Australian Tumbleweeds

Australia's most opinionated blog about comedy.

Pilot Week Day 5 – it’ll make you… um…

As suspected, Trial by Kyle was just Judge Judy hosted by fading media question mark Kyle Sandilands. Not surprisingly, it completely failed to hold our attention, had none of the spark of the original (where the original joke was that a real judge had to deal with this rubbish) and couldn’t even be considered comedy.

So it was shit: let’s move on.

Pilot Week Day 4 – it’ll make you wonder

Hey look, Kinne’s back!

And we mean that in the truest sense of the term, as Kinne Tonight is pretty much identical to Troy Kinne’s previous show on Channel Seven: there are traditional sketches, rapid-fire listical skits, a bit of live stand-up, the kind of harmless street prank that Hamish & Andy used to do, and plenty of Kinne himself being a knockabout decent bloke. If it ain’t broke, and so on.

Pretty much the only things new here are a couple of live sketches and an interview that’s mostly about asking embarrassing questions (the target is Rob “Milsey” Mills, so that’s fine). The opening sketch even features Roz Hammond from his Seven show; maybe it’s a hold over from 2015? Still, there’s always a sense throughout that we’re getting a peek into the way Kinne sees the world; there’s a fair bit of variety in the bits, but they’re all held together by a particular and distinct point of view.

The result is about as good a sketch comedy format as we’ve seen in this country in a long time. Unlike Skit Happens, which just felt like random scenes clumped together, this has a reason for existing as a show; with Kinne as host, there’s a decent hook to hang the show on, and his comedy voice gives it a tone that’s a lot stronger than just a bunch of things a writer’s room thought was funny.

And it’s not like he dominates the show either*; there’s a small sketch troupe that rapidly establish their own personalities, making it possible to throw in the occasional corpse or silly improv and have it feel like a bunch of mates messing around. You know – exactly the tone you want to have on a sketch show.

If only it was funny.

Kinne Tonight does everything right, but the material just isn’t there. The best sketches and moments get a laugh or two, but the worst – and there’s too much of the worst – just lies there. The opening “what if coffee orders reflected the wankers doing the ordering” sketch had good points but definitely needed tightening up, and that was a problem across the board.

Too many sketches felt like they’d thrown in every possible variation on the original idea when they really should have whittled it down to the top five (or three). Even with Kinne literally explaining the premise before the sketch about what it’d be like to have parents like the hapless dolts on infomercials, it was hard to figure out exactly what was going on there – it really needed to set things up more strongly in the sketch itself.

Kinne himself is a great host for a sketch show like this, and the cast were rock-solid too. The format mixed things up so the material always seemed fresh, and the tone was light without getting snarky or self-absorbed. Kinne just needs to find a comedy nerd to team up with who can polish up his material and push it over the top. There’s no point having the best looking car on the road if the damn thing won’t start.

*if anyone remembers Shaun Micallef’s old sketch comedy rule that whenever he’s the host on a show (and as such, has the superior status all hosting scenes – he’s running things) he always plays low status characters in the sketches, they’ll be pleased to see that Kinne follows that same rule here.

Pilot Week day 3 – it’ll make you cry

So was Taboo any good? That’s the wrong question to ask, and by wrong we mean offensive: as a show about the heart-warming struggle of a group of disabled people, we should be applauding the very fact they’ve made into on Australian television screens. But it does make it a little tricky to review… and maybe that’s the point.

As easily the most worthy of the Pilot Week line-up – unless you think rehabilitating Kyle Sandiland’s career is somehow a good deed – this one hour look at stand-up Harley Breen’s work interacting with four disabled people and turning their stories into stand-up comedy is the kind of thing we’d usually expect to see on the ABC or SBS. It’s positive, feel-good television even as it deals with people dealt a bum hand by life; while tears were not shed at Casa Del Tumblies, it’s not hard to imagine those with human feelings being deeply affected.

