[in which a throwaway moment in a show about something else entirely is hijacked for our own purposes]
Early on the first episode of Comedy School (SBS, Saturday’s, 9.45) – a show that follows a group of would-be stand-up comedians at a East Sydney community college course – teacher Rob McHugh writes on the whiteboard that “Stand-up comedy is hard, lonely & vicious”. The students gasp when it’s revealed that the quote’s originator is Will Ferrell, and rightly so – just not for the reason the show gives.
They’re shocked because Ferrell seems to embody an easy-going, lets-have-fun approach to comedy. They should be shocked because Ferrell isn’t actually a stand-up comedian. He’s a comic actor. He doesn’t make his living touring America and the world appearing on stage telling jokes: he’s in movies playing characters. Before that he was on Saturday Night Live playing characters, and before that he was playing characters on stage. If these students want to do what Ferrell does, they’ve come to the wrong place.
Apart from casting doubt on the competence of McHugh, this is hardly a fatal flaw in his course. It’s just a quote used to point out that comedy – like everything else – isn’t all fun and games. And whether you can actually teach comedy is beside the point too. After all, we all know that there are two kinds of documentaries about “making it” in a creative / sporting endeavour: the realistic ones that say it’s a massive amount of work simply to get to a stage where you might have a tiny chance at being a d-grade star, and the feel-good ones that say you just need to do a course / appear in the right venue and it’ll just all fall into place.
Of the two – Hoop Dreams is a good example of the former, your average TV talent show of the latter – this falls firmly in the “feel-good” camp. In the real world the people who become successful in comedy, much like any other competitive field, have been obsessed with it since childhood, have studied it (often informally but passionately) for many years, and even then often fail to be anything more than some mildly annoying chump on a panel show. People who do a one-month course at community college while they’re in their 40s just have a bit of fun and learn something about themselves.
[When the voice-over starts saying stuff like: “Rose Lee’s road to comedy school began with breast cancer”, you know you’re not watching a show where the subjects are going to have their dreams crushed by the brutal reality of showbiz]
But the thing that’s annoying about the use of the Ferrell quote is that Australia doesn’t need courses teaching people to be stand-up comics: we need courses teaching people to be Will Ferrell. Our comedy clubs are already full of stand-ups, some of which are really good; meanwhile, Australian film and television is all but empty of comic actors who can be funny and interesting enough to keep you from putting your boot through the screen every time they pull a “hilarious” face.
Seriously, in 2010 the two major big-screen Australian comedies released in cinemas had as their leads Nick Giannopoulos and Brendan Cowell. For fuck’s sake. Whatever they might be like in real life, on screen they’re hardly guys overwhelming audiences with their charm and warmth. And yet, where are their replacements going to come from? We don’t even have sketch comedy in this country any more, so if you’re an actor who wants to be funny you can either focus on doing stand-up – which tends to encourage a brash, unsubtle style of performing that, let’s be honest, makes you look like a self-serving prick anywhere but on a stage – or focus on straight acting, which in Australia means rolling up your sleeves… and then shoving a needle in your arm to play yet another junkie in love. Yeah, that’ll get big laughs… at the box office.
So thanks, Comedy School. Not only are you training a bunch of likable low-talents in a career path that’s already over-populated, you’re holding up as an example someone who doesn’t even do what you’re teaching. And just in case you think we’re being a bit harsh on what is basically your typical “group of likable types go on a journey” doco series, there’s this line from McHugh early in the process: “To be a successful comedian, you’ve got to be funny”. Really? We’ll leave it up to you to point out the flaws in that argument…