So, as a token gesture towards the idea of live entertainment, I went to see The Shambles – Live in a Ballroom a few nights back. I’ve haven’t bothered with much at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year, just The Shambles plus Micallef and Curry’s Good Evening, but I’d seen The Shambles last year and liked what I saw so I figured it was worth a second shot. Turns out I was right: the show was smart, well-structured, hilarious from start to finish and varied enough to leave you wanting more. Five stars! If I gave out stars, which I don’t.
But after I’d had a good old chuckle at the way Lynchie’s dad looked exactly like Robert Hughes on Hey Dad..! and giggled at seeing Sos in a devil costume riding around in a shopping trolley, my thoughts wandered as usual to television. Specifically, to the way that part of what had made The Shambles so much fun to watch on stage has been totally banished from our screens: the fun of seeing friends piss-farting around together.
I’m not talking about theatresports, or the bastardised version we saw on Thank God You’re Here. The thrill of theatresports is seeing how the performers pick up and expand on what each other is doing second by second; the point of Thank God You’re Here is… well, I’m guessing it’s to make Working Dog rich. I’m talking here about the fun of seeing a bunch of friends playing dress-ups and then laughing at how stupid it all is.
This kind of thing used to be mainstream comedy. Everyone’s sick of hearing how The Late Show was the best comedy show ever made in this country, so let’s just point out that many of the show’s best-loved moments involved friends cracking up or cracking wise in the middle of a crumbling sketch. The Doug Anthony All Stars, the biggest act to come out of The Big Gig: three friends messing about.
And how is it that in four years of Fast Forward – arguably the biggest hit comedy television show of the last thirty years – the only bit anyone remembers is the scene where Steve Vizard and Peter Moon struggle to stop laughing during one of their rug salesmen sketches? That’s right: this kind of comedy is so infectious and fun it can make even Steve Vizard seem like a decent bloke.
Now it’s vanished, gone so completely that it took the fluke event that is me seeing comedy live on stage to remind me that I hadn’t seen it on Australian television in a long, long time. It doesn’t happen on panel shows: hearing someone say something crazy –as if you’d even get that on an Australian panel show – simply isn’t the same as hearing them say something crazy while wearing a bad wig. And it doesn’t happen on comedy games shows like Talkin’ ‘bout Your Generation or Good News Week: when a bunch of relative strangers are forced to act silly together, there’s not the trust between them that allows them to really let loose and have fun.
It’s undeniable that a huge part of the Australian television comedy boom in the late 1980s came from the fact that we were seeing friends working together. Even when the jokes were crap or didn’t work, we could see that the people involved were having fun, and watching people genuinely having fun messing about is about as good as entertainment gets (unless the messing about involves home renovations). But for whatever reason – I’m guessing all television producers are heartless robots who have no friends and so hate and fear the very idea of friendship – seeing people who actually like each other on television is almost impossible these days.
We all know the real reasons why we don’t see this kind of comedy any more – producers like to put together their own comedy teams (even back in the 1980s, when Vizard gutted the D-Generation to cast Fast Forward), sketch comedy is dead (thanks Double Take), as is live television (outside footy shows, which sometimes still manage to capture a little of this kind of thing, only involving AFL haircuts) and the old-fashioned idea that sometimes unpolished television is better value than something that’s had the life scrubbed out of it.
[At this point someone’s certain to mention Hey Hey It’s Saturday. Remember how I used the word “friends” earlier? Get back to me when you see the slightest example of any genuine human warmth radiating from Daryl towards anyone else who gets between him and the camera. I’ll be over here doing my tax return.]
So I guess the question is, why is it that while we’re constantly being told that television is a source of human connection for people – usually to justify some long running and utterly soul-less soapie or US sitcom – television that shows pretty much the closest clothed human connection there is – people who are trying to do something together laughing over how it’s gone wrong – has been wiped from our screens? We don’t need an entire one-hour weekly show devoted to sketches going wrong. Just a little bit of what I saw from The Shambles - you know, what you humans call “chemistry” – would do nicely, thanks very much.