Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtian

We don’t normally get much mail here at Tumbleweeds Central, but our recent post on Lawrence Leung’s new show Unbelievable drove someone to write in with a John Safran / Leung connection we’d missed*. It seems that, for once, our comparison of Unbelievable with Safran’s earlier shows had some basis in real-world events:

There is a link between Safran and Lawrence that you might not have noticed…. Craig Melville. He is the Director for all of Safran’s shows, and is a constant creative influence for John. He was also a Director for the War on Everything and a Director/Producer for both of Lawrence’s shows.

You learn something new every day. But while this letter was informative, it also raised another question: how much attention should we (the media in general, not us: who cares what we have to say?) be paying to the directors of Australian television comedies? The performers get the spotlight, and the writers occasionally get a nod (especially as in these days of shrinking budgets they’re increasingly one and the same), but the directors? They barely rate a mention, even from self-proclaimed experts like… well, us.

It’s not like Australia doesn’t have a proud tradition of comedy directors either. There’s the twenty year career of Ted Emery for one.  Now that Full Frontal series four and five are out on DVD, it’s possible to trace his sketch comedy work with Micallef right through to the end of The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) – and see the way his style shifted to grow with Micallef’s expanded ambitions. Or was it the other way around?

(Emery’s also directed episodes of Welcher & Welcher, Hamish & Andy’s first show on Seven, Kath & Kim and Whatever Happened to That Guy. He’s supposedly now at work on the upcoming Kath & Kim movie, making him for the most part a name to watch out for)

At the other end of the spectrum there’s Ted Robinson, the man behind Good News Week, The Big Gig, The Gillies Report, Good News Week knockoff The Glasshouse, Big Gig knockoff The Sideshow, Good News Week again, Big Gig spin-off In Harmers Way, Big Gig spin-off Kittson Fahey, Big Gig spin-off DAAS Kapital, Big Gig/ Gillies Report spin-off Three Men and a Baby Grand, Gillies Report spin-off Gillies and Company, Gillies Report spin-off The Dingo Principle and Live & Sweaty. So again, he’s a name to watch out for.

More recently, Chris Lilley’s worked with director Stuart McDonald on both Angry Boys and Summer Heights High (McDonald’s done a fair bit of  ‘straight’  drama too, including episodes of Tangle and Rush), though oddly he hasn’t worked with We Can Be Heroes director Matthew Saville (who’s also directed episodes of Tangle, as well as the currently on-air Cloudstreet) again. If we subscribed to the currently fashionable idea that WCBH was Lilley’s peak and it’s all been downhill from there, this could be interesting. Sadly, we don’t: WCBH was just as painful as Lilley’s later work, and being shorter and tighter doesn’t really change that.

That’s where this theory about the importance of directors falls down. Well, actually it falls down with the example of Laid. It was a crap not-quite comedy directed by Trent O’Donnell, who also directed the much, much funnier Review With Myles Barlow. Different writers. different performers, different result. Of course, directors are vitally important when it comes to getting a television show made. It’s just that when it comes to getting a funny television show made, they’re way, way down on a list that really only contains those two jobs we just mentioned: writers and performers.

Another example: Tony Martin’s a very funny guy. He’s got a unique comedy style. He directed two episodes of the last series of Very Small Business (edit: as pointed out below, we mean The Librarians), and it’s all but impossible to tell which ones without checking the credits. That’s because in television a director’s job is to get the shots needed to get the show made: pretty much all the big creative decisions have been made in the writers room or are made by the performers on the day.

Why? To a large extent it comes down to money. There just isn’t the money to spend messing about with a director’s creative whims. Writers can come up with anything then change it with a press of the delete key. Performers can tweak their work in an instant. Directors are an important sounding board and – of course – contribute a lot to the finished product. They just don’t do as much as writers and performers, especially when you’re talking about experianced writer-performers like The Chaser or Micallef with dozens of hours of television under their belts. After all, Working Dog have been directing their own stuff since Frontline.

So much as we’d like to usher in a new director-focused focus here, we… nah. Clearly there’s mileage to be had in taking a closer look at the behind-the-scenes teams putting together our comedy. No doubt we’ll trumpet their good work from time to time. But when Angry Boys is tanking so badly in the ratings (last week was down to almost a third of the week one figures) that the ABC seem to be pulling the tried-and-tested ratings-boosting swifty of bunging on repeats within the same week in the hope of bumping up viewer numbers, you’ll forgive us if our attention (and our snark) remains focused elsewhere.


*and yes, they’re also co-hosting TripleJ’s breakfast show this week, making them officially at least as friendly as Judith Lucy and Helen Razer were when they worked together on JJJ

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  • Robert says:

    The Librarians, not Very Small Business, as I’m sure you know.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    As someone who’s never worked in TV it’s a little hard to judge the likely effect of a director on a show. I’ll throw two thoughts out there, though.

    1) The episodes of The Librarians directed by Tony Martin seemed to have a slightly different tone or style to them, although as I knew in advance which ones they were I wasn’t exactly an objective observer of that.

    2) Editors can have an equally important impact on how funny a scene is, as their ability to get the edit right can mean the difference between a well-timed joke and a joke that falls on its arse. Directors, in contrast, are more likely to have an impact on things like a performer’s performance (i.e. judging whether they’ve gone overboard in their delivery) or the interplay between set/costumes/camera angles/lighting/performance/script – an important role sometimes overlooked in TV.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    It is a lot different from film though, where the director is assumed to be the source of and mind behind pretty much everything. It’s more a matter of where you draw the line when talking about these things – everyone involved in a program has an impact on how it turns out, but there has to be a point where you just point a finger and say “s/he’s the one to blame”.

    There’s a reason why most decent reviews rarely blame actors when a film stinks: it’s far more often the case that actors are miscast than it is that they do their job poorly, simply because there are people above them in the process whose jobs it is to make sure they get the right person for the job. And in television those people are the producers, some of whom are also almost always the writers and performers.

  • James says:

    I think you’re mistaken to assume a director’s role is markedly different between drama and comedy. It’s the same job, and they deserve the same level of credit or lack thereof.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    We’re assuming the difference is more between film (where the director is king) and television (where the director plays second fiddle in many ways) than the nature of the show they’re making. As you say, making comedy and making drama are relatively similar (unless you’re talking about the improv-heavy comedies coming out of the US, where the director gives the cast a freedom they simply wouldn’t get in a drama)