Survival of the Funniest

One of the things that’s probably too obvious to be worth mentioning but it’s a pretty dry period for comedy at the moment so here goes is that the days of single-theme comedy shows are all but over. Remember that nightmarish period where it seemed everyone was trying to do “Spicks & Specks, but with [BLANK]”? Now even the idea of Spicks & Specks seems antiquated. A quiz show just about music? Who’s going to tune into that?

Yeah yeah, we know: the real topic of Spicks & Specks wasn’t music but nostalgia with quiz show hijinks and some much-loved series regulars thrown in. Hey, ABC – there’s your formula for a successful comedy quiz show right there so don’t come crying to us when Hard Quiz crashes on take off. But our point remains. With television audiences shrinking away, the idea of limiting your show’s audience by focusing tightly on a single topic seems somewhat suicidal.

Wait, did someone just shout “Top Gear“? Thanks for the update from 2011. Sure, you can make a successful comedy show about just about anything if you have the right team. Do we need to list the literally hundreds of shows that have failed because they didn’t have the right team? Finding “the right team” is a job so tricky television networks have experts working on it around the clock and they fail 99 times out of 99: expecting that your comedy show about examining disused railway infrastructure is going to be a smash hit thanks to “the right team” is a great way to make sure you don’t have a comedy show.

So instead of going deep on a specific subject we have show after show trying to mine comedy from “the news”, which is basically just an excuse to cover as wide a range of topics as possible. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, of course – you want your comedians to be able to follow the laughs wherever they might be able to find them. But the best comedy is usually a mix of the keenly observed general observation and the keenly observed extremely specific observation. When a show is forced to try and get laughs out of “a celebrity said something silly” time and time again, unless you’re very good at your job the laughs dry up pretty quickly.

But what else are our television comedians supposed to do? The more you narrow down the focus of the show the more likely it is that you’ll turn off potential viewers. Worse, thanks to the fracturing of the media over the last decade or so (thanks, internet), audiences now are less tolerant of things they’re not already interested in. These days you can just barely get away with a comedy show devoted to politics during an election; if you’re wondering why we don’t seem to have any sports comedy shows on television (though Triple M has dusted off Roy & HG again) during the Olympics this year, there’s your (most likely) answer.

This is, of course, the genius of the otherwise contemptible Gruen series of shows. What’s the one thing everyone watching television has in common? They’re interested in television. Which, for 5/6ths of the Australian broadcasting spectrum, means advertisements. Of course, by that logic then Randling – you remember, the “word-based game show” – should have been a massive ratings smash but presumably television viewers just aren’t interested in words. Or Andrew Denton.

Come to think about it, all those news-based quasi-comedies – whether it’s The Project or The Feed or The Weekly or the reigning king when it comes to being actually entertaining, Have You Been Paying Attention? – are really just about television too. After all, that’s where most of the news they cover comes from; it’s still a bit tricky basing a television segment around a Facebook update no matter how hard even the “legitimate” news tries to make it work.

Whoops, we seem to have accidentally written a pitch to bring back Fast Forward.

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