July 2012: A New Golden Age?

It might be hard to spot from beneath the cloud of gloom and despair that hangs over the Australian televised comedy scene, but at the moment we have two – count ’em – decent local comedy programs currently airing on Australian free-to-air television. We’ll spare you the suspense: we mean Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell and Hamish & Andy’s Euro Gap Year.

You can disagree with us, but you’d be wrong: both shows feature highly competent and experienced comedians (albeit with very different styles) putting out weekly shows that, while not exactly ground-breaking, are the kind of skillfully made and well-targeted laugh-getters we don’t see anywhere near often enough. And one of them is on commercial television! When was the last time this happened?

Actually, while that wasn’t a serious question, let’s do the math: the ABC hasn’t had a really strong comedy series on since Very Small Business, though let’s cut The Chaser some slack with their post War On Everything efforts. Either way, it doesn’t matter: the ABC never has two good shows on at once, because one is always Gruen-related or Chris Lilley or Randling or The Glasshouse or The Sideshow or Lowdown or Outland or Laid or even Woodley. Some of which aren’t really bad – they’re just weren’t consistently good.

So first we need to look to other channels. Commercial networks: zero.  But SBS had Newstopia in 2007-2008, so if the ABC had anything decent on during that period, there’s our previous Golden Age right there.

(yes, we realise we’re setting the bar amazingly low here. We’ll get to why in a moment)

Good news; Very Small Business DID overlap with the final series of Newstopia! Not only that, before VSB was the second and much improved season of The Hollowmen. Of course, no-one was calling that a Golden Age, because a Golden Age requires more than just a series of decent programs across a variety of networks. A real Golden Age requires comedy to not just be good, but be seen to be good, to be an up-front part of the national discourse in the same way that reality television is now.

And there’s that gloom and despair again, because that isn’t going to happen. The last time it did happen – the comedy boom of the late 80s – there was no internet, no DVDs, only four television channels, Daryl Somers was moderately funny, and so on. Short version: all that happened before many of today’s comedy fans were born.

Today thanks to the proliferation of media platforms, television itself isn’t even at the heart of the national discourse. The only way it can manage to wrangle even part of the spotlight now is by manufacturing must-see “events” like reality show finals. Nothing else on television – not news, not current affairs, certainly not drama – matters all that much any more. And apart from a few isolated moments, it’s not like comedy ever really did.

So we have to adjust our scales. First thing to go: media attention. After all, it’s not like Australian comedy hasn’t had plenty of that in the last few years. But the media landscape has changed too, and comedy only attracts attention now if the increasingly struggling and desperate mainstream media can use it to attract attention to itself – which means stories about outrages and plenty of them. When was the last time a comedy show got any non-promotional media attention, unless it was for falling ratings or some community group kicking up a bogus stink?

Second thing: mainstream attention. After all, what’s mainstream these days? Thanks to the internet and DVDs and [insert new social media fad here], the idea of everyone marching in lockstep through a banner that reads WE LOVE YOU, HEY HEY IT’S SATURDAY is long dead. Okay, dead since 2009. Many people we know are watching and loving Mad as Hell; we know plenty of people who wouldn’t call themselves hard-core comedy fans who are really enjoying Euro Gap Year. It’s not everyone, but the only time “everyone” ever watched the same show was when there was nothing else on.

This isn’t to say comedy should turn it’s back on attracting a wider audience. Part of the problem with the ABC’s Wednesday night line-up this year is that it’s lacked shows that were a): good and b): of interest to a general audience. And declining ratings are always a bad sign, whether it’s from a high point or a low one – they mean people are trying a show and deciding they don’t like it.

[interestingly, if these figures are correct, it looks like Mad as Hell on the non-comedy night of Friday is outrating both Randling and Nice on the traditional ABC comedy night of Wednesdays. It seems the problem with the ABC’s Wednesday night line-up isn’t shifting viewing habits or changing demographics, it’s that people just don’t want to watch the shows the ABC is serving up then.]

But it’s important to realise that the goalposts have shifted. It’s easy to believe that comedy is dead or dying in Australia – Lord knows we feel like it is often enough – and it’s certainly got more than its fair share of problems today. Fortunately, so does Australian television in general; been enjoying a lot of high-quality local drama lately? How about insightful current affairs? Decent US sitcoms? Any UK comedy that doesn’t involve Ricky “rerun” Gervais?

Today’s comedy scene isn’t a new Golden Age. But it’s closer to being one than you might think.

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  • glasshalffull says:

    Outland got that “Jim-Schembri-breakdown” media coverage – not sure if that counts as “non-promotional media attention”. I’m getting a bit concerned about this “comedy-must-be-for-the-masses” thing that you guys and some of the other sites are pushing. My favourite comedies of the last couple of years are Girls, Community and 30 Rock, none of which are ratings hits here but all of which I think are great. I didn’t get Laid but I know people who love it. I loved Outland and don’t get the Outland-bashing at all because I thought it was hilarious and beautifully made, but clearly it worked for me and not for you. Does it matter if these shows don’t hit a huge audience as long as they’re good? (And that’s where the idea of objectivity comes in, and how can anyone ever decide if a comedy is good or not?). I’d rather my taxes were going on Laid and Outland than – say – an attempt to make a local 2-and-a-half-men or an ABC Hamish and Andy. Although I still think twentysomething was appalling on all levels and I’d like my money back for that one…

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    The problem is that Australia has had a very long run where comedy has largely been driven by people saying exactly what you’re saying: “Does it matter if these shows don’t hit a huge audience as long as they’re good?” Obviously not, but when those kind of shows are not good you’re left with a show that no-one wants to watch. When we have a long run of shows that no-one wants to watch, we have a situation where it’s generally assumed that no-one wants to watch Australian comedy. Then we no longer have Australian comedy on television.

    We’re not there yet – Hamish & Andy should be getting a lot more credit than they currently are for making comedy work on a commercial network after years where it has struggled or failed outright – but with the ABC’s Wednesday night line-up failing it’s not hard to imagine things getting a lot worse overall. We didn’t hate Outland by any stretch – we’d call it uneven – but it’s a niche program for a niche audience and at the moment (the “week in review” comedy of Mad as Hell aside) that’s pretty much all the ABC is doing comedy-wise. Outland was niche, Woodley was niche, Agony Aunts / Uncles was a Sunday tabloid newspaper story stretched over 12 weeks, Randling is a competition for word nerds, Laid was a niche so small it consisted entirely of Marieke Hardy’s personal friends – to date only Nice has anything like broad appeal, and that’s countered by it being an utterly pointless show built around a minor celebrity who’s only atribute is likability.

    We’d certianly be happier if Australia was making a lot of good comedies that no-one was watching rather than a lot of shithouse comedies no-one is watching. But the end result is the same: if no-one is watching comedy then comedy will stop being made, at least on any level above community television.