “the best show you’re not watching” after three full seasons of Australian audiences showing no inclination whatsoever to watch Josh Thomas make out with the entire cast of his show. And so here we are again, with the only Australian awards that dares to point out that much of what passes for entertainment on our television screens is shit. Enjoy!
A Note on the Results: This year voters could vote for up to five shows in most categories. The results are therefore the percentage of the total vote.
Yeah, this was watched by so few people that even just mentioning it here is a massive publicity win for the show. So we’re going to stop now.
Now this was just plain rubbish. Who the hell was it even aimed at? Was the joke that people didn’t really need to be told how to walk past each other on the street, or did someone somewhere in the bowels of the production company really think that this was important and helpful information that the public needed to know? And then they’d bring in experts to seriously discuss the topics they’d just been making fun of in a series of half-arsed sketches? What the hell was going on here?
What the voters said…
The freshest sketch comedy of 1989.
The clearly talented cast couldn’t elevate this shithouse material. With the odd exception (Laura Hughes and her obviously self-generated ‘What’s In Ya?’, which was fucking hilarious), the show had no clear point of view beyond the lazily throwing softballs at obvious targets. Watch out, Masterchef, Gina Rinehart, the Real Housewives, etc.
Open Slather is awful but it’s one of those shows where you can see what they were trying to do, like you can almost see the idea for a good sketch evolving into the end result. Hell, I’ll admit I even laughed at a few of them but it may have been my affection for Glenn Robbins getting in the way.
After at least two decades of rubbish Australian sketch comedy, you could almost understand why someone might have thought trying to recreate the magic of Fast Forward was a good idea. Unfortunately, most of the past two decades of rubbish Australian sketch comedy were also trying to recreate the magic of Fast Forward, and it’s pretty safe to say it ain’t never gonna happen. Still, unlike most Australian comedy, this did mean that Open Slather had a standard it was trying to reach, so when it failed to reach it week after week there was, at least, a feeling that maybe they’d try harder next time. But then they sacked 80% of their writers then went on a break and everyone forgot they existed so no-one noticed the last few episodes ran short because they’d run out of money. Because this is Australia, there’s still talk about bringing it back in 2017. Don’t.
Like a lot of high-concept sitcoms, this probably would have worked better as a sketch. Or a maybe as a series of sketches spread out across a sketch series. But if you’re turning a high concept into a viable sitcom you need more. Characterisation that wasn’t wafer-thin would have helped, particularly as that might have made the series feel less like it was some ill-defined characters dealing with a kinda similar situation each week.
Musical theatre veering on the twee tends to put off hardcore comedy audiences and yet somehow not convince many of those who like musical theatre that sitcoms are great too, so in a small market like Australia, it’s a brave comedian who treads both paths. At least, that’s one explanation as to why the fairly successful duo of Sammy J and Randy find their sitcom coming second in this category. Or maybe it’s because Ricketts Lane was a little rough ‘round the edges? Still, at least, there were some worthwhile ideas in it, unlike our very good friends at…
What the voters said…
I read in the paper that Josh Thomas has run out of ideas, so hopefully that means there won’t be a fourth series of Please Like Me. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to have had any ideas in the first place, which didn’t stop series one to three going ahead.
Even Fairfax have been quiet about Please Like Me this year…
If America(n cable) loves Josh Thomas so much, they can bloody well have him.
We’ve had an awful lot to say about Please Like Me over the past couple of years. We’ve complained about its poor characterisation, feeble hipster plotting, and yes, its terrible ratings. Regular readers of this blog know that ratings aren’t that much of interest to us, but in the case of Please Like Me, its are hard to overlook. Few shows that achieve half what the Antiques Roadshow gets are endlessly re-commissioned. And, yeah, we know, it’s American money keeping this alive… Seriously, what is the deal with that? Is this some kind of The Producers-type scam? Should we be calling the IRS?
It was a great feel-good moment when Peter Greste found out his Al Jazeera colleague had been pardoned while he was taping this show, shame the rest of the series wasn’t quite as good. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. Compared to its previous series, The Chaser’s Media Circus season 2015 was an improvement: they’d cut down on the pointless banter, improved the game show elements to make them tighter and funnier, and kept those highly-researched packages that had worked so well on The Hamster Wheel. We’re slightly surprised to see it poll so well in this category, but people expect a lot from a Chaser project, and this show still isn’t quite up to standard.
We’re still not 100% what The Project is trying to be, or how it’s survived, but we know one thing: it’s not trying to do “topical comedy”. Not in the sense that this blog understands “topical comedy”. What The Project is trying to be is the sort of news program that people who hate news programs will tolerate, which means “chuck in the odd zinger or bit of wacky news footage, but keep it light”. Enter Peter Helliar. We need say no more.
