A Twenty Year Old Corpse

Is The Late Show the most overrated Australian comedy of the last twenty years? The answer may surprise you: yes it is. Not only is it massively overrated, it continues to be overrated to this very day – which, considering we’re currently celebrating the twenty year anniversary of its initial airing on the ABC, gives you an idea of just how overrated it is.

Wait what? Isn’t this the show that Ben Pobjie recently stopped vaguely discussing half-arsed trends in television to praise? The show that popular TV blog TV Tonight gave a shout out to? The show the Australian Film Institute website recently saluted? The show that inspired the Champagne Comedy site, AKA the only Australian television comedy forum of note? Overrated? But Marieke Hardy loves it!

[pause for effect]

Okay, now that all the hard-core Late Show fans have stormed off to go hold their own “bring back Jo Bailey” style protest outside the front gates of Tumbleweeds HQ, we can wheel in the qualifier: The Late Show isn’t overrated in terms of quality. It’s actually really good – so good, in fact, it’s odd how many of the glowing testimonials that have surfaced in the last few weeks have barely addressed the actual quality of the show. Sorry, but calling it “an hour of precision chaos” doesn’t count. Or even really mean anything (we’d go with “tightly scripted but presented in a ramshackle fashion”, which might explain why we don’t work at Fairfax).

What is truly, massively overrated about The Late Show is its influence on the actual shape of Australian comedy. Largely because, despite what its’ fans will tell you, it had no real influence at all.

C’mon, if you want to talk about lasting influences, let’s talk The Comedy Company. When that clumsy sketch show beat 60 Minutes in the ratings in 1988 it literally changed the face of Australian comedy for the next two decades. And, if its wikipedia page is to be believed, gave the country the word “bogan” in the process.

Fast Forward, which along with its various spin-off ran for a decade, was a direct response / knock-off of The Comedy Company. Every single sketch show made in Australia since has used the Comedy Company formula – even The Wedge, close to two decades later, was basically a direct rip-off of The Comedy Company. The Comedy Company didn’t come out of nowhere, but it locked in a dull, lowbrow, producer-led formula that everyone’s looked back to since. And yet, on its 20th anniversary, where were the articles praising it? Where was the sappy “you changed my life and taught me to laugh” columns about a show that rated way better than The Late Show ever did? And let’s not even start on The Big Gig, which aired around the same time and had just as big an impact.

Obviously we’re not saying that the people behind The Late Show – Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Tony Martin, Mick Molloy, Jason Stephens and Jane Kennedy (with Judith Lucy joining in the second series) – didn’t help shape Australian comedy. Two words: The Panel. There’s a show that steered the turnip truck of Australian comedy off a cliff and laughed as everyone followed close behind. Meanwhile on radio, Martin / Molloy opened the door for countless comedian-heavy double acts all the way through to Hamish & Andy. But The Late Show? What shows did it influence? What style of comedy did it inspire? Where is the raft of imitators? In what way was it not a complete and total dead end, the “ill-fated” Mick Molloy Show aside?

To be fair, the vanishing without trace of everything The Late Show stood for wasn’t entirely the fault of the (group then known as the) D-Generation. In many ways The Late Show was the culmination of their already decade-long comedy careers, the kind of show that could only be made by performers who’d honed their skills on television, on radio and in live performance and could do pretty much whatever it took to get the maximum possible laughs from an idea.

Putting together an hour of live material, sketches, pre-recorded material, vox pops, musical numbers and commentaries on commercials and Countdown clips, as well as re-dubbing television serials, sourcing old talent show clips and finding celebrities willing to make fools of themselves was a massive task; it’s no wonder no-one in Australia has tried anything similar since.

It also came at the tail-end of the comedy boom, and was the kind of show that really only could flourish with an audience already firmly up to speed with television comedy in all its many forms. Even at the time it wasn’t a mainstream hit – that would have been your Fast Forwards and your Tonight Live with Steve Vizards, not to mention your Hey, Dad!s – but the years of high-profile and much-loved comedies that had gone before had created enough of an audience for comedy that a show packed with in-jokes and personal obsessions with hardly any reoccurring characters (let alone catchphrases) could make its mark.

When people talk about the influence of The Late Show, what they’re talking about is its influence on them. It was a show that connected with its viewers* in a way that few Australian shows – but pretty much all its overseas counterparts because don’t tell us you didn’t notice it had pretty much the same format as the American Saturday Night Live (and to some extent Monty Python) – ever have. That’s because the format creates stars in a way few others do: it not only makes you laugh, it shows you the actual people who are making you laugh. The Late Show didn’t need reoccurring characters to succeed because the cast were the characters.

