For a few years now – well, it feels like years at least – we’ve been complaining / warning that Australian television likes everything about comedy but the making-people-laugh stuff. Of course, who listens to what we have to say? And so it has come to pass that in a few short weeks (July 25th) the ABC’s Wednesday night “comedy” line-up will consist of 14 episodes of The Gruen Whatever at 8.30pm followed by the remaining 14 episodes of Randling at 9.15. We put “comedy” in inverted commas for a good reason.
It’s hardly an isolated trend – Myf Warhurst’s Nice was many things, but comedy was not one of them – but in the past a couple of factors traditionally conspired to keep comedy at least somewhere in the mix. For one, Spicks & Specks was a comedy variety show disguised as a game show. How do we know that? The same way we know that Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation was a showcase for Shaun Micallef’s waky worldview disguised as a gameshow and Thank God You’re Here was an attempt to turn theatresports into a money-making scheme disguised as a gameshow: no-one gave a fuck about the scores.
Randling, on the other hand, not only cares about the scores, it has a league ladder at the end of each episode. It may seem minor, but it’s not: once the scores come first, getting laughs comes second. Once getting laughs isn’t the point of the show, it’s not a comedy. Which also helps explain why Randling isn’t funny.
Gruen, on the exact same hand as mentioned in the previous paragraph because that hand is attached to Andrew Denton, the man single-handedly turning the ABC’s Wednesday night comedy line-up into an two-fisted attempt to convince viewers that “smug” is another word for “hilarious”, is a consumer affairs show featuring a bunch of smart-arse pricks. It’s not even trying to be a comedy in any but the loosest, most Wil-Anderson-allowing sense of the term. It’s advertising executives talking about advertising – presumably the fact it’s on the supposedly ad-free ABC is where the laughs come from.
It gets worse. Yes, it’s time to talk about ABC2’s Dumb, Drunk & Racist, which also screens Wednesday nights. Your host and failed stand-up comic turned professional News Ltd smarmy git Joe Hildebrand has collected a bunch of Indians for the purposes of presenting them to a variety of racist Australians and then turning to the camera while pulling the “ain’t I a stinker?” face. It’s been sold as a show that will “stir debate” – a debate, we’re guessing, that largely revolves around who’s going to change the channel.
It’s not comedy and it’s not funny and that’s not an insult because it’s not trying to be either; what it is, is the logical end product of the ABC increasingly focusing it’s “comedy” efforts on shows best described as “local comedian has a hobby”. There are plenty of international ancestors to these shows (ABC2 is currently showing Louis Theroux, who’s one of them), but John Safran’s the big local one. He made shows that were funny; Judith Lucy, Lawrence Leung and The Bazura Project (to name three) took different approaches to the same basic idea and also made shows that were funny. Now Myf Warhurst and Joe Hildebrand are giving it a go without bothering with the funny stuff. And with both shows rating well (or “well”, considering the ABC’s struggle on Wednesdays), it seems that funny stuff was just getting in the way of the host standing by watching people shout at and/or hug each other.
The worry here is that being funny is hard. If these shows can work without trying to be funny, in the future they’re not going to be funny. If DD&R rates well simply by being semi-competent at shit-stirring, then the future is shit-stirring because shit-stirring is easy. Make a show that says people are overweight because they’re lazy slobs, call it Fat Fucks, job done. Get a bunch of wiry Aussie bush types to come into Sydney and look appalled at the people chowing down at a western suburbs fast food outlet, there’s your promo right there. “Where has Australia gone wrong?” says the voice-over, “are we really a nation of… Fat Fucks?”
Bugger it, let’s end on a positive note: at the other end of the scale, John Clarke’s Sporting Nation – a show that is also not a comedy, despite being about sport – is proving to be, much like its’ host (who is a comedian), both funny and intelligent. Sure, he’s talking about sport, so he gets a lot more leeway that he would if he was talking about, say, the railways – you don’t have to sell sport as being interesting to Australians. But the show is well-judged, informative, full of familiar faces saying unfamiliar things, and not at all interested in buying into cheap and easy stereotypes.
Would that we could say the same about Dumb Drunk & Racist.