It would be fair to say that tonight’s new Wednesday night sitcom double bill of Rosehaven followed by The Letdown didn’t initially excite us. We found the first series of Rosehaven a bit patchy, and we really disliked the pilot of The Letdown when it aired last year as part of Comedy Showroom, yet both seem fresher and improved after their hiatus.
The best bits of Rosehaven series one, were when Emma (Celia Pacquola) and Daniel (Luke McGregor) talked shit and played pointless, stupid pranks on each other. Less good, although kind of important in a sitcom, were the plots and other characters, which most of the time weren’t particularly funny.
Having perhaps realised where their show’s strength lay, writers and stars Pacquola and McGregor seem to have included more scenes where they can play off each other in this series, which means more laughs, although the other characters in the show are still way less funny than they are.
Daniel’s Mum Barbara (Kris McQuade) is sometimes funny, but mostly she’s there to be a scary authority figure, and when she does have a funny line it’s played so dry that the gag doesn’t quite work. As for Daniel’s girlfriend Grace (Katie Robertson), she just seems like the sort of generic girlfriend character that we thought we’d seen the last of in 90s sitcoms. It doesn’t help that we’ve only seen Grace via Skype so far this series, but even so, there’s little in the way of personality or comic potential there.
Mrs Marsh (Noela Foxcroft), McCallum Real Estate’s elderly receptionist, usually says something bizarrely funny, she only has about two lines per episode, so she’s no comic saviour. And while some of the guest or occasional roles in Rosehaven raise a laugh, that’s not quite enough for us. Seriously, this is a sitcom, everything about it should be trying to be funny.
The Letdown, on the other, seems more the kind of sitcom where pretty much all the characters have the potential to be funny. The show’s two main characters, new mother Audrey (Alison Bell) and 12-week-old Stevie, aside, it has a range of amusing supporting players, including the attendees at the local new mothers group, Audrey’s horrified childless friends, her self-indulgent mother and a local drug dealer she keeps running into.
And if you thought the first episode of The Letdown was a little different to the one which aired last year during Comedy Showroom, you’re right. The scenes involving Audrey’s husband Jeremy have been re-shot, as the role is now being played by Duncan Fellows.
Particularly worth noting is the scene where Audrey and Jeremy try to have sex for the first time since Stevie’s birth, but Stevie keeps crying, putting them both off. In the pilot this was a fairly short scene, and far less funny. Now, it’s really funny, and goes on for ages – it’s probably the highlight of the show.
It’s always good to see a show work to improve things and make them funnier. And having gone in not liking The Letdown, we think there are reasons to be optimistic about the rest of the series.
On this blog, we often try to work out why certain shows or genres are or aren’t funny. So, if we had to vote for the genre least likely to generate laughs we’d probably go for short film.*
The basic problem with short films doing comedy is that the sort of people who make short films, generally speaking, aren’t comedians or comedy writers; they’re people who want to make serious feature films and are only making a short film as a showcase. Which means that while many short films are billed as comedies, they’re not really comedies, more quirky dramas. And we all know how hilarious they are.
So, let’s just say that whenever we’re presented with a short film that’s described as “comedy” we don’t go into it with much optimism that it will be hilarious. Especially if the synopsis also includes the words “dark” and “drama”.
…Which brings us to the award-winning and internationally screened short film Kharisma, which recently appeared in the comedy category of ABC iView. We decided to take a look; here are some thoughts…
In comedy terms, Kharisma starts off okay. We see a series of auditions from child performers, who range from “funny because they’re so precocious” to “funny because they’re terrible”. Then Kam, the man running the auditions, becomes rather excited by Mary, a girl doing some reasonably-risqué-dancing-for-her-age. “Please tell us it’s not heading there”, we thought, reports about the antics of Harvey Weinstein fresh in our minds.
The final child to audition is Kharisma, a mousey, bespectacled bundle of energy wearing colourful feathers and doing an African tribal dance kinda act. “No”, says Kam. Then, “See you at home for dinner”.
Cut to dinner, a bleak affair where Kharisma and her Mum Karen wait for Kam to join them at the table before they start eating. Home is just another show Kam’s in charge of, it seems, and it isn’t allowed start until he’s there.
Then Mary arrives, for extra rehearsal. Another opportunity for Kam to remind Kharisma that she’s not good enough to be in his show, and for the director of Kharisma to imply that Kam’s a paedophile. **
Spoilers, but he isn’t. He’s just really, really into nurturing new child talent. Which is a relief, although he’s still an arsehole. And why does he tie his wife to the bed each night, and then just go to sleep leaving her there? Weird.
We won’t spoil the end, as it’s kind of sweet, but nothing funny happens. In fact, nothing funny happens in Kharisma after the first scene with all the terrible auditions, which makes this film about 10% comedy at best. But, that’s the short film genre. Comedy means something different here, and it’s “there’s at least one moment you might laugh at”.
Kharisma is a good short film overall – well made, engrossing, good performances and a nice twist at the end – we just don’t think it should have been labelled comedy. And that goes for anything else that’s not trying to be funny at least 50% of the time.
* That or theatre. Oh man, the comedy you get at the theatre… Jokes either so up themselves or so lame that they could only raise laughs from an audience of people who want to be seen to get the joke. You know the type.
