In what passes for television news at this time of year, may we present this Channel Ten press release someone slid under our clubhouse door:
Kicking off on Sunday January 22, The Project will take up permanent residence at 6pm, six days a week. This move returns Ten News at Five to its traditional one hour format and introduces an exciting new 30-minute edition of The Project to kick-start TEN’s Sunday nights.
Further details have since come to hand – The Age reports the first half of the new Project will focus exclusively on the news headlines of the day, for one – but we’re long past caring about the actual content of The (7pm) Project here. It’s been a soft-soap version of Today Tonight for well over a year now, hosted by the increasingly self-satisfied Charlie Pickering, the now completely pointless Dave Hughes, and an ever-increasing roster of people who’s names we see no reason whatsoever to recall. Pickering and Hughes might still put down “comedian” on their census forms, but out in the real world they’re currently standing shoulder to shoulder with professional bland guys like Larry Emdur. And he’s doing a much better job.
No, what’s of interest here is the way Ten seems to be going out of their way to sink The Project after spending so very, very long trying to make it work. Short version of the story: The 7pm Project rated so badly during its first few weeks and months its doom seemed assured (and yes, we weren’t going to be sad to see it leave). But Ten stuck by it to an amazing extent as it changed casts and approaches and pretty much everything else until it started to click. Even then it was largely reliant on what was happening around it – during the MasterChef heyday it did gangbusters because it latched onto the more successful series and never let go – but through thick and thin Ten kept it in the 7pm timeslot where people could find it and gave it a chance to build an audience.
To quote from the classics, now all that’s changed. First it went to an hour format starting at 6.30pm, and now it’s going to 6pm, where it will go head-to-head with the regular nightly news on Seven and Nine. Where it will lose. And it won’t be going back to 7pm, because Ten plans to stick all its top-rating food-related reality shows on then. And then someone is going to ask why they’re spending all that money on a show that comes third in a timeslot they used to do perfectly well in by showing repeats of The Simpsons, and that will be the end of that story.
But if you’re sick of our snark, here’s an alternative prediction: with the spotlight sliding off them, the Project team decide to actually do what they originally semi-promised to do – make fun of the daily news. They take their occasional quips and news footage bits and expand them until they make up the show itself – a show that’s smart enough to pull back the curtain on how politicians and big business use the media to get their points across, yet silly enough to make sure the jokes keep on coming.
Dave Hughes quits to go stare at his kids, Charlie Pickering implodes into a white-hot ball of smug, and the fill-on hosts keep on doing a better job than the big names. The guest comedians get more airtime, the on-panel pundits get less, the stories that actually tackle issues keep coming while the Today Tonight-style button-pushing ones get the chop, and somehow despite all these changes audiences keep on watching.
And then Graham Kennedy comes back from the dead to host, because that’s actually slightly more likely than everything else on our wish list.
I’ve seen Pickering do stand-up now and then over the past ten years. He was always pretty polished and inoffensive with occasional glimpses of something better. He was never in my mind bad. He’s pretty much a news reader now in the public’s mind which is a shame. With a dozen or so funny people writing for him he could have done something good. At least he still has a role, Hughes is no improvisor, can barely deliver a sentence without stumbling over it and really has nothing to contribute to the show apart from prepared video gags. I used to think the occasional chuckle watching was better than nothing but now I actually prefer nothing.
Pickering is an interesting case in that he always seemed to have a slightly smarmy tinge to him, even back on The Mansion (which was the last / only time he really tried to do comedy on television). But at least there he had the Chambo as the in-yr-face one to kind of explain why he was so smug and laid-back.
In that light, a mainstream gig reading the news was the worst possible thing that could have happened to him career-wise, allowing the worst (that is, the smuggest and smarmiest) aspects of his comedy persona to flourish. The best gig for him would have been the bungling on-site reporter covering feel-good stories, his smarm and arrogance undercut by frenzied little kids or a pooping giraffe.
(His constant, over-the-top laughing at everything Micallef says or does on TAYG doesn’t exactly dispel the feeling he’s more interested in making a name for himself then he is with being funny either. Why keep providing reaction shots unless you want to make sure they keep cutting to you instead of the other two team captains? Why provide a laugh-track to one of the funniest men on Australian television?)
I always assumed he genuinely found Micallef pretty funny. Why cut to him? Because you need to have edit points in a show and Micallef often pauses for a period of time and you need a gap between asking and answering. You’re not going to cut to Josh Thomas not getting the joke and I’m pretty sure they never show the audience. He’s the only one who ever really reacts. Don’t get me wrong I’m not a particular fan, I saw some of his really early gigs years and years ago before he was on Triple J and for his age and experience he was always pretty sharp confident and prepared. You could tell he had more polish than the other open mic types on at the same rooms. Not surprised at all that he’s ended up doing well. It’s just a shame that most comics seem to end up being ‘personalities’ on tv or radio rather than being allowed to be comics.
Oh, there’s no disputing they need editing points after Micallef’s jokes – it’s just that, with two other cast members, Pickering gets the air time because he’s the one busting a gut. In a way, everyone’s a winner – he gets his face on the ads a lot more and the producers don’t have to worry about finding something to cut to. Of course, the producers could tell the other two to react a bit more as well.
Being a comedian on television is something you really have to work at, as there’s always going to be more work around hosting. But it’s not like there are no comedians on Australian television either – if that’s what you’re committed to, you can still make a go of it.