Last Thursday Channel 10 looked across this great brown land and decided we all needed some cheering up. So they released the entire second season of Peter Helliar’s How to Stay Married on their streaming service 10Play. That wasn’t the part designed to cheer us up though – it was that they didn’t bother promoting it in any way before releasing it.
Now that we’ve seen a bit of it – and can confirm that it’s pretty much business as usual with the Butler family, which is to say if you’re a fan of bland family sitcoms that feature sassy little kids and bungling parents surely you’ve got plenty to choose from already – it’s tempting to suggest that this is 10’s way of dumping a stinker they have no real interest in clogging up their free-to-air schedules with. So very tempting.
But with our snark hats off (and those things don’t come off easily), it seems more likely that this (limited) online release is more about trying to drum up interest in a show that, to the best of our knowledge, did not set the world on fire with its first season. The free-to-air schedules are going to be messed up for months to come and while this is never going to be prime-time material, it’s still first run content. That’s got to be worth something.
Whether it’s worth your time is another question entirely. Episode one features an almost impressively low-stakes plot – the oldest daughter is having a cool friend over and she doesn’t want her parents embarrassing her, while the B story involves a turtle pissing on people – which is then used to set up a number of low-laugh situations. It’s a show that really relies heavily on the audience finding Peter Helliar charming, especially as for some reason Lisa McCune (who actually is charming) is still playing the unlikable one.
It’s hardly a dead loss, but where a lot of Australian scripted comedy feels like a dashed-off first draft, this feels polished in a way that’s even more dispiriting. It’s not like this show was aiming high and fell short: this is exactly what they were going for – a bland, inoffensive, colourless showcase for Helliar’s non-existent romantic comedy chops.
Just look at the basic comedy set-up: to avoid embarrassing their daughter, Greg (Helliar) is told to stop trying to be friendly, while Em (McCune) is told to stop constantly asking questions. Which trait is likable, and which is painful? It’s no spoiler to reveal that the episode ends up with the parents winning over the kids, but while Greg does so by – you guessed it – being friendly, Em does so by… recounting a teenage lesbian experience?
Shouldn’t the comedy come from the reveal that what the daughter wanted her parents to hide about themselves is actually what her friends find appealing about them? But then that would require Em to also have an embarrassing trait that was also kind of likable, and if both characters are likable then Em is obviously going to seem more likable because she’s played by Lisa McCune and suddenly it’s like “hang on, why isn’t she the star of the show?”
(also, wasn’t this supposed to be a sitcom about Greg struggling to be a stay-at-home dad while Em dealt with returning to the workforce? How does she have time to hang around the house on a weekday after school?)
Obviously that can’t be allowed to happen. Trouble is, while this is Helliar’s show – he created it, he’s the big name comedy star here – the role of a basically realistic daggy dad just doesn’t suit him. It’s a little unsettling that his best work comes in the opening scene where he becomes increasingly angry at his daughter for not coming out of her friends house; where McCune comes across as someone stressed entirely due to circumstance (and poor scripting), Helliar here seems like the kind of overly jolly knockabout bloke you’d always be just a little wary of. Let’s put it this way: the scene where he faux-sinisterly clubs a bag of ice with a cricket bat is probably his funniest moment of the episode.
You can go a long way in Australian comedy if you’re a white guy who keeps on saying you’re just a wacky regular bloke. It doesn’t matter if it’s clearly not true – wacky regular blokes don’t get their own sitcoms. But without that essential charisma, eventually the fun guy mask starts to slip: this is one relationship where the thrill has most definitely gone.
Humanity has always needed a laugh. Even our monkey ancestors probably had one or two amongst them who would stand-up, while everyone else was sat around the fire of an evening, and bust out a tight 10 about how there’s always someone in every camp who can never be relied on to light a fire properly. You know what I’m talking about, right? Seriously, what is the deal with those guys?
And so, in these times, which people are so fond of reminding us are “extraordinary”, comedy carries on, via Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp or just the good old-fashioned telephone. And TV and radio programs, podcasts and YouTube videos continue to be made even as much of the world’s population is social distancing.
