The wonderful world of Australian comedy online – Part 1

A week or so ago a reader commented on one of our recent blogs:

“The networks are useless, dying and clueless. I really hope that Australian comedy can find it’s way online. There are some excellent US comedy websites with loads of little web series on them.”

And because we take your feedback seriously down here at Australian Tumbleweeds – well, that and there’s almost no Australian comedy on that isn’t a panel game – I’ve decided to dip my toe into the wonderful world of Australian comedy content online, starting with podcasts.

Before I go any further, however, I should declare that while I listen to a lot of podcasts, very few of them are comedy, and even then they’re almost all podcasts of radio comedy shows it’s not convenient for me to actually tune in for. The later is clearly a habit I’m not alone in, as a quick look at both the “Top Podcasts” and “Featured” sections of iTunes shows that the majority of the most popular Australian comedies are either radio best-ofs (Hamish & Andy, Roy & HG), or entire episodes of radio or TV shows (Good News Week, Sunday Night Safran). The only exception, in “Top Podcasts” at least, is Josh Thomas & Friend, in which everyone’s favourite Gen Y has a chat with fellow young stand-up Tom Ward (although their effort can hardly be said to represent the vibrant world of user-generated content given Thomas’ current profile).

Anyway, if I’m going to conduct any kind of survey of Australian comedy online – and that’s the plan for the next few posts from me – I’m going to need some word of mouth recommendations (leave a comment if you have any, be they podcasts, YouTube videos, or internet radio or TV shows), because what I’ve found so far via Google and iTunes has been mostly awful. A fact which is hardly surprising given the medium’s domination by amateurs.

Now, I don’t have any thing against amateurs making podcasts, in fact there are some excellent ones out there focusing on the sorts of specialist subjects that the traditional media have never covered in any depth, but when it comes to comedy there’s always been a lot of it on TV, radio and elsewhere, and whether it’s to your taste or not, it’s put together by professional comedians who’ve been practising their craft for years. And it’s experienced personnel on board that gives a comedy podcast the edge because despite our occasional successes, amateurs like you or me generally aren’t that much of a cack, even by the standards of the average “people sitting around having a chat”-style podcast. Yet there are probably thousands of Australians just like us currently involved in such productions, getting together ’round a microphone or on Skype every week or so to record their latest show.

One such example is Two Schooners, with Dave Gray and James Williams. Dave and James are two ordinary, middle-aged, Aussie blokes, having a beer and a chat and a few laughs. They’re not actually in a pub and they’re not always having a beer, in fact they’re just nattering away to each other on Skype, but they like to pretend they’re in a pub, so the first minute or so of their show has some pub background noise sound effects dubbed under it and they keep their conversation blokey as.

Fair enough, there’s clearly a section of the population who likes to listen to ordinary blokes who are supposedly funny and “telling it like it is”, but on the other hand, isn’t that what a great many radio programmes (many of them with podcast best-ofs) already do, but with vastly better production values and presenters who know how to keep things concise? Dave and James’ approach, by contrast, is to conduct a largely unplanned and rambling conversation, and then make it public, seemingly oblivious to how much better the show could be if they a) planned things a bit more and b) edited the show. And with Dave and James rarely approaching the realm of comedy, it’s hard to work out why this show has made it to “Featured” status in the comedy podcasts section of iTunes.

If Two Schooners had a sister show it would be Is It Just Me? with Wendy Harmer and Angela Catterns. Produced by ABC Local, Is It Just Me? appears to be one of the ABC’s first podcast-only productions. Producing podcasts is something that a lot of established broadcasters seem to be getting in to, for one thing it’s a good way to reach niche audiences, and in the world of podcasting what could be more niche than a show aimed at one of medium’s smallest audience segments: middle-aged women. And indeed, what could be more middle-aged woman-friendly than two such women having a natter about such never-dealt-with-by-the-existing-media subjects as troublesome teenagers, plastic surgery, and growing old.

