Australian Tumbleweeds

Australia's most opinionated blog about comedy.

It’s the Movies that Got Small

There’s only one question when it comes to Rove’s new comedy panel game show Show Me The Movie: is it as shithouse as Cram!? Unlike Cram!, this one is actually about a topic that isn’t just “you know, stuff” – people generally like movies, most people know some dumb facts about movies, and as this reminds us repeatedly, there are already a shitload of terrible parlour games that are in the public domain that they can base the show on instead of coming up with something people might want to watch.

It’s also hosted by Rove, who is most definitely a better host than Peter Helliar. The jokes are terrible, the cast are… Angela Bishop is on this so *makes vaguely disgusted confused gesture*… but at least with Rove running the show there’s a bit of energy to proceedings. Remember when he went to the USA to replace Jay Leno? Best joke of his career.

Australian television networks clearly don’t want to give up on the idea of television just yet, but as the future for them is clearly going to be advertising-based reality television and sport they don’t want to put too much effort into actual programming either. Which is what makes shitshows like this so frustrating: if they really wanted to make a comedy show people would enjoy, they’d have run as far from this as they could.

The set looks like it cost five dollars, the movie facts are a half days work for someone with a working internet connection – seriously, an entire segment about iconic roles actors turned down? – and the panelists are… Paul Mercurio is on this so *makes vaguely disgusted confused gesture*. They even had a final “Speed Round” where the joke wasn’t that all the questions were about Speed! Jesus wept.

Nine’s started running promos for the return of Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation, which is pretty much the only successful Australian comedy quiz show since Spicks & Specks. Rove isn’t as good as Shaun Micallef but he is as good a host as Adam Hills, which suggests that perhaps the way to go with this show might have been to create a more intimate, messier, nerdier movie show featuring comedians and team captains that were actually real movie fans rather than just people who’ve seen movies.

But then they wouldn’t be able to have segments where they a): show the trailer for a new release movie, b): proceed to answer questions about what was going on in the trailer, then c): cut to Rove interviewing the star of the new release movie for all of 90 seconds while weirdly sitting alongside the star like they were both in the front seat of a car. Guess that advertising-based reality television future isn’t as far off as it seemed.

Still: officially better than Cram! Whoo-hoo.

Make us laugh, Sando

You know what, we’re getting a bit sick of watching the first episode of a new sitcom and just sighing. First Squinters, now Sando, a show with so many obvious problems in episode 1 that we’re wondering whether it will even be a television program by episode 6.

Sando

Where shall we begin…?

How about the fact that episode 1 contained just two actual gags? Which, for the record, were:

  1. The list of they-could-almost-be-real suburbs at the end of the Sando’s Warehouse ad (Boggabilla, Shuntsville, Mangwart and Fadgetown).
  2. That bit where Sando’s daughter welcomes everyone to her daughter’s birthday party and asks that the unvaccinated kids stay in the pen (which is an actual pen).

That’s two gags in a show that ran approximately 26 minutes.

But hey, who needs gags in a sitcom when there are great characters that you can fall in love with, like this is a dramedy. Oh wait, Sando had none of them either…

There’s the title character, Sando, a fun-seeming discount retailer who appears in her own cheap-and-cheerful television ads, except she turns out to be a lying cheat who habitually puts business above family, apart from when she’s sleeping with younger men. But hey, she’ll be heaps more endearing when she loses her business and has to patch things up with her family, right?

And the family, they’ll be hilarious, fully-rounded, laugh-generating characters, right? Well, there’s an idiot son, so maybe. But mainly, no. And apart from that, there’s Sando’s ex-husband, who just seems to be a guy in his 50’s who doesn’t have to work, and who’s, improbably, having an affair with his daughter’s best friend. And while there’s plenty of opportunities there for almost-getting-caught-kissing-type capers, it’s also somewhat Weinstein. Then there’s the daughter, who’s in therapy thanks to Sando sleeping with her fiancé and having a child with him, which, again, doesn’t seem that hilarious in the era of #MeToo (especially after the scene where Sando sleeps with a junior colleague she’s promised a promotion to).

