In review: Totally Full Frontal – Series One

It’s crap.

And with the obvious out of the way, let’s get down to business. 1998’s Totally Full Frontal was the third version of the by-now-a-full-decade-old Fast Forward franchise, where television and ad parodies mingled with single gag snippets and traditional comedy sketches to create an hour of, at the very least, television.

When most of the original former D-Generation cast members (along with Steve Vizard) drifted away from Fast Forward at the end of series four, a bunch of newcomers (including Eric Bana, Kitty Flanagan and Shaun Micallef) were brought in and the show was renamed Full Frontal. After a few more years and with ratings falling, Bana gone (in series four) and Micallef off doing his own thing (halfway through series five), Seven finally gave the series the heave-ho.

In swooped Ten (yes, at least one article compared it to Ten grabbing the also discarded Neighbours from Seven) and the franchise was once again re-titled and given a shot of new talent. Unfortunately, this time the new talent was Julia Zemiro, Vic Plume and Paul McCarthy.

It’s no surprise that television executives like to rely on formats rather than talent, but sketch comedy – and comedy in general – can’t really be boiled down to a sure-fire structure. Without A-grade talent, Totally Full Frontal had nothing to offer but joke-free parodies, segment concepts that might have sounded funny but sure didn’t look it and character sketches that lacked character. How close to the bottom of the barrel were they scraping? Chubby funster Dave “I wrote Takeaway” O’Neil was the head writer, which doesn’t exactly inspire… well, much of anything. Maybe hunger?

In earlier incarnations the show had been just as formula-bound – for example, the idea of a central fake news report carried over from Full Frontal to Totally Full Frontal basically unchanged. But Fast Forward had been put together by a crew of highly experienced sketch performers who’d honed their skills on stage and earlier shows; Full Frontal gave talented individual performers like Bana and Micallef room to do their own offbeat thing between the more traditional material. Whether due to lack of cast talent (no-one on Totally Full Frontal has gone on to display any real flair for scripted comedy) or an edict from upstairs to stick to the basics, Totally Full Frontal was generic front to back.

Despite its total blandness, it is notable for one thing (thank God): it was the first 21st century Australian sketch show. Put another way, if you go from Fast Forward to Full Frontal to Totally Full Frontal (as we’ve been doing at Tumbleweed HQ), the decline in quality is painfully obvious; if you work backwards in time from Double Take to The Wedge to Big Bite to Comedy Inc to Skithouse (and they’re all available on DVD if you want to try this at home, though we don’t really advise it) to Totally Full Frontal, it’s pretty much the same note all the way through.

While at the time Totally Full Frontal was only a moderate success (it lasted two, mostly reviled series), it seems to have been amazingly influential. Previous sketch shows were built around a talented core that had a history together, or failing that, would give talented newcomers free reign (as Big Bite would later do with Chris Lilley): Totally Full Frontal showed that you could lump together a bunch of only moderately talented people, hire a range of largely forgettable writers, and have the whole thing directed by uninspired professionals with one eye on the clock and still have a show that people would watch.

It’s this approach that, after a decade or so, has totally and utterly killed sketch comedy in this country. The fact that it took a solid decade of shit show after shit show after utterly shit show (that would be Let Loose Live) to achieve this will give you an idea of just how loved this kind of comedy once was in this country.

So thanks, Totally Full Frontal. Thanks for giving us Vic Plume gurning like a lunatic every time the camera pointed even remotely in his direction. Thanks for giving Ross Williams a few more years to try and perfect his seemingly palsy-afflicted newsreader character. Thanks for kick-starting Paul McCarthy’s career as Australia’s most “meh” master of disguise. And most of all, thanks for establishing a level of mediocrity that would eventually infect and destroy a form of Australian television comedy that had been thriving since the 1960s. For that, we salute you. We probably won’t be using all our fingers though.

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  • tim says:

    Do you think they’ve given up on sketch comedy because of the row of failures, or beacuse of the rise of the cheap pannel show? And how many more failed pannel shows do you think it’ll take to kill off the format (if possible).

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Well, the cheap panel show overlapped with sketch shows for a long time – The Panel was the same year as Totally Full Frontal, and GNW was even earlier. But it certainly was a contributing factor. If there had been decent sketch shows around the format might have held on, but panel shows had cheapness on their side – not to mention being able to pluck people out of the stand-up training ground as ready-made guests. Having university revues die off meant that sketch shows had to train people from the ground up (or use stand-ups, which is a completely different skill), and that’s got to affect the quality.

    The thing is, if panel shows died off, we wouldn’t see sketch shows coming back – there’d just be nothing. Or worse, collections of clips ripped off YouTube.

  • billy C says:

    The elephant in the room of course is that Sketch counts as drama points. From memory if you have recurring characters. Hence Comedy Inc staying around so long late at night. It’s cheaper than drama but still gives the networks the points.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    True. It’s probably not a co-incidence that Comedy Inc got the arse around the time Nine got the Underbelly franchise up and running. That does hold out some small hope though that if Australian drama hits one of its regular slumps sketch comedy (and even sitcoms) might make a comeback. Might.

  • Emma Goldson says:

    You suck! Go watch Agro’s Cartoon Connection, you fag!