Burning Down the House

If you’re a fan of Australian online humour then you know by now that SBS is shuttering their comedy site The Backburner next week:

In fact SBS Online is wrapping up their entire comedy department – it seems that the online component of nightly news-ish show The Feed is going to be taking over as far as laughs are concerned, with an increased focus on video because *sigh* why not.

As you’d expect, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the demise of one of Australia’s more intentionally amusing online outlets. Though – again, as you’d expect – there’s been slightly less wondering as to exactly why SBS was still running what was basically a stand-alone comedy site in the first place.

Most of what’s currently available at SBS Online ties in pretty firmly with their core business (broadcasting) – and what doesn’t directly relate to a SBS program is usually tied into the kind of programs they do run (food, sport, etc). Three years ago a local comedy section may have made sense, with SBS2 screening the occasional wacky local series like Danger 5: considering the stand-alone Australian comedy output on SBS is now down to one sitcom a year (The Family Law returns June 15th – the day after the Backburner shuts up shop, ironically enough), the rationale for a comedy site not connected to The Feed seems increasingly slender from where we’re slumped on the couch.

But enough of the reasons for axing it: what about the reasons for keeping it? While we’re bummed because it was often funny and funny stuff is hard to find with an .au at the end, more than one commentator has suggested the real loss here is that of a training ground for future comedy stars. Remember this?

Comedians fear opportunities for Australia’s up-and-coming stars are narrowing after SBS announced it is shutting down its comedy website.

Sounds like bad news: obviously we want to give Australia’s “up-and-coming stars” as many opportunities as we can. Thing is, Australia’s up-and-coming comedy stars already have loads of opportunities, what with satirical sites popping up all over the place while the ABC runs Fresh Blood, a full-scale online talent search, every year or two. It almost seems reasonable to say that, if you’re just starting out in Australian comedy, things have rarely looked better.

It’s when you go to move on to the next stage that things get grim. Australia might be great at handing out the comedy equivalent of unpaid internships, but once you decide you’d actually like to make a living from comedy – or any form of the arts really – things get very tough very quickly. Everybody loves comedy so long as they don’t have to pay for it: once the comedians put their hand out nobody wants to know.

To be fair to the Backburner, it seems that they did pay a decent amount by online content standards… which is horrifyingly low by all other standards but hey, we’re talking Australian writing here: if you want to make a living wage expressing yourself, play AFL. It was also a good showcase for a bunch of promising writers, but unless The Chaser is hiring again Australia hasn’t needed any new professional comedy writers since around 1999.

Sorry guys, get back to us when Dave O’Neill’s retired and we’ll see what we can do.

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