But, hey, don’t worry about any of that, there are still those two gags we mentioned earlier. And, also, this was just episode 1. A sitcom doesn’t need to be funny in episode one, it’s where the characters and the premise are set up. No Australian sitcom is ever funny in episode 1. You wait until episode 2, that’s where the laughs’ll be at. For sure.

Vale Squinters

One of the many things that makes television reviewing such a disreputable profession is that television reviewers rarely have to stand by their judgements. Usually they review an upcoming show with some variation of the phrase “check it out, it’s worth a look” and then move on – some might say flee the scene – without ever having to face the consequences of their recommendations. Book and film reviewers at least cover the entire thing with their review, so if they decide to praise a turd they have no escape; television critics almost never bother returning to see if a show really was worth all that praise they ladled out.

Fortunately, Squinters was no good right from the start. And it was no good in a way that should have sent alarm bells ringing rather than having most Australian critics handing out the kind of fullsome praise that promises little and means even less. Previous car-based sitcoms at least focused on a handful of characters; with a cast in double figures and a run time barely double that, there was barely time for Squinters to set up sketch comedy jokes, let alone anything character-based. And then everyone was doing the exact same thing in every episode – driving to and from work – which meant all the sketches were the same.

It was a show seemingly designed to stymie any attempt to make it funny. Broader, sillier characters would have been funnier at first, then rapidly annoying over six episodes; more character development would only have been possible with less characters, and presumably the big names on the show – only they weren’t really names big enough to make this a must-see – were only doing it because it didn’t ask too much of them.

The list goes on. Driving to and from work is not funny; sitting next to someone in a car isn’t funny; traffic reports aren’t funny – and why were the traffic reports on Squinters played straight anyway? Who sat in the writers room and said “this show about people driving to and from work is only going to work if we make the experience of commuting as realistic as possible – only clearly none of us have ever commuted to work in our lives and the show isn’t about the actual real experience of commuting anyway so lets just bung in some traffic reports. Don’t make them funny though”?

When you watch a classic sitcom, one thing is clear: they’re trying to be funny pretty much all the time. Even the bits that don’t seem funny at first are setting up jokes for later on. With Squinters, a show so doggedly lacking in humour that referring to it in any way as a comedy is a breach of the trade descriptions act, the joke being set up was on everyone who watched it.

After all, they should be announcing a second series any day now.

Stand up and tell a story

Stand-up is the main route into comedy these days. Try naming a comedian who’s been well known in the past 10 years who didn’t start their career in stand-up. Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney? The Chaser team? Chris Lilley? Sammy J? Adam Zwar? Troy Kinne? It’s a short list*. And one that means that the dominant tenor of Australian comedy is that of stand-up, which sometimes makes for great comedy and sometimes doesn’t.

This year’s Tropfest runner-up was Rock Bottom, an animated short film by Nick Baker and Tristan Klein about two insects in a dive bar (played stand-ups Cassie Workman and Luke Heggie).

And while in many ways Rock Bottom is a well-made short film, its basic problem is that it’s a series of 30-seconds-or-so-long bits of barely-connected stand-up from Cassie, then Luke, then Cassie again, then Luke again, etc. rather than some funny, natural dialogue between two characters. We’re not saying some of it isn’t funny – it is – more that it doesn’t work as a film.

If you’re watching a film you expect a story, dialogue, character interaction, not seven minutes of the sort of thing that would appear between scenes on Seinfeld and last for 10 seconds. In Rock Bottom, Cassie and Luke aren’t speaking to each other, they’re just speaking into the air. Which would be fine if one of them was on stage speaking to an audience, but just looks weird when they’re supposed to be two characters interacting.

Conclusion: What works on stage doesn’t necessarily work on screen, even if you illustrate it with some good animation.

