Long time Australian comedy fans – and after the last decade or so of Australian television comedy, are there any other kind left? – were thrilled last week at the return of one of the genre’s proudest traditions: an hour of Australian comedy on a Thursday at 8.30pm. Yes, you did have to change channels at 9pm as no-one’s foolish enough to put two Australian comedies on commercial television back-to-back these days, but at least you could actually do this as they didn’t overlap. It’s a new Golden Age!
Or at least, it looked that way for the first half hour.
Let’s start with the good news: Orange is the New Brown was good. Most of the sketches were strong, with a focus on race just often enough to give the show an identity – it probably could have been a bit more of a focus really, but most of the non-race sketches were easily strong enough to justify their inclusion. The last few Australian sketch shows we’ve seen have been drifting back more towards one-off gags rather than trying to create “hilarious” comedy characters they can show week after week, and it was a relief to see this continuing that trend; the optometrist who thought all eye contact was flirting and the guy trying to impress his girlfriend by having his coffee poured into “natures keep cup” (his hands) were decent jokes that we really don’t expect to see again.
A few of the sketches were dragged out; the stunt doubles one towards the end was too long and the central joke (haha, they don’t really look like the actors they’re doubling for) didn’t deserve the run time. And with all sketch shows, it’s the later weeks that’ll be the real test. If it turns out we’ve got five more weeks of that optometrist telling everyone to stop flirting with her, our grade for this is going to drop rapidly. But so far so good for Nazeem Hussain and his cast of high profile guest stars (all of which managed to fit into their sketches instead of distracting from them: even Tim Minchin as a Wiggle wasn’t too disruptive); this is the rare Australian sketch show we’re actually keen to see more of.
It’s not often we get to say “Dave O’Neil did it better”, but in this case it’s true: O’Neil’s recent pilot Dave was a funnier family sitcom than How to Stay Married. Then again, the opening half hour of that Bruce Willis remake of Death Wish was a funnier family sitcom than How to Stay Married. First Cram!, now this: whatever blackmail material Peter Helliar has on the Channel Ten executives, it must be amazing.
How to Stay Married is about a couple of sad sacks, Em (Lisa McCune) and Greg (writer / producer Helliar). She hates being a stay at home mum and wants to go back to work; he hates work and wants to… die? Honestly, both of them are such low energy grumps it’s impossible to give a shit about either of them. We had to rewatch the end twice to figure out if Greg actually lost his job after swearing at a customer and we’re still not sure.
Initially we thought this was going to be more of a realistic dramedy about married life rather than a straight-up sitcom, and… maybe it is? It’s really hard to tell because the tone is so misjudged from start to finish: we think the idea is to show modern relationships as some kind of death trap that drains the life and soul out of people – but also, funny? – and yet the end result is just so insipid for all we could tell it was meant to be a life-affirming look at a couple setting out on an exciting new path. To the grave.
Also: not funny. Not funny in the way having a character annoy the lead by calling him “big fella” at least once every sentence is not funny. Which is to say, there’s the germ of a funny idea there but by leading with it straight out of the gate we have no idea where the comedy is meant to be coming from. Is it funny that Greg is so annoyed by this woman? If Greg had been established as a Larry David-like curmudgeon then perhaps this would be funny in a “oh man, this is going to set him right off” fashion, but at the start of episode one all we really know about Greg is that he’s a beleaguered everyman. So basically, annoying woman is annoying. Bold move starting out by annoying your audience.
It gradually becomes clear that the comedy is meant to be coming from our two struggling leads as they try to make their way in a crazy world. Only who gives a shit? Both Greg and Em are such unlikable stressed-out drips it’s almost impossible to care about what they want because they don’t even seem to have the energy to care about what they want. Though to be fair, Em wants a job so badly when the cool kids snigger at her “lesbian John Farnham cosplay” outfit she runs off, buys a kimono (?), can’t go to the toilet in it (??), and eventually pisses herself (???) when she sneezes during the interview. Comedy! And then she gets the job anyway because things just happen at random.
(how bad is this show? Judith Lucy has a guest appearance and even she can’t make this material funny)
During all this there are side characters played by Phil Lloyd and Darren Gilshenan as the exact same characters they’ve played in every other Australian comedy they’ve ever appeared in. They also have nothing to to with the main plot and so their scenes may very well be deleted scenes from their previous series. At the end of the first episode Lloyd’s character is revealed to be single so expect a lot of hilarious jokes about how dating is a nightmare in the coming weeks. That’s right, when you’re a regular person everything about modern life is shit.
It’s not that the actual concept here is a bad one. Obviously it’s not: dozens of sitcoms and movies have used it this decade alone. But going by this first episode, Helliar and company have no idea how to make it seem in any way interesting to the viewer. Huge chunks of the set-up require the audience to fill in the gaps: Em wants to go back to work because home life is boring, only there’s no attempt to show us why she’d find her home life boring – we’re just meant to go “oh yeah, of course she’d want to go back to work”. And while Greg’s job is clearly awful – the customers are idiots and his workmates are also idiots – all he does is think “man, I’d love a redundancy” and then… not get one. Why are we supposed to give a shit about his troubles when he doesn’t care enough to make any real effort to change?
Oh wait, because he’s played by Peter Helliar, a man who’s never actually made an effort throughout his career.
Helliar’s ongoing media profile is one of the big mysteries of Australian television in the 21st Century. What was the high point of his career? Straunchie? Laughing at Rove? Being on Rove? Hosting The Bounce? Hosting The Trophy Room? Hosting Cram!? Hosting Pete & Myf? Being nominated for a Gold Logie? Because it sure won’t be this forgettable half hour of blank stares and clumsy line readings that does for family comedies what a cup full of Draino does for constipation.
It’s rubbish. Everyone involved deserves better. Apart from Peter Helliar, who will walk away from this train wreck once again completely unscathed.