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.