“You do the best with what you’re given”. It’s a common excuse: when someone’s reliant on a supplier a little further down the chain, it’s easy to pass the blame along to them. Best of all, there’s usually no way for an outsider to prove them wrong: when a theatre company’s cast is average at best and they say “you should’ve seen the would-be actors we knocked back”, well… you can’t. So you can’t tell whether they really are doing the best with what they were given, or whether they’re just rubbish at their job and turned away a half-dozen Marlon Brando’s because their idea of a brilliant dramatic actor is John Michael “Hollywood” Howson.
What does all this have to do with the ABC announcing that Adam’s Zwar’s sitcom Lowdown will be replaced in the Wednesday 9pm comedy slot by the already seen on Pay TV Andrew Denton-produced advertising dramedy :30 Seconds? Not a whole lot. But the ABC’s been picking up a lot of comedy programming from Pay TV lately, and unlike their home-grown programming – where the “you do your best with what you’re given” line is in full effect, as we never see the shows they knock back – we can see the Pay TV comedies the ABC didn’t think were worth putting to air.
In the last few years the ABC has rebroadcast the following Pay TV series: Chandon Pictures, Stupid Stupid Man, and the upcoming :30 Seconds. So what they want is sitcoms? Well, no: sure, the ABC didn’t pick up The Merrick and Rosso Show, or Charlie Pickering and Michael Chamberlain’s The Mansion, or the cabaret-style The Pan Anne Show, but they didn’t embrace The Jesters or Whatever Happened to That Guy, starring Mick Molloy and Peter Moon respectively, either.
Whatever you might think of them as performers, both Moon and Molloy are certainly bigger comedy “names” than anyone in the three series the ABC picked up. So the ABC isn’t working simply on name recognition: maybe they like their comedies down the serious end of the scale? :30 Seconds is very much a dramedy, and one that’s little more than a thinly fictionalized version of The Gruen Transfer at that. But no: Stupid Stupid Man was about as wacky as they come.
The list goes on: maybe the ABC likes ensemble casts? Well, no: you couldn’t slide a sheet of paper between Chandon Pictures and The Jesters there. Maybe the ABC has a deal with one particular Pay TV channel? Nah: Chandon Pictures was on Movie Extra, while :30 Seconds was on the Comedy Channel. Maybe the ABC wants strong female characters? Nope again: in having two regular female characters, The Jesters outdoes Chandon Pictures there too.
While it’d be nice to think it’s possible to pin what the ABC is after down to a firm formula, it’s not going to happen. That’s because it’s obvious why the ABC didn’t want The Jesters and Whatever Happened to That Guy even though as comedies go both of them were easily funnier than :30 Seconds and arguably better than Chandon Pictures and Stupid Stupid Man.
Based on their Pay TV purchases, it seems that as far as the ABC’s concerned being funny just isn’t enough. In fact, it’s an actual drawback. It’s a drawback because if you make a show that is first and foremost trying to be funny, you’re not going to have the time or money or room to fit in the things the ABC does seem to want from a comedy.
I’m talking about things like production values: The Jesters is funnier than Stupid Stupid Man but looks cheaper, as does Whatever Happened to That Guy. Things like fashionably “edgy” material: Whatever Happened to That Guy is funnier than Chandon Pictures, but Chandon is full of trendy but stale sub-UK-Office awkward moments and “shocking” plots like cousins marrying while That Guy is a traditional sitcom full of wacky mix-ups and face-pulling that still mostly works comedy-wise. Things like romantic subplots: 30 Seconds has them, The Jesters and Whatever Happened to That Guy don’t.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those things. There’s also nothing funny about any of them. Going by their Pay TV purchases (and, let’s be honest, their original programming), the ABC comedy department just isn’t willing to take a shot on a comedy that devotes all its energy to trying to be funny. Which is a big problem, because the less energy a show puts into being funny, the more likely it is that is won’t be.
The ABC can claim that :30 Seconds, Stupid Stupid Man and Chandon Pictures are somehow “better” than the shows they didn’t pick up, but they can’t seriously claim they’re definitively funnier. And when it comes to comedy, I’ll take funnier over “better” any time.