And the stand-up material is… not bad? It’s a bit of a cheat in a way; having seen where it came from (and feeling sympathetic towards the people he’s learnt from) puts a spin on the finished material that it definitely wouldn’t have had going in cold. But you know “I know where that came from” is just as good a reason to laugh at a joke as any, and the material isn’t exactly PC either; because we’ve seen Breen listen and treat the people whose stories he’s using with respect, he’s able to safely go in harder than he could if he was just some random guy going “ha ha, you can’t walk”.

But as the ABC and SBS have learnt over the years, this kind of material is pretty much review-proof: you attack the show and it comes off as an attack on the people in the show. Good luck making it to the border alive if you happen to think You Can’t Ask That is cheap TV pandering to mainstream curiosity rather than a show tearing down barriers.

So as hard-hearted bastards, pretty much all we have to say here is that at an hour long this does overstay its welcome. Basically, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry. At least Breen isn’t painting their fucking portraits.

Pilot Week day 2 – it’ll get you drunk

One of the big problems the Australian commercial television industry faces is that it’s small. There are plenty of perfectly good ideas for television shows that we could do decent jobs of, but they’ll never get off the ground because if you’re not a massive crowd-pleasing success you’re not going to be shown in prime time, and if you’re not being shown in prime time then there’s no way to make enough money from advertising to turn a profit. Wait, isn’t this a review of Drunk History?

Drunk History is a tried and tested international format in which comedians get drunk and then try to tell historical tales. The US version has a host who gets drunk with the guests; the UK version – and the Australian pilot – simply has the guest get pissed on their lonesome, which is slightly less chummy but probably cheaper booze-wise.

This version featured two stories: Stephen Curry talking up Ned Kelly, and Rhys Darby rabbiting on about Phar Lap. Unlike Skit Happens, money was spent: the re-enactments looked good, the cast in said re-enactments was relatively star-heavy (even the minor roles: Aaron Chen, Paul Fenech and Heath Franklin made brief appearances), and if you were thinking “ooh, looks like Ten wants their own version of ratings-smash True Story“, we wouldn’t disagree with you.

But was it any good? Well, yeah: both leads are likable guys so thumbs up there, Curry’s segment was pretty rambling but there was some decent material (who doesn’t love bad Irish accents, apart from Irish people), while Darby – who has a bit more experience on the improv side of things – came up with a few decent jokes (nice work busting out the horse incest material right at the top of the segment).

Of course, the real fun here is meant to come from hearing a couple of pissed blokes trying to tell a story and messing it up, but for the most part they both kept relatively on-topic, making this more like “rambling guy at a party chatting away history” than the kind of history that ends up with someone’s head in the toilet. Basically, it’s a successful overseas format they would have had to spend money to license, and the pilot was a polished piece of work: with the very similar True Story doing well in the ratings, giving this eight episodes is pretty much a no-brainer.

But does that mean it’ll actually do well at a time when Ten has publicly said they want to shift upmarket? Uh… well, maybe this could survive as a series if they could get a bunch of high profile names involved (and if there’s free booze, why not), but otherwise all this episode did was remind us that there are a lot of decent (and not so decent) comedy ideas out there that are just too inessential to survive as prime time Australian television shows. Remember Street Smart? Was that even on this week?

This was mostly funny, largely informative and on the whole well made; it’s easily the best of the Pilot Week shows to date. And if Ten had a decent comedy timeslot available – say, if they’d worked hard to make Sunday evenings a place where various Australian comedy shows were aired – this would definitely be a good fit. But they don’t. And without a lot of support, this is the kind of decent but unmemorable comedy show that dies on its arse in this country.

Still, it’s got a better chance on a commercial network than tonight’s Pilot Week entry Taboo: that’s clearly an ABC format that’s wandered way off the reservation.

Pilot Week day 1 – It’ll give you the skits

The caste of Skit Happens all smiling

Ten’s Pilot Week started with the ensemble sketch show Skit Happens and Sam Dastiyari’s Disgrace, in which the ex-politician and a panel analyse gutter journalism. And while the latter was a Gruen-style peek behind a curtain we’ve looked behind a number of times under our own steam, thanks, and Dastiyari and panel didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, Skit Happens was…yeah, actually it was like every traditional sketch show this country’s produced for ages. So, if you were expecting innovative new ideas and exciting talent from Pilot Week’s opening salvo, er, forget it.

