Executive Decision

Now that the chorus of voices calling for Live From Planet Earth have faded, their unholy bloodlust sated, a new round of voices can be heard. “They pulled it too soon”, these voices say, “They didn’t give it a chance to find its feet”. And who’s to say they don’t have a point? Well, us for one.

To be fair, it’s true that television shows do need time to settle in. Talent should be nurtured, formats need to have their rough edges smoothed off, and audiences require time to get used to things that might be a little new or strange. But does anyone seriously think that given an extra few weeks Live From Planet Earth was suddenly going to blossom into a show that was worth watching?

This wasn’t a pre-recorded show, and it wasn’t like the producers didn’t know they had a turkey on their hands – for all the on-air swipes at both Twitter users and the general press, when you’re getting that much negative feedback you’ve got to know something ain’t right. So obviously after week one there were massive changes made to try and improve the show, and more changes were made yet again after the ratings continued to slip in week two. Right?

Of course not. Changes were made – week two was a better show, thanks largely to more Ben Elton stand-up – but by week three it seemed pretty clear that we’d seen all the alterations we were going to get. Having Elton increasingly interact with the sketches was a change, but it wasn’t going to save the show: sacking most of the cast after week one would have been more like it.

It’s easy to forget that television isn’t one big organisation from top to bottom. In this case, Nine was buying Live From Planet Earth from production company Freemantle. Presumably Nine was expressing serious doubts – and perhaps asking for changes to be made – after the first night. When those changes weren’t forthcoming, what else could the executives do but axe it? Put another way, what subtle depths did Let Loose Live – sorry, Live From Planet Earth – contain that audiences wouldn’t pick up on until week six?

That’s the other side of the argument: the show itself was basically fine, and that eventually the audience would have discovered it. Problem there is, unlike the usual midnight burial that passes for an Australian comedy launch, Live From Planet Earth was given a solid promotional push – ads, billboards, the lot. People knew it was on, they tuned in, they weren’t that impressed with what they saw. Without serious changes, those viewers wouldn’t be back, so where would these new viewers be coming from?

Hang on a second: why are we making this case for it being axed? It’s not like it was a long-running proven stinker like Hey Hey it’s Saturday – surely the benefits of having it on air training up new talents and getting viewers used to Australian sketch comedy outweighed the drawbacks? Well… no.

Some Australian sketch comedy shows have improved over time. The Ronnie Johns Half Hour went from being barely watchable in its first series to moderately funny in its second. But more often than not any improvement is accidental, the jokes remain as painful and unfunny at week twenty as they did at week one, and all we’re left with is a constant re-enforcement of the idea that Australian sketch comedy is, well, either The Wedge or Comedy Inc.

It’s not like the secret to making halfway decent sketch comedy is an actual secret: find a team that have built up some kind of chemistry together, maybe bring in a more experienced mentor (preferably not, but someone’s got to have some experience), and then let them do pretty much what they want. If it has to be live, try to throw in some pre-recorded stuff in there for variety; if it’s pre-recorded try to have a mix of studio and outside settings to vary things up. It’s not a sure-fire recipe for success, but it’s a damn sight closer than trying to pretend it’s 1972 and people will watch a badly-written sketch that’s just two people talking for five minutes.

Basically, the line’s got to be drawn somewhere. Live From Planet Earth seems like it probably should have been given another week, but why? It wasn’t getting any better and after three dud weeks a fourth wouldn’t have made any difference. Following on the heels of the slow but steady ratings decline of Hey Hey it’s Saturday last year, the real question here has to be: who’s running things at Nine, and why can’t they force changes on their live shows once they start to go down the toilet?

