This Man Is Telling You What To Think

There’s nothing we like more than taking potshots at critics who (unlike us) are actually being paid to waffle on about topics they barely understand. But today’s target – Ben Pobjie, who recently took over The Age’s ‘Couch Life’ column in the Saturday A2 supplement – provides a slightly more difficult target than the usual Hey Hey defenders and Chris Lilley worshippers. That’s because his column “How to kill a mockumentary” (16/10/10) starts off with a semi-reasonable point: if you’re making fun of something, you want to make sure you do an accurate job of it.

Actually, he doesn’t start off with that – he starts off talking about The Office and bam! There’s a shit joke about how he’s required “by law” to say all American sitcom remakes aren’t a patch on the British originals, which might have been funny if most television critics who actually watch television on a regular basis seem to agree that the US Office is / has been at least as good as the UK version, albeit in a different (funnier) fashion.

Then he digs an even bigger hole for himself by saying “the great thing about the British Office was that it really committed to the comedy doco concept”. Really? That was the great thing about the show – that it focused all twelve episodes and two specials first and foremost on sticking firmly to the idea of the television documentary? That “it was like a real documentary, only funny”? Which, by the way, is the kind of thing someone who’s never actually watched a documentary might think – and even then they’d probably be smart enough not to say it out loud in case, you know, the director of Anvil: The Story of Anvil or Metallica: Some Kind of Monster happened to be walking by.

And then, just after basically burying himself alive with the “joke” that The Office was “so good, while it was on, other channels went off air out of shame”, he keeps on digging by suggesting that a show like Arrested Development set about “destroying the concept” of the mockumentary. What, by being piss-funny? But wait: here’s where his semi-reasonable point comes in. It seems his problem with Arrested Development isn’t that it wasn’t funny, but that it “never committed” to being a comedy mockumentary. It didn’t look like a real documentary, therefore it’s not as good as The Office. Ooooookay.

But still, if you squint your eyes and hit yourself in the face with a hammer you can almost understand what he’s trying to say. If you’re going to parody something, you have to copy that thing as closely as possible for the joke to work. Shitty, half-arsed swipes at something simply aren’t as funny as the tightly-targeted stab that gets right to the core of the matter. That’s not really a matter up for debate. Unfortunately, Pobjie then goes on to reveal that this isn’t what he was trying to say at all.

“Latter-day mockumentarians don’t have the courage to sacrifice the bedroom scene for the one-camera tableau.” There’s more, but you get the idea: he’d rather have a spot-on replication of documentary style than jokes that might bend the rules to get laughs. Yes, we’re talking about comedy: while sitcom writers the world over have absorbed the lessons of the mockumentary style and adapted them to demands of an audience that wants to laugh-

or as Anil Gupta, executive producer of The Office and the director of the pilot, put it in the BFI’s book on The Office “There was lots of angsty hand-wringing about how authentic or not it was. You want to get it right but with hindsight, what a fucking waste of time a lot of it was. Who cares in the end?”

– the A2’s TV columnist would rather his mockumentaries focused their attention on getting the camerawork right.

It’s the kind of argument you sometimes get from people who don’t actually seem to have a sense of humour. They can’t rely on their own gut reaction to a show to tell them whether a show is funny or not, so they have to latch onto technical aspects and base their judgments on them. The Office is better than Arrested Development or Modern Family (the target of much of his complaining here) not because it’s funnier, but because it looks more like a “real” documentary. Dear God.

And then he says the problem is that people don’t want too much “realism” in their comedies. “Though we fall in love with The Office, we’ll always feel safer with Modern Family”. Huh? The Office was too “real” for audiences? David Brent singing about the “Free Love Freeway”, doing a crazy dance and getting sacked while wearing an ostrich costume was “real”? Jesus fucking wept.

The really painful thing is, even this kak-handed discussion of comedy is head-and-shoulders above the usual standard of TV writing about comedy in Australia. Yes, he seems to even have the basics wrong and he’ll most likely be calling Chris Lilley a “genius” the first chance he gets, but at least he’s trying – failing, but trying – to make a point beyond “it’s holding up a mirror to multicultural society”. So who knows? If he ever manages to write a column talking about how comedy should try to be funny, he might actually be onto something.

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  • Jay says:

    I do think you’ve completely missed the point here and actually, this mess of a post is full of anger and not a whole lot more. What is YOUR point? Just that you don’t like Ben Pobjie?

    I think his article makes a lot of sense, he’s frustrated with the faux mockumentary and its overkill in TV comedy. He’s not attacking The Office or Arrested Development, he’s having a dig at a cheap device used by so many television comedies and taken to the point where it no longer makes any sense. And yes, it IS a cheap device, filming using a mockumentary style to create comedy is an easy way out, especially when you take it beyond its natural borders to the point that it makes no sense, which is what Modern Family does. Modern Family goes as far as to interview its subjects, as if they were taking part in a documentary but then their camera crew is completely omnipresent. Arrested Development wasn’t a mockumentary so much as it was fly-on-the-wall and didn’t take the conceit too far.

    Rewatching The Office in the last couple of weeks the realism did stand out, yes, all those things you mentioned, fired in a costume and singing in a training session are absolutely believable in that context, with a toss-pot boss and brilliant writing you were never pulled out into disbelief and that had been set up from episode one. That’s why the show still holds up.

    I struggle to figure out what made you so angry about this article, he makes valid points and doesn’t take a dig at any of the shows you hold on a pedestal, unless Modern Family is one of them?