At first, it was just a few older celebrities going a bit nuts in their homes:
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Now, proper radio and TV shows are coming to you live from the hosts’ living rooms.
The team behind Triple M’s Kennedy Molloy have been broadcasting from separate places for at least a week now, desperately trying to put out a good show even as Triple M’s parent company faces problems as a result of the drop in advertising dollars. In Friday’s episode, Molloy and Kennedy seemed almost in tears during the end-of-show live read, almost begging new sponsors to come on board and keep them on air.
[SIDEBAR: As much as it’s difficult to feel sympathy for commercial radio after all these decades of crap music and even crapper content, the people who work at organisations like Southern Cross Austereo are real people with families and mortgages, so we wish them well.]
What has been interesting about this crisis, though, is how good a show can be even with everyone working in separate places and sounding a bit weird. Good comedy comes from good ideas and good chemistry, and the idea of Molloy and Kennedy ringing up some of Australia’s older comedians – Glenn Robbins, Denise Scott and Tom Gleisner – and seeing if they’re okay was a great one.
There’s also plenty of other interesting Australian comedy stuff happening all over the place as a result of the shutdown, which we’ll write about over the coming weeks. But, for now, here’s a quick shoutout to the podcast A Rational Fear, which had the very good idea of inviting comedians who’d had their Melbourne International Comedy Festival shows cancelled to come on and perform five minutes.
And who knows, maybe this time of crisis will force other innovations and format changes that will improve comedy in the future. Plenty of other organisations are changing rapidly, such as schools and universities, who after several decades of pissing about not delivering online learning, have finally been forced into making lectures and classes available on the internet.
So, how will comedy change? Here are a few predictions:
In short, a new comedy golden age, springing up in the toughest of circumstances, could be with us soon. To survive the coronavirus, comedians and content providers will have to be innovative, brave and funny. And for those who can’t? Well, there’s only one thing they can do: get a job in a supermarket or down the local toilet paper factory. They’re doing pretty well right now.
The good news is, Australian television comedy continues today exactly as it would have if a lethal pandemic wasn’t killing thousands across the globe. The bad news is, Australian television comedy continues today exactly as it would have if a… you get where we’re going. Unlike live comedy, there’s been no wave of cancellations across the comedy TV schedules: this grim wasteland was always in our future.
Of course, some shows deal with it better than others. If you thought Hughsey We Have a Problem couldn’t seem more irrelevant you haven’t been watching the news of late: everyone now has a really big problem and if Hughsey has the solution he’s keeping it to himself. Still, it could be worse: it’s a great show when the news is bubbly and light, but is anyone really looking forward to twenty-something weeks of all death-toll news coverage on Have You Been Paying Attention?
The upside is, of course, Mad as Hell, which turned up for its second week of no studio audience ready to rock. More pre-recorded sketches unrelated to the current news seemed to be the main answer to “how will they cope?” (though the final sketch about Simpson’s donkey was at least slightly related to the news of Australian troops in Afghanistan committing war crimes), though interestingly there seemed to be slightly less of the dead air after Micallef’s desk jokes this week.
Are we just getting used to it? Or is Micallef using tiny bits of non-essential business – small movements, a brief linking phrase, etc – to do the same job of giving people room to laugh but without leaving a gap of dead air for the viewers at home? This is the kind of thing you fixate on when the only other option is to re-read the TV guides half-hoping that Ten has bunged on repeats of How To Stay Married.
Fortunately for both us and Mad as Hell, the show’s news format is elastic enough to cope with an extended period where the news is a): basically the same week after week and b): not really that funny. No doubt the current crisis is making everyone’s job a lot harder, but the show itself can pivot fairly smoothly away from direct news coverage to looking at a wider range of topics without turning into something else entirely. Which we’re assuming The Weekly is going to have to do – after all, how are they going to keep on dragging around the corpse of Hard Chat if Gleeson has to stay two meters away from his guests?
(oh yeah, Skype. Fuck.)
