Channel 9’s push to become the “Home of Comedy” this year hasn’t really worked out for them; Live From Planet Earth, the bumping of The Joy of Sets…even Hamish & Andy’s Gap Year. Sure, Gap Year made it to the end and managed decent enough ratings, but it wasn’t the greatest piece of television ever. What Gap Year did do, perhaps, is remind us of what works on Channel 9: light-hearted, inoffensive, variety programs. And in Hamish & Andy Channel 9 even had presenters who could make this kind of show for the 21st Century.
Since the first demise of Hey Hey it’s Saturday in 1999, Channel 9 have struggled when its come to light entertainment. For a network which had a strong history of success in this genre, with shows like In Melbourne Tonight and The Don Lane Show, this struggle has been painful. They sort of noticed that the comedy culture had changed (thanks largely to the 1980s cabaret scene), but couldn’t manage to find a way to make use of that new culture’s stars.
Should you happen to pick up a copy of either The Best of the Don Lane Show or The Best of the Don Lane Show 2, both of which feature classic episodes from the early 1980s, you’ll be struck by how quickly this cultural change must have happened. The Don Lane Show with its club comics, international guests, middle-of-the-road musical numbers and endless promotions for household products, wouldn’t have been out of place on TV in the 50s, 60s or 70s. And yet, despite sounding like the daggiest show ever made, it’s charming, delightful and often very funny.
It was also a variety show in the truest sense of the word, because apart from the ads and the entertainment, there were serious discussions of current affairs (with members of the 60 Minutes team and counter-culture “hero” Richard Neville), science demonstrations from actual professors, a live cross to the National Museum of Victoria to look at old artefacts, an entire show with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, performances from ballet dancers and opera singers, and an interview with a heavily-bearded and rather strange public servant about cryogenics. This wasn’t so much middle of the road, as all over it!
The Don Lane Show was also a program that had serious money thrown at it, meaning they could – and often did – do anything. From motorcycle stunts in the GTV-9 car park, to a live cross to Dame Edna at Madame Tussauds in London, to an entire program from Elvis Presley’s old home Gracelands, in Memphis, The Don Lane Show pushed early-80s TV technology to the limit, and the results are still exciting today. No one would, or would be able to, make The Don Lane Show today, of course, and it’s unlikely that today’s audiences would watch a contemporary equivalent, but there are still some lessons to learned from it.
Amongst these are that good, experienced performers, when given decent material and a bit of time, can turn something as banal as a prize draw into comedy gold. Watch one of Don and Bert’s classic wheel segments and you’ll wonder how much funnier Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation would be if Shaun Micallef was really allowed to let loose. Also worth noting is that mainstream audiences will sit down to watch “intellectual” things like current affairs, science and orchestras if they’re presented entertainingly – all you need is Bert Newton taking the piss out of the conductor of the latter, and you’re away.
So, in the truest tradition of Channel 9 variety, here comes the plug: this weekend, why not treat yourself to a Don Lane Show boxset? It’s worth it for the wheel segment which follows the cryogenics interview alone.