Double Take Take Two

Seven isn’t quite confident enough of this week’s new return to sketch comedy Double Take to send out full episodes to reviewers, but they have sent out discs featuring ten minutes worth of sketches to various media outlets and surprise surprise, one just happens to have fallen into our hands.  Okay, “fallen” isn’t quite the right word –maybe “hurled” is a better description of the way one media type discarded this particular slice of prime Aussie comedy.  And really, who could blame them?  It’s basically the usual mix of celebrity impersonations, TV parodies and more traditional gag sketches, and to be fair at first glance it’s a slick but colourless effort with some good ideas on display.  Which isn’t really that surprising when you look at the credits: there’s at least twenty writers listed (including Shaun Micallef’s regular co-conspirators Gary McCaffrie and Michael Ward and John Safran cohort Mark O’Toole), so someone’s bound to have had a good idea eventually.  But as anyone who remembers The Wedge knows, these kind of sketch shows are usually driven by the head writer and executive producer (most of the writers listed in the credits would have only sent in a sketch or two), and that’s where the real fun begins.

You see, there are two kinds of comedy shows: the ones where a bunch of funny people get together to put on a show, and the ones where a network decides to order up some comedy for their schedules.  The first group includes pretty much all the decent comedy of the last two decades, including Kath & Kim, John Clarke’s The Games, the work of The Chaser and Chris Lilley, and anything from Working Dog (Frontline, The Panel, Thank God You’re Here).  The second group mostly includes shows that were quickly axed or died lingering deaths in late night timeslots, such as The Wedge, Comedy Inc, and the ill-fated Let Loose Live.  And a quick look at Double Take‘s credits reveals that executive producer / director / co-creator David McDonald was a writer / producer on Comedy Inc for a number of years while head writer / co-creator Rick Kalowski was the head writer on Comedy Inc and the head writer on Seven’s short-lived (despite the presence of Chris Lilley) 2004 sketch show Big Bite.

So what we can expect here – especially as the cast are mostly inexperienced newcomers to TV comedy and therefore hardly likely to start throwing their own weight around – is pretty much Comedy Inc redux.  And no doubt this is a calculated move on Seven’s behalf: with shows like Thank God You’re Here and Talkin’ ‘bout Your Generation (not to mention The Chaser) scoring big with comedy, clearly they feel that the time is right to revive the old sketch formula of celebrity impersonations and advertising parodies, TV send-ups and restaurant sketches. Bloody restaurant sketches.

But while more Australian comedy on our screens is pretty much always a plus, let’s just look at the negatives for a moment. For starters, this isn’t a formula that has actually worked all that well since the glory days of Fast Forward / Full Frontal in the late 80s and early 90s.  The last decent sketch show this country’s produced – The Micallef P(r)ogramm(me), as if you didn’t know – featured almost no impersonations, no commercial / film parodies, and no send-ups of current television. That’s not to say the formula couldn’t work in the hands of people who believed in it or had something new to say, but after years helming Comedy Inc surely we would have seen some sign of it there.  And… nope.  Plenty of “hilarious” sketches involving a stuttering train saying “cunt” though.

On a more commercial front, didn’t anyone at Seven notice that this kind of manufactured comedy effort has failed time and time again in recent years?  Remember The Wedge?  Remember all two weeks of Let Loose Live? The Hamish & Andy Show? Even Big Bite, and that had Chris Lilley – that’s right, even with Chris Lilley playing Mr G it got the chop after the first series, which must say something about how popular this format is with audiences.  For the last decade this kind of thing has been snubbed by audiences at first glance, and while it’s easy to spot why, why give that information away for free?  Any TV execs reading this, feel free to email us. We’ve got PayPal accounts.

But wait a minute – didn’t Comedy Inc run for five seasons? Wasn’t there something like ninety hour-long episodes made?  Surely that’s a sign of some kind of success?  Maybe Seven had the right idea in hiring the brains behind Comedy Inc to run their new show – after all, they clearly made a go of their last sketch outing, right?

Uh, no.  Whether the execs at Seven fell for that argument or not who knows.  But what we do know is that for a large part of its run Comedy Inc was renewed not because Nine had any real confidence in the product – a product they kept shifting timeslots and dumping for weeks or months at a time before springing new episodes onto a clearly disinterested public, lets not forget.  No, Comedy Inc kept coming back because in the early and mid-90s Nine has a serious problem meeting its Australia drama quotas.  Seven and Ten had nightly soaps to boost their numbers, and Seven had a couple of prime-time dramas on the go as well, but Nine had nothing apart from McLeod’s Daughters, and that wasn’t enough to get them over the line.  A line, by the way, they had to get over as part of their licensing conditions.  And so, with Comedy Inc cheap to make, already up and running, and somehow classified as a drama (well, it sure wasn’t a comedy), Nine just kept on churning it out until they finally started producing the real stuff around 2007.

Of course, none of this is to say that Seven’s gamble won’t pay off.  But where pretty much all the hit comedies of the last two decades have offered us charm and insight on top of the jokes, Double Take gives us Paul McCarthy doing the exact same Kochie impersonation he did on Comedy Inc.  It wasn’t all that funny the first time: exactly what does Seven think has changed since then to make this a ratings winner?

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