** To be fair, Kharisma was made about 4 years ago, well before the Harvey Weinstein scandal, but still…
If you had to think of a single word to describe Australian television comedy – and that word was legally required to be complimentary – you couldn’t go far wrong with “polished”. Whatever the many, many many, many many many flaws with our nation’s comedy output, one thing it pretty much always manages to do is look like something put together by a crack team of very competent straight-faced professionals.
This is, of course, literal fucking death when it comes to comedy. Decent comedy has a bit of life to it, whether it’s the writers occasionally wandering off to amuse themselves or performances that go off in a direction you might not expect. Polished comedy can be great, but if there’s not a rough edge or surprise turn in there to let us know we’re watching something made by humans all you’ve got is one of those “hilarious” comedy ads from Gruen.
And it’s been a long time since Australian television saw a comedy with as much life to it as Get Krack!n. It wasn’t a particularly even show – though in what’s probably a plus, at Casa Del Tumbleweeds we couldn’t quite agree on which episodes were the duds – but when the structure was a bit shaky there was always plenty of golden moments and when the individual jokes were a bit iffy there was often a strong through-line that held it all together.
Just as importantly, it was a comedy getting laughs out of material that Australian television comedy hardly ever goes near. Rarely does the ABC deign to put on a show that dares to point out that hey, regular average not-that-bad Australian life is still often a bit shit for many people (especially women); it’s been a very long time since we’ve had a comedy series point out that television is largely focused on making us feel worse so they can sell us crap.
Not everything worked, and sometimes it didn’t work in odd ways. Take that seemingly endless segment where the Kates were asked to literally eat shit for Reconciliation. In theory it was funny (well, “funny”) because the Kates were so keen to do the right thing they’d do the worst thing; in practice there’s an Aboriginal person asking white people to eat his shit. What are we laughing at here?
But it was a show that would try that kind of thing, which is worth applauding in and of itself. Usually in Australian comedy by the time someone gets a TV show they’ve had their anger – and most of their personality – hammered out of them (or they’ve lived a life so focused on getting on TV there was never a personality there to begin with); there was never a moment’s doubt that Get Krack!n was coming from a place that was pretty goddamn angry at a whole lot of stuff. So even when the end result was a bit shaky there was a fire burning there we really don’t see enough of on our screens, especially in comedy.
There was plenty of more traditional elements to laugh at too – they never seemed to find an end to the funny ways to point out the cliches of television production, and as a double act The Kates are definitely up there with Australia’s all time greats. The rare times they made fun of themselves for doing their jobs “properly” (like the disaster episode, where they alternated between panic, despair, and glee at the boost their ratings would get from their coverage) were always entertaining too: the baseline of Kate McLennan being over-committed while Kate McCartney was often actively disengaged (a hold over from The Katering Show) was harder to plausibly sustain as hosts of an actual (if clearly shit) morning show, but it meant that when they broke out of those roles it was often a comedy highlight.
Get Krack!n wasn’t the most finely polished comedy on Australian television, and we’re not talking about the many jokes about how shoddy the show’s production values were. But it was a comedy made by people who had something very pissed off to say and they weren’t going to let anyone stop them from saying it. We could do with a lot more like it.
As you read this, it’s exactly ten years since Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High first aired on ABC television. Running from September 5th to October 24th in 2007, it was a ratings smash – one and a half million Australians tuned in for the final episode – that made Chris Lilley a household name and led to two spin-off series. It was also an international success, airing in both the UK (on BBC Three) and the USA (HBO) pulling in numerous glowing reviews from across the nation. Lilley went on to win a Silver Logie for his work in Summer Heights High, and the show itself won the Logie for Most Outstanding Comedy Program. It’s easily the biggest success story in Australian comedy of the 21st Century: so where’s the celebration?
Oh that’s right: Chris Lilley is now a creepy racist. A backlash that began with his 2011 series Angry Boys has slowly gathered steam until in 2017 his Summer Heights High spin-off Jonah from Tonga was withdrawn from New Zealand’s Maori Television for ““perpetuat[ing] negative stereotypes of Pacific people”. Not to be diverted from a career path built on “saying the unsayable” that he’s been committed to since at least 2004, Lilley then went on to post an already extremely dubious clip from Angry Boys titled “squashed n**ga” three days after a Northern Territory* (*edit, it was actually Western Australia) court case involving a man who ran over an aboriginal child. It’s probably a touch difficult to celebrate today a comedian who two months ago was being called by Briggs “an out of touch classic Australian racist”.
And yet the media silence around this major anniversary still seems a little odd. Summer Heights High was a massive achievement, and if its star and creator has gone off the boil in recent years… well, there are plenty of critics around with loads of experience talking about a classic hit from someone who’s now mostly churning out rubbish. On the flip side, a few months ago everyone was wiling to line up to give him a good kicking for being a shit: where are the anniversary stories pointing out that Summer Heights High is now actually kind of embarrassing?
We already know the answer: Summer Heights High‘s reputation as a classic is untouchable. Go through every recent story about how Chris Lilley is now a creepy racist: every one either avoids mentioning Summer Heights High or suggests that while he used to be good he’s well past his prime. Summer Heights High is the reason why anyone cares about Chris Lilley in 2017: it has to be untouchable because otherwise the story isn’t “decent comedian goes off the rails and we’re woke enough to point it out” but “shit comedian always was shit”.