What the voters said…
The Weekly proves the ‘show a clip of a politician messing up a metaphor, then pull a face’ genre is a lot harder than it looks.
Good on Charlie for stepping where few dare to and take a stance against rape.
Answers the question: what if Jon Stewart were Australian, wrote incredibly lazy material, and was shit. Also, it’s the program most likely to get away with its blatant plagiarism because they never bothered trying to rip off The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight‘s substance or quality.
The first major problem with The Weekly (if you want our comprehensive take on all its lesser problems, feel free to check out our previous posts) is that it’s not a particularly good topical comedy. Another problem was, that for most of the year, it was the highest profile topical comedy we had. The ABC and this country’s comedians have a seemingly insatiable desire to make an Aussie answer to The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight but seem to think they can get away with not really kicking butt in terms of satire, or being, um, topical. This is why the best parts of this show are usually the non-topical ones. And given that these non-topical sketches often don’t feature the host of the show much – you know, the one whose name’s in the title – this is somewhat embarrassing for all involved.
You’d think that having a panel with chemistry would be kind of important on a show like The Project, but some evenings it seems like Carrie, Pete and Waleed are deliberately staging those bits where they awkwardly talk all over each other. Even if the rest of the show wasn’t so highly-produced that a quick re-cap of the headlines can’t happen without someone sticking a dance beat underneath this would look weird, but with it, well… it just looks like they hate each other’s guts.
It’s funny the way the votes get cast sometimes. There are many fairly good elements to this show – and Media Circus season 2015 was an improvement on the previous year – but compiling a panel by combining some of the smugger personnel from The Checkout and The Chaser with journalists isn’t the best recipe for laughs. Many panel shows of this type are loosely scripted, and all the better for it, but the banter on this show feels like it’s mostly improvised, or at least delivered so poorly that any prep work was largely a waste of time.
What the voters said…
Where would light-hearted, inane cultural ephemera be in Australia without the BBC?
The ABC has really excelled at padding out timeslots this year.
This is definitely the worst panel/light entertainment/whatever show on Australian television: a bunch of people you haven’t quite heard of giving their views on non-issues in a not terribly interesting manner. We realise that’s a fairly accurate description of quite a lot of shows of this ilk, but Agony seemed to take it up a gear. For years this hasn’t just a cheap timeslot-filler, this has been a cheap timeslot-filler with promotion behind it, giving us equally filler-style media stories about this or that person’s hilarious breakout appearances on the show. John Elliott might have been funny when he was one of the Rubbery Figures on Fast Forward, necking cans of Duck Beer, burping and yelling “Pig’s arse!”, but in real life, he’s just some rich, old businessman who supports the Liberal party – not a group of humans noted for their comic prowess.
Now this was a serious disappointment. Usually, you can tell the problems with an Australian comedy film months in advance – the words “Paul Fenech” usually being a useful guide as to what to expect – but this actually looked like it had promise. And by “promise” we mean “a premise that sounded mildly amusing”. Yet the end result was a weird mess, feeling at times like a sitcom pilot where they expected to iron out the problems by episode three, and with a strange “stop exploiting the kids” message that wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of A Current Affair.
Guess Channel Ten were right not to give this one a shot on free-to-air television. Sure, Ed Kavalee’s previous feature-length comedy Scumbus was entertaining enough for what it was, but what it was wasn’t exactly a movie anyone would pay to see – and this was even more all over the shop.
What the voters said…
What could be a better investment than an Australian film? How about an Australian film about Carl Barron starring himself? Another excellent tax write-off for all concerned.
I just really wish the poster had said ‘From the director of You Can’t Stop the Murders.
Sometimes I think we should just give up on film.
Imagine, if you will – and you will have to imagine it because nobody actually went to see Manny Lewis – a romantic comedy featuring a lead that looked and sounded exactly like Carl Barron. Now stop and think about the audience for romantic comedies. Think about what they look like. Think about who they are. Now imagine them wanting to spend 90 minutes watching a romantic fantasy about a man who looks and sounds like Carl Barron finding love. You can’t. No-one can.
If you’re voted for this because you’re not a fan of the stock characters/broad gags school of comedy, fair enough, but compared to those programs which placed well in our Worst Sitcom category, Plonk is actually pretty good. It certainly raises a hell of a lot more laughs than some of the podcasts nominated in this category, with their rotating panels of white guys in their 20’s and 30’s, competing with each other to improvise either rape jokes or whimsy.
Just between you and us, we stopped listening to TOFOP years ago, so we’re going to assume it’s still largely the same old stuff, just with increasingly famous and/or American guests because Wil Anderson spends a lot of time overseas now.
