Back in 2002 Shaun Micallef made a sitcom called Welcher & Welcher. And it’s hilarious. So why is it only now coming out on DVD with no fanfare whatsoever? Why isn’t it hailed as the comedy classic that it is instead of a minor footnote in the career of an increasingly popular game show host? What, in short, the fuck went wrong?
Rewatching the series now, there’s a shitload going on in Welcher & Welcher that is – there’s seriously no other word for it – astonishing. People who claim that Chris Lilley’s efforts are the pinnacle of scripted comedy in this country should be forced to watch an episode of this simply so they can be reminded that you can do more with comedy than just make bitchy comments and sing “offensive” parody songs.
For example, Welcher & Welcher has visual jokes. When there’s a car crash, a VW Beetle is left slowly spinning on its roof. When Micallef and Francis Greenslade both stand on a wheelie bin to peer in a window (and therefore see one of the strangest sights shown on Australian television, as acknowledged by Micallef’s perfect double-take), they break the lid and end up wedged in the bin face-to-face. They’re throw-away gags – but what other Australian sitcom would even try to make people laugh with an image?
There are so many classic moments in this series that it’s hard to believe they all fit into just eight episodes. Micallef eating a boot in the ABC canteen. Robyn Butler’s sweatshop dress falling apart on stage. Greenslade lurching around the office wearing a Frankenstein mask. Guest star Tony Martin running a porn store. What other sitcom would fill in a minute when its running time came up short with an impromptu but note-perfect rendition of “When I’m Cleaning Windows”? The best damn sitcom in the land, that’s what.
And yet, the big problem with Welcher & Welcher is that it’s a sitcom. That’s because all those tools who claim that “Australia can’t make a funny sitcom” – ignoring everything from Frontline to The Games to Kath & Kim to yes, Welcher & Welcher – do have a point… just not the one they thought they were making.
Since Frontline, all the decent Australian scripted comedies have been, if not out-and-out mockumentaries, at the very least filmed like gritty low budget dramas. Frontline: hand-held camerawork for the behind-the-scenes stuff. The Games: mockumentary. Kath & Kim: started out as a mockumentary. Chris Lilley’s shows: mockumentaries. For fifteen years now, Australian audiences have been trained to expect scripted comedies will be filmed with hand-held cameras and characters wandering in and out of frame at will while speaking supposedly naturalistic dialogue.
Welcher & Welcher though, is a sitcom. It’s largely filmed on a set, the dialogue isn’t remotely naturalistic – it has jokes! Lots of them! One after the other! – and the characters pause after their lines to allow space for laughs. That last one makes it especially odd to watch if you’re not used to it: a laugh track would have been a big help in establishing a viewing rhythm, but laugh tracks were too far out of style for even Micallef to add one. And the show features too much location footage (which may have been filmed before or after the studio sequences) to presumably make filming in front of a live audience possible.
As a result, watching it is a slightly jarring experience. Dialogue doesn’t flow like you expect it to: Micallef says something funny, then there’s a tiny pause before things go on. If you’re not used to it – or can’t see your way past it – it’s just distracting enough to drain the life out of the show. To be honest, it took me a second viewing before I really got the hang of things. But once I did I never looked back. Welcher & Welcher has been shamefully neglected for far, far too long: in the seven-odd years since it went to air no-one in this country has made a funnier show.