Why We Fight

With a call for nominations for the 2009 Australian Tumbleweed Awards set to go out any day now – remember, Daryl Somers can’t win every award – it’s probably a good time as any to explain exactly why we bother putting together an awards designed almost entirely to slag off bad television. “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it,” the cry goes out from far and near, completely missing the point as per usual. So let’s spell it out:

We like Australian comedy.  We also like comedy from other countries and a whole lot of things that aren’t comedy at all, but as far as this blog is concerned, we really like Australian comedy. And guess what? We’d like to see more good Australian comedy out there. Not only that, but we think that there are a lot of people who are actually pretty good at making good Australian comedy who – given the chance – would be out there making more of it for us to enjoy. But it’s those three little words – “given the chance” – that are the rub.

You see, despite what a lot of “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it” types would have you believe, television is not a rising tide that lifts all boats equally. If you don’t watch a bad Australian comedy show, it doesn’t go away to be replaced by a good one: Australian comedy as a whole goes away. You don’t even have to think back that far to know it’s true – check the TV listings for 2005 – and for those that claim “yeah, well, it goes in cycles”, you’re wrong. Or at least, you’re wrong if you think those cycles exist outside of the quality of the shows made in this country, because Australian television is simply too small to keep open dedicated slots for Australian comedy. If we get a run of shitty Australian comedy shows – as we did in the early 2000’s – then after that we get no Australian comedy at all. Until Chris Lilley comes along, which is saying the same thing.

“But that’s not happening now,” we occasionally hear. “At the moment, Australian comedy is looking pretty healthy.  When good shows are on, why are you focusing mostly on the bad?” And our answer is always the same: because Australian television is a zero-sum game. There is only so much viewing time to go around – if Nine is showing a repeat of CSI on Tuesdays at 9.30pm, they can’t also be showing a variety show hosted by Wil Anderson at the same time (thank God). They can’t be showing it on Go! Either, because there’s a Seinfeld repeat on (and aren’t we all grateful for that).

Let’s say it again: if the networks are showing shit Aussie comedy that doesn’t rate and they axe it, they don’t replace it with another Aussie comedy – they go with something else that’ll rate better. Which means that it’s in everyone’s best interests for them to, on the rare occasions when they decide to put on an Aussie comedy, put on one that’s actually good.

Remember Double Take? Its’ failure has pretty much killed the idea of a sketch comedy show screening on a commercial network in this country into the foreseeable future. We can’t blame people for not watching it, because it was crap. But we can blame Seven for putting together a show featuring proven losers, and we can blame those proven losers for not being funny enough to deserve the chance they were given because honestly – anyone who’s watched any TV comedy made in this country over the last few years could have come up with a better line-up for a commercial sketch show than the one featured on Double Take.

There’s just that much talent out there that doesn’t get a shot – and now won’t, because Double Take closed that door and welded it shut behind them. That’s part of why we hate: in the hope that, by recognising past failures, those same mistakes won’t be repeated in the future.

“But who cares about what the commercial networks do,” we sometimes hear, “the ABC is the natural home of Australian comedy and they keep on giving new guys a shot.” Really? Which new guys would this be? This year the only new guy getting a shot was Chaser writer Laurence Leung, and that was in part because The Chaser was doing a shorter run. Otherwise it’s been Andrew Denton (Hungry Beast, The Gruen Transfer, also starring ABC fave Wil Anderson), Gristmill (The Librarians), John Safran (Race Relations), The Chaser (The Chaser’s War on Everything) and Spicks & Specks. And next year (maybe), Chris Lilley. Again.

To be fair, some of those shows were / are very funny. But no-one on that list is on their first or even second go on television. And when the commercial networks stop being interested in Australian comedy because they’ve put on crap that doesn’t rate, the talent that gets a start at the ABC has nowhere to go and so sticks around. And that’s another part of why we hate: when there’s no natural progression in the system, it’s even more important to recognise the dead wood and urge for its removal. Surely Wil Anderson’s time must be about up?

“But it’s not as if anyone with any power cares about what you have to say” we hear once in a while. And they’re right (though we have had the occasional message from Tumblie winners, so someone’s reading it). But sometimes it just feels really, really good to slag off the crap that everyone else is praising to the heavens. And with Daryl Somers coming back in 2010, we’re going to need all the practice we can get.

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