In some circles it’s become increasingly fashionable to suggest that The Chaser’s best years are behind them. Yes, we have boring friends. Also: say what now? When exactly was this golden age of The Chaser meant to have taken place exactly? Those two years when The Chaser’s War on Everything threw increasingly desperate and pointless pranks on screen week after week as it staggered towards a finish line that must have seemed a thousand years away? The controversy-marred third season, which succeeded only in whipping the tabloid press into a frenzy over a sketch that felt half-baked at best? The first season of The Hamster Wheel, which in hindsight was a show unsure of itself and best described as “mildly uneven”? Or those election specials where they snuggled up to various politicians and gave the vile turds who seek to run every aspect of our lives the opportunity to pretend they’re in on the joke? Run for the shadows, run for the shadows, run for the shadows in these golden years.
So let’s just say we reckon The Chaser of 2012 is at least as good as it’s ever been. While The Unbelievable Truth was yet another comedy panel show, it was at least a comedy panel show that didn’t stink up the joint. Seven showing back-to-back episodes was too much of a moderately good thing and we’re not going to pretend it didn’t have its fair share of dud segments (hey look it’s Scott Dooley) but unlike just about every other Australian comedy panel show in recent memory, laughs were had.
It was great to see The Umbilical Brothers on non-children’s television, Kitty Flanagan is always good value, the Chaser members who appeared as guests held their own, Sam Simmons’ style of comedy actually worked for us for once, and overall – due perhaps to coming out of Sydney, and thus being unable to fall back on the increasingly worn-out Melbourne comedy regulars – the show felt a little fresher than we expected going in to what was, after all, yet another comedy panel show.
Part of the credit has to go to host Craig Reucassel, surprisingly enough*. It’s taken The Chaser team a very long time indeed to actually get comfortable in front of the camera – and by comfortable we mean “comfortable enough to relax and have fun rather than just say the words and move on” – but here he actually seemed like a host willing to chip in and try and few jokes of his own to move things along. Sure, the whole thing could have been tightly scripted, but it looked a lot more relaxed than the usual Chaser deal, and that’s what we picked up on.
Over at The Hamster Wheel, our long held dream of a series that was nothing but the “What Have We Learnt From Current Affairs” segments from The Chaser’s War on Everything has finally come true. Frankly, the fewer traditional sketches they do the happier we are – for whatever reason, their sketches and fake news bits rarely fire, though they had a few winners – and this year they largely integrated that side of things into longer segments tackling one or another area of Australia’s rubbish media. And it worked! Largely because Australia’s media really is rubbish and making fun of them is both completely justified and a well that never runs dry, but generally they had good points to make and they made them well. Oh yeah, and it was funny sometimes too.
[something else that worked was their increasing use of bit players – we’re guessing they were their research team, as we recognised Lee Zachariah from The Bazura Project on camera every episode and he was listed in the credits as a researcher. Having non-core Chaser people turning up in the short one-joke cutaways that they increasingly peppered their segments with opened up the show and provided some much needed front-of-camera variety. And one of them was a woman!]
The other biggish change was they picked up the pace. A lot. How do we put this tactfully? For a variety of reasons (they’re not professional actors, for one) The Chaser are a team that works best when they’re putting a lot of material out there, not when they try to draw comedy out of a few jokes. Appearing in a year when Shaun Micallef – who can (together with his team) get 90 seconds of solid comedy out of one idea – this was more important than ever, and The Chaser really stepped up and fired those jokes out there at a rapid rate.
In previous years we’ve had our usual whinge about The Chaser doing the same thing over and over and over without ever stretching themselves or surprising us. After this year, if they wanted to do a ten week series of The Hamster Wheel (2012 version) for the next decade or so we’d be happy with that. They finally seem to have figured out what it is that they do best, and they’ve decided to do the best job of it that they can. We’re still waiting on that sitcom from them, mind you…
*As The Chaser’s frontmen, Chris Taylor and Craig Reucassel haven’t always brought the energy with them. Where Andrew Hansen has displayed flashes of dry wit, Chaz has felt like a tightly wound comedy machine and Julian Morrow has been “the brains” of the organisation, Chris and Craig have seemed a little too much like the guys who are there simply because it’s a solid gig. Maybe that decade of hosting has finally rubbed off, but Reucassel on The Unbelievable Truth and the duo (together with Morrow) on The Hamster Wheel finally came across as guys actually having fun in their jobs. Considering The Chaser has never really traded on its members personalities – they’ve always just been “themselves” in front of the character rather than playing larger-than-life comedy characters, so they’ve had nothing to hide behind – this newfound ease is a big leap forward.
[Agree that The Chaser had a good year? Think we’ve lost the plot and the “Chaser Lads” should be put out to pasture? The nominations for the 2012 Australian Tumbleweeds Awards are now open – our online nominations form can be found here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/tumblies2012noms]