Working Dog has a new television show out? As Mick Molloy used to say, hurrah! These are the guys that gave us Frontline (excellent), The Panel (ground-breaking, if of variable quality), The Hollowmen (a steady improver), Thank God You’re Here (massive smash hit, occasionally hilarious), Cup / Sports Fever! (a sports comedy show sports haters can actually enjoy) not to mention roughly half of the various D-Gen television shows up to and including The Late Show. They know what they’re doing, and they do it well.
So it’s something of a disappointment to discover that Pictures of You is exactly what it looks like: host Brian Nankervis (who’s a steady pair of hands) holds up photos (brought in by his celebrity guests) and said celebrities talk about them. “I remember that,” they say, before launching into either a funny anecdote or moderately revealing tale of their past. And that’s it. It’s lightweight chat with a bit of a hook. That’s all.
We bring it up for two reasons. One, the show does seem to be focusing on comedians to some extent. The first episode featured Shane Jacobson and Anh Do, both of whom have been known to crack wise in the past (even if here the focus was also on their somewhat grim childhoods), while next week sees Julia Morris once again telling everyone she’s a comedian without actually providing any concrete evidence of it. The fact that, so far at least (and this does seem like the kind of show that would want to lead with its strongest guests first), none of the comedy guests are A-list comedy talent is just a sign of the times *cough Agony Uncles cough*. Australia currently likes its TV comedy talent to be “likable” rather than “funny”… which leads us to our second point.
TV Tonight described Pictures of You as “a Tonight show void of punchlines and performers”, and we’d go along with that. But where they meant it purely as a descriptive term – their overall review is generally positive – we’d say a talk show devoid of jokes and performances is a pretty shithouse talk show. And coming from people who used to pack every second of their shows with jokes? This frown on our faces didn’t get there by accident.
Yet this is merely an example of Working Dog knowing which way the wind is blowing in television. The days of comedy – pure, unadulterated, make-’em-laff comedy – seem to be rapidly fading. Today shows have to appeal to as wide a (dwindling) audience as possible, and that means comedy is just an ingredient (alongside family trauma, tales of struggle and everything else from the Enough Rope cookbook) instead of the main course.
So Pictures of You features comedians, and then gets them to talk about their childhood and their family in the hope that they’ll grab both the comedy and the personal insight / tearjerking crowd. Of course, comedy fans would like a lot more comedy in their viewing, but these days we’re told you have to take what you can get. And despite their comedy background, Working Dog aren’t afraid to dial down the laughs if they think the viewers want something a little blander. Sometimes they get it wrong – their recent feature film Any Questions For Ben? didn’t exactly set the box office on fire (it didn’t even set a soaked-in-lighter-fluid Polaroid picture of a box office on fire), but their logic remains sound.
With audiences having an increasing range of things to watch in their viewing time, it’s perfectly legitimate to assume that the blander and more wide-ranging you make your projects, the better the chance you’ll have of luring in as many viewers as possible. That said, it does also mean you have a pretty good chance of turning people off, what with “bland” not yet becoming high praise even in television reviewing circles.
And oddly enough, there’s a counter-example currently on-air that’s also out of the Working Dog warehouse: Sports Fever!. Resolutely specific – it’s not just about sport, it’s about sports like soccer that most Australians know root-all about, and THEN it’s about obscure figures in soccer – and with no real wide-ranging appeal, it works because it sticks to a handful of things and does them well. It’s made by people who know their subject (sport), and they use this sports knowledge to create comedy that even non-sports fans can find funny. Seems almost simple when you put it like that.