It’s time for a shocking admission: I have close friends who are fans of Sam Simmons. It’s safe to say that we agree to disagree on the quality of his work. But the relevant point here is that my Simmons-loving friends are big fans of live comedy, and they base their love (okay, enjoyment) of his work on his live performances. I’ve never seen him live so for all I know he’s a stand-up genius: what I do know is, his television work sucks.
I bring this up not only because word has reached us that Simmons isn’t exactly happy about the almost entirely negative coverage we’ve given him over the years, but because with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival looming it’s as good a time as any to point out the one comedy-related thing that this blog doesn’t do: care all that much about live comedy.
Don’t get me wrong. We’ve seen our fair share of live comedy over the years, and no doubt we’ll be checking out shows at this year’s Festival too. But given the choice, the kind of comedy our tastes tend toward is – for the most part – the kind of comedy people do on radio or television or (on a good day) movies. Just check out the Australian Tumbleweed Award categories and compare the double-digit number of television awards to the single, solitary one for stand-up.
That’s partly because stand-up in Australia is pretty much split into two groups: unknown up-and-comers, and long-established safe nights out. For those whose interests fall in the middle – for those who like their comedy competent, but not mainstream – there’s just not all that much on offer. Perhaps that’s why this years Festival line-up looks so dire. None of the up-and-comers (a few exceptions aside) seem to have acts polished enough to make a night out worthwhile, while the polished acts are mainstream faves like Charlie Pickering (doing a best-of, just in case you can’t spell CELEBRITY CASH IN), Dave Hughes, Dave O’Neil (whoops, he’s just pulled out) and Wil Anderson’s Wil-Pun Express.
Some might argue that the previous paragraph is the explanation for our long-standing dislike of stand-ups on television like Dave Hughes and Wil Anderson. Unfortunately for those people, there are stand-up comics in this country that we do enjoy – Judith Lucy for starters, and at least one of us has enjoyed the work of Justin’s Hamilton and Heazlewood in recent years. No, we don’t like Anderson and Hughes, but it’s not because they do stand-up. It’s because they’re not very funny. And as far as television goes, neither is Sam Simmons.
To be fair to all concerned, Anderson and Hughes are crap because all they do on television is bad stand-up. Hughes “tells it like it is”, which translates as bog-obvious observations delivered in a nasal whine that gives cicadas the shits; Anderson is the right-on comic who secretly votes Liberal in the desperate hope that his George Bush and John Howard gags – the only things on planet Earth to have aged worse than he has – will have their day in the sun once again.
Simmons though, makes the effort to try something different on television. His work on jTV with his “Man and Man” and “Human News” sketches shows that he’s someone who knows you can do more on television than just deliver monologues. It’s just a shame then that all he does with that knowledge is babble on at random for roughly a minute to no worthwhile end whatsoever.
Again, let’s stress here that we haven’t seen his live act. For all we know, given the proper context his random wordplay and obsession with farmyard animals could become comedy gold. But in small doses on television his act comes off as nothing but the results of a random word generator stuck on “annoy”.
Worse, he’s been shoveling the same shit for over two years now. His 2009 13 part series of 5 minute episodes The Urban Monkey showed a few hints of promise, but Simmons’ inability to come up with a comedy character that isn’t “Hi, I’m a blabber-mouthed arrogant moron who doesn’t know when to stop… and then does just so we can have an awkward pause” is holding him back in a serious way. Even Ricky Gervais has pretty much given up on that act.
Being roughly on par with Chris Lilley when it comes to working with others doesn’t help much either. Every single other character in a Simmons sketch has the arduous task of looking puzzled and annoyed while Simmons makes a dick of himself. Even in The Urban Monkey, where you might have hoped there’d be room to develop something of a comedy dynamic, he played an aggressive dick while his sidekick suffered. That’s the sum total of his television work: he’s annoying, everyone else suffers. And that includes his audience.
None of this is to suggest that Simmons will never do good work on the small screen. If you were putting together an old-style sitcom and you wanted a crazy neighbour, he’d be the man to call. But until then – or until he comes up with a new act that doesn’t involve saying “duck” a dozen times in a row and expecting laughs like it’s the Nazi-killing joke from Monty Python – his television appearances will fill the hearts of many with dread. Because whatever the virtues of his live show, his television work aint no damn good.