Vale Mad as Hell and, uh… Tomorrow When the War Began?

Having Mad as Hell on our screens is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it’s the best Australian comedy – and probably the best in all categories including drama, arts coverage and religious programming – television program currently airing. It’s definitely the only thing currently going that could legitimately be called “world class”, and considering we’re heading for a future where “world class” means “able to be shown around the world”, there’s very little chance we’ll see another Australia-specific show operating at this level once it’s gone.

On the other hand, it does have the unfortunate side-effect of making a very large swathe of Australian television comedy look shithouse. It’s extremely difficult to find any serious way to justify the quality of something like The Weekly or Sando when Mad as Hell is also on the air, and while there are plenty of shows we don’t like for a wide range of reasons (no shit – ed), when it comes to comedy competence Mad as Hell makes a very good case that many of the people currently pulling down a decent paycheck in Australian comedy are in fact running some kind of piss-poor extortion racket.

Of course, not all comedy can or should be like Mad as Hell. But it should all be trying to be as funny as Mad as Hell instead of aiming for whatever the fuck Squinters thought it was doing. And let’s be clear: Shaun Micallef might be a singular talent but he’s not infallible, and while Mad as Hell is world class comedy it’s not beaming down to us on a shaft of unbearably bright light while a heavenly choir sings its praises.

We go on a heck of a lot here about the importance of piss-farting around: if your show looks like fun, then there’s a good chance people will have fun watching it. But it’s a very fine line: have too much fun among yourselves and you shut the audience out. Mad as Hell isn’t there yet – and it may never get there at all – but it’s not hard to imagine some viewers might feel like they’re getting a lot of in-jokes and smirking mixed in with the funny stuff.

For example, while final episodes are usually where the series burns off the edgier material, this – aside from a Viking suicide bomber and a few slightly more barbed than usual swipes at our especially craven Federal government – aimed most of its edgier digs for the ABC itself. Obviously ABC viewers are more than usually interested in the ABC, but when it comes to that kind of thing a little goes a long way.

The thing is, these (admittedly minor) failings are actually good news. If Mad as Hell was perfect, there’d hardly be a point in bothering with any other comedy.

Yes, it’s fast-paced, features a lot of sharp character work, has a large stable of characters it can wheel out for near-certain laughs, Micallef himself is an excellent comedic performer able to sell a line with a look, the political and social comedy is spot on – extra shout-out to the researchers who’ve been doing brilliant work digging up clips this series – it’s confident enough to cut bits off halfway at the point of maximum comedy then move on, the writers are skilled enough to pick up a funny idea and work through it over a number of weeks (this series’ example: Micallef literally explaining the premise of a comedy bit, as in “that was Stephen Hall in a wig pretending to be a finance expert” or some such) then let it go forever, there’s still a lot of very funny wordplay going on and there’s never the sense that they’re shaping their material to fit an agenda beyond being funny – but it’s not perfect.

It’s just better than all the current alternatives, which makes the news that it won’t be back until July 2019 – which will be after the Federal election no matter when it’s held – sad news indeed.

*

“A show that breaks out of the news cycle to bring you a ground-breaking scenario from the not too distant future”. Wow, who wouldn’t want to watch that? Hang on a second, isn’t this that Tomorrow Today show? Is the ground-breaking scenario “this show somehow becomes good”?

Sold to an audience that clearly couldn’t care less as a show that would explore possible future news scenarios in a manner not dissimilar to the once very-successful Geoffrey Robertson’s Hypotheticals, under the leadership of insipid prattler Annabel Crabb and professional fake newsreader turned real newsreader turned back into fake newsreader Charlie Pickering, Tomorrow Today rapidly became* little more than a current affairs panel show discussing stuff that was like news only without the news part.

The flaw in this approach rapidly became evident in this week’s final (for now) episode on North Korea, where Pickering asked a guest “what would happen if Kim Jong Un disappeared”, only to be told he’d already disappeared a number of times and life simply went on in North Korea because the public there were kept in the dark. And then this guest went on to explain that North Korea is actually run by quite a large organisation which has “tiers and tiers” of leadership in place, and… well, this episode’s clearly over, wonder if NCIS is still showing on Ten.

The old Hypotheticals worked because the point of the Hypothetical was to get the guests – either semi-famous people, semi-important people or semi-relevant people – to reveal something interesting about their thought processes (and by extension, the thought processes of the people like them in positions of power). If it did an episode about North Korea collapsing, it would have military types and economic brains talking about what we’d do and how the collapse would affect Australia, which would be interesting and relevant to home viewers.

Instead, Tomorrow Today had three journalists on a four person panel, and the fourth person was a comedian. In news to just about nobody, journalists are in no way interesting except to themselves: their job is to learn interesting things and then tell us about them.

But here they were useless, because everything they learnt about this fictional scenario was told to them on-camera by Pickering – who actually asked Crabb early on “what’s happening in Canberra right now?” like she was some kind of geopolitical insider. Hey, here’s an idea: why not find some ex politician or defense expert and get them on because they probably have experience in these areas beyond reading press releases and hosting a fucking cooking show.

If this had been an episode based on “what would happen if Channel Nine bought Fairfax and started firing everyone oh shit that’s actually happening right now”, then maybe these media types’ views would be of interest. But if you’re going to talk about geopolitical events, here’s an idea: GET IN EXPERTS ON GEOPOLITICAL EVENTS.

If you’re worried they’re going to be boring, then maybe pick topics where the experts are going to be bubbly and fun. And if you’re worried that “bubbly and fun” experts aren’t going to make for serious television, then maybe just rethink your whole approach to whatever the hell it is you think you’re doing because going by Tomorrow Tonight pretty much anything would be an improvement.

Then again, the idea of improvement at the ABC is a scenario too far-fetched even for this show.

*at the time of writing we assumed this had wrapped up alongside Mad as Hell but nope, it’s still running firmly into the non-ratings period where a complete lack of quality competition should make no difference whatsoever to its lacklustre performance

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