The first series of Stop Laughing…this is serious was a worthy if largely unsuccessful attempt to cover the entire history of Australian comedy in three 1-hour programs. Now it’s back for a second series, and in the first episode, the topic was characters.
At the start of the episode, the following theory was posited: Barry Humphries is Australia’s King of Character Comedy, but his successor is Chris Lilley.
Let’s just let that sink in a bit.
Okay, this isn’t the first time anyone’s made this comparison. Also, we get it: both Humphries and Lilley have created a range of authentically-Australian comedy characters and had success with them around the world. There’s only one difference really: Chris Lilley, when you add it up, isn’t very good. And less than 15 years into his career, we have no idea whether the fact that we haven’t heard from him for more than a year and that his last TV series was 2014’s Jonah From Tonga means that he’s quit character comedy altogether or not. Surely, if he’s the new Barry Humphries, he and his characters are always going to be popping up in places?
Oh wait, and here’s where Lilley’s got a serious problem, the reason Barry Humphries has managed to keep Dame Edna going since 1956 is that he’s cleverly adapted and evolved the character over time, to ensure she’s always relevant and can work in different mediums. Ja’mie, in contrast, seemed pointless by the end of We Can Be Heroes, let alone the end of Ja’mie: Private School Girl. Imagine her in 50 years’ time.
But Lilley’s characters weren’t the only ones Stop Laughing…this is serious made out were any good. There was at least three minutes on those highly memorable Fast Forward characters Brent Smyth & Barry. Wait. You don’t really remember them, either? Let us flip through our battered copy of Fast Forward – The Book and remind you…
Okay, they were two sleazy advertising executives, played by Steve Vizard and Peter Moon, who each week were given a brief by a client and usually came up with something idiotic, inappropriate or distasteful. To be fair, they were a decent parody of the sort of people who worked in Sydney or Melbourne ad agencies by day and lounged around inner city wine bars by night, but we wouldn’t have said they were particularly memorable or hilarious.
Then we realised why they might have been featured – and this is just a theory, but… Steve Vizard was there as a talking head, but he appeared in almost no regular Fast Forward sketches which might not be considered politically incorrect these days (yes, Brent Smyth was sexist, but that was the point).
Roger Ramsheet from the Fukurri rugs ads? That involved Vizard browning-up and doing a Middle Eastern accent. The gay air steward? That involved Vizard doing limp wrists and a camp voice. The Brian Bury impression? Limp wrists and a camp voice again. L’iar and DeShonko: Licensed Real Estate Agents? A crazy Italian accent from Michael Veitch as DeShonko. Which leaves just Brent Smyth & Barry and Darren Hunch as not particularly offensive in 2017. What a legacy.
There was, rightly, a long section in this show about Kath & Kim, as well as nod to today’s comedy with a look at Black Comedy, but that was kinda it. Apart from a brief return to Chris Lilley, and a sort-of examination of his blacking-up as S’Mouse and Jonah towards the end of the show. What is it with Australian comedy and blacking-up? This show didn’t tell us, sadly.
What we really needed to see more of were some of the shows that were skimmed over. Norman Gunston, for example, a character as big in his day as Ja’mie and Mr G. Or a look at the characters from The Gillies Report and The Big Gig, both hugely popular programs. What was great about those shows? We’re none the wiser after this episode.
Overall, Stop Laughing…this is series feels messy and misguided. Sometimes in need of editing, sometimes in need of extending. There are two more episodes to go, which will look at funny women and variety, so let’s hope they’re better. But given that structure was a problem in the first series of this program, we’re not holding out hope.