We’re over sensitive

When did we get so massively oversensitive about comedy? That’s one of the questions that sprung to mind when we watched Shock Horror Aunty the other night. That and “Oh yeah, guess we’ve always been a bit oversensitive”. Or have we? There’s clearly a difference between prudish, often religious, types getting annoyed about “blasphemy”, and scummy Murdoch tabloids wilfully hyping-up a fairly obvious joke in order to sell papers. One of the differences being that blasphemy complaints against the Doug Anthony All Stars never got them taken off the air, whereas The Chaser’s cheeky re-imagining of the work of the Make A Wish Foundation did.

In a recent article for Fairfax, comedian Daniel Burt wrote of how the comedy he fell in love with, and the attitude that went with it, has now largely disappeared:

Australia’s once strong network culture of piss-taking and parody has been replaced by a scattered bunch of hopefuls firing off half-baked tweets, blogs and badly cut online videos with no foreseeable prospect of a unifying project to bring all the passion together.

The technology that makes so much overseas content available has also given domestic bean counters a reason to prioritise bottom lines over punch lines. What few opportunities there are tend to be given to faces that are well-entrenched and resourced. Australian television comedy is so lacking, it’s not even funny. Clive James was recently named an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO). If he were getting his start now, who would disagree that he is too fat, bald and smart for TV?

Life is a too short misery, alleviated by fleeting moments of glorious self-deception. Despite, or perhaps because of, the loneliness, otherwise sane people find themselves energised daily by a fresh outrage – usually a word or act not first sanctioned by them – which fuels paranoia and promotes the safe comedy of silliness, trivialities and group-think. The next person who apologises for a gag goes on my blacklist.

Australian ribbing has given way to tip-toeing, which doesn’t conform to our character or the comedy I fell in love with. Just when we need a sense of humour on TV, there’s a shortage of Australian comedy.

Burt is right; Australian television and Australian comedy has been cowed by a conservatism brought on by increased competition from new media and dwindling budgets. The vast majority of Australian TV comedy in recent years has played it safe, either by trying to ape successful overseas styles and formulas, or by positioning itself as so broad or so bland as to have a wide appeal. Quality has always been a problem, of course, but having to fight for several years to get your shows on air at all doesn’t give comedians and producers the opportunity to focus on what really matters – the scripts.

This is not to say that comedians whose mainstream television work leaves a lot to be desired can’t deliver the goods when they’re free to do so. Download the podcast A Rational Fear some time to hear Dan Ilic, Chris Taylor and others do some surprisingly biting and original satire. There’s no reason the same material couldn’t work on television, it’s more that no one in comedy seems to have the guts to try. Not after Make A Realistic Wish, anyway.

Perhaps we should look to the next generation, perhaps they’ll return Australian comedy to its glory days? They’ll be keen to cast aside the conservatism of the Howard era, and be “native” to the multimedia environment, right? The announcement last week of the senior creative team behind Jungleboy’s upcoming sketch show, which will showcase up-and-coming talent, was…interesting. Almost 100 sketches from new writers will be directed by the likes of Wayne Blair (The Sapphires), Christiaan and Connor Van Vuuren (The Bondi Hipsters), and Abe Forsythe (Laid). It could work, but as with many new talent projects this is more likely to be the start of something than a great comedy in and of itself, a D-Generation rather than a Late Show, if you like. But good luck to them anyway.

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  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Unsurprisingly, The Chaser’s Dominic Knight disagrees with Burt: https://twitter.com/domknight/status/300823178970820608

    “Whether or not the comedies on Australian TV are any good, this article could have actually analysed some of them”

    Analysis? From a television writer for Fairfax? Good luck finding any of that.

  • UnSubject says:

    Stewart Lee has made similar complaints, where the aim of UK comedians has become getting on TV comedy panel shows where you fire off jokes for 3 minutes between ad breaks.

    Of course, the problem with trying to avoid being safe is that you can easily end up with, well, “Problems”.

  • Matlock says:

    The problem with “Problems” is that it was being “unsafe” in the most safe way possible.

  • Tone says:

    This is precisely the reason why there will never be another Australian sketch comedy program like “The Late Show”. There is no way any network would allow a bunch of young, talented comedians and writers to not only perform and write, but also to film and direct many of their own sketches and then perform live to air. It’s just too high risk. In this day and age where television networks are beholden to their shareholders (even the ABC and SBS; after all you and I are their shareholders by virtue of the fact they are largely funded by Australian taxpayers), the good old days of risktaking are essentially numbered.