In one of our semi-regular trawls for Australian comedy online we recently came across the web series Lights, Camera, Maction! made by and starring Perth radio personality Sam Mac. Episode 1 wasn’t too bad for a deliberately shonky series aimed at the YouTube audience; Peter Helliar was mocked for his succession of axed sports/comedy shows, there was a segment called What Girls Like! in which Sam and David M. Green tried to appeal to women, and things wound-up in true YouTube style with some bad karaoke and a dancing cat. Fair enough as a first attempt.
The only problem is that every subsequent episode has been roughly the same, except that there’s now an ongoing gag about Joseph Fritzel being more popular than the show. But, as that Fritzel gag isn’t really being developed much (more done over and over again), well, put it this way, our search for really amazing Australian comedy online continues.
Viewing these videos in the week of the debut of Hamish & Andy’s Gap Year, a show which also features a similarly shonky style and a number of familiar conceits, sure made us wonder why many comedians and producers in this country don’t realise that doing roughly the same thing over and over again is just going to get boring for audiences. With Hamish & Andy’s Gap Year this point is particularly key because wasn’t their move away from daily radio and into TV supposed to be about them trying some new ideas?
Unfortunately for viewers expecting something fresh and exciting from the Kings of Radio, their low-budget, shonky take on the US late night talk show didn’t really work, although not because it was low-budget shonk, it was that lack of ideas thing again. Particularly a lack of new ideas, or different ideas, or crucially, good ideas. Run out of those, particularly in comedy, and audiences drift away.
Which is why we’re kind of sad that every episode of Lights, Camera, Action! is roughly the same show. The individual sketch ideas are quite good (if only done once) and the series manages to both revel in and mock YouTube’s obsession with dancing animals, lame graphics and filming yourself being a dickhead for no reason. Like Hamish & Andy, the spirit is right, but the new ideas just aren’t there.
We’ve been in the “one idea stretched out over six years” phase of television for a while now – just check out any sketch comedy, where episode one seems great then episodes two-six turns out to be the same characters in basically the same sketches. Whether it’s laziness or a desperate attempt to turn dull characters and jokes into viral catchphrases… well, the result is the same either way.
As for Hamish & Andy, I’m more inclined to cut them some slack here, if only because it’s not like they’ve just taken a bunch of radio characters and catchphrases and dumped them onto television. They’re not exactly breaking new ground, but at this stage of the transition slow and steady isn’t a bad way to go.
Of course, if the show tanks it’ll be because they didn’t try new things and if it’s a success they’ll never have to try new things, so fingers crossed they get around to trying something new before their fate is sealed either way.
It just felt like more of the same from H&A, stuff we’ve seen on their past TV shows or heard on their radio program. I guess I was hoping they’d really try something new like sketches or whatever. Maybe they’ve got Ryan Shelton in to make some of those, not that he was in the first episode. Where was he?
Maybe Shelton is just writing for them? It’d be a shame not to see him on-camera at some stage…
Don’t really have anything against them, but Hamish & Andy aren’t the future of television comedy. They’re just the youngest hangers-on from it’s past. The network model works on the assumption that TV is a time-waster for most people; that they’re going to come home, microwave their dinner and watch whatever is on, even if it’s a test pattern. By that model, TV shows don’t have to be worth watching in their own right. They just have to be more attractive than what’s on the other channels for enough people to make them worthwhile to produce. Hence, shows like this one, and ABC’s numerous cheap comedy panel shows and Can of Worms and endless Masterchef.
Now we have easier access to non-network options, that model is going to be less effective with each passing year. If you’re just sitting in front of the TV out of habit, Hamish and Andy are probably more attractive than Master Renovation Extreme Vet Force to a lot of people. But if you can watch anything you want to at any time, through DVR, torrents, YouTube, streaming, DVD box sets… why would you pick a couple of clowns who can barely be bothered? In that world, pointing a camera at two likeable guys and hoping for the best isn’t going to cut it.
Frankly, it’s only the colossal laziness of viewers and their unwillingness to try anything new that’s keeping Blake, Lee, Adam Hills, DIcko, Wil Anderson and all that lot going. I love watching TV, which is why I haven’t bothered tuning an aerial in half a decade now. I can download enough great shows – shows that have had hours of writing and production and direction and stacks of creativity poured into them – to keep me entertained for a couple of hours a night without any trouble. Sooner or later, everyone will be doing the same thing.
When everyone is choosing their entertainment- really choosing – who’s going to choose something like Gap Year?
The problem with the model you’re suggesting is that there are a *lot* of people who actively choose to watch shows like Masterchef. That’s not to say the future you’re talking about isn’t coming, but it’s only coming for some forms of programming – scripted drama & comedy for example.
The future of broadcast television seems increasingly likely to be in “event” viewing – the kind of show you have to watch as it’s happening if you’re going to be part of the workplace conversation the next day. That’s where the viewers for Masterchef et al lie, in people who watch television to be part of an experience they can share with others (while HBO series and their ilk become more like novels that are handed around and talked about in a very different way).
In that light, a show like Gap Year clearly can still work, but only if they can make it something people feel they *have* to watch as it happens – much like Gruen, Can of Worms, and even Angry Boys (amongst teenagers). Whether they can create that level of week-to-week interest remains to be seen.
(clearly the bad news amongst all this is that smaller, niche programming – that is, most of the comedies that are any good – are going to do it tough as they compete against, as you point out, “anything you want to [watch] at any time”)
You’re right about people choosing to watch Masterchef, but I have to believe that many of those people don’t really understand what’s available to them. Viewers 35+ have had a whole lifetime of consuming whatever the networks dished up and those viewing habits aren’t easily shifted.
