Live From Planet America

In recent years we’ve seen the ABC attempt to bring a little sparkle and mass appeal to its more serious outputs. Perhaps this was inspired by the phenomenal success of The Daily Show and the many failed attempts by local comedians to make an equivalent program? Either way, some wag in some ABC newsroom seems to have thought “Maybe the way to approach this is via the News department?”. And perhaps this is why in 2010 Wendy Harmer and Angela Catterns took over the Friday evening slot on News Radio with It’s News To Me, a light-hearted round-up of the news on a network which already broadcasts quite a bit of news in the manner in which it is meant to be broadcast. It’s News To Me, while a decent attempt, didn’t seem to last long, of course, but the idea that ABC news and current affairs could be “entertaining” seems to have.

Last month we saw the launch of ABC-2’s Kitchen Cabinet, in which political figures make dinner for Annabel Crabbe while she interviews them, and Planet America, ABC News 24’s weekly look at the US election campaign with The Chaser‘s Chas Licciardello and News Radio journalist John Barron. Of these two shows the latter seemed the most promising because comedy is more of a natural fit with politics than cooking, but for entertainment value Annabel Crabbe’s show works better. As many journalists have discovered over the years, politicians can open up with a good meal and a couple of glasses of wine in them, and that’s potentially way more interesting than 45 minutes of nerdy detail about an election campaign on the other side of the world.

Which brings us to what we, as people who don’t follow American politics in any depth, think the core problem with Planet America is: Chas Licciardello is a blessing and a curse. He brings with him an audience of mostly youngish people who like a different sort of show to one ABC News 24 usually delivers. New audiences such as these are presumably ones the channel are keen to target, but Chas also brings with him a certain set of expectations. The Chaser have long established an approach to covering American politics and culture which focuses on pranks, sketches and amusing news grabs – we’ve seen it in CNNNN, The Chaser’s War on Everything, The Race Race and The Hamster Wheel – yet Planet America has almost none of this. On the one hand, we wouldn’t necessarily want Chas to be re-hashing the kinds of pranks Charles Firth used to travel the USA pulling; on the other hand, if he did it might be preferable to watching two blokes drone on in a studio.

Planet America‘s coverage of the main US election campaign stories of the week seems pretty solid, but unless you’re into it it’s not that interesting. There are occasional attempts to bring some comedic analysis to the proceedings, with the odd amusing clip, sketch-like round-up or funny aside, but these seem to clash with or distract from the serious content which surrounds it. In a nutshell: for a show which seems to want to bring two different styles together, the serious journalist is doing his job but the comedian in the series of Presidential campaign t-shirts isn’t. And worse still, the pair seem to take their collaboration only as far as sitting next to each other on the same lurid set.

Ironically, the show would probably work better if the pair were more like each other, in that at least they’d have some kind of chemistry. As it is, Chas is his usual slightly off-beat, warm, casual self, while Barron spends a lot of time smirking stiffly in his well-pressed suit. In conclusion: we applaud the effort, and no doubt the US politics nerds are loving it, but ultimately it’s just not working for us. If you want a model for taking a comedic look at a serious(ish) topic, tune in to Santo, Sam and Ed’s Sports Fever! (7mate), there you’ll find a team with chemistry who deliver the laughs – laughs even inveterate non-sports fans like us can enjoy.

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