So, Nice has made it to air and we finally got to see the context in which that duet of “Islands in the Stream” sits: Myf Warhurst realised that her childhood was shaped by a love for music and a love for love duets, and so she uses that as an excuse to go and talks to others whose lives were also defined and shaped by their love for music. There’s a bit of social history and a few long bows drawn (Chantal Cantouri won that Logie because she rebelled against her parents and went to see The Beatles when they came to Adelaide? Umm…), but as per the title of the show it’s all good, wholesome, feel good hits and memories.
Or is it? Because like a lot of nice things – Belgian chocolate, expensive wine, lounging by a pool reading Viz – it’s also a fair bit self-indulgent. Here’s the problem as we see it: Myf Warhurst has seen all those “a comedian looks at…” shows and thought she’d give it a try. She’s an ordinary Australian who’s had some experiences, experiences which many other ordinary Australians have had too. Tick! It’s relatable. Also, she’s got a childhood diary and a brain which remembers things that happened to her ages ago, and as anyone who’s seen comedy in the past couple of decades can tell you, stories from people’s childhoods are an absolute cack. Bang! We’ve got a show!
Except…when a comedian reads out extracts from their childhood diaries they take the piss out of them, by mocking the weird theories they had as kids for example. In Nice, the diary entries and memories are used simply as an excuse for Myf to duet with her heroes. You could argue that Lawrence Leung, Judith Lucy, John Safran and all the other comedians who’ve made this sort of show haven’t always succeeded in turning their pasts in to comedy gold, but their intentions were most certainly to do so. Myf Warhurst’s intentions were to, well, we’re not entirely sure a lot of the time. She seemed to be trying to have it a lot of ways, resulting in a show which didn’t really satisfy anyone.
Next week Nice looks at the food we ate all those years ago in the 70s and 80s. Join Myf Warhurst as she chats to Peter Russell Clarke, Matt Preston and the Chicko Roll girl. Oh, and she also gets to be the Chicko Roll girl too, but not in a funny way, just in the way that most people dressing up in those tiny shorts would…so that’s kinda pointless.
Meanwhile, proper comedies with scripts by people who are actually pretty talented get turned down every other week. But don’t worry comedy fans, someone from Agony Uncles will soon discover an old sporting trophy and manage to spin that into a 6 parter. Hooray! Wednesday nights on ABC1 are saved!
Bluntly, the scripted comedy the ABC ran this year rated apallingly. From TV tonight – Woodley got 331,000 on March 8, Outland 168,000.
Myf got 503,000, against the State of Origin in NSW and Qld. Incidentally, the much-derided-here-Randling got 407,000 on Wednesday. Still higher than both Woodley and outland.
Bluntly, scripted TV is expensive and doesn’t get supported by audiences. Game shows and celebrity-indulgences (and Myf’s show is exactly that, a celebrity indulgence as payback for Myf anchoring an ABC rating’s juggernaut) are fairly cheap and get an audience.
There may be plenty of writers wanting to write them, but there’s absolutely no evidence that there’s enough of an audience willing to watch them to make them sensible programming.
Fair point, but isn’t the real problem that many of the scripted shows made are so poor that, quite rightly, no one wants to watch them? Good scripted shows would (or should) rate because people will continue to watch them, there’ll be positive word of mouth, etc, etc. In order to get to that point, though, scripted shows need to keep being made – and producers need to get a bit wiser about what they commission. Stuff from newer people can get a late night slot on ABC2, experienced older hands who are good at their job get a prime time slot (i.e. Mad As Hell).
Didn’t Angry Boys bring in well over a million viewers in its first week? Sure, people quickly figured out it was no darn good, but that still takes a fairly large dump over everything the ABC’s dished up – scripted or not – this year.
Like everything, scripted television will be supported if it’s good enough. There are enough recent examples of this that claiming there’s been some kind of seismic shift towards games shows, panel chat and star vehicles seems more than a little premature.
One thing to remember is that even this year the first episode of whatever the ABC serves up on a Wednesday night seems to rate reasonably well before falling away. It seems that the audience is still willing to check new shows out – they’re just not finding them to their liking.
In regards to good scripts getting turned down every other week – not sure who is doing the turning down here, as the good ol’ days of pitching an idea with supporting pilot script and treatment appear to be long gone. Now it’s a case of networks only looking at work that is pitched through a production company or recognised agent. Or alternatively if you know someone/already have a name to build it around. Or lastly, you made it on Ch31 (even then you have to make it yourself pretty much). Therefore, the question is begged – how would a good Australian scripted narrative comedy written by someone not already famous and without the capacity to film it be picked up in today’s market reality? (I was going to say ‘commercial reality’ but the same process applies at the ABC too of course). You could have the best script in the world, but getting someone to read it and agree that it could get enough ratings to justify making it is almost impossible; added to that, it seems that first you need to get someone at a production company to agree, then pitch it to a conservative network who have never heard of you. Good luck!