But that’s just another part of the grim future that lies in store for us all. For now, real questions remain. Like does anyone else think the PM decided to hold his big “here’s how it’s going to work” press conference at 9.30 on a Tuesday night specifically so it’d be too late for Mad as Hell (which is recorded Tuesday evening) to make fun of him?
Mad as Hell without an audience? How’s that going to work?
As it turned out, pretty well. Which should have come as no real surprise considering Shaun Micallef did roughly the same show without an audience for years (that’d be Newstopia, by the way). Obviously the situation wasn’t ideal, but these days what is?
(also, why isn’t Newstopia available anywhere? There’s more than enough gold there for a brilliant best-of collection. Does no-one remember Inspektor Herring?)
One of the big problems with Micallef’s best, yet sadly dismissed by many (including the man himself) sitcom Welcher & Welcher is that it really needed – but did not have – a studio audience. The show’s one major flaw was that its joke-heavy structure required Micallef and the cast to pause slightly after a laugh line (so the viewers at home were able to chortle), which sapped the show’s energy.
Likewise with Newstopia, which was packed with quality sketches and pre-recorded bits, but often felt slightly stilted when it came to the show’s meat & potatoes: news gags delivered by Micallef from behind a desk. Again, the problem was the death pause after a joke. Micallef’s style of performance really does require that kind of “huh, geddit?” moment after he delivers a zinger, but without an audience actually laughing the silence tends to – again – sap the show’s energy a little.
So how did Mad as Hell get around that? To be fair, it didn’t always: some of the early to-camera bits felt a little bit rough. Partly that’s a result of MaH‘s busy format: it could be argued that Newstopia did better with the to-camera stuff because there Micallef just delivered it straight, while with Mad as Hell there’s usually jokes working on a number of levels (the joke photos & captions, Micallef’s performance, the script itself), and it’s the audience’s laughter that ties it all together.
But that’s a minor quibble when a show has material this strong. Micallef often does his best work when he has someone to play off, and much of MaH is structured to give him exactly that, whether it be interviews, “audience” questions, or his own befuddlement. Yes, the actual audience has that role too, but he did an admirable job without them.
And seriously, who’s watching Mad as Hell for the audience anyway? Whether it was the bulky laugh machine, the return of Curiosity Cul-de-Sac (updated for the Stateless generation), everyone playing up to possible home viewer Tom Hanks or just Micallef washing his hands, it remains prime hilarity even after eight years, eleven seasons and a viral plague sweeping the globe.
That said, fingers crossed this whole coronavirus thing is somehow magically over and done with in the next month. We’re not that fussed about not leaving the house or society collapsing or dying or anything – we just don’t want to see hot virus takes served up by The Weekly.
Another season of Black Comedy is over, and by all reports it’s not coming back. How will sketch comedy survive? Supposedly Kinne Tonight is coming back later this year, so looks like it’ll struggle on for a little while yet until someone decides it’s time to revive Fast Forward one last time.
But we came to bury Black Comedy, not praise it. We gave it plenty of praise (by our standards) earlier this year when it seemed fresh and new and not yet another sketch show that kept repeating the same sketches over and over. Sure, Black Comedy at least mixed it up a little, coming up with new ideas each week. And they put real effort into their sketches: the To Kill a Mockingbird parody this week was especially well done.
Unfortunately, it was also a sketch where the joke was some fancy white restaurant had made a “deconstructed bully beef” meal, and while it wasn’t a bad joke, it wasn’t really enough to hang such a lengthy sketch on. Which was often the problem with Black Comedy; the longer the sketch, the thinner the material turned out to be.
That’s disappointing because, all snark about Kinne aside, both it and Black Comedy have made some good first steps towards making Australian sketch comedy less of a joke. Both shows seem to have largely figured out that a decent idea is worth maybe a minute of airtime before you have to do something with it – and if you don’t have any idea what to do with it, move on.
So while Black Comedy did start to get repetitious after a while, at least it only repeated the sketches based on characters rather than concepts. The sketches that went on too long were at least usually broken up into segments, and each segment had at least something going on beyond “we’re still doing this”. There was a clear point of view to most of the sketches too; if you’re going to make a point, it helps to have a clear one in mind.