And yet, if you actually watch Summer Heights High, it’s exactly as problematic (and as unfunny) as his later works. Just compare Ja’mie in SHH to her debut in We Can Be Heroes: first time around, she was part of a double act with her put-upon mum, with the comedy coming in part from the way her selfish, demanding attitude had a clear victim (who’d made a rod for her own back by indulging Ja’mie’s every whim). But in Summer Heights High, she’s just a bitch with a bitchy support group wandering around coming up with increasingly “shocking” schemes (taking a lesbian to the school dance, organising a fake AIDS fundraiser to secretly pay for an expensive school formal). Reviews at the time made sure to constantly praise Lilley’s realism…because high status seventeen year-old girls are always dating twelve year-old boys like Ja’mie does in SHH.
Meanwhile, high school drama teacher Mr G is trying to get rid of his down syndrome sidekick by placing a turd in a classroom and blaming him for it. And while Lilley might have had some of the nuances of an awkward posturing 13 year old boy down pat, Jonah still embodied all the usual cliches about Islanders. Ha ha, he’s a disruptive vandal! Watch out for his scary violent dad! Child abuse allegations!
Right from the start, Chris Lilley has always been a one note performer. His best work is the first time you discover him, because all his work is pretty much the same. That said, his sketches as Mr G on Big Bite were easily the best thing on that series, and they still hold up today – mostly because it was short segments where he had to get to the point in a minute or two. Everything since then has been Lilley doing the exact same thing over a longer and longer time frame: how many hours now has he spent exploring the character of Ja’mie King? For a character with no supporting cast and no real character beyond “she’s kind of a self-centered bitch”, spending three television series – including a six part solo series – playing her suggests a startling lack of artistic ambition.
That’s not to say Lilley isn’t good at what he does – it’s that what he does is create a comedy character, dress up as a comedy character, put on a comedy character voice, and then refuse to do anything funny with the character. Jonah’s character arc is always the same: he’s a loveable knockabout prankster who annoys the grown-ups, only to slowly get in over his head as his pranks turn out to have consequences and oh no now he’s in real trouble. Remember when he was an armed robber in Jonah From Tonga and it wasn’t played for laughs? Chris Lilley is a serious artist, and he wants you to take him seriously.
Which leads to one of the more awkward questions no-one seems to want to answer about Summer Heights High: so what exactly is the joke? In Summer Heights High Lilley plays a): a teenage girl, b): a gay cliche, c): an Islander. Two out of the three characters are monsters; the third is a clueless idiot we’re meant to grow to pity. If the joke is meant to be based on the characters themselves – they’re awful people behaving awfully – why couldn’t an actual young woman and an Islander play Ja’mie and Jonah? And if the joke is that a white man is playing these characters… what’s funny about that?
And yet all the controversy has fallen on his later, identical, shows. To be fair, that’s partly because Jonah From Tonga was the show stirring up the fuss earlier this year. But all of Chris Lilley’s solo work has the exact same issues, because – as previously mentioned – it’s all exactly the same. He’s a skilled mimic who thinks mimicking women, minorities, and teenagers is intrinsically hilarious. Summer Heights High was just the first time a wide audience saw what he was up to. And they loved it.
*Look at the “controversies” listed on Wikipedia:
The series is renowned for its controversial portrayal of such issues as mental disabilities, homosexuality, sexual abuse and racism. Even before Summer Heights High aired, some community groups complained about a “rape joke” and Mr G’s inappropriate “touching” of a boy with Down syndrome.
The Herald Sun reported that parents and some teachers have considered the possibility that the show is influencing children to misbehave at school. Students were reportedly imitating Jonah and Ja’mie, repeating lines that were bullying, racist and homophobic. Education Union branch president Mary Bluett stated in response that the show was “clearly tongue-in-cheek“.
After episode three, in which a character called Annabel dies after taking ecstasy, the family of Annabel Catt, a girl who died taking drugs at the 2007 Good Vibrations Festival in Sydney, complained that the program had been lampooning Annabel’s death. The ABC apologised to the family, stating that the situation was purely coincidental and assured them that the filming of the episode in question had been completed eleven days before her daughter’s death. The ABC thereafter began to display a message before each episode stating that there is no link between the series’ characters and people in real life.
Where’s the controversy that Jonah in Summer Heights High was a blackface character? Let’s say it again: every single problem people have with Jonah in Jonah From Tonga is present in Summer Heights High. And yet, where’s the controversy? In fact, when reviewers bring it up – which they do, in a sign that they’re fully aware of how it looks – it’s to reassure viewers that no, this isn’t blackface but a sharply observed character:
the barely literate, troublemaking Jonah is something else again — there is nothing exaggerated about the performance, in which Lilley perfectly embodies all the brutal tics and awkward evasions of a mixed-up 13-year-old boy. And though he’s a bit of a foulmouthed bully, Jonah is the only one of the three leads you are asked to like; he gives the series the heart without which it would otherwise expire.
Played by a white man with his face painted black.
The reason why Summer Heights High is untouchable is obvious: even the people happy to throw Chris Lilley under a bus today want to defend it. This supposedly savage takedown of Lilley from a few months ago lays out the score:
When I first saw We Can Be Heroes I thought “yes, this guy gets it: it all can be skewered”. With Summer Heights High he seemed to reach another plateau: “Mr G is Mrs Clements!” I thought, while high-schoolers a nation over said variations of the same. He was an enviable mimic, and one whose comedy was steeped in the dry pathos of a form that had gone from Spinal Tap, to Working Dog, to David Brent, and beyond.
