It’s possibly just a coincidence that the new web series Sheilas, a comedy look at semi-forgotten female figures of Australian history, has launched a week after Drunk History. Although clearly in the minds of TV producers, pisstakes of the past are considered a comedy goldmine. Or were a couple of years ago…
In the case of Sheilas, it was announced in 2016. Drunk History, we’re guessing, has been gestating for a similar period of time. So, that’s two years (possibly longer) to make and release four 8-minute long webisodes and one 25-minute long pilot based (or on a similar theme to) an American concept created in 2007. That says a lot about the Australian TV industry.
Anyway, of the two shows, Sheilas is the stronger and more interesting. Its makers, Hannah and Eliza Reilly have some experience of making comedy in this style (doing a comedy narrative over some amusing footage) and have a clear passion for the subject matter (women not behaving how they’re supposed to).
In their (less good) ABC series Growing Up Gracefully, a pisstake of etiquette and lady-like behaviour, their ironic commentary over footage of them trying to do feminine stuff, like sit or walk correctly, was the comic highlight. Whereas in each of the four episodes of Sheilas, the Reillys tell us about a great Australian woman – WW2 spy Nancy Wake, champion swimmer Fanny Durack, bush ranger Mary Ann Bugg and feminist activist Merle Thornton – while actors reconstruct the key moments in each woman’s life, but with a contemporary spin.
In the Nancy Wake episode, we see Wake (Cecilia Morrow) in occupied France, taking out Nazis like she’s Schwarzenegger, and in the Mary Ann Bugg episode we see Bugg (Megan Wilding) post-robbery, living a bling lifestyle, complete with cash cannon. It’s funny because they didn’t have assault rifles in the 1940s or cash cannons in the Victorian era.
To be fair, it actually is funny. The juxtaposition of then and now isn’t overdone, and the cast and the Reillys play it perfectly. It’s certainly funnier and more interesting than Drunk History, where the main joke in the re-enactments seemed to be the actors mouthing what the pissed narrator said.
Sheilas wins out in other areas too, not least that the stories in Sheilas are less familiar and therefore more interesting. Most people watching Drunk History already know the story of Ned Kelly, whereas a lot less viewers of Sheilas will be familiar with Mary Ann Bugg (here’s something interesting that the Reillys point out: there are 11 films about Kelly and none about Bugg).
It’s also nice to see a show rely on writing for its laughs. Drunk History isn’t really about the writing; it’s about a pissed person trying to tell a story. Sheilas, meanwhile, is about the script and about the idea, and it wouldn’t work unless the script was good. Which, happily, it is. Perhaps there’s hope for Australian comedy scriptwriting yet?