White Out

The White Room is perhaps the most important comedy program you will see this year. Not because it’s any good, or because you’ll get any laughs out of it at all, but because it’s important to be reminded that the only people who make television shows funny are the people who write and perform them. Take them out of the equation and you get producer-led slop like this born dead and soon-to-be-forgotten misfire.

Oddly, it’s the kind of malware that could only happen on the nation’s number one commercial network. Nine simply doesn’t bother making this kind of broad-based programming: they’ve got 20 to 1 for their clip show, Eddie McGuire for everything else and a station-wide sense of humour that says if it doesn’t involve at least one ball it’s not worth bothering with.

If Ten were doing it, they’d actually let the creative talent run with the idea a bit and make it their own. Very few people would deny that the entire reason for Talkin’ bout Your Generation‘s success is that Shaun Micallef gets to do his own thing pretty much every chance he gets, turning a limp game show into something that’s at times actually kind of funny. Okay, the stuffing’s starting to show a bit this year, but it’s still the best comedy game show on Australian screens – and considering how many comedy game shows there are, that’s actually high praise.

Seven is the network that thinks it knows how to make this kind of quasi-comedy variety thing work, and they’re going to keep on trying until they get it right. So what we get is a mix of Glenn Robbins’ 2008 late night panel / game show Out of the Question and 2009’s version of the UK hit TV Burp, only without the charm or comedy of either. The quality gap between The White Room and those shows is so clear and obvious it’s clear that Seven’s programmers are driven almost entirely by trends rather than any intrinsic worth their shows might have. Otherwise why fail to renew those far superior efforts and give this crap a prime time slot?

[okay, there’s clearly a lot more to programming than that. Just as The 7pm Project lingers on despite public apathy thanks largely to the cross-promotional opportunities, so too does The White Room present Seven with a showcase for its “stable of stars” – even if such stars exist only in their fog-addled brains. If this trend continues by 2012 all original Australian programming will simply be cross-promotional showcases where the same merry band of hacks wanders from studio to studio promoting identical shows where the same people appear to promote their own identical shows]

A brief word here on The White Room’s format: for those old enough to remember when Rove would feature Rove McManus forcing his cast and guests to play charades on live television, then the aimless collection of party games held in a cavernous salt mine that is Channel Seven’s latest rating big gun will provide a pleasant wash of nostalgia. For everyone else, seeing a bunch of no-name brand celebrities and Not Quite Right soap stars groping household objects while blindfolded or staring blankly at a four man combat squad of lycra-clad dancers as they use their bodies to spell out their Centerlink ID numbers will provide a much-needed excuse to put their head in a bucket.

So far so typical for a comedy game show.  What is slightly puzzling is the way that whoever’s putting this show together seems to think people watch comedy games shows for the game show component rather than the comedy that should flow forthwith. It’s your typical producer-led approach: The 7pm Project seems to think news comedy is about actually reporting the news, and look how well that’s worked out. But comedy requires letting the people on screen – AKA the supposedly funny ones – have a bit of freedom to be funny. And if they started getting laughs, suddenly the producers would look like what they are: people who should be helping the talent get the job done, not the stars of the show.

The result is that once again we get a show where some at least passably funny people are delivering well under their admittedly average standards. You can actually see hosts Tony Moclair and Julian Schiller – very funny as CRUD on RRR, kinda funny on MMM for a number of years (Guido Hatzis was their creation), and back to being very funny on JJJ’s right -wing parody Restoring the Balance – having jokes edited out from under them so the show can race back to the laff-free “fun and games”.

Arguing that this would suddenly become a classic if only it was made a bit more free-wheeling would be madness: even the best comedy game show ever is never going to be as good as a decent sketch show, or even a top-quality panel show (which would be identical to the best comedy game show ever, only the guests would be allowed time to tell funny stories instead of being cut short to gawp at a clip from an 80s sitcom). But letting the hosts make a few more wisecracks, making sure the guests make a few less gags – letting someone do their “gay run” around the studio is the kind of thing you see on a show made by people who have never actually found anything at all funny in their entire lives – and trying to wrap the crazy old clips up with one decent joke or one-liner instead of the half-baked ones currently on offer couldn’t hurt either.

Seriously, finishing a clip of a weird 50’s dance number involving ironing boards with a joke about how that was the only recorded instance of men in the 50’s going near ironing boards (as The White Room did) isn’t a joke, it’s a ham-fisted social observation. “Oh, those hilarious 1950s menfolk, with their avoidance of housework!” There’s an entire team of writers on The White Room, and that’s the best joke they could have come up with? There are men rolling around on ironing boards! Surely a reference to a popular but skinny / flat-chested starlet could be made there. Or a joke about the surfboarding team from the land-locked nation of Chad. Or anything else! That White Room line is the result of the least-possible amount of effort you could put in to create a joke, and yet it went to air in prime time on the number one network in this country.

It’s tempting to wrap things up with a quip about how quickly Seven will shunt this off to a graveyard timeslot or axe it entirely. But like the rest of The White Room, that’s just not funny. Comedy on commercial television is already a dying breed: having Seven serve up yet another shithouse show then let it tank isn’t doing anyone any favours.

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