That dry mockumentary style gave the character’s a weighted authenticity that would otherwise be absent. It’s not racist, you’d tell yourself. Jonah is fleshed out: look at this moment when he is sad about failing school. If Lilley was truly racist, Jonah wouldn’t be depicted as vulnerable. This is funny, we said, but it’s sincere.
Friends, God help you if you laugh at the same things as a 14 year old when you are anything but. God help you if you can’t peer through the fog of nostalgia at a cultural artefact and admit to yourself “gee, that’s actually a little bit shit, and a lot problematic.”
And yet this is exactly what happens in this article: Summer Heights High is mentioned as being his older, funnier stuff, and then the writer goes on to slam Angry Boys and Jonah from Tonga for all the exact same problems SHH has. All Chris Lilley’s series are the same: all of them are based around the idea that a white guy pretending to be a cliched parody of a minority is funny – by which we mean awkward, annoying and embarrassing, because they’re the reactions Lilley strives for rather than anything approaching amusement – in and of itself. But because one and a half million Australians thought Summer Heights High was pretty hilarious back in 2007 and don’t want to have their past challenged, their memories become our critical standard.
So Summer Heights High remains untouchable, despite being as deeply problematic – and generally unfunny – as anything else Chris Lilley has done. It can’t be celebrated, because all the problems in his later, more easily disparaged work are on full display. It can’t be dismissed, because that would be saying that big, big audience was wrong to like it in the first place.
And we couldn’t say that now, could we?
Press release(s) time!
Friday, October 13, 2017 — ABC and Screen Australia in association with Create NSW are pleased to announce that filming is underway in Sydney this week on Jungle’s new six-part comedy series Squinters, a series that celebrates the great Aussie ritual that is the everyday work commute.
An extraordinary ensemble cast includes beloved performer/composer Tim Minchin, Academy-Award nominee Jacki Weaver, Miranda Tapsell, Mandy McElhinney, Damon Herriman, Sam Simmons, Andrea Demetriades, Wayne Blair, Christiaan Van Vuuren, Justin Rosniak and Jenna Owen, along with young comic talents Susie Youssef (Rosehaven), Rose Matafeo (NZ’s Funny Girls), Steen Raskopoulos (BBC’s Top Coppers), YouTube sensation John Luc (aka ‘MyChonny’) as well as the UK’s Nyasha Hatendi (Hulu’s Casual).
Created by Trent O’Donnell (The Moodys, No Activity) and Adam Zwar (Wilfred, Lowdown), Squinters tracks the trials and tribulations of five carloads of travelers in peak hour morning transit and again on their drive home to find out how the workday turned out.
Our commuters include: a dispatch driver hoping to win the woman of his dreams by carpooling her to work; a single mum keen to avoid her teen daughter making the same mistakes in love, while juggling a new romance of her own; a clueless ex-school bully hitching a ride with the guy he tormented; best girlfriends whose friendship is tested when one becomes the other’s unlikely boss; and a newly ‘out’, middle-aged man grappling with both possible redundancy and a recalcitrant dog.
Squinters’ behind the scenes creative team is also compelling. Head director Trent O’Donnell leads an ensemble directing team including Kate McCartney (Get Krack!n, The Katering Show), Amanda Brotchie (Girl Boss (US), Picnic at Hanging Rock), Van Vuuren Bros. (Bondi Hipsters, Soul Mates) and alumnus of Jungle‘s gender equity initiative Operation Sheena, Cate Stewart (ABC Fresh Blood pilot The Record). Adam Zwar leads a diverse writing team including playwright Lally Katz, Sarah Scheller (The Letdown), Adele Vuko (Skitbox), Leon Ford and newcomer Ben Crisp.
Squinters will shoot in October in Sydney and Los Angeles, and air on ABC in 2018.
Okay, it’s kind of obvious why we ran that one. This one requires a bit more explanation:
Thursday, October 12, 2017 — Jennifer Byrne, host of ABC’s The Book Club, will step aside from her long-running role after The Book Club’sChristmas Special which goes to air on 19 December, 2017.
Jennifer says, “What a joy these past 11 years have been. And what a privilege to share my love of books with a wide, loyal audience on the national broadcaster. You don’t get better jobs – or better co-conspirators than Jason and Marieke, who’ve been with me from the start. We’ve had huge fun, tangled with some brilliant minds (and books), and read like threshing machines.
“For me it’s now time for a break, both to explore what might come next and remember what it’s like to read for pleasure alone. I’m proud we’ve run so long and strong. International authors were often astonished – and envious – that a show like ours existed, let alone endured. Thanks to the ABC which backed us, to the publishing industry which embraced us – and deepest thanks to the readers who travelled with us. I’ve loved the journey more than I can say.”
Jennifer and fellow book lovers Marieke Hardy and Jason Steger have been the go-to team for book-lovers for over a decade. Born out of My Favourite Book in 2004, a 90-minute Sunday night special that reached over a million viewers, First Tuesday Book Club established itself in 2006, as a reliable guide to the best in books, reading and smart conversation.
Attracting giants of the Australian and international literary scene to both The Book Club and Jennifer Byrne Presents, guests have included JK Rowling, Helen Garner, Bill Bryson, Paula Hawkins, Jeanette Winterson, Richard Flanagan, Tim Winton, Alan Cumming, Richard E Grant, Junot Diaz, Peter Carey, Michael Palin, Michael Robotham, Di Morrissey, Toni Jordan, Will Self and Jon Ronson, to name a few.