A far better and funnier attempt to bring stand-up-style comedy to a different medium can be found in Sarah Kendall’s Australian Trilogy, three 30-minute stories which have recently aired on BBC Radio 4 in the UK.

Based on Kendall’s past live shows (performed at MICF and Edinburgh), these are based on Kendall’s real childhood experiences growing up in Newcastle. This is the world of school bullies, cool kids, social pressure, weird teachers, and being too young to entirely understand what’s happening around you. These stories are funny, gripping and beautifully crafted. Two of the three can still be heard on the BBC website and they’re well worth your effort and time.


* And one we’re not entirely sure is accurate.

Who Let the Dogs Out

If you’ve heard anything about That’s Not My Dog! – and why would you, it’s an Australian film – it’s probably that it features a bunch of professional joksters and no script. Australian film is made without a script: now there’s a news flash. Fortunately it features both a barbeque and a literal truck full of beer otherwise we’d be confusing it with Godard’s latest effort.

To be fair, who needs a script, or even a story, when you have a concept this bloody good: Shane Jacobson and his dad (played by his real-life dad, who is actually pretty decent) invite a whole bunch of local comedians out to their homestead for a barbie, complete with the aforementioned literal truckload of beer. There is one catch: they all have to bring along their best jokes, which they then proceed to tell for the next 80 minutes or so.

It’s important to stress that none of this is actual stand-up comedy as we currently know it; everyone stands around and tells the kind of generic jokes you find in joke books piling up in op shops across the land. The film stresses the fact that these comedians are bringing the best jokes they know to this gathering, but going by the quality of the gags Jacobson might as well have told them to bring along an ouija board so they could summon up the ghost of Maurie Fields.

Back in the days when these kind of jokes were considered actual entertainment, even the most basic of joke-telling stand-up acts usually ended up giving away something of themselves through the jokes they chose to tell. Rodney Dangerfield’s act was pretty much a well-honed barrage of “I can’t get no respect” set-ups and punchlines, but a large part of why they worked was because through all that we got a sense of Dangerfield’s comedy persona as a put-upon loser. This is one step down from that. And that one step is off a cliff.

All we get here – aside from a few snipped of pub band-level live music and a whole lot of astoundingly blatant product placement – are basic jokes that anyone could tell, told by a range of comedy types – Jimoen, Steve Vizard, Paul Hogan and Tim Ferguson are some of the bigger names – who have no real personal link or connection to the jokes they’re telling. They’re decent enough jokes, so some are funny and some are not, but none of them are worth paying movie ticket prices to hear. In theory it might be worth it to see Hogan and Vizard and everyone else on the big screen, but… it’s not.

Which the producers seem to have figured out: this is screening around Australia for three days only – less than a day and a half to go at this stage – as a kind of “special event”. And maybe it’ll work; it definitely feels like the kind of film you’d want to see with a bunch of mates wandering in and out of the cinema at will (it’s not like you’re going to miss a plot twist) as part of a big night out, not sitting practically alone in a daytime cinema because you love Australian comedy just that much.

Not enough to see The BBQ though. Fuck that.

It’s a Numbers Game

Press release time!

Screen Australia has announced a slate of production funding investments including directorial debuts from acclaimed actors Rachel Griffiths and Guy Pearce, as well as new TV series for SBS, Foxtel, Channel Seven and one for Network Ten led by The Project co-host Peter Helliar. In total $7.4 million in funding has been allocated through the feature film, television and online production programs.

[blah blah blah]

Princess Pictures’ and Pablo Pictures’ eight-part comedy drama How To Stay Married for Network Ten, starring Logie award-winning actress Lisa McCune and comedian Peter Helliar, who has also co-written the script. It tells the story of Greg (Helliar) and Em (McCune) whose 13-year marriage is put to the test by a new job, an unexpected house guest, a redundancy and an experimental sex move. Produced by Jess Leslie, executive produced by Andrea Denholm and Emma Fitzsimons, and directed by Natalie Bailey from a script by Helliar and Nick Musgrove. This series has also been financed by Film Victoria.

