Let’s be honest: last week we took it easy on sketch comedy. After all, Australia used to be good at it: for decades our skill at sketch comedy was regularly held up by the experts (TV critics who hated comedy) as world class. And they weren’t entirely wrong either – Shaun Micallef’s sketch shows were legitimately brilliant, and a chunk of the 80s and 90s sketch shows still hold up today.
But we’re not talking about sketch comedy now.
There’s been no point in living memory where you could seriously claim Australia makes decent sitcoms. Partly that’s because they’re hard to make and we just don’t make very many of them; mostly that’s because the ones we do make are shit. There’s plenty of excuses why, and back in the 20th century they may have even made sense. When our shoddy local product was being compared to US sitcoms, the problem was that we didn’t make enough episodes to work out the kinks and didn’t have enough writers to create a polished product; when we were being compared to the UK it was that our sitcoms didn’t start out on radio where the (smaller team of) writers could, again, work out the problems holding the comedy back.
Remind us: how many years did Hey, Dad..! run for?
So by the time the 21st century rolled around, everyone had their excuses ready. And they were going to need them. Oh sure, when Kath & Kim was firing on all barrels sitcom was king – so kingly in fact that hardly anyone else bothered making them – but after that, well… let’s just say that we were able to come up with a list of rock-solid 21st century shockers without having to resort to Mr Black, Here Come the Habibs, The Wizards of Aus or (shudder) Bogan Pride.
Let’s start out with an easy one: Sando. The hilarious tale of a crap furniture outlet maven trying to win back her only slightly less crap family’s love, this was designed as a showcase for Genevieve Morris, who then had to withdraw from the show for health reasons. Good to see those reasons (she’s currently in remission according to wikipedia) haven’t prevented her from continuing to appear in a range of recent comedy series, including the most recent run of Squinters… which we’ll get to in a moment. Sacha Horler stepped up for the lead role and promptly spent six weeks struggling to bring to life a character parodying something that had died out in the real world a decade earlier on a show seemingly designed to connect with the members of “mainstream Australia” by sneering at them. It shed almost half its audience during those six weeks; we’re surprised anyone stuck around at all.
At the other extreme – time wise at least – remember Flat Chat? This particular shocker (from the dark ages of 2001) is memorably largely for Jean Kitson wheeling out another performance so big it was visible from space as a snob forced to live in her own stables when her husband dies and her mansion is bought by a cashed-up bogan. The long and proud tradition of our commercial networks when it comes to producing sitcoms too broad to appeal to comedy snobs yet too shit to appeal to people who like to laugh is too often ignored… much like Flat Chat itself.
Just to drag this list off down a third direction, The Urban Monkey with Murray Foote was a series of five minute mockumentary episodes in which Sam Simmons stood around repeating words and doing what was then known as “animal whimsy” – pointing out weird shit about animals and so on. This kind of short yet still somehow drawn out format is another mainstay of bad Australian sitcoms, giving performers just enough time to be irritating without providing enough scope for their painfulness to end up somewhere amusing. Basically, if there’s a sitcom format, Australia has been rubbish at it; let’s move on.
Oh wait, we spoke too soon. Squinters is yet another sitcom that’s barely a sitcom – rather, as we’ve pointed out seemingly every single time we’ve mentioned it, it’s a sketch show where all the sketches are the same. And unfortunately, by “same” we mean “variations on those awful restaurant sketches Fast Forward used to do” where two people sit down, talk to each other for a while, and then it ends without a joke – or a point – having been established. It’s a sitcom where the situation is “driving to and from work”, which might possibly work if it was “two funny people are driving to and from work”. It’s Australia; we don’t have two funny people left.
Which is as good a segue as any into The Letdown, which is only here because the ABC continues to insist that it’s a sitcom and not what it looks like to anyone with eyes to see: a half hour drama based around the kind of observations that’re mistaken for comedy by people who don’t really like to laugh. There are plenty of jokes to be made around the idea that being a new mum is tough, but they require a cast and crew looking to make jokes, not the kind of show that has new parents gasping “finally someone’s telling our side of the story” like nobody’s ever pointed out that crying babies are crap before.