In regular sketch shows you occasionally get a glimpse of this when a performer cracks up  – or “corpses” – during a take (yes, this is a link to Steve Vizard and Peter Moon corpsing on Fast Forward – and it’s no surprise that Vizard’s regular corpsing made him the most popular cast member of that show); in sitcoms and other pre-recorded shows you never see it at all. As for panel shows, there the tone is much more combative (everyone is fighting to get the biggest laugh) and the results much less impressive.

[it doesn’t always work: no-one corpsed harder or more often on Australian television than Daryl Somers. Though in his case his crack-ups weren’t so much an expression of sheer joy and enjoyment than the royal seal of approval.]

The Late Show was full of this stuff and it gave the show a real feel of a bunch of mates getting together to have fun. It certainly helped that they were some of the sharpest comedy minds in the country – the best remembered bits of The Late Show are either the extremely well-crafted stuff (Bargearse, The Last Aussie Auteur, Beware of Wog) or the incredibly slipshod stuff (Graham & the Colonel, Rob Sitch going off-book doing impressions, dodgy album covers), with the merely solid material in between largely overlooked** – but by coming across as themselves on television they also became personalities in their own right. Remember “Girls Just Want To Have Mick”? You didn’t see anyone writing about the sex appeal of Mark Mitchell.

Whether this chummy tone existed off-camera – and while everyone certainly seems to be friends now*** there were a lot of rumours about off-screen tensions and a hard-partying Molloy at the time of the second series – is beside the point; even at the time the whole “we’re just being ourselves” angle was clearly an act. Remember those “date” sketches with Tommy G and Jane when in real life Jane was dating Rob – something they went out of their way to conceal for years afterwards?

Whether the daggy atmosphere was manufactured to prop up the occasionally wobbly material or not, it’s clear that to an extent not seen since (making it another way it completely failed to influence Australian comedy) The Late Show turned its cast into much-loved television personalities. People might laugh at The Chaser or Chris Lilley, but (teenage girls aside), no-one loves those guys because those guys are always performing. They never let the audience in the way Rob and Santo would as they laughed at their failed jokes as Graham & The Colonel. Whatever the quality of the material you’re delivering, if you can do that – if you can let the mask slip and show yourself to be just an average guy who likes a laugh –  then you’ve got fans for life.

Well, twenty years at least.



*it didn’t hurt at all that the audience for The Late Show was the kind of nerdy cool kids that grow up to either make comedy or work in the media.

**This is also partly due to the massive edit job done on the essential but slightly disappointing Late Show DVD, which reduces many lesser sketches to a handful of jokes and loses a lot of the piss-farting around. There’s a clear divide between people who saw the show live (or have tracked down complete episodes) and those who’ve only seen the DVD.

***Apart from Mick and Tony, obviously.

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  • Love it. Very astute point about the personalities of The Late Show transcending the show in a very SNL kind of way.

    But leaving aside whether or not The Late Show is overrated (which depends entirely on your judgement of how highly/lowly it deserves to be rated and is therefore useless to debate), I think it’s a bit flippant to suggest that it wasn’t a hugely influential show.

    As someone who really only became cognisant of Australian comedy in the late 90s, I obviously can’t speak from personal experience of the effect The Late Show (or The Comedy Company) had at the time, since I was too young to really put that puzzle together.

    But what I can say from personal experience is that I’ve heard comedian after comedian talk of The Late Show when asked about their inspiration to enter comedy, or how they first became exposed to the idea of comedy. Justin Hamilton’s podcast is full of such stories.

    Obviously you’re right when you say The Late Show wasn’t followed by a number of copycat programs (although, given that The Comedy Company was a relatively bog-standard sketch show format many standards, neither did it)… but “having your format copied” is not the only way in which a television show can be influential.

    There is literally an entire generation of comedians working today who grew up watching The Late Show. If that’s not influence, I don’t know what is.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Flippant? Us? Never!

    (your point is a good one, and well made. Our only problem with it is that we’ve seen more than a few comedians cite The Late Show as a formative influence without it actually showing up in their work. To cite two of our less favourite comedy types, both Ben Pobjie and Marieke Hardy have expressed their extreme love of TLS while their actual work shows next to no actual sign of their influence.

    That’s not to say it didn’t inspire a generation of comedians – Shaun Micallef for one has cited it as a direct inspiration for going into comedy, even if his actual work isn’t obviously TLS influenced – but in our view there really hasn’t been a lot of actual Australian comedy that’s followed down their path of combining silly and broad cultural references with obscure / specific pop culture stuff.)