[blah-de blah blah]

Screentime’s comedy Orange is the New Brown for Channel Seven – a six-part series that will reflect contemporary Australian life using one-off sketches, original and recurring characters and TV parodies. Produced by Jack Kain, executive produced by Johnny Lowry, directed by Hayden Guppy and written by Nazeem Hussain, Joel Slack-Smith, Sophie Braham, Richard Thorp, Penny Greenhalgh and Heidi Regan. This series has also been financed by Create NSW and is currently in production.

So, uh, it’s not all bad news? Actually, it’s all good news, as the Peter Helliar show isn’t exactly news and we fully support the idea of sketch comedy on the commercial networks. It’ll probably be… well, you’ve seen recent Australian sketch comedy, you know where the bar’s set. But it’s a numbers game: the more sketch comedy we make, the more likely it becomes that we’ll make something good.

If only we could say the same about Peter Helliar projects.

Hacking Through the Jungle

You have to feel sorry for the ABC. On the one hand, they obviously want to put to air the best possible Australian comedy. Obviously.

On the other hand, the best possible Australian comedy is heading overseas as quickly as possible because that’s where all the money, opportunities and fame are. Sure, there are still plenty of talented local comedians but who wants to risk putting untested talent to air? For that matter, who wants to risk putting tested talent to air? They might have the wrong ideas about what’s funny.

So you have to feel sorry for the ABC: they need a steady, reliable source of comedy they can largely leave to their own devices – if you work too closely with new talent it might look bad for you when their show tanks – but can deliver time and time again. And also aren’t The Chaser because they seem to have gone off the whole “comedy” thing.

Fortunately for the ABC, they have Jungle (formerly Jungleboys), the advertising production company that’s currently dominating the Australian sitcom scene in a fashion not seen since… well, ever. They first burst on the scene with a variety of low profile shows – Review With Myles Barlow being the stand out, but there was also the Sam Simmons projects Problems and The Urban Monkey – before pulling in steady work with the utterly forgettable The Moodys. Don’t think we forgot The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife-Fighting either: it’s a high mountain to climb to create the worst sketch comedy in Australian television history, but they gave it a darn good try.

(fun fact: reports from the set of Elegant Gentleman claim that the cast were re-writing – or even just writing – the sketches on the day of filming.)

Interestingly, even when Jungle isn’t busy creating primo Australian comedy, core Jungle members Trent O’Donnell (writer / director) and Phil Lloyd (actor / writer) are out there working solo putting their stamp on things. O’Donnell’s directed many of the last decade’s memorable moments, including the first seasons of Laid, Woodley, The Letdown, and even parts of The Chaser’s The Hamster Wheel because we’re all in this comedy business together, right? And Lloyd’s been one of the more noticeable faces in recent Australian comedy, as seen in It’s a Date, Laid, True Story with Hamish & Andy, Woodley, and At Home With Julia.

But it’s been in the last few years that Jungle has really taken off in Australian comedy. No Activity, Here Come the Habibs, Squinters and the upcoming Sando: that’s what, half of all the Australian sitcoms made over the last two years? Which is a kind of market domination we haven’t really seen before: there have been plenty of shows that have grabbed all the attention thanks to their quality, but this is the first time a group has dominated Australian television comedy through sheer quantity.

It’s even more impressive when you consider that they haven’t exactly been producing any real comedy highlights over these last few years. They make the kind of comedy that fills the gaps between the shows you actually want to watch, sitcoms that have people wondering “why can’t we make great sitcoms any more”. They’re not exactly bad shows, but you’d be a bit surprised if anyone told you that No Activity was their favourite sitcom.

Jungle’s success is a big reminder that for a lot of people involved in television production the quality of the end product is not quite as important as reviewers and commentators – like us – would like to think. Put another way, when it comes to getting work, being able to make a half hour program on time and on budget (especially if the budget is tight) is more vital than being able to make a hilarious program. And with the kind of pressure these executives are under, who can blame them for taking the safe route?

