Australian comedy, particularly Australian comedy television, seem to be in one of its many “meh” phases. Angry Boys drags on and on, and newcomer Can of Worms (putting aside all the justly deserved criticism it received for the vast difference between what it promised and what it delivered) is equally dull television. Even Lawrence Leung’s Unbelievable, an entertaining and amusing comedy/documentary series looking at magic and the supernatural, is somewhat tainted by being yet another example of an over-used genre which dates back to at least the first half of the ’90s and Michael Moore’s TV Nation.
Unbelievable will be replaced in a couple of weeks by a show with roughly the same format, Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey, and while we understand that series is pretty good it’s kind of a shame that that style of show accounts for such a large proportion of the Australian scripted comedy TV made in recent times (the rest are mostly sitcoms). Where are the sketch shows, you might ask? Indeed, where are the shows which mess around with established genres, or aren’t simply one comedian’s personal take on an established genre.
In terms of the ABC we understand the problem is partly to do with budget. ABC comedy budgets these days don’t seem to be able to fund something as expensive as, say, a straight-out sketch show, so comedians are somewhat forced into doing stunts or documentary-style “investigations” – anything to keep sketches and scripted material to a minimum. Shows like Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle or the Louis CK sitcom Louie, which both combine stand-up with scripted material, might provide an alternative to the endless documentary-style shows, but even then an Australian version of either concept is bound to draw criticism simply for being unoriginal (and we’re equally guilty of that, we bagged the Peter Moon series Whatever Happened To That Guy? for being a Curb Your Enthusiasm rip-off, but grew to love it).
But of course, the ABC’s always been plagued by low budgets, so at least we have the commercial networks to serve up the kind of big budget scripted comedy we’d all like to see. Oh, yeah… As to the reasons why, here’s what Network Ten’s Chief Programming Officer David Mott had to say to the TV Central podcast on that subject a year ago:
Interviewer: One, kind of, one area where there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of movement on the, I guess, the commercial networks is, ah, scripted comedy, is that something that Ten’s been looking in to?
Mott: Ah, I’d say all networks continue to look at narrative, er, scripted comedy, um, hard to get good writers, to be honest, um, that’s always been a big issue. And, um, you know, I would say that certainly when we look at the trends going forward you could say that maybe comedy can, sort of, come back. Sketch has always been a bit hard, everyone’s tried sketch, that can become quite subjective. Um, and again, it’s so dependent on the writing. So, we’d never say no to narrative, er, comedy, ah, it just depends on the form it takes. Certainly with the success of Modern Family, it says that, and certainly the sort of sentiment of, of, of people now, seems that they, they want to laugh, and they want comedy, so, um, you know, maybe in the next 18 months or so you might see something come up.
And as we continue to wait for that something (surely he didn’t mean Offspring?), let’s look at the key points in detail:
“…certainly when we look at the trends going forward you could say that maybe comedy can, sort of, come back…”
Comedy is a “trend”? In the same way that wearing the sorts of clothes your grandparents wore when they were your age is right now? This is a ridiculous statement. Comedy is an ever-present genre of entertainment in the same way that drama is. Would anyone seriously claim that drama is unfashionable?
“Certainly with the success of Modern Family, it says that, and certainly the sort of sentiment of, of, of people now, seems that they, they want to laugh, and they want comedy…”
So, comedy’s not unfashionable after all? And because some people are enjoying an American sitcom therefore a similar group of people might also enjoy an Australian comedy? Yep, that makes heaps of sense.
“…hard to get good writers, to be honest…”
This is actually fair enough. Australian TV comedy could really do with some stronger writers. Having said that, with the lack of opportunities to gain experience as a comedy writer these days it seems unlikely that enough decent ones will be developed. And this is something broadcasters seem not to be willing to accept as being potentially damaging to their industry in the long term: if you don’t invest in developing comedy writers through, say, a late night sketch show, you won’t have the opportunity to hire them to make prime time scripted comedy programmes when they’re sufficiently good.
“Sketch has always been a bit hard, everyone’s tried sketch, that can become quite subjective.”
This is interesting, and something we’ve been pondering for a while: are certain genres or styles of comedy too risky for ratings-hungry networks to dabble in these days? Why bother spending loads of money on scripted comedy that might not attract the mass audience when you can make a middle-of-the-road panel show that will? The fact that a decent scripted comedy could do an equally job doesn’t enter into it, presumably, but we’re back to the earlier point about good writing again.
Anyway, perhaps this explains why in recent years it’s only been the ABC, and to a lesser extent SBS, who have had any ongoing commitment to scripted comedy: ratings matter less there. And why in commercial radio any shows with a comedy focus (as opposed to a mindless yammer focus) have been either axed (Get This), shunted off to a late-night slot (The Sweetest Plum) or not commissioned at all (countless). Amongst programmers and executives it seems that comedy is seen as something which stopped being fashionable or desirable at some point, and something they have no interest in making it involves even the slightest risk or investment. Which means heaps more panel shows – and that’s the bad news!
I’ll share my experiences – my sketch show Busted (www.youtube.com/jdubya2k) was considered ‘seriously undeveloped’ by the ABC people yet a month later they put on Hungry Beast, the most undeveloped, unfocused show Ive seen in years. Then SBS said the same thing to me while gushing about ‘Dave in the Life’ being the next big hit. Haven’t heard of ‘Dave in the Life’? Thats because it got cancelled almost immediately because, it was surprise surprise, undeveloped and basically a load of crap. This blog is spot on, basically the execs are only looking for cheap, reality type stuff like Lawrence Leung, they don’t want sets or props or scripts or anything old fashioned like that. Just for the record Ive gotten a lot of encouragement from writers in LA who work on shows like Robot Chicken and MAD, they’re my only lifeline/contact I have at the moment, Aussie TV people don’t really want to help you, I guess its too competitive.
Thanks for sharing – and for reminding us of ‘Dave in the Life’, AKA pretty much the only show before AD/BC that SBS pulled due to poor ratings. The concept (ripping off Morgan Spurlock / Michael Moore) was there, but the execution was, uh, not amazing.
Hungry Beast is more explainable, in that Denton’s foot is firmly in the door at the ABC so they’ll cut him slack others couldn’t hope to get (not to mention he has a solid track record). But even for a show that was meant to be a training ground it took a very long time to find its feet.
Comedians have to shoulder some of the responsibility for the current crop of reality shows too – it has to be loads more fun for them to travel the world asking questions than sitting in a room writing jokes for months on end.