What the voters said…
The idea of an Australian comedy talent quest is a good one until you remember that talent is the one thing you don’t need to become a success in comedy.
It was great the way the ABC put all this time and effort into fostering and nurturing online talent then went and gave a series to The Katering Show instead.
At least The Axis of Awesome didn’t make it to the finals.
Watching the five Fresh Blood pilots – heavily trailed as new comedy from newcomers, implication: don’t be too harsh on this, guys – it was interesting to note that all those problems in comedies from non-newcomers that we’re always complaining about – stretched-out gags, repeated sketches and concepts that aren’t worth repeating, random internet-style LOLZ whimsy, ideas that have been done better by others – are present and correct here. And given the Australian TV industry seems perfectly happy to air comedies featuring that kind of thing, we imagine quite a lot of these pilots will get commissioned. Apart from Aunty Donna, which (largely speaking) was a good program, free of most of the above problems, and which therefore has no place on Australian television.
Aw, come on guys, what’s TV Tonight ever done to you? It’s pretty much the only site that actually covers news out of Australian television, which makes it a heck of a lot more useful than a bunch of ranting nutters like us. David Knox did talk up Please Like Me a lot, though.
Here’s a handy time-saving tip: every time you see that Helen Razer has written something about pop culture, read the following instead:
The problem with [insert pop culture item here] isn’t that it fails as an item of pop culture – it’s that all pop culture in a capitalist society is nothing but a distraction from the only real issue, which is entrenched financial inequality. And having now set the bar so high that no item of pop culture can possibly surmount it – for even works of art that directly critique or attack capitalism are merely giving their audience an outlet for feelings that should be put to better use directly attacking the system via armed struggle and revolution – I can sneer away at everything, safe in the knowledge that my rhetoric, while bullshit, is flawless.
What the voters said…
Reading Ben Pobjie is really useful for finding out which shows Ben Pobjie thinks he deserves to work on.
Ben Pobjie is alas, more pitied than despised. If I was a sad fuck like him, I’d be sucking up to everyone who had a connection out of the freelancing roller coaster he’s on too.
I am disappointed at the unfounded allegations that there is a conflict of interest re: working comedian Ben Pobjie criticising comedy programs, as it suggests people are interested in working with him.
Just when we thought it wasn’t possible to top his controversial “hey, it’s just television, don’t get worked up about it” stance – well, it was a controversial stance coming from someone paid to have opinions – Pobjie spent a goodly slice of 2015 either flouncing off Twitter or using Twitter to beg ABC figures for work. Why hasn’t someone quietly taken him aside and pointed out that when you work as a critic, your job is to explain to your readers what shows are worth watching (or not), not to try and use your position to get work on the shows you’re meant to be criticising? Doesn’t anyone at Fairfax realise that having a TV critic openly soliciting for work on television shows kind of gives the impression that their TV critic will give a show a good review if they offer him work? And before you say “oh, that seems a bit far-fetched”, the only time we’ve had any official contact from a television producer was to offer us work on a television show that – we could tell from six months away – was going to be a massive steaming pile of shit. (We said no. The show was shit) That’s how they work: they bring you inside the tent and you can’t tell the public – who trust you to have unbiased opinions – that a show is rubbish because it’s made by your mates and they’re paying you money and suddenly you’re basically a PR outlet only you’re being paid a whole lot worse. And yet Pobjie still runs around on social media actively trying to get work from the people he’s meant to be critiquing. It is, to put it mildly, not a good look.
In the past people like Judith Lucy and John Safran have done a decent enough job of the “comedian investigates an issue in a light-hearted fashion” genre. Who’s to say Luke McGregor isn’t equally up to the task? Sure, most of his television work has consisted of him standing around asking vaguely awkward questions and that’s the kind of approach that would make a show about sex completely unbearable, but it’s going to be full of jokes about people doin’ it! About Luke McGregor doin’ it! How could it fail?
Urban Dictionary.com defines DAFUQ as “1. a shortened term of the colloquialism “what the fuck”.” No wonder expectations are high. And that’s without even mentioning that it’s from “WA’s up-and-coming online stars Mad Kids”.
What the voters said…
Can’t wait for some more puddle-deep insight into 2016’s easiest topics.
Looking forward to The Weekly‘s topical coverage of 2016. Or, similar to the better parts of the 2015 run, Kitty Flanagan talking about random things that were vaguely mentioned in a news-like context.
What indefensible soft target will he ‘nail’ next? People who talk on their phones in the cinema? Nonspecific corporate fat cats? The ghost of Caligula? Give ’em hell, Charlie.