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  • D.Sams says:

    Your LFPE posts have been really great. But one error I think you have made in your posts is the fact that the cast was actually (with some exceptions, granted), pretty bloody good. Well it’s not an error, it’s your opinion, but here’s why I disagree:

    Ben Elton was – and this is one thing the critical hordes DID get right about this show – entirely responsible for the material, and the cast were left to polish a turd as best they could. I’ve had word from an insider in the crew that the cast were well aware of the humour being outdated, culturally off-target for Australia (Dr Who references? Lily Allen?!), too “attack” in comedy style, and/or bawdy without substance. But what can you do, especially when there’s an obvious creative monopoly? As a cast member, you do what you’re paid to do: commit to the material and give it all it’s worth.

    From my observations (and apparently confirmed by my spy on the inside muh ha ha), the cast members that need to be given more credit, in my opinion, are:

    Paul McCarthy: Love or love-to-hate, you can’t deny this guy is a brilliant impressionist (a fact which was then jumped upon and ground down until his Julia Gillard wasn’t funny any longer). He’s a natural, intelligent comedian, and in the right doses – like any performer – can really bolster a show.

    Genevieve Morris: Nothing needs to be said; we’re all on the same page about her.

    Olivia Stambouliah: Apparently coming from a straight (serious) theatre background explains this woman’s strong characters and attention to detail. Her Amy Winehouse never stopped, her male rapper in ep 2 was well-conceived, her interviewer in ep 3 (Tuffy? Toughly Nighty or something?) was bang-on and a sketch saver.

    Veronica Millsom: Solid workhorse. Had some of the most awful material and did it with grace and conviction. Her Gaga was reminiscent of the “Dumb Street” sketches from Fast Forward of old, and possibly an indicator of where that sketch should have been facing. And I know a few people who, like most of us, couldn’t believe a patchy Nigella Lawson sketch could make not one but TWO appearances, yet can NOT stop saying “I’m sure you’ll agree” in a soft British gush like it’s the catchphrase of the new millenium. And finally

    Lyall Brooks: This bloke is an absolute gun talent in the couple of live/musical theatre shows I’ve seen him in, and he was also one of the few reasons there was any entertainment value to that late-night gameshow The Mint a few years back. Again, bad/”meh” material in LFPE, but his lady bodybuilder, fat chef and bogan country Aussie characters hinted at a promising multi-talented comedian/actor. I don’t often say “one to watch” but – maybe – with the right projects and some guidance he could be a huge cross-platform star.

    Maybe I’m disproportionately impressed with the cast because I found the rest of the show so disappointing, but maybe I’m also keen on seeing genuine new talent getting some recognition in the future (something Ben Elton mentioned, and hats off to him if he meant it).

    Let me know your thoughts.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    I would agree that the cast are good performers. I don’t like Paul McCarthy or Veronica Milsom when they perform their own material (so, as poor as Elton’s material for them was, I’m glad they weren’t given the opportunity to write their own stuff), but they’re decent actors.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    My problem with the cast – and sorry if this hasn’t been made clear – isn’t so much whether they’re talented or not, but the fact that seeing (some of) them in ads inspires an enormous feeling of “oh no, not them again”.

    Paul McCarthy might be an amazing impersonator (I’m not convinced he is – technically he might be on the money, but his characters never seem like much fun), but his appearance in the credits of a show is a pretty solid indication of what kind of show you’re going to get after Comedy Inc and Double Take: a show created by committee, a show that feels like a factory product, and a show that, for want of a better term, ain’t funny.

    That’s not (all) his fault, of course, but that’s the reputation he’s developed in recent years, and he’s going to have work extremely hard to bust out of it. We all know opportunities are few and far between and you have to take what you can get, but at this stage he’s become, for me at least, the symbol of a certain kind of lifeless, corporate “comedy” that’s failed time and time again.

    The rest of the cast, for mine at least, struggled to differentiate themselves from the sub-par material they were working with. Honestly, a bit more corpsing, unprofessional tho it may have been, would have done wonders for the atmosphere.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    Very interesting interview with Kate McLennan in the most recent episode of The Little Dum Dum Club – http://dumdumclub.libsyn.com/ – which concurs with some of what you said, D.Sams. Also of interest is that as well as writing everything in the show, Elton directed it!