That does seem to be the way things are going. Supposedly the days of scriptwriters peddling their spec scripts around Hollywood are ending too – the way to get attention is to make a short film and peddle that instead. So it’s hardly surprising then that making a short for Tropfest is increasingly the way to get a sitcom up and running.
Not that having to have more than one skill is a new thing. Back in the 80s and 90s when comedy sketch shows were how writers got into the business it was pretty much a pre-requisite that you do stand-up as a way to get producers to see your work. Just having “the best script in the world” has never been enough – there are so many would-be writers out there that putting extra hoops in place for writers to jump through is just good business sense for the networks as a way to keep the pitches manageable.
Put another way: if you don’t have the capacity to get at least a rough version of your vision made for Ch31, you’re not going to get a television show made in this country. There just isn’t a place for writers who aren’t producers (or who don’t come in a partnership with a producer) any more.
I guess at least in the 80/90’s though the second skill was directly related to the first (ergo, you are funny, you could do something funny on the tele like). Perhaps now it could be argued that capacity to produce is not a second skill, but a composite of many different skills not related – or at least only obliquely related – to the first skill. Maybe a review of the past lot of scripted Aussie narrative comedies and their origins could be interesting – there may be a trend in terms of how to get a go!
Basically, it seems the only way to get a go is to have already done it: Lilley had been on a bunch of shows before WCBH, Gristmill had been making shorts for SBS before The Librarians, Rebel Wilson had done both Pizza and The Wedge (where she met Adam Zwar) before doing Boagn Pride for SBS, Zwar and Gann had been making shorts and films before their Tropfest short Wilfred got turned into a sitcom, Double the Fist was made by ABC employees for a digital channel that didn’t happen, Twentysomething and The Bazura Project came from c31, Marieke Hardy had a significant media profile and a long television history before Laid, Review with Myles Barlow had been a short before being picked up by ABC2… and so on and so forth.
Basically, it seems the only way to get a go is to have already done it
But that was always the case – performers are not given prime-time centre gigs first time up. John Cleese, to pick an example, had over a decade worth of various sketch shows (and several “Doctor in the House” style scripts as well) before he was accepted for “Fawlty Towers”. Television Network Executives may be morons, but they’re not quite stupid enough to give prime time slots to completely unproven people.
What’s probably frustrating about the system now is that there’s no clear work-dependent path to getting your own show. Josh Thomas has an ABC1 sitcom coming up this year, and all he’s proven is that he can talk with a made-up accent on a game show kept afloat almost entirely by the host. Despite very poor ratings, Laid got a second series (and let’s not rule out a third just yet); every comedy ABC2 launched last year was axed after one. When things seem so arbitrary, it’s hardly surprising that people think they can get on the air just by working in the door.
He’s proven a little bit more than that – he’s had a very successful standup career, touring several shows nationally and internationally, he’s appeared on a fair few programs, and generally would rate as “rather well known”.
It’s okay that you don’t like him. Really. But to say all he does is talk in a made-up accent on a show run by Micallef is to understate his accomplishments quite a bit. No, he might not make a sitcom work. But bitching about what he has done to this point only makes your argument look silly. He’s not a complete nobody.
The path is pretty clear, really. Do the hard yards of getting yourself known and people might put you on telly. Nobody is giving out freebies otherwise.
Being “rather well known” isn’t exactly a mark of quality in this country when it comes to comedy, of course. And the fact he’s gone direct to a prime-time ABC1 sitcom rather than starting small on ABC2 suggests that the “well known” side of things may be taking greater precedence than the quality of his work.
We weren’t fans of Sam Simmons’ comedy either, but we had no complaints whatsoever about the way the ABC handled his career: a couple of years of regular skits on jTV (plus radio work), then a series of comedy shorts. Clearly something went wrong because he’s yet to go any further, but at least each stage built on what he’d done before in a logical way.
Thomas, on the other hand, has a range of panel show appearances and live work, neither of which are much of a guide either way as to whether he’ll be any good in a sitcom format. He’s not a complete nobody, he just has no experience in what he’s being asked to do while many people who do have the experience don’t seem to be getting the same opportunity.
But thanks for letting us know it’s okay for us not to like what we’ve seen of his work.