It’s no real shock that we like The Jesters a lot. This behind-the-scenes sitcom about a group of Chaser-style comedians and their grumpy producer stars Mick Molloy and is packed with references to and plots based on Australian television comedy; the only way to make a sitcom more to our liking would be to announce that Tony Martin was going to be a regular on the upcoming series of The Games.
Even with that in mind, the second series of The Jesters is something special. Comedies often improve over time (unlike dramas, which usually start out as strong as they’re ever going to get), and this year The Jesters has taken a real leap forward. The characters are more sharply defined, the scripts are tighter, the performances… well, they’re still good (more on them later) and as a whole the show simply works better. If there wasn’t that new series of The Games due later this year, it’d be a cert for Aussie sitcom of the year… not that that’s traditionally much of an accolade.
So, our blind love for Mick Molloy aside, what makes The Jesters work when so many Australian sitcoms don’t? Well, for starters, maybe we were a bit hasty in putting our Mick love aside: We’ve said it before, but Mick Molloy is one of the finest comedy actors in this country. Before you swig down a cup of coffee for your spit-take at this news, that’s not the same as saying he’s a great actor (though he’s pretty good there too, as the three people who saw that all-Aussie version of Macbeth with Mick in it knows); a comedy actor has to project a certain warmth and likability above and beyond whatever the character requires, otherwise people aren’t going to warm to them and they ain’t gonna laugh.
[for example, take Natalie Portman in her current big screen rom-com No Strings Attached. No-one would seriously claim she’s not a good actress, but in a comedy she’s just not funny. You can admire her, you can sympathise with her character, you can think she’s a good person, but she just doesn’t give off the warmth required to make a comedy work.]
Like a lot of comedians, Mick has this quality; unlike a lot of comedians, Mick can also act. So while his character Dave Davies has a bit in common with the real-life Mick (the term “washed-up show-biz arsehole” is used a fair bit in Mick’s interviews for the show), he’s also believable as a character on television: it’s not like trying to get, say, Peter Helliar (who also has the likeability thing going for him) to play a character.
This kind of performance – being funny yet believable, being likable even when playing a tool – is the kind of thing a lot of critics dismiss or ignore, even though it’s clearly a lot harder to make happen than “straight” acting. So having Mick in the lead (and unlike the first series, which would occasionally push him to second or third banana, this time he’s firmly in the lead, with his own subplots and everything) is a good idea. As is teaming him with Deborah Kennedy as his agent Di. There’s real chemistry between them, and their scenes together lift the show as a whole; it’s safe to say that without this double act there’d be a lot less to like about The Jesters.
It’s not just their show though; The Jesters is an actual ensemble, which is increasingly rare for an Australian sitcom. One of the ways sitcoms get laughs is by the interactions between people, so logically a sitcom should have a fairly large cast of regular characters and those characters should be fairly well defined. Put the angry guy in a scene with the chilled-out girl and their differing responses to a situation should get a laugh or two.
The Jesters has eight (nine, if you count the old-school show-biz director chap) regular cast members, and at least half of them can be boiled down to a one-line description: the creepy musician, the conspiracy nut, the grumpy boss, the feisty smart-arse sidekick. It’s easy to dismiss simplistic characters as a bad thing, but in a comedy they get the job done. They’re not even that unrealistic (so long as they’re largely kept in the background): we all have acquaintances we only know loosely but still can have a laugh with. And having a large cast of well-defined characters means the writers can mix things up a little by putting different characters together, as happens a few times later on in this second series. It’s not a big thing – boosting Mick’s role plays a much bigger role in improving this series – but every little bit helps.
We could go on, and on, but there’s only so much to say about, say, the generally sparse set design (who knew that a sitcom didn’t need to have hyper-realistic sets to get laughs? Not anyone working on Laid) or the way that even the most stale cliché in 21st century Aussie comedy – the bitchy, sarcastic office manager – works here simply by making her half of a riff-heavy comedy double act with Mick’s character. And yes, there are still problems here too – not all the cameos work, and sometimes the plots can be a little too “inside-comedy” – but for the most part they’re minor ones.
Look, there are people out there who seem to think that the mark of a good sitcom is quality set-design and capital-A actors looking embarrassed after yet another social gaffe. They’re not going to like The Jesters, and it’s their loss. And to be honest, if you know Mick Molloy is not your cup of tea there’s not a whole lot else going on here to keep you watching. But if you happen to think that a good sitcom is one that values being funny over pretty much everything else – and works towards that goal on a regular basis – the chances are pretty high that you’re going to find that the second series of The Jesters is about as good as this particular kind of Australian-made comedy gets.
(and yes, we did spot in a later episode a reference or two to an Australian comedy website called the ‘Mumbleweeds”. Thanks guys… we think)
FYI: series one of The Jesters is out on DVD in early March. Series two starts on pay TV channel Movie Extra on Tuesday Feb 22nd at 8.30pm