Yes, that was Heath Franklin as a skateboarding Matt Preston. Because it’s seemingly impossible to make a sketch show in this country without parodying a popular show or personality via the medium of a lame high concept. Which means that we not only got Skateboarding Matt Preston but also a parody of Love Island but with desperate, single women competing for the interest of a cute fluffy cat, and a look into the life of a guy who’s Waleed Aly’s stand-by*. Stand-by Waleed, in case you’re wondering, spends all of his time in a “break in case of fire”-style glass box, waiting to be needed. Presumably, the box will be broken open and he’ll have his chance to shine in the final episode of the first series that Skit Happens isn’t getting.

Speaking of which…there were recurring characters too, or, given that this was a pilot, characters clearly designed to recur whether audiences embraced them or not. Enter Juan, the hot(-ish) Spanish fridge mechanic who can fix fridges by dancing to some sexy Latin beats and whispering sweet love to the afflicted white good. Or the Aussie backpackers driving a Combi van around Europe who have no interest in actually seeing the countries they’re visiting. Sure, we’ve all met people like the backpackers, but we never want to again. So by television logic, if Skit Happens gets a series we will. Every goddam week.

(what’s the difference between a good sketch show and a shit one? The good sketch show has sketches based on funny ideas; the shit sketch show has sketches based on “funny” characters)

Oh, and why is it that every single sketch in this show (and almost every other Australian sketch show made in the past 20 years) seems to go on for ages despite it containing just one (or less) comic ideas? Has anyone in TV ever considered that if they picked up the pace and gave that one idea the runtime it deserves (30 seconds or less), these shows might not haemorrhage viewers until they’re axed at the end of series one?

There are lots of problems with Skit Happens and sketch shows like it (and we’ll go into more detail about this when we’ve fully digested the full force of Pilot Week), but the basic problem here – apart from that it’s not very funny – is that there’s no reason for it to exist, let alone for viewers to tune in. The show isn’t built around any kind of over-arching concept or hook, and the personnel don’t seem to have a rapport or have worked together much so they haven’t developed a theme or a shared vision for what this show’s about. They’ve just created some characters and written some sketches and these are the least worst of them. Enjoy! Or not. Mostly not.

As for Disgrace… yeah, we’ve been there, done that, and it was hosted by Lawrence Mooney. But Unlike Dirty Laundry Live, this… actually, what did it do that was different from Dirty Laundry Live? Well, the entire panel was markedly less funny for starters. But surprisingly, they weren’t the usual faces, which gave it a couple points for novelty. And it desperately needed them, because a panel show discussing celebrity news is roughly 40% of Australian television once you factor in breakfast and morning shows and this did absolutely nothing to separate itself from the pack.

So yeah, this one’ll probably go to series. Just don’t expect us to tune in ever again.

* Just how bad was Skit Happens? We didn’t even laugh at the joke about Charlie Pickering’s shit-eating grin.

Now here’s… “Mr Black”

Sadly no, not this guy:

Here’s the scoop:

Stephen Curry is playing the curmudgeonly lead character who moves in with his daughter and her boyfriend in Mr. Black, a sitcom commissioned by Network Ten.

Created by Adam Zwar (Squinters, Wilfred, Agony) and co-written with Amanda Brotchie (Squinters, Lowdown), the eight-part series is being produced by CJZ and directed by Brotchie and Clayton Jacobson.

Nadine Garner (The Doctor Blake Mysteries, City Homicide) is Mr. Black’s estranged wife Rowena with Sophie Wright (Kinky Boots) as their daughter Angela and Nick Russell (Winners & Losers) as her sensitive, new-age boyfriend Fin. The other series regular is Paul Denny (Lowdown) as a character named Malcolm.

