HYBPA? is Back in Black

How long has it been since a commercial network in this country had two comedy series on the go at the same time? You’d think we’d know but clearly we’re too lazy to look it up: chances are it was Channel Ten that time too. And with Kinne Tonight starting back up in a week or so, they’re going to have three a week for a few weeks, which we’re pretty sure hasn’t happened this century.

Of course, being commercial television neither of these shows – oh yeah, we’re talking about Have You Been Paying Attention? and Mr Black – are really what you’d call “ground-breaking”, but in a properly functioning television environment that’s how it’s supposed to work: you learn your skills doing off-the-wall niche stuff for the government networks, then when you’ve proved your worth you go off to demonstrate that worth at a network that’s very much concerned about “worth”.

So Have You Been Paying Attention? returns for the rest of the year (seriously, it won’t finish up until November) doing what it does best: putting to air a collection of sponsored segments with a bunch of laughs wrapped around them. And when you’re as good at getting laughs as HYBPA? is, complaining about exactly how they pay the bills feels a little churlish.

All your old favourites are back, even Sam Pang’s jokes about how old host Tom Gleisner is – though Gleisner’s occasional one-liners show he’s pretty sharp whatever his age. The pace remains snappy (it’s always a slight surprise when they answer a question with the real answer right off and just move on), the cast are on the ball – even unmade bed Mick Molloy fired off a bunch of quick comebacks – and the whole thing is fun to watch in a way most Australian shows can only envy.

It’s a ratings powerhouse too, which is a pleasant surprise in this day and age; presumably if most of the regulars weren’t already busy elsewhere Ten would be trying to put (say) Sam and Ed Kavalee into a spin-off. It’s still perhaps not the ideal setting for every comedy talent in the country, but when even Tony Martin (who rarely shines to full effect on panel shows) can get laughs from his low scores HYBPA? is definitely doing something right. Even the guest quizmasters often don’t stink.

Meanwhile, week two of Mr Black left us wondering how they’re going to make it to week three.

It’s not that the concept is utterly exhausted already, though introducing Mrs Black in week two suggests somebody somewhere realised things needed a tweak (she was good, by the way; shame she couldn’t stay). But the actual character of Mr Black just doesn’t make sense. One scene between Mr Black and a mate had them trying to figure out their generations values, and Mr Black settled on “get off my lawn”. The man is 48; how does he even own a lawn?

It’s not that Mr Black really needs to be a comedy boofhead in his early 60s for the show to get laughs (Stephen Curry is a great actor and is easily the most watchable thing here). It’s just that having him as anything else requires a lot of explanation to make the culture clash stuff work and this show already has its hands full busily explaining everything else.

Did you know that Mr Black’s assets are frozen while his divorce is going through? And that Mr Black’s daughter is living in her grandfather’s (mother’s father’s) house? Why is this show bothering with this stuff when all it really needs is a): a young couple have just bought their first home only b): the woman’s elderly but feisty dad had a fall and needs looking after while he heals and c): zaniness ensues when the two males don’t get along.

Too often this feels like the script is working backwards to justify some extraneous element or another that someone decided was essential, and then when it does go for big comedy the moments are more unsettling than hilarious. Having Mr Black literally set fire to a swing chair is a bit much for a wacky comedy; in this show’s low-key dramedy style it’s outright unsettling.

Everyone involved here is a seasoned professional so it’s hardly as if the entire show is a dead loss. Mr Black faking brain damage after losing a boxing match was the kind of silliness this show needs more of – a lot more of – and Mrs Black was exactly the kind of comedy foil needed to balance out the conflict and make it more harmless and fun. But so much of this show either seems like it’s taking the long way around to a joke or it’s too nasty to be funny.

As sitcom premises go, this one definitely wasn’t broken; it’s a mystery why Mr Black is spending so much time trying to fix it.

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