It might be hard to spot from beneath the cloud of gloom and despair that hangs over the Australian televised comedy scene, but at the moment we have two – count ‘em – decent local comedy programs currently airing on Australian free-to-air television. We’ll spare you the suspense: we mean Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell and Hamish & Andy’s Euro Gap Year.
You can disagree with us, but you’d be wrong: both shows feature highly competent and experienced comedians (albeit with very different styles) putting out weekly shows that, while not exactly ground-breaking, are the kind of skillfully made and well-targeted laugh-getters we don’t see anywhere near often enough. And one of them is on commercial television! When was the last time this happened?
Actually, while that wasn’t a serious question, let’s do the math: the ABC hasn’t had a really strong comedy series on since Very Small Business, though let’s cut The Chaser some slack with their post War On Everything efforts. Either way, it doesn’t matter: the ABC never has two good shows on at once, because one is always Gruen-related or Chris Lilley or Randling or The Glasshouse or The Sideshow or Lowdown or Outland or Laid or even Woodley. Some of which aren’t really bad – they’re just weren’t consistently good.
So first we need to look to other channels. Commercial networks: zero. But SBS had Newstopia in 2007-2008, so if the ABC had anything decent on during that period, there’s our previous Golden Age right there.
(yes, we realise we’re setting the bar amazingly low here. We’ll get to why in a moment)
Good news; Very Small Business DID overlap with the final series of Newstopia! Not only that, before VSB was the second and much improved season of The Hollowmen. Of course, no-one was calling that a Golden Age, because a Golden Age requires more than just a series of decent programs across a variety of networks. A real Golden Age requires comedy to not just be good, but be seen to be good, to be an up-front part of the national discourse in the same way that reality television is now.
And there’s that gloom and despair again, because that isn’t going to happen. The last time it did happen – the comedy boom of the late 80s – there was no internet, no DVDs, only four television channels, Daryl Somers was moderately funny, and so on. Short version: all that happened before many of today’s comedy fans were born.
Today thanks to the proliferation of media platforms, television itself isn’t even at the heart of the national discourse. The only way it can manage to wrangle even part of the spotlight now is by manufacturing must-see “events” like reality show finals. Nothing else on television – not news, not current affairs, certainly not drama – matters all that much any more. And apart from a few isolated moments, it’s not like comedy ever really did.
So we have to adjust our scales. First thing to go: media attention. After all, it’s not like Australian comedy hasn’t had plenty of that in the last few years. But the media landscape has changed too, and comedy only attracts attention now if the increasingly struggling and desperate mainstream media can use it to attract attention to itself – which means stories about outrages and plenty of them. When was the last time a comedy show got any non-promotional media attention, unless it was for falling ratings or some community group kicking up a bogus stink?
Second thing: mainstream attention. After all, what’s mainstream these days? Thanks to the internet and DVDs and [insert new social media fad here], the idea of everyone marching in lockstep through a banner that reads WE LOVE YOU, HEY HEY IT’S SATURDAY is long dead. Okay, dead since 2009. Many people we know are watching and loving Mad as Hell; we know plenty of people who wouldn’t call themselves hard-core comedy fans who are really enjoying Euro Gap Year. It’s not everyone, but the only time “everyone” ever watched the same show was when there was nothing else on.
This isn’t to say comedy should turn it’s back on attracting a wider audience. Part of the problem with the ABC’s Wednesday night line-up this year is that it’s lacked shows that were a): good and b): of interest to a general audience. And declining ratings are always a bad sign, whether it’s from a high point or a low one – they mean people are trying a show and deciding they don’t like it.
[interestingly, if these figures are correct, it looks like Mad as Hell on the non-comedy night of Friday is outrating both Randling and Nice on the traditional ABC comedy night of Wednesdays. It seems the problem with the ABC's Wednesday night line-up isn't shifting viewing habits or changing demographics, it's that people just don't want to watch the shows the ABC is serving up then.]
But it’s important to realise that the goalposts have shifted. It’s easy to believe that comedy is dead or dying in Australia – Lord knows we feel like it is often enough – and it’s certainly got more than its fair share of problems today. Fortunately, so does Australian television in general; been enjoying a lot of high-quality local drama lately? How about insightful current affairs? Decent US sitcoms? Any UK comedy that doesn’t involve Ricky “rerun” Gervais?
Today’s comedy scene isn’t a new Golden Age. But it’s closer to being one than you might think.