CJZ MD Nick Murray tells IF the idea for the sitcom came up while Zwar was developing another project with CJZ’s head of entertainment and comedy Damian Davis. The CJZ creatives loved the concept of the lead, a former sports journalist who insists on being called Mr. Black, being forced to move in with his daughter and her boyfriend due to ill health. Much of the humour turns on the fact that Mr. Black despises Fin and does all he can to try to break up the relationship.

Ten’s head of comedy Paul Leadon said: “It is a delight to be working with Adam and Amanda. They are an incredibly strong creative duo. Throw in Stephen Curry, Nadine Garner, an amazing cast, plus the team at CJZ and we have all the ingredients for a very special narrative comedy.”

Screen Australia and Film Victoria are investors in the production which is shooting in Melbourne.

The best part of these stories is always the origin of the idea, because while they don’t actually come out and say “we were laughing at this bit from The Simpsons and thought ‘lets do a show about this guy'” –

– we all know that’s pretty much what happened.

Because what’s the alternative? That Australia’s top comedy creatives “loved the concept” of a “very special narrative comedy” based around a “curmudgeonly lead character” making life hell for his more progressive offspring and her “sensitive, new-age boyfriend”?

You know, like Kingswood Country. A lot like Kingswood Country.

At least with our origin story they’re starting out with a show that was funny.

Dan Ilic’s Death Touch

Remember Tonightly?

Tom Ballard of Tonightly

Yeah, it’s been axed:

The ABC will not renew Tonightly with Tom Ballard beyond its final airing on 7 September. Attracting younger audiences requires bold approaches and we continually experiment with new content and new formats particularly on digital platforms.  We remain committed to exploring and developing projects that connect with different demographics.

Tonightly deliberately pushed boundaries to inform and entertain.  We are proud of the program and its role in supporting some of Australia’s best emerging comedy talent. Our thanks go to the very talented team members for their hard work and dedication in producing a complex and cracking show in quick time, over some 150 episodes. We look forward to working with them again in the future. A special thanks to Tom for helping us to laugh, cry and sigh about the world.

It is now time for a fresh approach. The ABC will continue to develop innovative content on broadcast TV and digital services, through comedies such as Back in Very Small Business and Get Krack!n’, and live shows such as the Splendour in the Grass TV special on Rage and the upcoming triple j One Night Stand and One Night Stand Up on ABC TV and iview.

Tom Ballard said: “Getting the chance to host Tonightly has been an absolute honour and privilege, even though we never got to be on Media Watch. I feel so proud of the ‘work’ we made and I feel so lucky to have been surrounded by laughter and stupidity for an entire year. My sincere thanks go to the brilliant Tonightly team, the ABC and the fans of Cory Bernardi.”

Whether you liked the show or not – on the whole we did, though it had its problems – this is shit news with no winners. Well, maybe The Weekly, as now a show made on a fraction of the budget and with a fraction of the time will no longer be twice as funny as it.

But c’mon, take a look at the “fresh approach” the ABC is peddling in their very own press release: the return of Very Small Business – which is great but was last seen back in 2008 – and a bunch of music specials promoting a radio station. You’d think Tonightly was an embarrassing failure being axed two weeks in rather than one of the ABC’s rare long-running comedy success stories – and even then touting these shows as a “fresh approach” is an admission that there is clearly nothing fresh about the ABC’s youth programming.

As for exactly why Tonightly has been axed… well, the whole ABC Comedy channel project must be under a pretty heavy cloud if literally the only local content made for it is getting the boot. As a local program made for a minor channel its survival was always going to be iffy; as an Australian comedy program made without overseas money its budget was always going to be marginal. And at the ABC, axing popular (or even just “popular”) youth programming in its prime is pretty much a tradition; bringing in the kids might be one of their goals, but you don’t see a whole lot of youth at management level. So maybe getting a full year was all we were ever going to get of Tonightly.

Or maybe it’s because the host had been under a cloud after indecent assault allegations and a recent sketch had gone out of its way to offend the kind of uptight people currently running the country. Hey, you just can’t help bad luck.

Is it OK to swear in comedy?