A well-credentialed Jennifer Byrne was the perfect choice to host the new show when it began: not only is she an avid reader, but she had previously worked as Publishing Director at Reed Books. Having trained as a print journalist – she was at one-time Assistant Editor at The Age’s Monthly Review – Jennifer moved on to television, where she became a Logie-winning television reporter for the Sunday program and spent seven years travelling the world for 60 Minutes. She then went on to present ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent.
David Anderson, ABC Director of Television says, “For 11 years Jennifer Byrne has been entertaining book lovers with her erudite mix of guests; heartily arguing over new releases, disputing the classics, grappling with the best summer reads, and managing to do it all with a healthy dose of laughter, affection and insight.
“We will be sad to see The Book Club go, but understand Jennifer’s decision and thank Jennifer, Marieke and Jason for the hours of reading, thinking, and talking they have shared with our audiences.”
There’s often a lot of fun things you can find out from press releases if you’re willing to read between the lines a little. Bear in mind that these are official announcements, not some rushed interview or disgruntled loner mouthing off: press releases are where the ABC gets to put out the exact version of the story they want to tell.
So, for example, it’s interesting that while the press release announcing a new ABC comedy mentions both “gender equity” and “diverse”, it doesn’t actually contain the word “funny”. Or, on close inspection, anything at all to suggest it’s meant to be funny aside from an initial description of it as “a comedy series”.
“Celebrates the great Aussie ritual that is the everyday work commute” – doesn’t mean funny. “Squinters tracks the trials and tribulations of five carloads of travelers” – doesn’t mean funny. Nowhere in this release is there any suggestion that they are setting out to make a show that’ll be funny. How hard is it to add “hilarious” to a sentence? It’s a press release for a comedy that’s more interested in telling the reader the production team tick all the diversity boxes than it is claiming it’ll be funny. And it’s still made by Trent O’Donnell and Adam Zwar so c’mon guys, who are you trying to fool? It’s the same old white males in charge yet again.
Let’s look at the second press release. Notice anything a little… unusual about it? Here’s a clue: what exactly is it meant to be announcing? Because while it starts out letting us know that Jennifer Byrne is stepping aside from her role as Book Show host, buried right at the very end in a quote from someone else is the news that The Book Show itself isn’t coming back. It’s like she announced she was leaving, ABC management all crowded around to say goodbye and wave her off, and then an hour or so later realised it wasn’t obvious to everyone that without her there wouldn’t be a show.
Again, this is somewhat revealing, and not just because it was never The Book Show with Jennifer Byrne in the same way as, say, The Weekly With Charlie Pickering or Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell. Those shows couldn’t go on without their hosts: if they were to continue, they’d have to be very different programs. The Book Show, on the other hand, doesn’t need Byrne to host: anyone could sit in the center chair and babble on about a bunch of books that even people who read don’t give a shit about. It is in no way obvious or logical that having her leave the show means the end of the show – unless you’re management at the ABC.
Taken together, these press releases tell us that the ABC isn’t really all that interested in trying to sell the actual programs they put to air. As far as they’re concerned, who cares if a comedy is funny? Who even cares if a show is going to air or not? They’re in the business of promoting people – of creating brand names that you, the audience, will flock to.
(at this point we’d like to point in the general direction of Susie Youssef, who’s gone from Rosehaven to Screen Time to Squinters on the ABC in the space of barely a year – she’ll be the next Luke McGregor in no time)
And generally speaking, there’s nothing at all wrong with this approach. Television is, to a large extent, about personalities, and the ABC’s role is to provide an alternative to the mostly white, mostly male faces on the commercial networks. The ABC most definitely should be promoting a diverse range of faces on our television screens: if they don’t, who will?
Unfortunately, basing your comedy output on the idea that people tune in for personalities you’ve intentionally manufactured in some kind of publicity workshop is a pretty shithouse way of going about things. The ABC should be encouraging diversity by giving people who aren’t usually heard the chance to be funny: there’s a good reason why Get Krack!n is one of the funniest, sharpest comedies on the ABC this year, and it’s not because it comes from two middle-aged white men. The way to create comedy personalities is by giving funny people chances to be funny, not making them panelists on painful gab-fests nobody wants to see while the same old guys churn out shows nobody gives a shit about.
Anyone with half a brain knows that actually being diverse – and not just talking it up while handing yet another show over to the same two guys who’ve made, oh, The Moodys, No Activity, Wilfred, Lowdown, six separate series of Agony, The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting, Here Come the Habibs, Laid,The Letdown, The Urban Monkey and – and this is a pretty big get out of jail free card, let’s be honest – Review with Myles Barlow – is how you get good comedy anyway. The best comedy works because its point-of-view is original and surprising, and its insights are fresh and new. No prizes for guessing which group is more likely to see things in a fresh and relevant way in 2017.
But on the basis of their own press releases, the ABC doesn’t give a shit about being funny. The ABC cares about personalities – people someone at the ABC has decided will resonate with audiences so they get all the attention and promotion to turn them into the kind of people who get mentioned in press releases. And what exactly is the basis for deciding someone gets to be a personality?
Answers on the back of a postcard, please.
