A Solution to a Problem We Didn’t Know We Had

Why doesn’t Australia have any ensemble comedies? As in, why don’t we make sitcoms where we get together a bunch of actors people have actually heard of? Okay, sure, we don’t make sitcoms full stop these days, but on the rare occasions when we do make them – Lowdown, Laid *shudder*, Outland, The Jesters, Twentysomething, and so on – they’re either built around a main character played by someone no-one’s interested in or they feature an ensemble made up of people no-one’s ever heard of. Is this the way to go about luring people into watching a show?

Some context: if you’ve been watching Australian drama – or worse, dramedy – over the last few thousand years, you’re well aware that when producers are putting together those shows they cram them as full as they possibly can with name-brand cast members. Why wouldn’t they? In Australia actors are cheap and plentiful, and the more names you have in your show the more likely it is people might tune in to check them out. Even Rake, a show built entirely around the supposed lure of getting to see Richard Roxburgh act like a tool yet still lure in the ladies, kicked off this year with an appearance from Toni Collette.

Yet no-one seems to have had the idea of putting together a sitcom featuring a bunch of A-list actors. Even though our last great sitcom success Kath & Kim featured three equally well-known comedy personalities and then piled on the guest stars like nobody’s business. Sure, you could argue that well known actors might not be able to handle the subtleties of comedy. Sadly for you, it’s not like the gun comedy performers we’ve been using are working out as far as getting anyone along to check out their often excellent work.

Our point is this: much of what makes a television show a success is getting people to watch it in the first place. Television shows need to do everything they can to get people to watch them, and that includes sometimes staring name actors that audiences want to see. Yet in this country time and again comedies go to air with casts that no-one has ever heard of, let alone expressed any interest in wanting to see. It’s great that comedy is the place where unknowns can get their big break and it’s good news that comedies often (actually, in these days of tight budgets, make that “almost always”) feature writer-performers. But would it kill the networks to occasionally try a laugh-out-loud sitcom (no, House Husbands doesn’t count) where performers who can bring in a crowd are the ones piss-farting about on-camera?

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  • The Doogster says:

    Interesting post. I am currently writing a laugh-out-loud, lose-control-of-your-bodily-functions ensemble sitcom (well, I hope it’s that funny – I’m aiming for 100 jokes an episode). Before I started writing I came to the conclusion that a star-vehicle sitcom is virtually impossible in this country (OK, Chris Lilley excepted). If you have mega comic actors like Dawn French, Jerry Seinfeld, Rowan Atkinson, etc, who can carry a whole show then you can do a star-vehicle, otherwise, go with an ensemble and spread the joy around. Can anyone seriously mount an argument that Robyn Butler or Adam Zwar are “big” enough actors to helm their own sitcoms? I doubt it.

    I’m not sure if it’s necessary to have big-name actors to lure the punters. Most of the characters I’ve created do not lend themselves to existing name actors. I quite like the idea of a blank slate. The problem with using name actors is that you end up with Gary Sweet, Rhys Muldoon, and (yes) Julia Morris. If I see any of those actors on TV again I will puke. Other actors only seem to play themselves. For example, if you cast Judith Lucy in your show, then you’re getting Judith Lucy. The other problem with name actors is it looks like you’re dropping name actors into your show to boost ratings. Look at Extras and Life’s Too Short from Gervais/Merchant. If a sitcom is good then it shouldn’t need a roll-call of name actors. The best ensemble sitcoms of all time usually featured unknown actors.

    When are you going to turn your acid wit to the dissection of House Husbands? I’ve seen the first three episodes, and while it’s not gouge-out-your-eyeballs bad, it is the most cloyingly bland entertainment I’ve seen in ages.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    It’s not automatically necessary to bring in the big names – it’s just become the wisdom in Australia to never bring in the big names for a comedy under any circumstances. Can you imagine what drama in this country would be like if the only dramas that got up were ones where the star was also the head writer?

    If you’re an Australian comedy writer who is a): a great writer but b): a shithouse performer, there’s no interest in you unless you can latch onto a performer. Which, considering how average a lot of Australian comedy currently is, seems like a real waste of talent.

    Basically, if the US and UK can have success with comedy where skilled writers are teamed with proven performers, why don’t we give it a go here? As for actors only playing themselves, that’s the whole idea: successful name actors are ones who always play themselves and the public like what they see. Why doesn’t anyone try to script a comedy showcase for these people? Alf from Home & Away seems to be an oddly popular laugh-getter despite a lack of actual comedy talent…

  • simbo says:

    Of your five examples, two of them DO use a well known performer (Lowdown has voice-over contribution from Geoffrey Rush every episode, and The Jesters has Mick Molloy, who ain’t exactly obscure). So yep, you’re left with Laid, Outland and Twenty-something, all three of which I’ll readily concede did not set audiences alight (Outland’s big celebrity casting was Christine Anu and she’s about fifteen years past relevance … maybe Adam Richard if you like FM radio as well). Laid had Graeme Blundell, Marcus Graham and Micallef showing up as vaguely famous people. Twenty-something had Hamish Blake in a lot of the ads. (the fact his role was tiny is neither here nor there). So there was at least a gesture towards “cast people the audience may have heard of”.

    Otherwise, let’s see. You have Woodley (apart from Frank, you also get Justine Clarke, who’s big in the Play-School-Watching set), you have Housos (which is attrocious, but also celeb-packed). There is, eventually, the Josh Thomas Thing threatening to happen (again, probably attrocious, particularly given the ABC still hasn’t given it a slot, but Josh is definately famous).

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Good points – though Rush as a voice-over man isn’t exactly a starring role, and sadly the days when Molloy was a serious draw seem to be long behind him. There’s little denying producers do realise the importance of name-brand casting, but audiences can tell the difference between guest stars and regulars, especially when these days the guest stars are often little more than cameos (Micallef’s work on Laid 2 boiled down to what, three scenes in six episodes?).

    You’re right though, Woodley is a pretty good example of what we’re talking about here as far as big names to lure in viewers… and it didn’t really work there either. There goes our big-time producing jobs, dammit. We’d argue against Josh Thomas being famous, mind you – he’s a famous Australian comedy figure, but that’s world tallest dwarf territory.

  • simbo says:

    And in things that will probably appal you – Laid and Twentysomething both have funding approval (from Film Victoria) to go to another series. Laid in particular is a bit of a shock as the ratings were pretty damn hideous and the end of the last series didn’t really seem to leave Marike anywhere else to go – although given she’s got two series from fairly thin inspiration, she could go forever…

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    From what we’ve seen from Film Victoria – which is basically funding under $20,000 for Laid 3 – we’re guessing it’s more for script development than for going direct to another series. Script money from Film Victoria just means Hardy can take time off from her day job to write more scripts… whether the ABC actually want them is another matter. And considering the appalling ratings the last series got, you’d think there’d have to be some kind of inquiry if another series somehow got the go-ahead.