This week sees the last episode of Channel Seven’s sketch series Double Take. Unlike its former stablemate, the Ed Kavalee-hosted TV Burp, there are no calls for a second series, or rumours that it may return re-jigged for a new timeslot, or whispers that the stars may go onto other projects, or flat-out lies that it wasn’t anything but a big fat flop. It’s dead. Which should come as no surprise, as it was pretty much born that way.
Australian television has a pretty good history of putting on shows that no-one demanded then acting all surprised when they fizzle out, but old-style sketch comedy – and by “old-style” we’re talking about basically building a comedy assembly line out of various writers and actors with no track record of working together – hasn’t worked in this country for well over a decade now. Seriously, if you wanted to make a show that people would watch, would you choose to follow in the footsteps of the following: Totally Full Frontal; Big Bite; Eagle and Evans; Comedy Inc; Skithouse; Let Loose Live; The Wedge; Flipside; BackBerner; and The Ronnie Johns Half Hour?
Some of these shows struggled into second seasons – Comedy Inc ran for years thanks entirely to Nine’s need for cheap local content – but none captured the public’s imagination in the way that even a struggling reality series or crap police procedural can manage with no effort at all. Some of those shows were even halfway decent: for all the snark directed here at The Ronnie Johns Show, in its second series (once you ignored the desperate attempts to stir up controversy by religion-baiting and the completely pointless Chopper sketches) it had more than its fair share of decent sketches. But that was the best of a very bad bunch (some of Chris Lilley’s Big Bite work aside): so why return to the shitty well for Double Take?
It’s almost as if there was no-one working in Seven’s programming department who could remember further back than 2007. Before then, sketch comedy’s long, slow demise was common knowledge, hence Seven’s last two efforts – The Hamish & Andy Show and Let Loose Live – brought something new to the table. H&A featured Hamish & Andy doing basically everything that’s made them superstars today inbetween rubbish sketches from the Big Bite team – that’s right, people hated the sketches so much that even Hamish & Andy couldn’t make up for them. As for Let Loose Live, it’s fantastic innovation was that, er…it was done live. Live sketches were cutting edge in 1960; in 2005, not so much.
Double Take didn’t even get the crap sketch show basics right. Where were the arse running gags? Where were the re-occurring but completely annoying comedy characters? Even The Wedge managed to come up with a couple – notably Rebel Wilson’s stalker schoolgirl and Jason Gann’s sportsman Mark Wary – that were semi-successful. Wary got his own spin-off and Wilson ran that fat chick act into the ground for a few years; Double Take, on the other hand, gave us Paul McCarthy’s Kochie,(recycled from Comedy Inc) and… that’s pretty much it.
The thing is, Double Take wasn’t appallingly bad. Compared to some of the recent sketch shows – large chunks of Flipside, the first series of Ronnie Johns, the second “adult” series of The Wedge – it was actually halfway decent. The musical parodies were mostly crap and McCarthy was given way too much time to ramble on with his limited range of impersonations, but the shorter sketches usually got the job done. Heck, if the show had featured some likeable personalities in the roles they might have even got a laugh.
And personality was the missing ingredient here. For better or worse, these days people want to watch personalities on television. And by “these days” we mean since about 1958, as even a brief glance at the recent DVD release of Graham Kennedy’s Coast to Coast (featuring plenty of old B&W sketches from Gra-Gra’s early days, in which having fun is waaaay more important than looking slick) will reveal. As will summoning up memories of the sketch shows that have worked on Australian television since the late 1980s: The Late Show, The Micallef P(r)ogram(me), the parts of Fast Forward where Steve Vizard corpsed, and… well, that’s pretty much it.
What they all have in common was that they gave viewers a sense of the people behind the performances. On The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) it was a false sense thanks to the combination of “live” in-studio segments and pre-recorded sketches, but as it’s the best sketch show made in this country since forever we can cut it some slack there. Sketches on The Late Show looked like what they were: a bunch of mates piss-farting about, and during the times when the writing didn’t quite cut it the slap-dash performances gave it a charm and a light touch that kept you laughing.
Perhaps if Double Take had been less slick and polished and more the product of a team with actual chemistry, maybe it would have worked. Or maybe not: Ronnie Johns came from a established team and it failed, while TV Burp piled on the cheap gags at the expense of polish and it got the chop too. And polish is always going to be tempting to TV producers – unlike funny, polish is something pretty much anyone can do.
(fun fact: The day Fast Forward started getting praise not for being funny but for having ad parodies that looked like the actual ads was the day that sketch comedy died in this country.)
Until someone – that is, someone with actual proven audience drawing power, be it Hamish & Andy, Shaun Micallef, Chris Lilley or the ghost of Graham Kennedy – comes up with something really special that just happens to involve sketches, the format is going to continue to cough up duds. After well over a decade of rubbish sketch shows stinking up the place, there’s no point blaming an individual show for turning people off sketch comedy – the general viewing audience already has plenty of good reasons not to bother tuning into the latest version.
Double Take didn’t fail because it didn’t get the job done; it failed because it was doing the wrong job in the first place.