After almost five months, the replacement for the short-lived John Conway Tonight, Aaron Chen Tonight, is here – and it’s not that different to the original. And if like us, you enjoyed Aaron Chen’s stand-out appearances as Conway’s ineffectual, geeky sidekick, and hoped he’d build on that when he took over the show, this is slightly disappointing.
Given the fits and starts to get this show back on the air, it was natural to assume it would be re-tooled to suit Chen’s comic persona. But, it appears it hasn’t. At least, not very much. As the end credits remind us, this is “based on a concept by John Conway” – and Conway’s show this pretty much remains. Which would be fine if Chen was, like Conway, the kind of everyman comedian who could slot into a straight-ish hosting role. Or, like Shaun Micallef, he had that sort of insane bravado that works as a comedy anchor. But he doesn’t. Not really. Chen’s strongest when he’s strange and nerdy, and he’s kind of trying not to be that here.
Our question here is: why? Did Chen make the decision to play it like this himself, or was it forced upon him? And was it too hard to make changes to the concept to make this truly Chen’s show? Either way, from what we know of Aaron Chen, this doesn’t feel like an Aaron Chen show. What this feels like is a halfway house that doesn’t quite work for anyone.
Not that Chen doesn’t throw himself into it regardless. He starts well, doing some of his stand-up, then he follows this with a new segment called Chen Diagram, which, while not hugely hilarious in this first episode, has the potential to be a funny regular feature. But after that, it’s mostly Chen linking sketches from the “players”, interviewing the show’s guests and dealing with interjections from dodgy agent and businessman Robbie Tarrocash, Penguini the Italian penguin and “Michael Caine” (via telephone). And let’s face it, almost anyone could do this – there’s nothing special about the way Chen does it. And that feels like a missed opportunity.
As for the sketches and interjections, they still have that ramshackle feel you only get in student revues and obscure comedy rooms, where newcomers are trying things out they wrote earlier that day to see if they work, which on TV (albeit ABC2) feels a bit odd. On TV you expect a higher level of polish, and even the potential of the cast – and they have potential – isn’t quite enough to carry some pretty mediocre material.
We really support this show – and anything that makes it onto TV and tries to do something different – but overall isn’t a great program. That and we’re still wondering why it took five months for this to come back when it’s basically the same as John Conway Tonight.
Press release time!
Don Angel is Back in Very Small Business: Gristmill’s new satire for ABC TV
Gristmill co-founders Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope
AACTA award-winning production company Gristmill (Little Lunch, Upper Middle Bogan) have secured principal production investment from Screen Australia in association with Film Victoria, for Back in Very Small Business – a brand new comedy series commissioned by the ABC.
Starring Wayne Hope and Kim Gyngell, Back in Very Small Business will re-imagine the world of Don Angel, first introduced to audiences in 2008 with the AFI and Logie-nominated ABC series Very Small Business.
Back in Very Small Business finds Don (Wayne Hope) at the helm of the World Wide Business Group, where he and his business partner Ray (Kim Gyngell), have found success in their ‘Don’s Dirty Dog Wash’ franchise. Encompassing five other small businesses, the WWBG is staffed by an ethnically diverse, gender fluid, psychologically fragile menagerie, all hired on government subsidies. While Don enjoys the spoils of his burgeoning empire, he continues to be plagued by the consequences of both his morally questionable business practises and his delinquent emotional life.
Back in Very Small Business will feature a brilliant cast, showcasing some brand new faces alongside some of Australia’s finest comic performers. The full cast will be announced in December, when production begins.
Creators Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope said: “We’re extremely excited to be making Back in Very Small Business and we really hope there is room in the world for one more bombastic, emotionally stunted, shonky guy called Don.”
Featuring 8 x 27min episodes, the comedy series will be produced, executive produced and written by Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler, with Butler also taking on directing duties. Greg Sitch and the ABC’s Rick Kalowski are the executive producers, with Gary McCaffrie completing the writing team. The comedy series will be broadcast on the ABC, with international sales to be handled by Super Java Distribution.
Collaborators and Gristmill co-founders Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler are prolific creators of Australian television and films. Their ABC comedy series Upper Middle Bogan won Best Television Comedy series at the 2016 AACTA Awards for the third season, and has enjoyed multiple AACTA and Logie Award nominations across all three seasons. Their children’s ABC3 series Little Lunch won the 2016 Prix de Jeunesse Award in the 7-10 Fiction Category, the 2017 Logie for Most Outstanding Children’s Series, and was nominated for an AACTA award.
“Gristmill have created an enviable catalogue of exceptionally funny, irreverent and incredibly clever comedy content that is uniquely Australian,” says Sally Caplan, Head of Production at Screen Australia. “We expect Back in Very Small Business will be an equally successful outing for them and commend the producers for updating the characters in this show to reflect a contemporary, diverse audience.”
“We’re delighted to partner with the ABC to see the return of Don Angel, Australia’s most inept businessman, for Back in Very Small Business,” says Jenni Tosi, Film Victoria CEO. “As leading producers of comedy for audiences and screens of all sizes, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope will once again bring the sharp, satirical and laugh-out-loud funny moments for this Melbourne-grown comedy and we look forward to its return.”
Back in Very Small Business will commence filming in December and into the new year, and will air on the ABC in 2018.
We’re filing this one under “very good news”, as we were big fans of the original. Roll on 2018!
