Pay TV in this country has been churning out sitcoms for well over a decade now, going at least as far back as Bob Franklin’s Introducing Gary Petty – and if anyone out there happened to record that show, please please please get in touch as damn does it sound well worth a look. But having two going at once – 30 Seconds on The Comedy Channel, The Jesters on Movie Extra – is still something out of the ordinary. Why this sudden burst of faith in the Australian sitcom? The idealist in me wants to say it’s the flowering of a new age of Australian scripted comedy; the realist figures it probably has more to do with the ABC coughing up cash for the free-to-air rights to Stupid Stupid Man and Chandon Pictures, both of which started out on pay TV. Either way, comedy’s the big winner… even if neither show is the kind of comedy that involves too many actual laughs.
Of the pair, The Jesters is the one that’s playing it broad, which is hardly surprising considering it’s the brainchild of a couple of Comedy Inc. alumni. The set-up is a bit of a worry as well, as it’s a behind-the-scenes look at a very Chaser-like comedy program called, naturally enough, The Jesters. This kind of in-joke scores points with the comedy nerds but in reality rarely works out well, being a sign that those involved are too busy slapping their own backs over their cleverness to remember to make their veiled references actually funny. But for the most part the storylines are kept accessible – the team has to hire a female writer, half the team is offered a breakfast radio shift, they’re offered a high-paying corporate gig with goes against their principles and so on. Which, while not as good as going super-specific and writing episodes based on actual inside situations, at least stays simple enough to ensure they don’t have to spend half of each episode setting the situation up.
(the one exception out of the episodes we’ve seen is the “female writer” one, which makes sure to name-drop all the right funny women – who would have expected to hear both Tina Fey and Victoria Woods mentioned on Australian television? – while still saying long and loud that women aren’t funny. The comedy twist on the idea that The Jesters – ok, just the smarmy one – would not want to work with a woman because women aren’t funny is painful at best: the woman they hire is more blokey than they are. So blokey and offensive in fact, that [SPOILER AHEAD] she ends up being sacked for it. But don’t worry ladies: they still have to hire a woman writer for the show! She’s just never seen or mentioned again. The episode as a whole is a weird mix of wanting to say something controversial but true – that women aren’t funny – while knowing that they can’t really say this so-called truth because it’ll turn off women. Of course, the real reason why they can’t say it is because it isn’t true, but this doesn’t seem to have crossed the writers’ minds. If it had, the story would have been about a woman writer who was funnier than the crap [even within the show they’re hardly seen as shit-hot comedians] Jesters rather than a “woman” who acts like no woman who has ever drawn breath.)
Simple premises are hardly what it takes to make great comedy, and this would still be a ham-fisted disappointment a la Stupid Stupid Man (right down to the same bitchy – uh, make that “assertive” – female personal assistant character), if not for one bit of inspired casting: Mick Molloy as The Jesters’ seen-it-all-before producer. It’s not that Molloy’s subplots and dialogue is that much better than the rest of the show; it’s that Mick is a really good actor who’s been doing comedy for so long that he knows just how to make even an average line funny. He’s the highlight in an otherwise so-so-sitcom, and even after a string of TV fizzles you really do have to wonder what is wrong with television in this country when Comedy Inc. writers are getting their own sitcoms while Mick Molloy has become a gun-for-hire.
On the other hand, the big name connected to 30 Seconds doesn’t appear anywhere on-camera. This behind-the-scenes look at an advertising agency is a production from Andrew Denton’s production company Zapruder’s Other Films, and there should be zero doubt in your minds that Denton’s success with The Gruen Transfer played a large part in giving this series (written by three long-time advertising execs) the go-ahead. As you’d expect from a Denton production (even if it’s really only his name on the door), this insiders look at how advertising works is interesting without being compelling – the shock revelation that when an alcohol company asks for a campaign aimed at “eighteen year olds” they really mean fourteen year olds is hardly shocking to anyone of any age, and most of the other insights are pitched at that level. Which means roughly a quarter of the show falls flat right there – at least when Frontline lifted the lid on current affairs television they were providing actual behind-the-scenes insight rather than basic common sense. But it’s not like anyone expects advertising execs to treat the general public as anything other than morons, right?
Most of the characters fall into the usual sitcom templates (the crazy 30 Rock-style boss, the sleazy know-it-all, the idealistic type who has to have the evils of advertising explained to her each week, the ditzy blonde PA and so on), though some decent dialogue and better than average casting (including Stephen Curry, Joel Tobeck, Gyton Grantley and Kat Stewart) lifts things a bit here. But it’s surprising how far a slick look and competent dialogue can take you, and 30 Seconds manages to be blandly enjoyable in a way that normally only high-end US sitcoms or big-budget beer commercials can manage. Which again, is kind of what you’d expect from Denton and his advertising team. Luckily for them, no-one seriously expected this to contain actual laughs (when was Denton last seriously funny? It’d have to be fifteen years ago at least, or whenever it was that his talk show on Seven wrapped up. And even then Anthony Morgan was the one bringing all the funny) because when you’re not only making jokes about ponytails but using them in the advertising for a show that is itself about advertising… well, the adage about the difficulty inherent in attempting to bring excrement to a level of high polish comes to mind.