I’m not sure I think that niche programming is going to struggle that much though. The market for programming is global now and with a larger total audience, you get the same amount of eyeballs appealing to a smaller percentage of viewers than ever before. It’s a tough world but small players can make it. I think the best example out there at the moment is Louis CK. ‘Louie’ will never have tonnes of viewers but it offers a unique creative voice that is like nothing else on television. That combined with a tiny budget makes it viable for a small broadcaster.
There’s no monetary reason why a show like that couldn’t be made in Australia. Especially by a broadcaster like the ABC, who have great opportunities to on-sell quality content overseas. But who would write/direct/produce it? I can’t think of anyone who has the vision to get it done. Maybe we’ll grow some. I hold out some hope that maybe the example of ‘Laid’ might lead to something good being made in the future. ‘Laid’ was auteur-television of a sort; Hardy was just a really awful auteur. Still, it seems the ABC considered it a success, maybe it could lead to them giving a shot to someone with a great script and some hunger, rather than someone who’s mum and dad worked in TV for a while. You never know.
I actually think it’s two different television markets you’re talking about (in the same way that the people who go see Transformers 3 aren’t the same movie-goers who watch arthouse film – there’s an overlap, but not a big one). There are plenty of under 35s who are massive fans of Masterchef and aren’t all that interested in watching scripted television – it’s a social thing (like going to the movies with mates or their partner on a Saturday night), not something they really expect a high level of “art” from. It’s like telling 95% of Harry Potter fans that there are much, much better fantasy novels out there – they know what they like and they don’t have time / interest in searching out anything more.
The trouble with the global marketplace is that downloads and viewers in and of themselves don’t pay. Louie’s unique creative voice doesn’t count for jack if it doesn’t make financial sense for the parent company, and that still boils down to old-fashioned ideas like advertising and DVD sales.
The local examples you’re looking for are more like Wilfred (where they sold the format and half the cast) and Beached Az (where merch covers costs). So these new models are hardly guarantees of quality (not that you said they were, of course). That said, ABC2 does have a bunch of scripted comedies coming up (eventually), so perhaps they’ll provide stronger examples of what you’re talking about. Fingers crossed.
You’re right about the monetization issue but the industry is going through a transition at the moment. Currently, downloads don’t mean much for profit (although for stuff like product placement…). However, in the next decade, I expect to see the industry waking up and providing better on-demand internet services to match the convenience of torrents and finding new ways to make money from their content.
As far as the specific example of Louie, it’s an interesting test case. The way I see it (touch wood) on a strictly local level, it’s doing just well enough in a traditional ratings sense for FX to keep footing it’s fairly modest bills. Outside of that though, the critical interest and international illegal downloading attention it’s had has taken CK from being a reasonably well known comic in North America to someone who can sell out a theatre anywhere English is spoken. Maybe from an artists perspective, TV can take a strategy from music. Let people steal shit and make your money touring. It won’t work for everyone, but it might for some, especially in comedy.
I think I overstated my original thoughts, in that I don’t expect the likes of Transformers 3 and Masterchef to ever be obliterated by the Power of People Deciding. But I do worry that Australian broadcasters are far too focused on cheap infotainment and late-night-mysteriously-in-prime-time shows and we’re left with no one who can compete with high-quality foreign content, as we’ll increasingly need to.
Well, Louie CK was reasonably well known (and an excellent stand-up by all accounts) beforehand, and having a TV show that’s even halfway decent is always going to be a massive boost to a stand-up career. The problem there is, what if you’re a comedian who just wants to make television? Shaun Micallef is doing a bit of live stuff and Tony Martin has done a handful of book readings, but neither seem like they’re going to be doing big tours to sell-out crowds. That’s Dave Hughes’ job.
You’re right that Australian television will need to be able to compete with high-quality overseas offerings, though probably just being local will be a big help – Packed to the Rafters isn’t a match for most overseas dramas, but it does just fine here. Hopefully the economies of television making will eventually get to a stage where the costs are so low talent alone is enough to give you a shot.
Again, ABC2 seems to be putting money into low budget scripted comedy, fingers crossed that experiment pays off.
An interesting discussion. If you’ve seen the U.K comedy show Comedy Connections you’ll see that there are very few shows that were first time hits from first time talents. Almost everyone had a couple of duds first. The Librarians got better and I think those guys have the experience now to do something a lot more interesting and well made than when they started. What will the Myles Barlow people come up with next? The commercial networks should throw some money at doing some low budget online content and see if anything good comes out of it or do something like Channel 4’s comedy lab. Commission 4 pilots and put them out there and then commission one or two of them. There’s no development in this county. Compare it to live stand-up where in the U.K Australia punches well above its weight. The Edinburgh Fringe just started and every year there are loads of 4 star reviews of Australian Acts. But what happens to 90% of them. Nothing. If they are lucky they get to go on Good News Week. They don’t get development deals to try out ideas.
What happened to the Myles Barlow people? They’re doing that sitcom At Home With Julia, a hilarious look at life in The Lodge.
Lack of professional development opportunities is definitely a problem in the Australian industry. People basically have to develop themselves, which isn’t necessarily the best approach to things.
With Denton / Zapruder currently flooding the comedy timeslots with panel discussion shows (hands up who’s looking forward to Gruen World?), a lot of comedians won’t even get a chance to develop their own ideas. Their role is seen as basically being fodder for someone else’s show.
(not that this is new – remember the stories of Tony Martin and Mick Molloy being offered the Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush hosting role seconds after their own show ideas were knocked back at Nine?)