It was announced the other day that Rove McManus has become the latest Australian to score a gig on American TV, and that’s all well and good but why him? There are lots of other far better Australian comedians having a crack in the US, why aren’t they getting gigs? One such example is Gristmill, AKA Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler, who we understand were (or are) planning to move to the US to pursue opportunities. And with quality work like The Librarians and Very Small Business behind them there must surely be plenty of opportunities for them to pursue…or are there? Because it’s all very well for a bland, solid everyman like Rove McManus to make it overseas, but Gristmill’s focus has always been on uniquely Australian characters – characters possibly too unique for the US market – so, despite their obvious talent, are they ever going to get anywhere?
Breaking the US market’s historically been a big challenge for Australian comedians, even now when hundreds of Australians in other parts of the entertainment industry are making it big there. Barry Humphries made a number of attempts over a 30 year period before he finally did it, and the progress of others has also been slow. Sure, Chris Lilley’s done extremely well to get HBO on board for Angry Boys, and FX are about to screen the US re-make of Adam Zwar and Jason Gann’s series Wilfred, but when an Australian comedy or comedian goes to America it always seems to be one which isn’t specifically Australian. Which kinda rules out Gristmill.
Gristmill’s brilliance in The Librarians and Very Small Business was their ability to highlight and parody elements of Australian society. Very Small Business was a subtle and clever attack on the attitudes and values of “The Howard Battlers”, and similar themes, mixed with a liberal dose of Catholic guilt, were explored in The Librarians. But while both were brilliantly funny series it’s hard to imagine them having quite the same resonance overseas. Particularly in the US, where a local version of Gristmill would be focusing on a rather different set of cultural attitudes and values.
In contrast, the characters in Angry Boys and Wilfred don’t necessarily need to be Australian, nor is the humour of Rove McManus, or indeed Rebel Wilson (such as it is), rooted in a specific Australianess. Kath & Kim, which like Gristmill’s work also focused on Australian suburban attitudes, did not travel well to the United States. Indeed those who remade it clearly didn’t understand why the show worked, and so failed to adapt it for local audiences (quite possibly the show was un-adaptable). And perhaps the same is true of Gristmill’s work: if your comedy comes from your observations of the immediate world around you, the same world you grew up in, then it’s unlikely to travel well.
The point of this article is not to have a go at Gristmill’s style or whatever plans they have to go overseas: they’re talented, there’s nothing wrong with having a go overseas, and comedians focusing their attention on who we Australians are and how our country works is a perfectly valid thing (in fact it wouldn’t hurt if more comedians did it). All we’re trying to work out here is why local talents like Gristmill haven’t (yet) made it overseas.
It’s also interesting to note that Gristmill’s most recent work is a series of videos featuring Robyn Butler as right-wing shock jock Arabella Twat, a character who despite being very much a comment on local pundits like Miranda Devine, Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, could more easily be understood by overseas audiences than some of Butler and Hope’s other work. Either way, Twat (pronounced “Twart”, and very obviously both a twat and a tart) is another great creation and it will be fascinating to see how it develops. Gristmill’s website may list their US agent, and they may yet be heading to overseas, but Australian comedy would be all the poorer for losing them.