Greg Larsen in Tonightly

Remember that story six months ago about that Tonightly sketch that upset the Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield, Cory Bernardi and various others, and inspired several complaints to ACMA and the ABC? Well, late last week, ACMA cleared the show:

Today ACMA has found no breach by the ABC, noting the comedic context rather than being used for attack…

…Key to the ACMA’s finding was the target audience’s likely familiarity with the comedic style of the program, and its broadcast at 9pm with an MA15+ classification which allows for coarse language.

This was the sketch in question…

…or, if you can’t be bothered to watch it, here’s how TV Tonight summarised it

The ABC is under fire from the Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield after Tonightly with Tom Ballard showed a poster of an Australian Conservatives candidate with the wording “is a c**t.”

The joke from comedian Greg Larsen suggested the electorate of Batman be renamed “Batman is a c**t” due to founder John Batman’s links to the murder of Aboriginal people.

“We cannot shy away from the terrible things he did,” Larsen suggested.

Elaborating on his idea, to feigned objections from Ballard, Larsen showed mock posters of Greens candidate Alex Bhathal & Labor candidate Ged Kearney with the words “Batman is a c**t.”

But for Australian Conservatives candidate Kevin Bailey he noted, “This was an issue because there is no Batman anywhere on that poster, so I’ve had to put ‘Kevin Bailey was a c**t’,” Larsen said.

“Greg that is unacceptable; regardless of what you think of his politics that is completely beyond the ball!” Ballard replied.

Mitch Fifield said in a statement, “Candidates for elected office expect to be criticised and parodied. But this ABC segment clearly crossed a line, particularly given that it was directed towards an individual who has served his nation in uniform.

“Vitriolic abuse of this kind has no place on the national broadcaster and I will be asking the ABC to investigate. The ABC should also immediately offer an unreserved apology to Mr Bailey.”

Australian Conservatives leader Cory Bernardi has also reportedly written to ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie to complain.

…so, now that you’ve either watched the video or read the above summary, or both, do you think Tonightly crossed the line? Because we don’t. In fact, it was obvious at the time that it hadn’t, and that this was a beat-up by a bunch of right-wingers deliberately misunderstanding the sketch and piling-on it as a way to attack the ABC.

The joke wasn’t calling Australian Conservatives candidate Kevin Bailey a cunt, it was about calling John Batman a cunt. Context in comedy is extremely important and its good to see ACMA make a context-based ruling in this instance, even if, as ACMA pointed out in their ruling “the limits [of the context] were certainly tested by the program”.

Of course, whether the sketch was funny and a good piece of satire is another matter. Arguably, if you have to resort to calling someone a cunt – whether they’re a historical figure or a current aspiring politician – you’ve lost the argument. In this podcast (which is well worth your time) Shaun Micallef argues that swearing is something you should minimise in comedy, for a few very good reasons:

I’m protective of the power of those particular words…you want to keep your powder dry with those ones because they’re helpful words, beautiful words in the English language that still have enormous power, so you want to save them…my general rule is that if you can do without it then you do…if the end line of a joke is a swear word, and you take it out and there’s nothing there, then it’s probably not a very good joke.

Although it’s probably also true to say that this particular Tonightly sketch would have been less hard-hitting had it gone with a softer take like “Batman was a bastard” or a slightly more accurate term like “Batman was a genocidaire”.

… partly because almost no one’s heard of the term “genocidaire”.

True Dinks take 2

The not-so-surprise comedy success story of 2017, True Story with Hamish and Andy is back and operating on an equally unsurprising principle: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

So the set-up remains exactly the same: Hamish & Andy sit on a couch, a regular unknown person sits down across from them and proceeds to tell a classic story from their life that will – hopefully – entertain and amuse. It’s Drunk History without the booze or the learning, but with a fairly polished story that usually provides some laughs.

“It was a long time ago, and I was very young” is a great way to distance yourself from your bad behaviour. And so it proves to be in episode one, as a tale of trying to get out of poetry homework (having to come up with 24 poems is pretty steep, admittedly) in 1986 rapidly escalates thanks to one slack student’s refusal to admit her sickie is fake. Do we end up in a hospital heading for surgery? It’d be a short episode if we didn’t.