    Mockumentary-style TV comedy is now unoriginal, in fact its the first idea anyone ever has when pitching a new show these days “it’s kind of a cross between The Office and X”. Australia being (at least) ten years behind the rest of the world in this field are of course still trying to spin out mockumentary style shows with lots of awkwardness and not much else, as if awkwardness alone made the Office what it was. Check out any new “comedy” on C31 and you’ll find they’re ripping off Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office, check out any pilot from Australia’s crop of dreary stand-up comedians and they’re doing the same. Give them ten years and they’ll be copying Tim & Eric.

    And in case you missed it, as it seems you did, Pobjie’s point about people not wanting too much realism in their comedies is a dig at an MOR viewing public and the shitty network’s tastes, he’s not trying to speak on behalf of anyone, he’s having a go at them. If you’ve ever read anything else by him you’d know that he’s on the ball about most things he talks about and has a proper grasp of the funny.

    Its amazing that from a light-hearted quarter-pager not taking itself too seriously you were able to write a full page of bile trash in response. And look at me, writing even more in return. The shame, the shame.

    And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE can we have one post without you mentioning anything from The Late Show??? You manage to slip it in even when it has no relation whatsoever. It was a good show at the time, but it has no rewatch value and jesus christ it was 20 years ago now. Get over it! I swear this blog is just written by Jason Stevens trying to revive a long-dead career!

  • Jay says:

    …and yes, I know Jason Stevens has had a successful career since The Late Show, I was making a “joke” – remember them?

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Thanks for the generally well-reasoned reply Jay. My problem – ok, one of my problems – with this piece is the lack of context. The Office didn’t invent the mockumentary, and it didn’t perfect it either. Why not mention Chris Lilley’s work? Or Frontline? Or The Games, just to mention three local stabs at the format that took place well before The Office? If the mockumentary format is tired, it was tired well before The Office had it’s turn – People Like Us did a much better job of using the format only a year or two before in the UK.

    In other words, if he wants to hate on Modern Family, surely there’s better points to be made than “it’s not a very good mockumentary”? Especially as in the real world no-one gives a shit about how accurate a mockumentary is so long as it’s funny?

    That said, I probably didn’t make at least one of my points clear enough: to say that “mockumentary” is a format with rigid rules that supersede comedy’s requirement to be funny is to out yourself as someone who doesn’t really like comedy. If some of the tropes of the mockumentary – characters talking to camera, for example – are taken up and used by more traditional comedies, that can only be a good thing. It gives comedy creators more tools in their toolbox when it comes to getting laughs – to then say “you can only have characters talking to camera if you also take on board all these other “realistic” camera tricks and character devices” is pretty bloody stupid really.

    I know he wrote “a light-hearted quarter-pager”, but personally, I’d rather read someone who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to television making a few solid points rather than yet another would-be Friday night funnyman thinking that we’ve come for the jokes folks. I have read other examples of Pobjie’s work, and he’s about on par with those c31 comedians you dismiss, only he’s copying Charlie Brooker instead of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

    And just so you know, this post didn’t actually mention The Late Show. In fact, we talk a lot more about The Chaser, Hey Hey it’s Saturday and Shaun Micallef than we do TLS. And you were doing so well up until then…

  • Linda b says:

    I don’t understand Jay’s bit about ‘The Late Show’. Am I reading the wrong post? It doesn’t seem to be mentioned at all.

  • Maria says:

    “holding up a mirror to multicultural society”

    …that’s a Late Show reference … as any good fan would know!

  • Jay says:

    I think saying that he’s trying to emulate Charlie Brooker is drawing a pretty long bow, I didn’t get that from his article at all, he didn’t even drop a witty insult, not once!

    Lets agree to disagree on the whole mockumentary format requirements bit. I do think Modern Family is trying to have the best of both worlds and it irked me from the first episode I watched, rather than “outing” me as someone who doesn’t like comedy, I think it does the opposite, I know what I like and I know what works.

    Also, in defense of Pobjie again, he is comedian and satirist writing about television, not a self-proclaimed TV comedy aficionado, he’s probably never seen People Like Us – it only gets passed around between friends over here. Why NOT use The Office as an example? Everyone knows about it and everyone knows it worked. Once again, I don’t think he’s writing for the nerds, which makes it funnier that the nerds are the ones getting upset. Haven’t you learned yet? TV and media in Australia are not produced for the 10%-ers.

    And yeah, you mentioned “holding up a mirror to multicultural society” – as Late Show-tragics you’d be well aware of that reference.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    People Like Us was actually a bigish hit on the ABC – repeated a number of times too, back when ABC1 was all there was to the ABC television empire. And it’s readily available on DVD now, so it’s hardly an obscure reference. Especially for – and here’s the kicker – someone now writing about television for a major newspaper. He’s not a blogger anymore, he’s playing with the big boys and he has to lift his game.. even if that A2 column has been a bastion of crap writing for years now.

    He might like to be seen as “a comedian and satirist writing about television”, but that doesn’t mean we as readers shouldn’t demand a bit of informed comment in his columns. And barring that, some actual jokes, because his material in the column mentioned here was pretty below-par even by Late Show fan standards.

    After all, why shouldn’t he be writing for the nerds along with everyone else? The alternative is boring, watered down pap aimed at morons – it’s not like nerds don’t like popular stuff too.

    (good call spotting the Late Show quote, by the way – even I missed it on re-reading. Of course, it’s merely a quote and one no-one but a fan would spot, which kinda makes your carping about our “Late Show worship” a case of pot/kettle. Ooh a Get This reference…)

  • Linda b says:

    You’re right, I’d forgotten that sketch. I guess the show does have ‘rewatch value’ after all.