Apart from us, obviously.

Good Afternoon Adelaide

You expect good things from the writers of Mad As Hell. Mad As… has been the funniest show on TV for ages and much of that’s down to the writing. So it was with interest that we’ve been watching Good Afternoon Adelaide, a homage to and parody of local television from the 80s and 90s, made by and starring David M. Green, a writer for Mad As Hell (and the host of 31 Questions).

Made last year and released on Facebook and YouTube, Good Afternoon Adelaide is also currently airing on C44 Adelaide and C31 Melbourne. We haven’t caught the community TV screenings, but what you get on YouTube are clips from fictional show Good Afternoon Adelaide, hosted by uptight journalist Jeremy Dome and smooth-with-the-ladies businessman Norman Vine, the backstory being that the clips were recorded off-air onto VHS by a keen viewer and are the best of what remains of the show (the master tapes of which were wiped).

Good Afternoon Adelaide

As for the show itself, it’s everything you’d expect of local TV – cheap set, poor production, technical problems, bizarre local references, terrible hosting, guests which can most politely be described as “best available” – this should be a comedy goldmine. Problem is like the actual shows its parodying (SAS-7’s “legendary” A Touch of Elegance and its Anne Wills-hosted successor AM Adelaide) Good Afternoon Adelaide is a bit slow and dull.

On the real shows, things were slow and dull because the presenters had lots of time to fill and not much to fill it with, but here the problem seems to be that the comedy is improvised and not improvised very well. Occasionally, Jeremy and Norman will say or do something funny, but it takes an awfully long time to get there.

Good improvised shows, like The Trip, work because there’s been a bit of planning involved, the cast has a rapport and knows how to play off each other. That and the less-successful improv gets edited out. In the case of Good Afternoon Adelaide, there doesn’t seem to have been much editing at all. Apart from to make the picture quality look old and faded like it really did come from ageing VHS tapes.

Overall, we like the concept and appreciate the intent and attention to detail, but this should be a lot funnier. It’s also incredibly strange to see a comedy show made now that doesn’t feature any women at all.* What was going on there?


* It would also have been weird to watch a comedy show in the late 80’s/early 90’s that didn’t feature any women, an era in which we saw a female comedy boom with comedians such as Wendy Harmer, Jane Kennedy, Judith Lucy, Jean Kittson, Maryanne Fahey, Jane Turner, Marg Downey, Gina Reilly and Magda Szubanski regularly on our screens.

Squinters are Grinners

Well, Sam Simmons finally got to do a long riff about an animal, so clearly Squinters has run out of material with an episode and a half to go. Then again, this is a show that serves up pearlers like “Aah fuck, ya roses have punctured one of me sex dolls”, so Simmons delivering one of his trademark word salads about how his dog is like a pirate is a high water mark.

Five episodes in and this show couldn’t be more constrained if it was broadcast live from a coffin. We’re not just talking about the way close to nothing happened for the first four episodes then suddenly everyone had big important developments, because that’s just regular lazy sitcom writing. Guys, if we’ve watched five episodes, we don’t need shitty cliffhangers to get us back one final time.

Squinters might have “developed” from shows like No Activity and Car Share, but those were shows based on characters we’d spend the entire episode with. Turning the idea of car chat comedy into an ensemble show creates a very weird format if you think about it, which clearly producers Jungle didn’t: it’s a sketch show where all the sketches are basically the same, a character based comedy where the characters are barely two dimensional, a story-driven comedy where each story barely gets five minutes an episode and half of that has to be recap. Also: not all that funny.

Here’s a bet for you: we reckon if you showed up on the doorstep of the ABC Comedy Department with a script that featured extended discussions of dog’s balls, car air-conditioning, sex robots as “dildo’s with faces” and someone leaving a string of increasingly awkward answering machine messages in a joke that was only ever funny in the twenty year-old movie Swingers, you would not be given the green light to make a six episode half-hour sitcom. And yet, Squinters. Why?

