If Bladerunner has taught us anything – and it hasn’t, though our memories of it sure did come in handy for getting all those late-series references to it on Newstopia – it’s that there’s nothing worse than an itch you can’t scratch. And because it’s increasingly obvious that it won’t be all that long before the itch that is The 7pm Project is scratched- in the racing sense of the term – it’s time to rub the soothing cream of hate into that nagging, irritating mosquito bite.
Or to put it another way: in the face of plummeting ratings (according to the Herald-Sun) why did anyone at Ten ever think The 7pm Project wouldn’t be rubbish? News-based comedy has been a rotting corpse in this country since The Gillies Report finished in the mid-80s, with Seven’s The Big News and The Late Report both dying relatively quick deaths and the ABC’s various efforts getting closer to success (CNNNN) the further they moved away from “news-based satire” (BackBerner). And let’s not forget Mick Molloy’s 2007 effort The Nation, which fizzled fast despite Mick’s tried and tested (and still present judging by his recent fill-in work with Dave Hughes on Melbourne’s Nova FM breakfast show) ability to get real laughs out of the shallow end of current events.
So why return to that tainted well? Well, for years now it’s been accepted wisdom amongst the not-all-that-wise that “the yoof” get all their news from comedy shows. And if you believe that particular line, then The 7pm Project’s approach of reporting actual news followed by supposedly pithy comments probably makes sense to you. But out in the real world, it wasn’t that “the yoof” were in any way watching comedy shows for the news content: they watched shows like The Panel, The Glasshouse, GNW and The Chaser’s War on Everything to get a laugh. The news content – such as it was – was only there to set up the gags (did anyone learn anything about politics from The Chaser’s pranks past “politicians are stuffy, so it’s funny to attack them with big props”?). Cranking up the news content the way The 7pm Project has done is getting things exactly arse-backwards, like a fifteen minute set-up to a supposedly Gen-Y friendly punchline that revolves around the fact that Malcolm Fraser once lost his pants.
But this wrong-headed reliance on straight-faced news wouldn’t be quite so bad if the show actually imparted some real information to its viewers. Unfortunately, The 7pm Project also suffers from a severe lack of confidence in its own material. Fair enough – most of it’s shithouse. But rushing through a pile of shit doesn’t make the experience any more pleasant. For a half-hour show – one that has suspiciously short ad-breaks (barely two minutes) so presumably Ten is having trouble getting sponsors – there’s an awful lot packed into The 7pm Project, and the rapid scurrying through guests, news items, Skype interviews, featured gag-crackers, Hughsey’s creepy stares, Pickering’s day-old one-liners, and Carrie’s blather gives the impression of some sweaty-palmed blind date who thinks if he doesn’t stop talking you won’t be able to tell him to bugger off.
Case in point: Dave “hughsey” Hughes. Calling his on-air persona simply that of an unfunny moron would be insulting to all other forms of multi-celluar life. Often described in general conversation as “agressively shithouse” for the way he not only won’t let other people talk but demands to talk over them with things far stupider than anyone else in the room would say, his act seems to consist entirely of saying inane but blokey things and then staring at the audience like someone had replaced his eyes with buttons Coraline-style. But those who can remember the dawn of Hughsey’s career when he was just someone a then-far more talented RRR Breakfasters radio team would call up to laugh at as much as with know there actually is a way to use him to get laughs.
Everyone knows Hughsey acts like an idiot, and that he says idiotic things: if you come up with a topic that’s bound to get Hughsey all riled up and then – and this is the tricky part – get him to shut the hell up for a second so the audience can imagine the kind of thing he’s going to say in response to this idiot-baiting topic, then chances are the audience just might giggle in expectation. Christ knows they’re not going to laugh at anything he actually says.
But on The 7pm Project, there’s no time for any of that. Instead we get Dave Hughes just blurting out such dazzling insights as “I don’t get what all the fuss is about with corruption – if I was in a position of power I’d make sure that I was taken care of”. Hilarious! And it’s what we were all thinking – well, that and “why can’t I just make his head explode by staring at him like they did on Scanners”.
That said, at this stage even if Hughsey fell under a bus live on air this show couldn’t be saved. Pickering is on his second high-profile daily gig of his career after being sacked from JJJ drive a few years back, and with his determination to cough out his gags even when the conversation has moved on he seems to be reverting to sack-friendly form. Having no chemistry, let alone overlapping interests, with Hughsey doesn’t really help either, but as this show was put together on the breakfast radio model having co-hosts who barely tolerate each other is par for the course. And in other news, Carrie Bickmore is just… there, some of the guest presenters are funny but they’re just cracking scripted gags in two minute chunks (often from interstate, which means they can’t respond to the audience and grind on over the laughs they’re getting in the studio), and as far as we can tell the rest of the show is clips off YouTube. Which, of course, you can’t see anywhere else.
The problem, as is usually the case with producer-led projects like this one, comes down to talent. The daily grind and the rubbish timeslot could all be overcome if there were some truly funny individuals behind the desk, a team with real chemistry, timing, and the ability to get a decent joke out of a news item and then move on. But this is a Roving Enterprises production: where are these funny individuals going to come from? Rove is going to give jobs to his mates, and as the host of a tonight show Rove isn’t going to have any mates who are funnier than he is. Well, he could – but in close to a decade of Rove, he sure hasn’t shown any signs of following the “rising tide lifts all boats” approach to team management. The funniest people in Australia would have struggled to make The 7pm Project work: when you’re working with a talent pool limited to people judged by Rove to be not as funny as Rove, you’re setting the bar so low you have to call Telstra first to make sure you’re not going to damage any underground phone lines.