Not everyone loves The Jesters. We understand that. After all, after a decade where most Australian sitcoms were filmed in odour-rama stuck on “shit” coupled with a solid push claiming that ye olde sitcom format – that is, people on cheap sets telling obvious (if funny) jokes – was clearly inferior to a show filmed like a high-end drama series only with everyone saying “outrageous” things that would bore most primary school students, a regular old-fashioned funny sitcom most likely comes as a shock to the system.
But one thing is a bit of a puzzle. Most of the press about The Jesters has taken the path of least resistance: The Jesters (the comedy group) are basically The Chaser, Dave Davies (Mick Molloy’s character) is Andrew Denton, etc. It’s understandable, if not strictly true: Davies is nothing at all like Denton, he just has a similar gig as a mentor to a bunch of up-and-coming comedians, while The Jesters all have distinct comedy characters, which is something The Chaser never managed to do (was there any real difference between the on-screen personas of Chris Taylor and Craig Reucassel?).
The thing is though, with all the “The Jesters are basically The Chaser” chat, no-one seems to have noticed that, on The Jesters the actual Jesters TV show is, well… meant to be shit. Of course it is: it’s a lot easier to make jokes about a crap show than a successful one, as everything from 30 Rock to the first few series of Frontline has shown. But it doesn’t work both ways. Either it’s a copy of the original – in which case maybe the fact that it’s saying that The Chaser’s War on Everything was kind of shoddy is worth pointing out – or it’s a show that uses real-life as a springboard for something new.
[yes, it’s obviously the second. But the reviews, even the positive ones, have focused so heavily on the “it’s just like the Chaser! Mick’s just like Denton!” angle that it’s worth pointing out that, if that’s really the case, then there’s an actual story out there they’re missing. And if it’s not, maybe they could find something else to say.]
This does go a long way towards defusing the other occasional criticism of the show, where it’s supposedly simply and mindlessly re-telling recent real-life comedy controversies (the Chaser’s Make a Realistic Wish Foundation outcry for one) using characters closely modeled on The Chaser. While a straight re-telling of that controversy would certainly be interesting (to us, if no-one else), The Jesters is a comedy. Events and characters are exaggerated for comedic effect. Even if you don’t think the end result is funny, how hard can this be to understand?
One of the bigger problems comedy faces when it comes to criticism is literalism: the inability to understand that some things are meant to be a joke. The Jesters, by having a basic set-up somewhat close (on a superficial level) to an existing group of people and a real-life situation, is an obvious target for this kind of thinking. It’s the flip side of the reality TV boom: some viewers can’t understand why you’d choose to make a show less real, even if by doing so you made it more funny.
As always around these parts, it’d be nice to blame Chris Lilley for all this, seeing as his career has largely been made on the back of audiences saying “I know someone just like that!!!” (only presumably an actual schoolgirl or Asian, making the entire joke nothing more than the fact Lilley is playing dress-ups). But he was just surfing a pre-existing wave, where reality – or barring that, holding up an purposely blunt and un-altered mirror to real life – was seen as television’s ultimate purpose.
It’s been a few years since that wave crested (which is why it’ll be extremely interesting to see how Angry Boys does when it starts), and the return (and relative success) of shows like The Jesters to the Australian comedy firmament is a sign that the wave may be receding or fading or heading off to Noosa or whatever it is that waves do after they break.
Clearly the tide hasn’t completely turned (that’s enough of the water bizzo – ed) – The Jesters is still loosely based on an actual real-life comedy team, after all. But it’s a start, and the fact that this season has increasingly moved towards more sitcom-y plots (such as last week’s dinner party episode) is, as far as we’re concerned here, a step in the right direction. Because comedy should always be free to do whatever it takes to get a laugh – even if that involves telling jokes.