Mature Comedy: Don’t Make Us Laugh

One of the more impressive contortion acts on offer at the moment is watching various Australian television columnists and reviewers trying to talk up Laid without using the word “funny”. That’s because, despite its good points – and it does have some – actually being funny is not one of them. By a long, long shot.

This lack of actual comedy in this particular comedy is so obvious that television writers across the land have been forced into basically re-defining the term “comedy” so as to exclude, well, comedy. Which brings us rapidly to Melinda Huston’s column in today’s Sunday Age M Magazine, where we’re asked to believe that being too “mature” to be funny is a sign that comedy in this country has “finally grown up”.

Holy stumbling Jesus, where to start attacking this giant mound of shit? Yeah, even we’re getting sick of banging on about Laid, but this particular column is a prime example of why we’re not going to stop any time soon: in their desperate attempts to stick up for a laugh-free local effort, the media in this country are trying to sell us all a bill of goods claiming that comedy really doesn’t have to be funny just so long as it’s artfully lit. Really? Comedy doesn’t have to be funny? Well, I guess they have been praising dramas that aren’t dramatic for years.

Fortunately, Huston’s latest effort here is so amazingly cak-handed that pointing out the flaws shouldn’t take long and we can all go back to looking for old Get Smart episodes on digital TV. Here’s her opening paragraph:

“In the 1980s comedy defined Australian TV. From The D Gen to Fast Forward, we couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Then it all went south. With the odd exception, ‘laffers’ – as entertainment bible Variety puts it – have been coolly received. But all that might be about to change”

Pointing out all the blunders there might seem like nit-picking (really? Australian TV comedy in the 80s stretched from one comedy team to a show made up largely of members from that same comedy team? No Big Gig or Comedy Company for you, hey?), but the assumption to remember here is that after the 80s – when “comedy” meant “sketch comedy” – things all went downhill.

But we’ll come back to that. Huston follows this up with a bunch of Laid praise, some spot-on, some a matter for discussion in a later post. This particular line did stand out though:

“There’s almost nothing in the way of gags. Just whip-smart dialogue delivered in the most casual manner possible”.

We’d almost agree – there’s almost nothing in the way of successful gags is a lot closer to the truth – but the real problem here is that in the context of all her other praise these lines end up claiming that a comedy with “almost nothing in the way of gags” is meant to be a good thing. Guess what: it’s not.

Good naturalistic comedy often seems to the untrained eye to be gag-free, but that’s because the jokes are folded into the dialogue; Modern Family and Married… with Children have pretty much the same amount of gags (actually, MF probably has more), they simply present them differently. Gags are a good thing in a show trying to be funny: without them all you get are lesser forms of laff getters like one-liners, catchphrases, and terms pulled off the internet. Which Laid features by the bucketload.

Huston goes on to outlines a lot of what’s coming up in 2011, but then she gets to work digging a big old grave to chuck all those old-fashioned “funny” comedy shows into:

“… [local dramas] success – and sophistication – may be precisely what underpins this comedy resurgence. Because it’s not like we haven’t been making comedies. We have. And they haven’t been awful (well, all right. Some have been awful). But the likes of The Librarians, Very small Business, Lowdown, even Seven’s Double Take were not disasters by any means. What they did, though, was what Australian dramas did for too many years, which was fail to move with the times.”

Bizarrely, part of this moving with the times seems to involve taking a long, long time to produce:

“This is a good thing. Once we started putting a bit more care into our dramas, audiences responded enthusiastically. And it finally seems we’re giving our comedies the same kind of love.”

Uh, Packed to the Rafters is the most popular drama series in Australia by a country mile. It’s churned out at an industrial rate. Offspring – which seems to be the sole free-to-air example of what she’s talking about, unless she means failed duds like Cops L.A.C. or Canal Road or Bed of Roses – follows a template set a decade ago by The Secret Life of Us. What the hell is she talking about?

Ah, fuck it. Back to comedy:

“and with Laid, it feels like our comedies have finally grown up. Other recent funnies have had moments of wonderful subtlety and understatement but they couldn’t seem to resist regular swipes that seemed more Alvin Purple than Modern Family. Wonderfully clever humour was undercut by dumb, obvious gags. Which meant they never quite graduated from good to great.

In Laid we’re seeing something with the courage of its convictions. It just does what it wants to do, and trusts in the audience to keep up. ‘Mature’ and ‘comedy’ might seem like an oxymoron but that’s exactly what local funnies have been lacking. Now, finally, we might be seeing some scripted comedy that dares to leave the bum jokes behind, and shift the focus to our brains instead.”

Wow. Quite a rallying call. Especially seeing as Laid – which, lets not forget “has almost nothing in the way of gags” and “dares to leave the bum jokes behind” – has a string of references in the first episode to the first dead ex’s “tiny, tiny testicles” (“he had a weird little ballbag” , “they were like precious little flesh marbles”) and features a scene where the heroine crashes her workplace’s computers due to her, as she later puts it, “surfing internet porn”. Did someone say something about “dumb, obvious gags”?

They’re not isolated incidents. Laid is full of sex jokes – the lead visits a new-age gyno in episode two called “G-Bomb”, for fucks sake – and the only possible reason anyone could call them subtle is because they’re just not very funny. Either Huston didn’t understand what she was watching, or she’s mixed up Alvin Purple with The Color Purple.

And just to point out what a massive crock of shit her whole “our comedies have finally grown up” thesis is, remember how, in claiming a new golden age is a-borning, her opening paragraph skipped over everything in Australian comedy from 1991 to today? That’s because if she hadn’t, she might have reminded her readers of the following: Frontline; The Games; Kath & Kim; Summer Heights High. All enormously successful local sitcoms, and all (with the possible exception of SHH) consistently laugh-out-loud funny – thanks in large part to a high volume of “gags”.

So let’s get this straight: for Laid to be as fantastic as it’s being advertised to be, not only does every decent Australian sitcom of the last 20 years have to have never existed but the very concept of comedy itself has to be redefined at least twice. And on top of that, you have to pretend the many sex jokes Laid contains never actually happened.

Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just say Laid isn’t that good?

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  • Politely ignoring the actual content of the article for the moment:

    “‘laffers’ – as entertainment bible Variety puts it”

    “that’s exactly what local funnies have been lacking”

    A graduate of the “I had a lecturer that told me never to use the same noun twice in a single paragraph” school of writing, there. “Today’s Australian chuckle-bringers are a far cry from the domestic grin-shows of the 80s and the down-under mirth-programmes of the 90s”