Hard as it might be to believe after his twenty-odd years in the spotlight, The Joy of Sets was Tony Martin’s first lead role in a television show. In fact, every other cast member of The Late Show (where Martin first made a serious TV splash) has more up-front television experience than Tony Martin has. The Working Dog guys have made hundreds of hours of television by now; Jason Stephens is a high-level production executive with Freemantle media; Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey involved international travel, loads of interviews, sketches and so forth; Mick Molloy made eight episodes of The Mick Molloy Show and another thirteen of The Nation.
Before you start penning aggrieved letters to the editor, let’s also point out that Martin has written and directed a feature-length film, as well as directing a swathe of episodes of The Librarians and parts of Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey. We’re not saying he’s a newcomer to this television business by any means. We’re just pointing out that, even after twenty years of seeing him on other people’s shows and doing a ball-tearer of a job on radio not once but twice, it might have been wise to keep expectations somewhere around the middle of the range. Because that’s largely what The Joy of Sets delivered.
In the various interviews given pre-Joy of Sets Martin said once he was hired for the show (the format having been pre-sold to Nine before he came on board) he was left to his own devices as far as writing / choosing an on-air partner went. You could probably guess that Nine and / or production company Zapruder’s (makers of The Gruen Transfer) imposed the half-hour format instead of a two-hour one, but otherwise pretty much everything about the show past the basic “make fun of television” idea seems to be Tony’s work. Presumably the basic pitch to Nine would have been “an in-depth look at television… did we mention we already make a show that looks at advertising that does quite well?” and considering how far Joy of Sets is from any of the Gruen shows, it’s safe to say Martin was making his own show here, not an assembly-line Zapruder’s product. If there are problems with the end product, for once corporate’s off the hook.
One of the frustrating things about the early episodes of The Joy of Sets – it got better as it went along, about which more later – is that there was always glimpses to be had of the quality comedy Martin is known for delivering. While merely the sight of an oiled-up Warrick Capper didn’t exactly count as a laugh for us – and the law of diminishing returns kicked in hard with every subsequent appearance – My Monkey Baby more than made up for it. The jokes were often strong, the sketches even better (the send-up of The Block with Scott Cam was both hilarious and a reminder that almost every other sketch show on TV this year has been running on autopilot) while Martin and co-host Kavalee had decent chemistry out the gate despite the occasional clumsy moment.
And yet overall the early episodes felt stilted, as if a much funnier show had been edited down until all the oxygen was gone.
[numerous reports from tapings said the show was much, much funnier to watch in person. Great. Unfortunately, taping is merely part of the process to create a finished product, not an end in itself. While it's nice that those who made it to the tapings had a fun time, for those watching at home hearing that all the good stuff was cut out was cold comfort]
Much as many Get This fans hoped and wished for “Get This TV” after that radio show was taken off the air, The Joy of Sets suggests they may have been lucky their wishes weren’t granted. The show’s two biggest weaknesses in the early weeks were the two most obvious hold-overs from Martin’s Get This days: co-host Ed Kavalee and the weekly guest.
Kavalee is a decent television host (see TV Burp) and he can be great radio talent, but for the first few episodes of The Joy of Sets he often came across as stiff and forced. We’re not blaming him, mind you. The format itself was basically “radio with pictures” – when Tony was talking there was nothing for him to do but look attentive. Tony, no doubt due to years of panel work on countless TV shows, came off a lot better when it was Ed’s turn to speak. Still, two guys sitting on brown chairs yammering away doesn’t make for thrilling entertainment visually no matter how attentive you look.
The guests, on the other hand, never really worked. Sure, some had funny stories, some had loads of energy, and Pete Smith as always had both. But on a 22 minute show giving over the final third to an in-studio guest drained all the energy out of the room. The first 13-odd minutes would fire through joke after joke and clip after clip at a rapid-fire pace… and then suddenly everything stopped while someone new sat down and told a story. It was often a good story; it just slowed the show right down, and with only 22 minutes in the first place that proved fatal.
So why’d the interviews work so well on Get This? Our best guess is that on radio a guest just means the same chat-based show continues, only with an extra person chatting away. On television a guest means the clips go out the window and the third person turns a clip show into a chat show. Interestingly, the longer Joy of Sets ran, the more they squeezed in clips during the interviews in an attempt to keep the pace up. Not to mention the generic TV star guests got the boot in favour of comedians better able to keep up with Martin and Kavalee.
As you might have guessed from all the “in the early weeks” references, we thought the show improved a lot as it went along. Martin and Kavalee’s banter seemed more natural, the pace picked up, the moments where the show broke out of the format were always good but they got a lot better – Martin’s out-of-nowhere plea to the jury and his line-up with Denton and the “For Dummies” guy during the police TV show, for example – and even the Capper moments tipped over the edge into outright absurdity.
Unfortunately, it was too late. Much as ratings are no guide whatsoever to the quality of a show – we have no idea what The Bazura Project rated on ABC2, but we’re guessing “bugger all” might be a good starting point – we’d be fools to ignore the fact that, unlike 90% of the comedy we talk about here, The Joy of Sets screened on a commercial network where commercial considerations apply. Fortunately Nine let it run out the clock in a later timeslot and all eight episodes aired, but it looked a little iffy there for a while.
On the one hand, airing at 9pm on a Tuesday (traditionally Nine’s worst night) after Two and a Half Men was never going to make things easy for The Joy of Sets; on the other, they had over a million people check out the first episode. To be fair, most likely many of those viewers just stuck around after seeing the first Sheen-free episode of Men and were never going to become regular viewers of The Joy of Sets. The fact remains: over a million people saw the first episode; less than half that number were watching when it was bumped back to 10.30pm.
[More ratings fun facts in the comments here]
Again, let us stress: we’re not saying ratings are in any way a guide to the quality of any program, let alone one as quirky as The Joy of Sets. What we are saying is that we thought the show got better as it went along and in its final weeks had moments as funny as anything that’s aired this year, only to have its potential – that is to say, a second series – snuffed out because of the bad ratings gathered in those first few weeks. We’re glass half empty people around here, in case you didn’t guess: rather than just being happy the show made it to the end of series one, we’re disappointed that a show with so much promise seems certain not to get a series two.
What we’re left with then is a bunch of what ifs. What if the show had screened on the ABC, where it could have stretched out in a full half-hour timeslot? What if the show had run for an hour on Nine (or more likely, Nine’s digital channel Go!)? What if they’d been given an initial order for thirteen episodes instead of eight and really had a chance to hit their stride? What if Australia as a whole had found Warrick Capper in gold jocks hilarious instead of pointless and mildly confusing?
Tony Martin’s style of comedy works amazingly well on radio. On television, given the freedom to stretch out and do what he likes over an extended period, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t do just as well. But while Get This thrived on minutes of improv and rambling away to stumble across classic running gags, on television these days there just isn’t the time for any of that. If Martin and Kavalee ever get to do another show – and no-one would’ve thought we’d see Kavalee back on TV after TV Burp fizzled so there’s always hope – maybe one day The Joy of Sets will be seen as the show where Martin learned how to adapt his style to television’s requirements; as that would require him to actually get another shot at putting together his own show, here’s hoping.