Of course, we wouldn’t have shows like The Letdown without Please Like Me, the trailblazing series that put Australia on the map labelled “DRAMA-INFUSED COMEDY”. You’d think a sitcom that ended every single series with the death (or near death) of yet another semi-core character might have taken a lump or two in the reviews but no – everyone was too busy calling a show about twenty-somethings where nobody seemed to have a real job or money worries “realistic” to stop and consider that maybe all the death, emotional pain, and Josh Thomas picking up hot guys despite whatever the hell was going on with his hair was more about presenting an emo fantasy of youth than anything designed to entertain an audience. Not that it had one in this country but hey, overseas funding is the only thing keeping Australian sitcoms going so who cares if they’re funding shows nobody here wants to watch.
How to Stay Married was and very possibly still is Peter Helliar’s latest salvo in his forever war to convince the Australian public that he’s putting the rom back into com. Unfortunately, the aimless I Love You Too and the merely forgettable It’s a Date pretty much seem to have exhausted everything Helliar has to say on the subject of love and relationships – they’re tough, right guys? – and so this show revolves around a wife reluctantly back at work and a husband reluctantly staying at home in a hilarious inversion of The Way Things Should Be. Also hilariously inverted here: the idea that sitcoms should be funny.
You may recall we mentioned last week that The Wedge is one of the worst sketch comedies of this century. Mark Loves Sharon was a spin-off from that damp cough of a series, featuring Jason Gann’s “breakout character” Mark Wary, disgraced sports star and… that’s about it. So yeah, why not give six episodes over to a mockumentary about Wary and his dirtbag mates hanging out at his tacky mansion? Please don’t give us actual reasons why not, we’ve seen the show and we already have plenty.
The first episode of The Other Guy revolved around series creator and lead actor Matt Okine’s character trying to deal with a piss-stained mattress that was possibly some kind of metaphor for how his romantic life had fallen apart. Unfortunately, like so many of the series on this list, absolutely nothing funny was done with this idea. If there’s any advice we could give Australian sitcom writers, it’d be this: it’s not enough just to have a funny idea – you have to do something funny with it. So many of these shows have halfway decent premises but then seem to think their job is done. It’s not: a funny premise is funny for about thirty seconds and then you need to start doing funny things with it if you want to keep the audience laughing. Well, unless you’re writing The Other Guy, because that had a whole lot of other problems on top of the bad writing. Second series starts later this year!
And then there’s Laid. What more can we say about the first ever comedy to combine sex and death that we didn’t say across the tens of thousands of words we wasted here trying to express just how bad this show was as it first aired? Here’s something: creator, writer, and star of numerous Green Guide feature articles Marieke Hardy is now in her second highly celebrated year running the internationally acclaimed Melbourne Writers Festival despite writing a sitcom that spent an entire episode making jokes about the female lead’s attempts to rape a man she’d drugged into unconsciousness. We’d say those gags about creating a splint for his limp dick with paddle pop sticks haven’t aged well, but they weren’t exactly funny at the time.
The real problem with Australian sitcoms has always been two fold: we don’t make enough of them to come up with a great one through sheer weight of numbers, and our system of television production doesn’t give talented people enough opportunities to get good at a complicated job like telling a funny story that goes for half an hour. The same goes for actors too: we have plenty of decent stand-up comics with funny personas, but the number of funny actors in this country are… well, once you go past the cast of Mad as Hell the rest are probably on a plane to Hollywood as you read this.
Sitcoms come from television cultures that value a wide range of specific types of being funny – funny writers, funny performers, funny creators. Australia requires anyone wanting to be funny to be funny at pretty much everything at once because it’s a lot cheaper to get a show produced when the writers and actors share a paycheck. Very, very few people can pull that off at a decent level: if you can, you can make a whole lot more money somewhere where they actually make comedy.