While all the old favourites are back, and by that we mean decent comedy performers in cameo roles – hey look, Rob Sitch as a rhyming poetry teacher! Mark Mitchell hamming it up as a doctor! Stephen Curry as a surgeon! – there’s a new twist or two as well. Having the re-creation change as the story-teller provides more or new information is an obvious way to get laughs and starting out the first episode with an example (our lead in the flashback changes as we’re told more about her look) suggests things might be a bit more flexible reality-wise this season.

(okay, we saw Hamish & Andy on breakfast television and they said there’s an episode coming up where the storyteller is a bit of a bullshitter and they constantly had to rein him in)

But otherwise this remains the kind of solid, unremarkable amusement that Australian television really needs to consider as the floor for broadcast quality rather than a high water mark. Hamish & Andy can get stories out of the public in their sleep after over a decade in radio, the stories themselves are good but rarely great (hey, at least they don’t have to pay writers for the ideas) and while the all-star casts are great the actors rarely get to do much more than turn up and get a recognition laugh or two.

The core problem is that this is a show that says that while craft and care should be lavished on every other aspect of the production – the production values are always first-class (just look at the range of locations!) – comedy itself can’t be crafted: you just ask random people for funny stories and use the best. And again, while these stories are good, we’re not talking about a halfway decent episode of The Games or Frontline here; given a fortnight pretty much anyone reading this could come up with a much funnier “real-life” story*, but that would defeat the purpose of the show. Which, following that line of logic, clearly isn’t to be funny.

Put another way, television comedy lives or dies in the writing, and this show doesn’t really want to use writers at all.

*anyone who says “you couldn’t make this stuff up!” deserves a slap. It’s the story of a teen girl who refused to admit her illness was faked, not Fawlty Towers.

Ow, that (Street) Smarts

Australian comedy isn’t exactly known for exceeding expectations. But with Street Smart – the new sitcom from the makers of Here Come the Habibs, with a fair spray of Fat Pizza and Housos DNA in there – it’s not like they could really do worse. These are shows where even the fans are laughing at them at least as much as with them, and even those laughs are becoming harder to find.

So here’s the good news: this time around, Tahir Bilgic and his crime crew are focusing on what they do best – not telling jokes. Or at least, not making a show that’s built entirely around telling jokes, and we can all be somewhat grateful for that.

The set-up of Street Smart is that four idiots want to commit crimes. But where most Australian sitcoms would then dig down into a bunch of barely amusing character stuff about each of them, recycling the same situations over and over again each week, Street Smart tries something different: the focus is on the caper.

Upon discovering that the local cop shop has a room full of confiscated items, the gang come up with a scheme to get inside, and… look, the whole thing ends with them stripping, then getting robbed in their underwear so don’t get your hopes up. And yes – *heavy sigh* – there is also a bunch of character stuff as well and it’s about as funny as you’d expect: men are stupid, women are pushy and also stupid. At least everyone’s a cartoon so no-one can get too offended.

But by putting at least some of the focus on their criminal scheme, there’s an element of “how’s this going to play out?” that makes this just that little bit more interesting to watch than you might think. It’s been a while since Australia made a sitcom with this much story; usually we’re happy with an ironic ending that makes it feel like everything we just saw was somehow linked. And while it’s not a great story, it does feature a string of events that flow semi-logically one after another to end with a character trapped in a prison cell talking to the toilet.

Look, let’s not get too excited here: almost all of these jokes are bad, the plotting isn’t exactly Ocean’s 11 level and the one big twist was just recently done in the now-showing New Zealand comedy movie The Breaker Upperers (which is well worth your time). But the combination of a halfway decent story and a whole lot of jokes – some of which do work: the fake cop outfits were funny, and “Trans Phats” is a halfway decent pun – means this is slightly less painful to watch than 80% of Here Comes the Habibs.

Then again, it seems Ten have decided that “Crappy Shows Don’t Work Anymore“, so this probably won’t be back next week.