Stitched Up

After a week that saw the arrival of The White Room  and Sleuth 101, plus the return of Hungry Beast, one question leaps to the top of every comedy fan’s list: where are the good comedy shows going to come from? Because just quietly, surely Australia’s attempted every possible variation on the comedy game show format by now without once striking gold. It’s over, it’s done, we get it. Comedy game shows are for people who think they like to laugh but in reality just like to be distracted. If someone figures out a way to make a hilarious crossword puzzle all other forms of comedy in this country will be dead by the weekend.

If you want even more proof that “comedy” in our once great land now simply means “game shows featuring people you might, with a gun to your head, describe as comedians”, consider this: while the ABC seemingly didn’t blink twice before giving Sleuth 101 the eight-episode green light, the fate of actual scripted comedy on the national broadcaster looks more like this press release:

ABC TV is pleased to announce that three outstanding new TV comedy projects will receive development funding in 2010 as a result of the Film Victoria/ABC TV comedy initiative STITCH, designed to develop the skills of comedy performers in writing longer-form narrative.

Clearly people coming up with comedy game shows don’t require “skill development” – just hand out the cash and away they go. We’re only one paragraph in and already this smells like something you do when you need to be seen to be doing something you don’t really want to do. After all, if they actually wanted to make “longer-form narrative” comedy, it’s not like they don’t know where to look.  A friend of a friend’s friend was talking to Bob Franklin a few weeks back, and he said he’s giving up pitching shows to TV networks because they’re not interested.  And yet they’re interested in this:

Next of Kin – (Josh Thomas (writer/performer and stand up comedian, currently on Talking „Bout Your Generation), and Todd Abbott (producer), a comedy about a boy who would like to be an adult and do adult things, like moving out and sleeping with girls. But his mum has other ideas.

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Bruce – Warwick Holt, Mat Blackwell (established writers whose work you’ve laughed to on many shows including Good News Week ), Jason Byrne (producer), and Tony Rogers (director), a gritty black comedy about life in an ordinary Aussie share-house, that just happens to be a convict tent in 1788.

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TwentySomething – Josh Schmidt (writer/performer), and Jess Harris (writer/performer), a comedy series about best mates, Jess and Josh, who never went to uni, never had a clear talent and never really had a drive to grow up.

Can you guess which one is going to be any good?  If you picked anything but TwentySomething, get off my lawn. Not because TwentySomething already exists, being a pretty funny show that screened on community television a few years back, but because it’s the only show of the three that doesn’t sound like a crap sketch comedy idea.

Think about the great sitcoms of the past. Despite being called “situation comedies”, all their premises are frustratingly vague: Seinfeld is about a bunch of friends (as is Friends), Married… with Children does what it says on the lid, Cheers is about people hanging around a bar, The Simpsons is an animated family, 30 Rock is behind-the-scenes at a comedy show, The Young Ones is about four students, Father Ted is about priests… I could go on, but we’re getting into Herman’s Head territory.

When you lock a show into a tight set-up, you lock out most of the opportunities for jokes. A freewheeling format doesn’t mean you’re going to be a kak – Hey, Dad could have gone anywhere, but it never left the kitchen – but when you make a one-gimmick sitcom, you get Wilfred: a series than runs in ever narrower circles, desperately trying to wring laughs from a concept that can’t be shaken off or broken out of. Yep, really looking forward to that second series.  You say there’s a cat in this one? Excellent.

So what has the ABC sunk money into in the hopes of igniting a bright new comedy dawn? A Gen Y version of Mother & Son and a “dark” version of Bligh. Thanks. What we have here is a prime example of whoever it is with the money deciding to go with the concept rather than the talent. Because again, as we never tire of mentioning here, Australian comedy has plenty of proven talent out there champing at the bit to get a TV show made. Unfortunately, “proven talent” is the one thing television executives aren’t interested in.

You see, there’s no upside for execs in giving proven talent their own show: if the proven talent fails, then the exec has overseen a failure, which is bad. If the proven talent succeeds, then there’s no glory left for the exec – after all, everyone knows the talent was up to the task so what did the exec contribute? Nothing.  Which is also bad –  not for the viewer of course, but for the exec, and they’re what counts, right?

In contrast, giving an unknown a shot is a much better deal for our exec. If the unknown fails, sure, failure is bad, but the exec is a good guy for giving people a helping hand.  And who knows? If the unknown somehow becomes a big star further down the track, they might feel some gratitude towards the person who helped them out. In contrast, if they succeed who was the bright spark who saw something in a complete nobody and bravely took a chance that paid off? Big ups for the TV exec right there. Plus with an unknown, you never really know: maybe they’ll turn out to be the next Chris Lilley. You hire Ryan Shelton, and you’re just getting Ryan Shelton. Which would be an improvement, but we’re in the minority there.

I could go on – the line “established writers whose work you’ve laughed to on many shows including Good News Week” is funnier than the show they’re working on ever could be – but let’s look on the bright side: TwentySomething is already a halfway decent show. So while Josh Thomas is chucking some kind of whiney random tantrum because his mum won’t let him get a root and Bruce is suddenly making incongruous references to iPads in episode two, Jess Harris and Josh Schmidt might actually make us laugh.

(oh, who am I kidding – the ABC’s only going to fund the Josh Thomas show and everyone else will be lucky to get a guest slot on Spicks & Specks.)

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