And the cast seemed to be enjoying themselves, which is more important than a lot of sketch shows seem to realise; a lot of the shorter, sillier ideas worked because they were clearly just piss-farting about.
Okay, maybe we did come to praise Black Comedy a little. It had probably worn out its welcome, but at least it didn’t overstay it.
Press release time!
Amazon today shared the first trailer for ten Australian Amazon Original stand-up specials that will be coming to Prime Video in Australia and around in the more than 200 countries and territories. The roster of award-winning and nominated comedians includes Lano & Woodley, Zoë Coombs Marr, Judith Lucy, Tommy Little, Anne Edmonds, Tom Walker, Celia Pacquola, Dilruk Jayasinha, Alice Fraser and Tom Gleeson. The Australian Amazon Original stand-up specials are produced by Guesswork Television and were filmed in Melbourne at the Malthouse Theatre.
The Australian Amazon Original stand-up specials is exclusively coming to Amazon Prime Video from April 10, with two specials being released each week over a five week period.
That’s actually a pretty impressive line-up – kudos to Amazon for having the
cash nous to put together a pretty decent snapshot of the top tier of local stand up. And Tom Gleeson.
Networks doing a series or two of stand up specials are nothing new – Stan had their “One Night Stan” season a few years ago, and before that ABC2 did two seasons of The Warehouse Comedy Festival. But they’re always handy to have around; stand up is one of the few areas left where Australian comedians can really do their own thing for an extended period, and putting their work on television is a reminder of how most of the rest of our televised comedy really is pretty dull.
Especially if you’re watching Tom Gleeson.
The web series How to Know If You’re Dating a Narcissist was one of five shows given funding by Screen Australia in November 2018. Amongst the other shows announced were Content and Sarah’s Channel, which weren’t exactly amazing. So, is How to Know If You’re Dating a Narcissist a better show? Er, sort of.
We say “sort of” in the sense that while it’s not super hilarious, it’s the kind of show that’s pitched well to the sort of audience who could gain a lot from watching it: teenagers. How to Know If You’re Dating a Narcissist is a no-holds-barred and informative look at manipulative boyfriends*, without feeling like the sort of preachy videos you get shown at school in sex-ed classes.
Spread across six 4-minute episodes, and available on YouTube, How to Know If You’re Dating a Narcissist shows Kristy enact scenes as a woman in love with narcissist Derek (played by Septimus Caton). Derek starts out as the perfect boyfriend, declaring his love for her, booking them a trip to Paris, moving in, and then he turns bad, taking money from her, belittling her, trying to come between her and her closest friends, becoming paranoid about her relationships with other males and even trying to stop her from eating pasta as she’s “getting fat” (she isn’t). This is intercut with analysis of what’s happening from Kirsty and tips for spotting and surviving a narcissist – including an entire episode on how to break up with one.
It’s funny, Kristy and Septimus are brilliant in their roles, and it comes from real-life experience, as Kristy self-describes as a survivor of multiple narcissistic boyfriends. We also like Kristy’s ability to make Derek go to sleep at the click of her fingers (and wish we had that power sometimes).
Finding these videos on YouTube isn’t easy if you search by title, as there are multiple other, more serious takes, on this subject – so here’s a link – but with #MeToo continuing to play out, this remains a highly topical.
You might argue this isn’t strictly a comedy, and that’s true, but it beats the hell out of Content, which started out okay but quickly fizzled out, and Sarah’s Channel, which wasn’t exactly the most hilarious show ever. How to Know If You’re Dating a Narcissist gets points from us for providing a public service and being funny. Something which isn’t easy to pull off.
* Although the advice could apply to a dreadful partner of any gender identity
It’s taken us a while to get around to talking about Josh Thomas’ new series Everything’s Gonna Be Okay because… well, for a lot of reasons really. For one thing, the disconnect between what we see when we watch Thomas on television and what everyone else is telling us they see is currently so great we started to worry we’d finally gone off the deep end.
