Rebel Without Applause

Now that she’s a big Hollywood star – appearing in the now-in-cinemas What to Expect When You’re Expecting for one thing – it’s sometimes hard to remember that Rebel Wilson was also solely responsible for perhaps one of the most pointless “comedy” series ever shown on Australian television: Bogan Pride. A leaden, cripplingly unfunny show that somehow managed to completely fail to surf the wave that made Glee a worldwide hit even though it also was about a surprisingly musical high school, it was the kind of multi-media flop (the Bogan Pride book can still be found in many remainder book stores, sometimes priced at a single solitary dollar) that would have killed her career stone dead if not for the fact she was off in Hollywood turning a minor role in the comedy Bridesmaids into the foundation for an even bigger career. Good on her!

For once we’re not being entirely sarcastic. Think about it for a moment: can you name one other Australian comedy actor who’s had any kind of significant overseas success in the last twenty years? We can’t, and that’s because we can’t even think of one other Australian comedy actor. We have actors who can be funny – Stephen Curry comes to mind – but as far as performers go the current under-40 comedy scene is basically stand-ups and bugger all else.

Which goes at least some of the way to explaining why Australian comedy – especially sitcoms and movies – is in such a crap state. You write a comedy in Hollywood and you’ve got a whole bunch of actors who not only can do comedy properly, but can be sold to the general public as being funny. If Will Ferrell or Steve Carrell wants to make your movie, it gets made. If you can get Adam Scott or Paul Rudd or Kristen Wiig or Tina Fey, you’ve got a pretty good chance people will at least be interested to see it. In Australia… well, maybe Hamish Blake? Who hasn’t starred in a film yet.

That’s not to blame Australian actors. You’d have to be crazy to specialise in comedy here considering our film industry would be lucky to make even a single comedy a year. There are actors out there who can be funny – Lachy Hulme comes to mind – but we just don’t have any actors who’ve made their names in comedy and who can get people to watch a comedy because they’re in it. Without them and the big fat marketing hook they provide, movies and sitcoms are always going to struggle to find a wide audience in this country. And look, so they are!

Ironically, this points to what could be the downfall of Wilson’s Hollywood career. She’s successful, but she’s not currently “name-brand” successful – she shows up in movies and presumably gets laughs, but she’s not a big enough star to actually get people to go see a movie simply because she’s in it. Which means that if someone funnier comes along doing what she does, it’ll be easy to kick her to the curb. She won’t even have fans to notice she’s gone.

Clearly she needs to step up to some kind of high-profile gig. And for a little while there, Super Fun Night  – a sitcom for free-to-air network CBS she wrote and starred in, produced by Conan O’Brien – looked like being it. And then CBS said “thank you, no”, and that was that. Back to the salt mines for another year. And with what to Expect When You’re Expecting fizzling out at the box office, the pressure to come up with another attention-grabbing hit increases ever-so-slightly…

But that won’t be a problem for Wilson, right? She’s always got so much work on her plate – just ask her!

“I’ve also been working with Ben Stiller’s production company Red Hour on the development of a new narrative comedy series, which has been a great experience and introduction into the U.S. comedy scene. My partner-in-creativity on that project is Stuart Cornfeld who produced Tropic Thunder, Blades of Glory, Dodgeball and Zoolander. So I’m in excellent hands.”

Yeah, that show never happened.

Remember that article we linked to at the very start of this post? Notice there how Wilson talks up a whole bunch of projects – a movie musical she’s writing, a Bridesmaids spin-off starring her and Matt Lucas – that aren’t actually taking place? THAT’S WHAT SHE DOES. Every chance she gets, she talks up upcoming projects like crazy. Not only does it make her sound like someone insanely busy and constantly in demand – unless you happen to notice almost all of these projects are things she’s doing for herself (making them the equivalent of claiming to be writing a hilarious novel because that morning on the bus you thought Chubb Love would be a good title for a story about a fitness instructor who falls in love with a fatty who doesn’t want to lose weight) – but it seems stories about projects that might happen get a lot more press than stories about projects that didn’t.

(Put another way, we could find loads of reports on the internet focused on how exciting Super Fun Night was shaping up to be, but not one that mentioned its failure in more than a passing way.)