The obvious answer – to the slightly more cynically minded at least – is that the short segment format allowed the producers to bring in some big crowd-pleasing names that otherwise wouldn’t commit to a more traditional (read: lengthy) sitcom filming schedule. Fair enough: who are these big names again? Sam Simmons and Tim Minchin aren’t exactly Hamish & Andy, let alone Hughsie & Kate or Kyle & Jackie O. If you’re going with a laugh-free format because it’s going to bring in the big names, you actually need to bring in the big names – not deliver a couple of comedy performers whose mainstream Australian appeal peaked five years ago.

What’s frustrating about Squinters isn’t that it’s not all that funny: that’s most Australian comedy and yes, we have seen the advertisements for Sando. It’s the feeling that whatever the producers were aiming for, “funny” wasn’t it. They went with an almost intentionally unfunny format so they could bring in the big names, then failed to bring in the big names. Why again was half of this filmed in LA? Oh that’s right: big names. Who were they again?

Obviously both Sam Simmons and Tim Minchin – plus Jackie Weaver in a brief cameo – are comedy performers people have heard of. But they’re not big enough names to carry a show when they’re only in the show for a combined total of seven or eight minutes an episode. It’s great that they’re on our screens, but when the format was designed almost entirely around them, we’re not exactly getting value for money here. And while everyone else here is good, they’d be better in a show that wasn’t this show, because this show was made so a couple of big names could film all their scenes in a day or two.

Presumably Squinters 2: Still Squinting will star Adam Hills and Jim Jefferies for 30 seconds each week. Good news: they’ll still be front and center on all the promo material.

Negative Stereotypes

Well, this sounds hilarious:

A Netflix comedy series written by Chris Lilley will be filmed on the Gold Coast, in what the state government says is a $6 million win for the local economy.

Ten episodes will be filmed between March and June this year.

Unfortunately no-one seems to know what the show is going to be about, so it’s safe to assume it’s just going to be Lilley riffing to camera about whatever mildly “shocking” subjects come to mind… like every other show he’s ever made. Don’t expect to see it any time soon either: the last time he aimed for ten episodes it took over a year of editing before it saw the light of day.

It’s slightly – but only slightly – refreshing to see that pretty much every report on this went straight to “man, Chris Lilley is racist af”. Hell, in at least one case they just straight-up led with that:

Comedian Chris Lilley is returning to the spotlight for the first time since he was widely criticised for posting a controversial video to his Instagram in 2017.

Lilley was widely criticized for the clip and faced fury from a number of notable names, including Indigenous duo AB Original last year after he shared a blackface music video for Squashed N***a, only hours after protests in Melbourne over the death of 14-year-old Indigenous boy Elijah Doughty.

“It took five years to get that credence to tell everyone that what he did was racist and fucking whack,” Briggs told The Music at the time.“It shows his disconnection from black culture, black politics and black people in general.”

Which suggests that unless Lilley has somehow totally reinvented his act – you know, the exact same act he’s been doing since the very start of his career – he’s pretty much fucked. Because while society may not have been completely stood on its head over the last few years, attitudes towards an upper middle-class white guy making fun of women and other races really kinda has.

He might be able to cobble together an audience from nostalgic fans and people who find trolling funny, but the days when Lilley could have it both ways – being seen as shining a light on social problems faced by underprivileged sectors of the community by some, getting laughs from wearing a dress and bunging on an accent by others – are well and truly over. Worse (for him), comedy has changed, and the idea of creating “comedy” by making audiences feel awkward by saying offensive shit is over now that we can get that for free from the internet.

So if dressing up as a woman for laughs is out, and dressing up in blackface for laughs is out, and dressing up as a teenager to hang out with other teens is out, and mocking minorities and the disabled under cover of “being confronting” is out, what’s left for Lilley to fill ten episodes with? And does anyone care enough to want to find out?