The wasn’t exactly a shock result – “more of the same” is hardly an appealing prospect when what we’ve been served up so far has been so insipid and uninspiring as Charlie Pickering’s big foray into turning the phrase “social media gets it right yet again” into ten hours of television. Of course, it’s not entirely his fault: combining a format that’s only ever entertaining when the host has a strong point of view with the ABC – a network now officially obliged to broadcast no strong points of view – was always going to result in something pointing 180 degrees away from entertaining. And yet somehow it always managed to be just that little bit more shit than you’d expect. Presumably, 2016 will just be Pickering pointing a camera at his Twitter feed and nodding sagely at whatever comes up.
More than several decades into her comedy career, Judith Lucy’s comedy voice is well established, so she was on sure and safe territory with a program exploring womanhood and the differences between the sexes. Never afraid to really “go there” for comedy, she even dressed up as a man, put a black dildo down her pants, and had a go at cracking on to chicks at the local pub. Always funny and always offering a spot-on and/or refreshing take, it’s odd that we don’t see Jude on our screens more often.
Hang on, wasn’t this show a runner-up in Worst Sitcom? Meaning we now have to argue the opposite of whatever we said about it above? Okay… Ricketts Lane was one of the better new comedies of 2015 and a real rarity in Australian sitcom in that it made a pretty good attempt at character-based comedy. When it came to the musical sequences, it did them far better than any other Australian sitcom we can recall, while the makers took full of advantage of the fact they had a puppet to work with to construct some very funny slapstick moments. But with such a conclusive final scene, it’s hard to imagine this show or these characters coming back in quite the same manner…although the way is still open for them to do something new.
What the voters said…
Comfortably the funniest new show.
The Katering Show had a very high quantity of very high-quality jokes. Just give McCartney and McLennan all the budgets and be done with it.
The Katering Show was a goddamn delight, pound for pound funnier than any new series deemed worthy for television.
How many times do you reckon Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney pitched this or a similar concept to executives only to be shown the door?
This truly was the comedy feel-good story of the year: two comedians coming up with an idea, making it themselves, putting it out there, it going viral and the makers getting a TV deal. Even better: it’s a really, really good show and which really, really deserves to be successful.
The Katering Show was a near-perfect juxtaposition of aspirational foodie culture and how us ordinary folk actually cook, buoyed along by that weird, passive-aggressive (lack of) chemistry between the two Kates, and their spot-on takes on the Thermomix, sugar-free living and specialist diets. Feel free to name another Aussie comedy that’s dished up as many ideas in such a short space of time as this series, meanwhile, please excuse us, we’re going to click “Watch It Again”.
When was the last time anyone in Australia published a book of television scripts from a sitcom? Double the Fist? And yet towards the end of 2015, a healthy slab of dead tree arrived in the nation’s three surviving bookstores with all the words from Working Dog’s scripts from Utopia printed on it. Which tells you one thing: this may have been one of the sharper, smarter Australian sitcoms in recent memory, but the big draw here wasn’t the performances.
A straightforward idea well executed by a pair of comedy performers with solid chemistry and a decent grasp of the genre they’re sending up. It seems like the bare requirement for a comedy series; in 2015 in Australia, simply being able to put those pieces together makes you a stand out comedy hit.
What the voters said…
The only comedy that made me piss myself this year was Mad as Hell.
Mad As Hell is once again the funniest thing on Australian TV, as it has been since it started.
The man is a living comedy treasure.
It’s not that the gap between Mad As Hell and all other Australian comedies is massive; the gap between Mad As Hell and all Australian television is reaching the proportions of a yawning chasm. In part that’s because shows like Mad As Hell – built on short snappy segments, firing constant bursts of information at the audience, constantly in motion yet always basically unchanging – are the future of television (well, the television that’s not million-dollar drama series, and good luck making much of that here). Mad As Hell is close to the only show made here – aside from various niche shows like period dramas – that could be described as “world class” with a straight face; only the fact it leans so heavily on local politics has prevented it from a global audience.
The reason why is simple: it’s well written. The secret to making a good comedy? Hire funny writers and let them be funny. Yet time and time again we’re served up shows where the script seems like an afterthought. There’s plenty of reasons why that is, ranging from “there’s nowhere for comedy writers to learn their craft” to “there’s nobody willing to actually pay for good writers” to “the only way to get comedy writing work is to be a writer-performer and, therefore, good writers who can’t perform will never get a shot”. But the end result is the same: almost all Australian comedy is shit, and the stuff that isn’t shit is almost always the stuff that’s well-written. Fuck knows what we’re going to do when Mad As Hell goes off the air.
As the 2016 comedy season gets underway, we gaze deeply into the Australian Tumbleweeds crystal ball…