This was cutting edge comedy? Sure, when we tuned in we saw a show that made us laugh and cry – but our reasons for those reactions just didn’t seem to line up with anything we were reading in the reviews. Especially as they didn’t seem to mention “throwing things at the screen” at all.
Thank goodness then for Esquire magazine, which recently ran a piece titled Josh Thomas Built His Cult Following By Not Overthinking a Single Thing. If you’re like us, then a): we’re so sorry, and b): you might be thinking “hang on, is that title meant to be a good thing or a bad thing?”
“I want them to choose me for me,” Josh Thomas says not long after stepping inside the butterfly conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. We’ve just been greeted by a greying volunteer with one palm-sized butterfly resting on his cheek and another feasting on an orange slice in his hand, and we’ve made it our mission to get butterflies to land on us, too. How hard could it be?
In 2020 everyone has a pretty good idea how these kind of stories work. Thomas is doing an interview to promote his new show (and himself), Esquire is running the interview in the hopes of attracting Thomas’ fans to their site and/or magazine, and as both parties want roughly the same thing – to make Thomas look good – then the actual point of reading the article is… well, you do the math.
So unsurprisingly this is full of praise for Thomas. Or is it?
Each episode [of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay] is named after an insect that appears in it, from blue death-feigning beetles to giant Asian mantises. The show even has a researcher who provides the writing staff with a dossier of insect fun facts. There’s a perfect metaphor in there—fragile people taking care of fragile things they don’t totally understand—but Thomas admits to putting little thought into it. “I hooked up with this boy and wanted to see him again, but he was leaving to go into the forest to learn about grasshoppers for six months,” he explains. “I thought that was very charming, so I stole it.”
So Thomas doesn’t put much thought into his own show? Surely there’s a more flattering way to put that? “Thomas flies by the seat of his pants”? “Thomas takes his inspiration from the moment”?
Thomas has floppy, sandy-blond hair, deep laugh lines when he smiles, and a borderline-cartoonish voice that makes every vowel a little treat.
Yeah, describing your subject as wrinkly with a cartoony voice is… well, accurate. But not exactly flattering.
To be fair, there are plenty of legitimate compliments here, many of which we’d disagree with.
His portrayals of characters with anxiety and bipolar disorder, many of whom spend time on screen in a mental-health facility, were so judgement-free and melodrama-averse that even the show’s heaviest episodes felt like a balm.
Or they felt like the work of a scriptwriter who didn’t know how to create drama so he ended every season of his show with someone dying (or almost dying)? But as this article says:
Accordingly, he makes television like someone who never learned how: Consider a standout episode of Please Like Me in which Josh and his friends debate whether to kill a pet chicken named Adele that turned out to be a loud rooster, not a hen, then finish the episode with a surprisingly moving singalong to Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Success and a little stubbornness have allowed him to keep making choices even he can’t believe he gets away with—like a surreal drag sequence that interrupts one episode of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay and has nothing to do with, well, anything.
Which does lead to paragraphs like this:
Thomas is a little anxious about how viewers will receive the show’s sixth episode, which features a provocative storyline about autism and consent. But that’s not the part he’s worried about—he’s actually concerned with the episode’s unrelated third act, in which Nicholas and his boyfriend, Alex (Adam Faison), go on a poorly timed vacation to Mexico and get into a fight after Nicholas flips a plate of ceviche over Alex’s head. It sounds dumb, but it works
We’d agree with the first part.
You don’t even have to read between the lines here to get a picture of someone putting together a show based largely on whims and quirky notions. More power to him: it’s brought him this far. But when he says stuff like this:
“That’s the big fight I always have now with every executive: They want me to drive plot more,” Thomas says. “But I don’t really like plot. I just like hanging out with characters.”
It does seem fair to ask: does anyone actually like Josh’s characters? We’ve gone on before about how Thomas’ character in Please Like Me seemed to confuse most reviewers as far as likability goes: his character in Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is, circumstances excepted, basically the same.