But compared to Two Schooners, Is It Just Me? is a far better programme – the chat’s punchier and funnier (and so it ought to be with a professional comedian and a well known radio presenter on board), and the show’s tightly edited into a number of sections lasting a couple of minutes each – a welcome contrast to Two Schooners, whose episodes get increasingly longer over time. It’s still a bit of a stretch to label Is It Just Me? comedy, but at least there are some laughs to be had.

Another largely laugh-free podcast is Josh Thomas & Friend, currently doing very well in the iTunes comedy “Top Podcasts” chart. It’s another conversation-based show, and is currently in its second series. So far there have been three episodes in series 2 (series 1 is no longer online for some reason), and in episode one Josh has something he wants you all to know: he’s gay and in a “semi-open relationship” with Triple J breakfast host Tom Ballard.

Thomas choosing to tell the world he’s gay on this podcast is kinda interesting, but the fact that he’s gay – or at least the way he talks about it – isn’t interesting, or indeed funny, so devoting an entire episode to the subject probably wasn’t the best move. In fact, after 15 minutes or so of listening to this show, I had to conclude that Thomas’ decision to talk about this topic came about either because he’s a massive ego maniac, or because he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Seriously, Josh, we don’t care who you’re sleeping with – just be funny.

To be fair to Josh Thomas & Friend, things pick up a little in the second episode, when another comedian, Melinda Buttle, joins Thomas and Ward. Again it’s a small group having a chat, but Thomas has worked out what they’re going to talk about, and Buttle in particular gets some good gags out of it. In the third and most recent episode it’s back to just Thomas and Ward, but again there’s been a bit of planning, with the pair spending most of the show trying out the gay dating iPhone app Grindr. This is kinda funny, in a part John Safran’s Race Relations, part commercial radio segment way, and if this podcast is what I suspect it is – an audition for a radio slot – then working out something to do other than yammer on is a wise move.

But if podcasts are a way to get in to radio, they’re also an option once you’ve been kicked out of radio, hence The Chat hosted by the original members of Triple M Melbourne’s The Cage: Matt Quatermaine, Tim Smith, Andrew Goodone and Matt Parkinson. Tim, Andrew and the two Matts are old mates from the Melbourne comedy scene who get together every week or so at the Maori Chief Hotel to record their show in front of a live audience. Each episode is around 45 minutes of, well, chat, in which the four of them go through the sort of weird news stories which are a staple of most commercial radio comedies. Given the quartet’s experience in both comedy or radio it’s no surprise that The Chat is the best of the four podcasts I’ve listened to in preparation for this post; it could probably benefit from a tighter edit, but it’s a mostly funny and entertaining listen.

And it’s here in this first attempt to survey Australian comedy online that I should stop, because like many of the shows I’ve mentioned, I’ve crapped on long enough. Don’t forget to leave a comment with your suggestions of shows I should check out – good or bad – but before I go, and because I’m feeling a bit devils advocate today, I’ll leave you with something to ponder…

Market dominating podcast catcher iTunes offers only 16 categories to those wishing to submit their shows: Arts, Business, Comedy, Education, Games & Hobbies, Government & Organisations, Health, Kids & Family, Music, News & Politics, Religion & Spirituality, Science & Medicine, Society & Culture, Sports & Recreation, Technology, and TV & Film. While some of these categories have sub-categories (click here to see them), Comedy has none, yet huge numbers of comedy podcasts, including at least two of those I’ve just reviewed, would probably sit better in either a sub-category of Comedy called Chat, or a category in its own right called Chat. And with no Chat category or sub-category currently existing, are the makers of some shows being unfairly forced to label their shows as Comedy? Or do they really think their show is worthy of being categorised in that way? Clearly, if a category or sub-category called Chat existed then such shows would still suck, but wouldn’t it be better to produce a crap chat show which is occasionally funny, than a chat-based comedy which is just crap?

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