  • Billyc says:

    Is it over rated? Probably. I was a massive fan at the time. For people my age we were old enough to stay up and watch it but not really old enough to be going out. For my age group it was the first show I can remember that was in any way sarcastic or critical. It was cool. I think it was also the first live comedy show I every watched. It was also one of the first big hits on VCR. It came at a time when you could afford to own a video. So I think that has a big part of it. It was silly, irreverent (for me at the time) and unpolished. There was nothing like it that I’d seen. Yes in the history of Australian comedy you can point to where it came from and it wasn’t particularly inventive in format but for a narrow range of people in comedy too young to go to clubs it was incredibly influential. It showed us the stand-up exists through the intro segments and that you could actually do this sort of thing for a job in Australia. The influence doesn’t translate to a lot of work that people actually do but to be honest apart from live work how many comedians in Australia actually get to do what they want to do on television? I’d say less than 30? Maybe 40 tops? Australian comedy on television is not in any way reflective of the live work being created there is very little development and it’s more about finding acts to do what producers want them to do.

  • James says:

    In terms of shows that ape The Late Show’s formula, surely The Chaser’s War on Everything would count?

  • James says:

    And Hamish & Andy’s Gap Years too.

  • Andore Jr says:

    If I remember correctly, on the DVD commentary, the cast were saying how they basically set the format for the ‘vox pop’ segments they did and have been aped ever since.

    And holy shit they were funny. As Sam Newman will probably attest, you couldn’t script half the shit you see down your local street (though I would wager over half his encounters are set-ups)

    The key thing for me that made it so good? The absence of any smugness whatsoever. The monologues were filler, they knew it and they said as much. Some skits worked, some flopped and were never attempted again (ala ‘Jeff & Terry’), and it was all playing out in front of us. Can you imagine Paul McDermott, Wil Anderson, or Charlie Pickering trying to steer that ship every Saturday?

  • Billyc says:

    As someone who saw Charlie Pickering’s early sketches at a crappy pub in Fitzroy sometime in the very early 2000’s I reckon he could do it with 5 or 6 other people. I remember one where he dressed up as Captain Cook and went to Captain Cook’s cottage that was year before the Chaser. There was another one where he was crucified and a mobile phone went off in his loin cloth which at the time was really pretty funny. I’m no fan of the 7pm project and I haven’t seen his stand-up for three or four years but when left to his own devices he’s a lot better than you’d think. This blog is focused on television and that’s fair enough but it sticks in my craw a little that the criticism that is often leveled totally ignores that a lot of comedians when left to their own devices do some pretty good work. Doesn’t mean that you can’t criticise the telly work but I think the vitriol would be more restrained if you’d seen some of these people make a room laugh for an hour.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Chaser’s War on Everything is a good one, though without the live angle it did lack something energy wise. By the more popular second series it had kind of solidified, but they certainly did have a wide range of segments.

    Gap Year, especially the Euro version, just isn’t varied enough – they’re more like modifications of H&A’s Channel 10 specials. But we’re getting nit-picky there.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Vox pops were certainly done elsewhere before, but in Australia The Late Show they really did set the standard. Not that you’d hear Sam Newman admitting that.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    The problem is that when it comes to making television comedians simply aren’t left to their own devices – that’s just a fact. So part of grading television comedians is grading how well they can get their own personal vision (and comedy) to the screen. It might be unfair to compare someone to Shaun Micallef and Chris Lilley and John Safran and Tony Martin and Adam Zwar and Judith Lucy and Hamish & Andy and all those other guys who seem to be able to make television shows that reflect their own personal styles of comedy, but considering it clearly can be done it’s certainly something we have to take into account.

    It’s like knowing a guy who’s hilarious down the pub but who wouldn’t have a hope in hell of putting a television show together: it doesn’t mean he’s not a funny guy, it just means he can’t put together a television show. That’s what we’re concerned about here, especially considering for a lot of people the live comedy scene is something that isn’t easily accessible, whether due to distance or cost.

    That said, we did see Pickering and Michael Chamberlain’s pay TV series The Mansion, and we weren’t overly impressed.

  • Billy C says:

    That’s fair enough. I didn’t see the mansion. TV shows which are vehicles are really a different story. Obviously you can and should judge someone by their work in any medium. My point going back to the late show was that there is really a very small number of shows which are actually conceived and controlled on any level by talent and that’s part of the reason the influences are not as apparent in my humble opinion.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    That’s true. It’s just rare that a show can be so warmly and widely recalled twenty years on with so little lasting impact on the shows that followed.

    Though we’d argue that increasingly the comedy programs that get on the air have a bigger input from the talent than in the past – the days of producer run sketch shows and sitcoms are over, panel shows are faltering and the ABC is currently very much after showcases for talent rather than generic “comedy” (Randling aside). From what we hear network producers still run the show, but at a step removed – you have to come to them with a product they want rather than them shaping a product to suit their needs. And if they decide they don’t want you they just cut you loose rather than ask you to change things.