The end result is stories like this from the US:

Super Fun Night, CBS
Bridesmaids scene-stealer Rebel Wilson created this sitcom about three girlfriends, including Jenny Slate, who decide to have more exciting Friday nights.
Big loss? No. CBS is not a particularly hospitable environment for good comedy, and the network already has Mike & Molly, a show starring Bridesmaids‘ Melissa McCarthy — and it’s terrible and a total waste of her talent. Wilson et al. can do better.
Ripple effect: Wilson’s big break won’t come for a little while longer, but at least Slate now has room in her schedule to make more Marcel the Shell videos, please oh please.

Thing is, Wilson’s already had her big break in Australia. It was called Bogan Pride. And considering every single performance she’s given since has been the exact same thing* – annoying dimwit does embarrassing or rude things, which to be fair is 70% of comedy at the moment so it’s no wonder she’s doing well – chances are she hasn’t developed creatively since then.

None of this is to say we don’t want her to hit big in the USA Far from it: having her become an actual, bona fide star as a comedy actress would send a great signal to people here that you really can make a successful career out of trying to be funny. And just as importantly, the more success she has over there the less chance there is that she’ll ever come back here.


*in 2008 TV Tonight said: “So far her persona has been fairly synonymous with loud, cynical, mostly simple, working class characters. It remains to be seen whether there’s more depth behind her cheesy grin.” Can we say “there isn’t” yet?

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  • David Knox says:

    Also from the same 2008 review: From one as young as Wilson, Bogan Pride is a broad canvas of ideas that shows there’s far more to her than meets the eye, and a promise of much more to come in her career.

  • EvilCommieDictator says:

    Eric Bana? Although, he’s not doing a comedy role as Poita yet.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Sadly – ’cause Bana was really funny back in the 90s – we mean comedy actors who’ve made it big overseas purely as comedy actors. Chris Lilley seems to have had some level of success too, but he only does his own stuff. We’re after actors (who just act) who’ve headed overseas and become a name star (on the level of Sam Worthington perhaps) by doing comedy. Though Hugo Weaving can be pretty funny when the mood takes him.

    Considering how big comedy has become in the last decade, and how successful Australian actors have been in Hollywood over that same period, it seems slightly disappointing there’s been zero overlap.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    It’s a shame then that the promise you saw has yet to be fulfilled. Though to be fair to Wilson, very few successful comedy actors ever stray far from type.

  • EvilCommieDictator says:

    I guess Conchords are the only pacific humanoids who fit the bill – not that they’re doing other series, but _should_ be, apart from a few cameos (as not conchords) here and there. FIGWIT indeed.
    Rove perhaps, but breaking into the lucrative American market may be a bit past our comedy

  • Daniel G says:

    Josh Lawson might qualify – though being in a Showtime series is probably not ‘name star’. More successful than Rebel Wilson, perhaps?

    Great that David “TV Tonight” Knox reads this blog, BTW.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Depends on how Lawson’s show goes. He hasn’t been getting the buzz that Wilson’s been getting, but it’s certainly possible he might end up in Paul Rudd-esque roles.

    (and presumably Mr Knox was lured here by our linking to his blog. We’re not expecting him to return the favour any time soon – we’re too negative for the mainstream TV commentariat)

  • Baudolino says:

    Lawson is a legitimate talent. Versatile and has good comedic timing. Also – and here I tiptoe around this blog’s proclivity to deride all matters Thank God You’re Here – Lawson was one of the few consistently funny improvisers whenever he appeared on Working Dog’s show.

  • richard says:

    She has just got it up again

    I must say, for all the self proclaiming Aussie comedians in the US, she does seem to be the only one that does have a presence (Isla Fischer as well, but she is not a self promoter), so, whether we think her funny or not, she is at least plying her trade and having a go.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Looks like our prediction of “another year in the salt mines” was pretty much dead on the money. Hopefully they spent that year fine-tuning the show, because considering Wilson’s only big hit since 2012 – Pitch Perfect – was another one of those “little goes a long way” roles for her, there’ s a reasonable chance that audiences won’t find her funny week in week out.

    Put another way, this sitcom could kill her career stone dead if she just does the same old same old every single week.