(Though just quietly, having Don in charge of an actual staff seems to be slightly missing the point of what made the original so much fun)
Press release time!
Ranging from fine art and fashion, to music and movies, the line-up celebrates the best of art and culture across the spectrum. We explore disparate worlds of music with Sarah Blasko and composer Nigel Westlake; and different approaches to art and life with Anh Do and comedian Hannah Gadsby. We look at the phenomenon of child prodigies, explore storytelling in its many forms, as well as cultural clashes playing out through film making and social issues. The centrepiece of the ABC’s upcoming arts programming is the multi-award-winning flagship documentary series, Artsville. This next season of beautifully crafted films includes a fascinating and funny look at the making of an Australian horror movie as well as a moving portrait of Australian band The Go-Betweens.
David Anderson, ABC Director of Television says, “At a time when arts coverage is fast losing space in the mainstream media, the ABC is proud to celebrate Australia’s cultural life and bring some great arts programs to all Australians.”
What follows is a big old list of “great arts programs”. Some of which are somewhat comedy-adjacent.
Screen Time, starts on Tuesday 17 October, 8pm on ABC and iview
Hosted by Chris Taylor, with an ensemble cast of regular panelists, Screen Time goes beyond the binge to bring you the latest from the world of TV, streaming, cinema and the web. From highbrow to lowbrow, prestige ‘golden age of television’ moments, to bedroom YouTube stars, it’s all worth talking about for our cast of screen timers. Entertaining, but rooted in cultural critique and analysis, Screen Time will be the go to show for anyone who likes to watch … just about anything!
Artsville, series starts Tuesday 31 October, 9.30pm on ABC and iview
Up first, two-parter Horror Movie – A Low-Budget Nightmare, follows actor-turned-filmmaker Craig Anderson, as he embarks on a rollercoaster – and at times – comedic journey to make his first super-low-budget horror feature film, Red Christmas. Tuesday 31 October & Part 2 – Tuesday 7 November, 9.30pm.
Production credit: Fridge Jam Productions. Screen Australia.
The Book Club Christmas Special, Tues 19 December, 9.30pm on ABC and iview
Jennifer Byrne along with cohorts Marieke Hardy and Jason Steger return for their annual Christmas Special “Five of the Best.” Taking in their top five books of the year we will also open voting lines to the Book Club audience to nominate their 5 Best Books of the Year.
Underscore, Wednesday 1 November on iview
Acclaimed Australian composer Nigel Westlake has scored films like Babe and Paper Planes. In this iview original series he draws on his own deeply personal journey through grief and loss to create the soundtrack for a new film – Australia’s first Muslim rom-com, Ali’s Wedding. We follow the process from paper to recording with his many collaborators like singer Lior and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
HIVE, series of 3 films coming in 2018 to ABC and iview
An initiative between ABC Arts, the Adelaide Film Festival, Screen Australia and the Australia Council for the Arts, giving artists from many disciplines the chance to make their first film.
Guilty is a feature length film focusing on the last days of artist and executed Bali Nine prisoner Myuran Sukumaran. It is written and directed by visual artist Matthew Sleeth, who ran art workshops in prison with Myuran throughout his rehabilitation.
Remembering Agatha is a half-hour hybrid live-action whimsical drama overlaid with animation. Directed by artist and writer, Emma Magenta, it tells the story of a woman overwhelmed by family obligation and the domestication of her spirit, before she discovers a mysterious portal offering her the possibility of resolving her grief and saving her crumbling marriage.
Production credit: Create NSW.
Oddlands is a half-hour drama directed and co-written by Back To Back Theatre’s artistic director Bruce Gladwin. It tells the blackly humorous story of a team of people with intellectual disabilities from a supported employment service, who travel into a restricted zone to plug a hole in a deserted nuclear facility.
Hannah Gadsby’s Nakedy Nude, coming in 2018 to ABC and iview
Award-winning comedian Hannah Gadsby will apply her unique sensibility to the representation of the nude in art. Part lampoon, part deconstruction, Gadsby will draw on her art history background to navigate between dry humour, irreverence and serious art critique.
Production credit: Barefoot Communications. Create NSW
Anh’s Brush With Fame season three, coming in 2018 to ABC and iview
Archibald People’s Choice award-winner, comedian and author Anh Do returns with the much-anticipated third season of Anh’s Brush With Fame, getting up close and personal with an exciting new line-up of Australian celebrities, to be announced soon.
Production credit: Screentime.
The Mix, continues in 2018, Saturdays, 6.30pm on ABC NEWS and iview
The Mix has had a fresh coat of paint and brings you more great arts content from around the country. The new look weekly arts, entertainment and culture program features contributors including Zan Rowe, Myf Warhurst, and artists Eddie Sharp and Abdul Abdullah. Bringing audiences a unique look inside what’s happening in the arts and giving you a weekly culture fix! The program is repeated on ABC TV on Sunday afternoons.
The ABC has been cutting back on arts coverage pretty much since its second week of existence, so on some level all this is good news. But that’s not our level. Our level is one filled with blaring alarms at the use of words like “comedic” and “whimsical” and “blackly humourous” and “Anh Do’s painting again”. Because whether you like arts coverage or comedy, there’s a lot here to actively dislike.
