It’s actually pretty easy to believe it wasn’t better

Whilst updating iTunes last week I noticed that what had been the podcast feed for ABC Local Radio’s 2008 comedy talent quest The Comedy Hour has now become the podcast feed for ABC Adelaide’s Talkback Gardening, that perennial favourite of my father and many of his friends. If it wasn’t for the fact that the ABC are great fans of recycling podcast feeds (do they think they’re rationed?), I could probably draw a crap metaphor for the ABC’s interest in The Comedy Hour from this – and indeed, there wasn’t much interest in it from them – but my main feeling is one of sadness, that The Comedy Hour is yet another comedy writer’s competition that’s been shut down for good (although that’s been pretty clear for a year or so now).

If you remember The Comedy Hour or our commentary about it in the 2008 Australian Tumbleweeds (where it was nominated in both the Worst Radio Comedy and Worst Podcast or CD categories) you’ll remember that while most of the results were dire it was nevertheless a good concept – opening the door to comedy writers and comedy concepts of all types. Sadly, there are very few open access opportunities for comedy writers; this is a shame as good scripts are the key to good comedy, and anything which gives up-and-coming writers more experience of writing them can only be a good thing, even if it does result in some fairly rubbish radio or TV (hello again, Hungry Beast).

Comedy writer’s talent quests always seem to be pretty problematic, certainly in comparison to stand-up competitions like Raw Comedy, which has been going strong since 1996. Perhaps it’s because there’s so much more involved – with a writer’s contest you have to spend lots of time and a fair bit of money making the winner’s show(s), which almost no one will watch or listen to. With a stand-up competition all you need to do is broadcast the final and offer the winner a high profile gig – the swarming pack of comedy agents hanging around backstage will do the hard work of making the winner (and finalists) stars, and indeed some of the regional co-ordinators for Raw Comedy have been or are comedy agents themselves.

So, it’s probably no surprise that The Comedy Channel’s Comedy Gold competition was only run twice – in 2007 and 2008 – and that it took until last December for the script by 2007 winners Sean Condon and Rob Hibbert, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better, set behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show, to make it to air. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better appears to have been beset with problems, as TV Tonight noted in October “the project has…seen a number of delays and changes. Originally hoped to screen in early 2009, it has now shifted from being a 13 part series to one special”. It also probably didn’t help that while The Comedy Channel were getting their act together vis a vis I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better, Movie Extra put out the funnier and quite similar sitcom The Jesters.

You sort of feel sorry for the show’s writers, Sean Condon and Rob Hibbert, even if their script wasn’t that funny, although in some ways it was probably a more biting satire on sketch comedy than The Jesters. The show centres around two scriptwriters Sean Conlon (Colin Lane) and Bob Hilbert (Toby Truslove), who are under pressure from producers Frank (Patrick Brammell) and Kate (Kitty Flanagan) to come up with enough material for a sketch show. Frank is an unhinged coke-head who wouldn’t know comedy if it bit him on the bum, and Kate’s a hard-nosed bitch who’s recently come back from what appears to have been a very lonely period working in TV in London. The show is dotted with examples of Sean and Bob’s scripts, all examples of the sort of lame, repeated sketches you find in shows like Comedy Inc or Double Take, and they also have to contend with Buddy Bishop (Randall Berger), an ageing, fat, sexist, alcoholic, has-been American light-entertainer from the 70’s (slightly modelled on Don Lane presumably, well, there’s a glass coffee table reference) who’s a consultant on the show.

What makes this a little more biting than The Jesters is that the show seems to be full of references to the people Condon and Hibbert encountered on their torturous journey to get their show on-screen – like executive producer Frank, who’s doesn’t understand comedy and is obsessed with the latest internet-based comedy trends – although the main laughs come from how awful some of Sean and Bob’s sketches are.

Comedy Gold‘s 2008 winner was director/actor Gordon Napier’s My Girlfriend’s Secret Hidden Camera Show, which Napier described as “Recording my girlfriend with cameras inside my house and car and turning our lives into a sitcom without her knowledge. Imagine being on ‘Big Brother’ and not knowing about it”. Apart from a clip on the Comedy Gold website, this show has yet to see the light of day; this is probably a good thing as the clip’s not funny and the concept’s awful, but Napier entered the competition in good faith and at least one episode should be made – and if it is, who knows, maybe it’ll be great.

Which brings me to what seems to have been the problem for both The Comedy Hour and Comedy Gold – the lack of follow-through. Some of the results from both schemes had merit, but there appears to have been little thought about the next steps. Where could the successful writers, shows or characters from The Comedy Hour go? The intention seems to have been for the successful shows to go to television, but if so, why make them on radio, where for them to work well they would have to suit the medium of radio? And what of the writers or characters? It’s not like there are any sketches shows on ABC TV that could have incorporated, say, Alan Brough’s very funny character Piers-Andrew Bolterman, an insane right-wing commentator who provided all of the very few laughs on The Comedy Hour‘s topical sketch show The Seven Day Itch. And with there being no sketch comedies, or even a comedy slot, on ABC radio…what was the point of this again?

Perhaps that upcoming radio comedy from The Chaser will pave the way? I hope so, because a low-key testing ground for comedy on radio is probably a better way to encourage new talent than something like Hungry Beast. As for Comedy Gold, the problem there seems to have been a lack of budget – $25,000 isn’t anywhere near enough to cover a 13 part series, hence the delays and cutbacks for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better.

With comedy writer’s schemes there’s no point in setting them up unless you’re prepared to do something meaningful with the winners. Clearly this shouldn’t mean making any old show, but it should be about identifying what works and developing it; something which seems to be too hard or too expensive for any of those who’ve had a go at it recently.

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1 Comment

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    My wildly random guess is that someone at ABC radio wanted to get some comedy on air, thought a newcomers showcase was the way to go, and then quietly dropped the idea once The Chaser showed some interest in doing radio. As I doubt they’d work for free, they probably soaked up the entire radio comedy budget in one hit.