Questions Without Notice

Here’s a question we’re yet to see answered: where exactly did the idea for At Home With Julia come from? Yes, Amanda Bishop was doing her Julia Gillard impersonation well before the surprisingly well-received ABC sitcom was announced, so chances are she had dreams of leveraging her performance into actual television work. But Veronica Milsom, Jackie Loeb and Lynne Cazaly were also peddling Gillard acts back during the 2010 election (as we discussed here and here) and no-one seems to have given them a sitcom. Did Bishop pitch the sitcom to the ABC (and if so, did any of the other Gillard impressionists do likewise), or did the ABC approach her to do a show? And if the ABC approached her, since when has the ABC been going around asking for shows directly aimed at taking a swing at the Prime Minister?

And while we’re throwing out the At Home with Julia questions, here’s a few more (don’t worry, we’ll answer most of them ourselves);

Maybe Bishop’s performance as Gillard was so strong the ABC simply had to reach out and give her a sitcom? Well, considering pretty much every review we’ve read – including our own – has described her impression as weak or worse, perhaps not. Especially considering Bishop is hardly alone in putting on a Gillard act.

Well then, was Gillard so uniquely ripe for impersonation that the ABC simply caved in under the weight of the obvious comedy potential to be mined from her private life? Considering even Rubbery Figures could get laughs out of John Howard and Rove did a semi-decent job of Rudd-baiting with their Kevin Rudd, P.M. short segments (while Anthony Ackroyd and Paul McCarthy both did Rudd impressions yet oddly weren’t given ABC sitcoms), it’s hard to see what makes Gillard so special she deserves her own solo sitcom.

Was the ABC so short of comedy material for 2011 they had to rush out a sitcom – filmed in July, airing in September – to plug an otherwise fatal gap? Considering the amount of material they have on the shelves (we’ve been told that Outland is done and in the queue for one) or are airing on ABC2 at the moment, perhaps not.

Was Gillard getting a sitcom while Rudd barely got a smirk just poor timing? Probably. Both The Glasshouse and The Chaser’s War on Everything – shows that made much hay from the Howard government – fizzled out around the end of Howard / the rise of Rudd, and the ABC showed little inclination to replace them with similar political-themed comedy (or “comedy”, depending on your opinions of said shows). If the ABC had kept a weekly satirical show going under Labor, a decent Gillard impression would have found both a natural home and a focus on her politics – which is kind of what counts in a PM – rather than wild swings at her fictional home life.

Is an entire sitcom slagging off the sitting Prime Minister overkill? Well, seeing how little effort the ABC has put into political satire since The Chaser lost interest in it, probably not. This is one single show balancing out the decade of non-stop Howard jokes the ABC served up during his reign (let’s not forget BackBerner, which was pretty much the last “satirical” sketch comedy show the ABC ran). Considering the traditional excuse for going after Howard during his reign was “there’s no point going after the opposition, they’re not the ones with the power to do anything”, it’s fairly well established that the point of political comedy is to attack those in power. Which Gillard currently is.

What about the increasingly shrill, desperate and nonsensical right-wing of Australian politics? Surely there’s just as many laughs to be had there? Well yes, but they’re not currently running the country. What most of us think of when we thing of  “right-wing nutbags” are just as likely to be media commentators as actual politicians (quick, name a federal Liberal politician who isn’t Tony Abbott), so presumably The Chaser’s upcoming Gruen-like look at the world of television The Hamster Wheel (starting October 5th) will take a hammer to them. And there’s always the very funny Media Watch, which doesn’t let Alan Jones get away with much these days.

But at least At Home with Julia could make some jokes about how, say, the right-wing press makes a big deal out of her and Tim not being married (unmarried couples aren’t exactly shocking in the real world circa 2011) instead of simply taking and supporting that right-wing view? Sure. But remember that first paragraph about who gave this series the green light and why? It’s safe to assume that in giving the thumbs up to a show making fun of a Labor PM in an obvious attempt to balance out the attacks dished out on the previous Liberal PM, it’s a little unlikely that the brief would have been to support and endorse Julia Gillard.

So if all that’s the case then, why is it going so soft on Gillard? After all, she’s being shown as being basically well-meaning but busy while Tim is the bungling one being picked on by schoolkids. Well, presumably sinking the boots in hard into the PM would be a bit much to stomach even for the ABC – gone are the days when Wil Anderson could call then communications minister Richard Alston a “right-wing pig-rooter” on The Glasshouse. There’s little denying the show is largely mild and inoffensive; that’s both its biggest strength and its most serious weakness.

As satire, At Home with Julia is a pathetic waste of time. It has no thesis, no argument, no real point of view and nothing serious to say about politics, how this country is run or the people running it. But as a traditional wacky sitcom, it’s surprisingly funny (that is to say, it’s occasionally funny). By having the Gillard stuff as their hook, the creative team has been freed of the usual demands to try something new (read: make it more like a drama) with the sitcom format and been able to get laughs out of the kind of material we almost never see these days: running jokes, broad & silly characters, funny dialogue, obvious set-ups and visual gags.

It doesn’t hurt that Phil Lloyd’s Tim is both funny and (slightly) tragic, giving him one more side than most Australian comedy characters of recent years. But the show as a whole is shaping up to be one stinging rebuke to those who say we can’t make sitcoms here (Twentysomething being the other one); clearly Australians can make decent sitcoms when they’re allowed to make sitcoms that are meant to be funny, not quasi-dramas built around “will-they-or-won’t-they” sexual tension.

Congratulations, Australian Broadcasting Corporation: in trying to make one point about your editorial policies, you’ve inadvertently made another. And considering we take comedy a lot more seriously than we do politics, we’re a lot more concerned about the obstacles you put in the way of good comedy than we are about your attempts to be “fair and balanced”. Put making a decent comedy first and the laughs will follow; put political point-scoring first and you’ve got Andrew Bolt on Insiders.

… actually, considering how hilarious The Bolt Report has turned out to be, just forget we said anything…

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  • BillyC says:

    You are assuming that television comedy in Australia works in a way that makes sense. That the ABC go out and develop programs and work with people and ask them to submit ideas and front of some cash for development. The reality is there are about four or five independent companies that pitch shows and sometimes get them up. Every now and then they get something from community tv or someone makes a no budget pilot and they commission on that basis. There’s not much development money around. Even if the other impersonators pitched something who would make it? Certainly not in house at the ABC where it would cost a fortune. What was the last scripted comedy made solely by the ABC? Grassroots maybe? Dogshead Bay? At Home With Julia brought a team that has made television before and had a proven ability to at least get something to air. I make no comment on the quality. I suppose they aired it quickly to prevent irrelevance and for no other reason.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Fair points, but if they wanted to prevent irrelevance why make this show now? Gillard’s been in power for over a year, and the impressionists were copying her back during the 2010 election. And impressionists were imitating Rudd for years before that.

    The lack of in-house production at the ABC simply means an extra step in getting a show made – you pitch to a production company and if they say yes you then get to go with them and pitch to the ABC.

    So to add to our questions, are impressionists constantly bombarding the ABC with sitcom ideas, or was this a fluke one-off? Are production companies constantly meeting with impressionists and putting together packages or was this the first time it has happened? What is it about the ABC that made this idea the right idea for now – an idea so right it had to be rushed to air in weeks rather than the more typical months or years? Is Julia Gillard’s home life so clearly much more hilarious than Rudd’s, or Howard’s, or any other PM?