Is The Late Show the most overrated Australian comedy of the last twenty years? The answer may surprise you: yes it is. Not only is it massively overrated, it continues to be overrated to this very day – which, considering we’re currently celebrating the twenty year anniversary of its initial airing on the ABC, gives you an idea of just how overrated it is.
Wait what? Isn’t this the show that Ben Pobjie recently stopped vaguely discussing half-arsed trends in television to praise? The show that popular TV blog TV Tonight gave a shout out to? The show the Australian Film Institute website recently saluted? The show that inspired the Champagne Comedy site, AKA the only Australian television comedy forum of note? Overrated? But Marieke Hardy loves it!
[pause for effect]
Okay, now that all the hard-core Late Show fans have stormed off to go hold their own “bring back Jo Bailey” style protest outside the front gates of Tumbleweeds HQ, we can wheel in the qualifier: The Late Show isn’t overrated in terms of quality. It’s actually really good – so good, in fact, it’s odd how many of the glowing testimonials that have surfaced in the last few weeks have barely addressed the actual quality of the show. Sorry, but calling it “an hour of precision chaos” doesn’t count. Or even really mean anything (we’d go with “tightly scripted but presented in a ramshackle fashion”, which might explain why we don’t work at Fairfax).
What is truly, massively overrated about The Late Show is its influence on the actual shape of Australian comedy. Largely because, despite what its’ fans will tell you, it had no real influence at all.
C’mon, if you want to talk about lasting influences, let’s talk The Comedy Company. When that clumsy sketch show beat 60 Minutes in the ratings in 1988 it literally changed the face of Australian comedy for the next two decades. And, if its wikipedia page is to be believed, gave the country the word “bogan” in the process.
Fast Forward, which along with its various spin-off ran for a decade, was a direct response / knock-off of The Comedy Company. Every single sketch show made in Australia since has used the Comedy Company formula – even The Wedge, close to two decades later, was basically a direct rip-off of The Comedy Company. The Comedy Company didn’t come out of nowhere, but it locked in a dull, lowbrow, producer-led formula that everyone’s looked back to since. And yet, on its 20th anniversary, where were the articles praising it? Where was the sappy “you changed my life and taught me to laugh” columns about a show that rated way better than The Late Show ever did? And let’s not even start on The Big Gig, which aired around the same time and had just as big an impact.
Obviously we’re not saying that the people behind The Late Show – Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Tony Martin, Mick Molloy, Jason Stephens and Jane Kennedy (with Judith Lucy joining in the second series) – didn’t help shape Australian comedy. Two words: The Panel. There’s a show that steered the turnip truck of Australian comedy off a cliff and laughed as everyone followed close behind. Meanwhile on radio, Martin / Molloy opened the door for countless comedian-heavy double acts all the way through to Hamish & Andy. But The Late Show? What shows did it influence? What style of comedy did it inspire? Where is the raft of imitators? In what way was it not a complete and total dead end, the “ill-fated” Mick Molloy Show aside?
To be fair, the vanishing without trace of everything The Late Show stood for wasn’t entirely the fault of the (group then known as the) D-Generation. In many ways The Late Show was the culmination of their already decade-long comedy careers, the kind of show that could only be made by performers who’d honed their skills on television, on radio and in live performance and could do pretty much whatever it took to get the maximum possible laughs from an idea.
Putting together an hour of live material, sketches, pre-recorded material, vox pops, musical numbers and commentaries on commercials and Countdown clips, as well as re-dubbing television serials, sourcing old talent show clips and finding celebrities willing to make fools of themselves was a massive task; it’s no wonder no-one in Australia has tried anything similar since.
It also came at the tail-end of the comedy boom, and was the kind of show that really only could flourish with an audience already firmly up to speed with television comedy in all its many forms. Even at the time it wasn’t a mainstream hit – that would have been your Fast Forwards and your Tonight Live with Steve Vizards, not to mention your Hey, Dad!s – but the years of high-profile and much-loved comedies that had gone before had created enough of an audience for comedy that a show packed with in-jokes and personal obsessions with hardly any reoccurring characters (let alone catchphrases) could make its mark.
When people talk about the influence of The Late Show, what they’re talking about is its influence on them. It was a show that connected with its viewers* in a way that few Australian shows – but pretty much all its overseas counterparts because don’t tell us you didn’t notice it had pretty much the same format as the American Saturday Night Live (and to some extent Monty Python) – ever have. That’s because the format creates stars in a way few others do: it not only makes you laugh, it shows you the actual people who are making you laugh. The Late Show didn’t need reoccurring characters to succeed because the cast were the characters.
In regular sketch shows you occasionally get a glimpse of this when a performer cracks up – or “corpses” – during a take (yes, this is a link to Steve Vizard and Peter Moon corpsing on Fast Forward – and it’s no surprise that Vizard’s regular corpsing made him the most popular cast member of that show); in sitcoms and other pre-recorded shows you never see it at all. As for panel shows, there the tone is much more combative (everyone is fighting to get the biggest laugh) and the results much less impressive.
[it doesn't always work: no-one corpsed harder or more often on Australian television than Daryl Somers. Though in his case his crack-ups weren't so much an expression of sheer joy and enjoyment than the royal seal of approval.]
The Late Show was full of this stuff and it gave the show a real feel of a bunch of mates getting together to have fun. It certainly helped that they were some of the sharpest comedy minds in the country – the best remembered bits of The Late Show are either the extremely well-crafted stuff (Bargearse, The Last Aussie Auteur, Beware of Wog) or the incredibly slipshod stuff (Graham & the Colonel, Rob Sitch going off-book doing impressions, dodgy album covers), with the merely solid material in between largely overlooked** – but by coming across as themselves on television they also became personalities in their own right. Remember “Girls Just Want To Have Mick”? You didn’t see anyone writing about the sex appeal of Mark Mitchell.
Whether this chummy tone existed off-camera – and while everyone certainly seems to be friends now*** there were a lot of rumours about off-screen tensions and a hard-partying Molloy at the time of the second series – is beside the point; even at the time the whole “we’re just being ourselves” angle was clearly an act. Remember those “date” sketches with Tommy G and Jane when in real life Jane was dating Rob – something they went out of their way to conceal for years afterwards?
Whether the daggy atmosphere was manufactured to prop up the occasionally wobbly material or not, it’s clear that to an extent not seen since (making it another way it completely failed to influence Australian comedy) The Late Show turned its cast into much-loved television personalities. People might laugh at The Chaser or Chris Lilley, but (teenage girls aside), no-one loves those guys because those guys are always performing. They never let the audience in the way Rob and Santo would as they laughed at their failed jokes as Graham & The Colonel. Whatever the quality of the material you’re delivering, if you can do that – if you can let the mask slip and show yourself to be just an average guy who likes a laugh - then you’ve got fans for life.
Well, twenty years at least.
*it didn’t hurt at all that the audience for The Late Show was the kind of nerdy cool kids that grow up to either make comedy or work in the media.
**This is also partly due to the massive edit job done on the essential but slightly disappointing Late Show DVD, which reduces many lesser sketches to a handful of jokes and loses a lot of the piss-farting around. There’s a clear divide between people who saw the show live (or have tracked down complete episodes) and those who’ve only seen the DVD.
***Apart from Mick and Tony, obviously.