And if you thought maybe his character was starting out that way in order to grow and change? No.
Indeed, there are probably Bravo reality programs with more scripted content than Thomas’ shows, where the big life events are often just a formality and the episodes can feel like loose vignettes stitched together.
Character development is similarly moot. In Thomas’ universe, nobody really changes or grows up. That he even named his show Everything’s Gonna Be Okay feels like a sly joke, as nothing ever seemed to work out in Please Like Me. Characters who struggled with illnesses didn’t always get better—sometimes they died out of the blue. Couples who seemed like relationship #goals broke up the day they moved in together. Just about everyone ended up back where they started by the series finale.
So let’s recap: Thomas makes shows with no plot where characters don’t change. If you think you’re reading meaning into events, you’re almost certainly wrong. He puts little thought into his show and makes television like someone who never learnt how.
it just felt nice, and sometimes that is enough.
Gee, wonder how that show’s going as far as pulling in viewers?
Well, it certainly seems to have found its level.
Again, to be fair, it’s not the worst rating show on its US network (it’s currently equal worst with s4 of The Bold Type). And all the press Thomas has been doing of late might bring in a few extra viewers. But considering he’s lost over half the audience that tuned in for week one – and aside from a bump in week four, they don’t really seem to be coming back – you’d have to think that there’s not a whole lot of room for improvement.
There are plenty of reasons why a network would want to be in the Josh Thomas business; ratings have never really been one of them. Obviously he pulls in a lot of critical praise, and for a low profile network – or just one that would like a touch of class – that might in itself justify having him around.
When it was announced, nearly everything about Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, from its Disney-owned cable network to its subject matter, suggested ambitious career moves on Thomas’ part… So why Freeform, currently trying to shake off its “family channel” reputation?
You’ve got to love it when a question answers itself.
It’s probably fair to say that Black Comedy is a variable program. For every good sketch about black/white relations or deadly aunties, there seem to be a fair number which need some work.
The sketch which came to dominate Wednesday night’s episode is a case in point. A grandson and grandmother run out of Bushell’s during a worldwide tea shortage and embark on a quest to find their next cuppa. Along the way, they discover the dreadful things that the “tea-pocalypse” has made people do before eventually realising the true horror of the situation: they must do the same.
This sketch, which was a beautifully made and well-acted pastiche of almost any recent apocalypse/dystopian film you can name, sadly, had one just joke. Which was that some people had run out of tea. We realise that’s more jokes than Josh Thomas has ever put into an entire series (our review of Everything’s Gonna Be OK is coming soon!) but it’s still not good enough.
Sketch comedy is tough – and it requires a lot of ideas to fill six half-hours – but dwelling on just one comic conceit is a bad idea. A better sketch in Wednesday’s episode was the one set in a café, where a white waiter makes a jokey but potentially-aggravating gag about black coffee to an indigenous customer, and then has a minor breakdown in which he questions whether he’s racist or not. As the waiter starts to question his initial comment, he then starts questioning his subsequent thoughts, each thought piling on top of each other until it ends in a sort of mental explosion of racism. It was a very good sketch.
Generally speaking, Black Comedy is on safe comic ground when it tackles white/black relations and plays on the tensions and conflicts. Last week’s key party sketch included a fair number of decent gags on this subject, mostly concerning the white men claiming not to be racists when they purposefully selected the keys belonging the white women. Another sketch in this week’s episode was in a similar vein: a white husband walks in on his white wife just after she’s finished having sex with an indigenous man and desperately tries not to make this a racial matter. “We stole your land so you might as well steal your wife”, he unconvincingly suggests.
We love sketch comedy here at Tumbleweeds Towers and wish there was more of it on TV. And the problems in Black Comedy are far from unique to Black Comedy. Even with a decent budget, a talented cast and a big team of writers, it all comes down to the quality of the material.
What we’d like to see, generally, is a move away from putting to air sketches which contain just one joke or comic idea. Just because they’re short, it doesn’t mean that sketches can’t change and evolve within themselves, ending up as something very different to how they started out. It is a comedy after all, where anything can happen.