Call us crazy, but if we can have a schedule full of sports programs that take sport seriously, why is it seemingly impossible to have even a single arts program that doesn’t involve some kind of wacky prankster? Why is it assumed that sport is somehow intrinsically entertaining whereas the arts – which, it may surprise ABC programmers to learn, is often designed to be entertaining – can’t be allowed on television without assurances that we won’t be taking it seriously and “comedy” will somehow be involved.
We wouldn’t mind so much if the comedy was actually funny – fingers crossed for Gadsby’s show (her BBC radio show on art was pretty good) – but these shows are never made with comedy in mind. They’re lightweight pissweak explainers aimed at a seemingly disinterested audience, failing to appeal either to actual arts fans or people who couldn’t give a fuck while giving off the stench of a contractual obligation without even the marginal competence you’d usually expect from someone going through the motions. The ABC doesn’t put on arts coverage because it doesn’t rate, and the reason why it doesn’t rate is because they do a half-arsed job of it.
But hey, let’s take a closer look at what has to be one of the dumbest ideas for a television program in recent memory and we still remember The Agony of the Body:
Screen Time, starts on Tuesday 17 October, 8pm on ABC and iview
Hosted by Chris Taylor, with an ensemble cast of regular panelists,
(Word is these panellists are not so much movie and television experts as people like Benjamin Law – engaging wafflers who happen to watch television and movies. So… Gogglebox only without the charm?)
Screen Time goes beyond the binge to bring you the latest from the world of TV, streaming, cinema and the web. From highbrow to lowbrow, prestige ‘golden age of television’ moments, to bedroom YouTube stars, it’s all worth talking about for our cast of screen timers.
It’s a half hour show covering four areas, each of which could easily fill a half hour show on their own. At the Movies used to take half an hour just for movies. Meanwhile, there is so much new television being created just out of the USA it’s no longer humanly possible for anyone to watch it all. “And we’re covering the web!” This has zero chance of going in-depth on much of anything, which would be fine if they were, say, covering some obscure sport that nobody knew anything about. But this is a show about television. It’s on television. The people watching it already know about television.
Entertaining, but rooted in cultural critique and analysis, Screen Time will be the go to show for anyone who likes to watch … just about anything!
Don’t be worried ABC viewers, we put “entertaining” first so you don’t have to worry that the scary panel will start using big reviewer words like “boring”. What kind of analysis are we going to get from a panel of personalities on a show hosted by a television producer? Probably not going to be bad-mouthing a lot of local product, we’re guessing. Maybe not pointing out any trends that might be embarrassing to any of the local networks either.
You know, like how dumbing down arts coverage to appeal to people who don’t care while alienating those viewers who do is a pretty stupid way to attract viewers.
In recent months we’ve been wondering time and time again: what kind of comedy can the ABC make when they can’t afford to make anything that’s not an overseas co-production? And now we have the answer: really cheap comedy:
Adam Zwar and Trent O’Donnell are set to make a six-part comedy for the ABC set entirely in cars, which will follow people from Sydney’s western suburbs as they drive to work.
In fact, we reckon they can go even cheaper than that:
Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler are making a sequel to their 2008 six-part comedy Very Small Business for the ABC.
Very Small Business, you may recall, was a sitcom originally set entirely in a disused office (they expanded on it when the ABC complained it looked too cheap by adding a bunch of cutaways to outside locations). You may also recall it was actually pretty funny (and extremely spot-on with its jokes about the world of dodgy magazine publication), so a return in an age where bottom-rung publishing is even more cutthroat can only be for the good.
Squinters, on the other hand, sounds like a concept we’re going to need to hear a bit more about. Are the characters carpooling? Constantly on their mobile phones? Repeatedly involved in massive pile-ups? Having done our fair share of slow crawls into the city for work we’re fairly confident that comedy is not the natural outcome of sitting in a car for fifty minutes at a time.
But as usual, the stinger is in the tail:
Neither the ABC nor Jungle has confirmed the show.
No rush there, guys.
It’s fair to say we haven’t really taken to The Edge of the Bush, Anne Edmond’s short-form sitcom airing each week after Get Krack!n’. It’s partly the clash of dark and moody and over-the-top, zany characters that isn’t working for us, but also that it feels like an idea that seemed hilarious on paper or in the rehearsal room but just doesn’t work as a finished TV show.
There are lots of positive things to say about Anne Edmonds. She’s masterful at dissecting the culture of the Australian suburbs, particularly its less nice aspects, and no one handles a shift in tone quite like Edmonds. Those sudden U-turns she does? Genius. Her MICF show this year, No Offence None Taken, featured plenty of those, and it was a well-deserved Barry nominee.
The Edge of the Bush also does a pretty good job of nailing what’s so clever – and annoying – about all those Scandi Noir and Scandi Noir-influenced dramas we’ve seen in the past half-decade: the bizarre storylines, the over-played horror, the endless repetition of key plot points, the flashbacks, the characters looking off camera when they remember something “from the past”… Problem is, none of this is actually made funny in The Edge of the Bush; it’s an accurate parody, but not one made hilarious.
Maybe it’s that this seems to be a show about incest. That guaranteed laugh-getter, incest. We’re not saying you can’t do jokes about incest, just that if you do they’d better be hilarious. A rule which, as long-time readers of this blog know, is something you can apply to anything you try to do in comedy: it better be hilarious.
Having said all this, we’d really like to see more from Anne Edmonds. Her appearances as Helen Bidou in Get Krack!n alone justify that. Just not more of The Edge of the Bush, if that’s okay.