Cheap Laughs and a 30 Year Growth

Back in the mid-80’s, some people in the UK came up with an idea for an improvised comedy radio show called Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which was a sort of mash-up of theatre sports and stand-up, inspired by a regular improv night at London club The Comedy Store. Following the radio series, it was quickly brought to TV by Channel 4, then sold to ABC in the US.

The series ran in both countries for a decade and was enormously popular. Legendarily popular in fact, achieving the sort of cult status that makes the likes of TV executives at Foxtel think it’s worth bringing here 30 years after it started. But is it?

Sort of.

Sure, being able to switch on the telly and see the kind of anything-could-happen sketches you’d otherwise have to make a special trip to a comedy club to watch was an exciting novelty in the mid-80’s, but 30 years on not so much. Comedy clubs are everywhere, stand-up’s on TV all the time, and large chunks of broadcasters’ comedy budgets are given to comedy panel shows which are mostly improvised. There’s also YouTube. Which means a revival of a 1980’s improv comedy format is going to look a bit shabby unless it’s given a 2016 twist, or happens to be really, really funny.

Host Tommy Little and performers such as Cal Wilson and Steen Raskopoulos do their best, but Whose Line Is It Anyway? Australia is basically a cheap show with cheap laughs; it probably cost about $5 to make, and if you want sophisticated humour go elsewhere, because this is the kind of easy gags and off-the-cuff, sweary comedy you’ll find at your local pub’s monthly comedy night.

The makers do a good job of giving the show the feel of a pub comedy night – something a surprising number of stand-up TV shows fail to achieve – but…there’s a bit where the cast are given some inflatable yellow and black things and they pretend to be bees, and the audience laugh way more than they should at it. Yes, it was a low moment, but still…

Look, we get it, part of the appeal of Whose Line Is It Anyway? is moments like this, and the reason it’s lasted so long as a format is because watching comedians trying to improvise a sketch is quite compelling. Will they make us laugh? Will they fall on their face? And if they do, can they come back from it? Except – and here’s where it all falls apart for us – there are clearly some parts of the show which are scripted or semi-scripted. The songs, for example. And when the rest of the show isn’t amazing, even if you take into account that most of it is improvised, it’s hard to watch these songs without thinking “Couldn’t they have given these performers a bit of time to make this even better?”

Here on this blog, we’re always going to argue for the very best comedy it’s possible to make. And we’re never going to accept arguments like “Not enough budget” or “Not enough time” when we’re watching a show that isn’t as funny as it should be. Maybe the performers need a bit more experience making this kind of show before they get really good at it – you don’t become Colin Mochrie overnight – but the producers and commissioners might also need to think about how they can make it better, which might mean more budget and more time.

*

Paired with Whose Line Is It Anyway? Austrlia on the Comedy Channel is the long – extremely long – awaited comedy series from Working Dog, Pacific Heat. If you remember their radio “drama” series from the 90s (or even their FM Playhouse stuff from the 80s) that eventually led to the not-exactly-fondly-remembered Funky Squad, then you know exactly what to expect: a police drama – think action rather than whodunnit – only with a lot of dumb characters and dodgy stereotypes.

The story itself is largely played straight, at least in the first episode, and the animation, while fairly limited, doesn’t really hinder a show based largely around verbal jokes. You could argue that better animation would actually be a drawback: the jokes here are often so rapid-fire that having anything more going on visually would be a distraction. Unsurprisingly, the biggest laughs come from the interaction between Rob Sitch (playing his usual preening dickhead) and Santo Cilauro (playing his usual numbskull), but everyone gets something idiotic to say eventually. Working Dog have been doing this since the 80s, and they’ve got this kind of freewheeling stupidity down pat.

Comparisons with US animated spy sitcom Archer are both unfair and impossible to avoid. Archer is a sitcom with characters that, if not exactly 3D, at least have a couple of sides to them. It’s a show that, if not exactly deconstructing spy movie cliches, gets a lot of its laughs from “what would happen if real people – or people realer than the usual spy movie types – were put in spy movie situations”. It’s an office sitcom about a bunch of snarky dicks only they occasionally go on missions involving super-villains or cyborgs or space stations or drug lords.

Pacific Heat also has a drug lord in its first episode, but the joke there is that he has a broad Asian accent no-one can easily understand, which wasn’t exactly cutting edge comedy back when Get Smart was doing it in the 60s. It’s not a show interested in doing anything more with its cliches – and those cliches are thirty years old at times, though there is a back-at-base hacker character to bring things up to the cutting edge of a NCIS spin-off – than stringing them together to make the basics of a cop drama which they can then throw a lot of dumb jokes at.

So the story just provides a series of standard scenes that writers Sitch, Cilauro and Tom Gleisner can then stuff full of as many jokes as they can. There’s some rapid-fire wordplay in here; if you laugh at one joke you’re probably going to miss two. Which is fine, as only every second or third joke really lands. It’s silly in the Get Smart mould (a scene set in a strip club is about as racy as it gets, and “racy” is definitely overselling it) and about as modern: again, a bunch of jokes about an Asian drug lord’s dodgy accent are retro in a way that’s unusual for 2016.

The result is a show that feels like a call-back to… well, we’ve already mentioned Get Smart, but shows like Police Squad! and Sledgehammer also come to mind. No-one here is remotely plausible as a character, and they’re not meant to be. Most of the Working Dog members got their start in comedy performing in university revues, and an extended revue sketch is what this feels like: everything here has only as much depth as it needs to make the jokes work and the jokes are thrown out fast because those jokes are all it has to offer.

Perhaps that’s why Foxtel has teamed it with Whose Line Is It Anyway? Australia: they’re both shows that, in very different ways, are about a bunch of performers going from moment to moment trying to get laughs.

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