We’ve been a bit negative around these parts of late, so let’s start off our review of The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting – or as we’ll call it from here on, Knife – with a positive: it’s giving fresh faces a shot at making comedy on ABC1. Traditionally the ABC’s major network has been something of a closed shop comedy-wise, so while the show itself is more than a little rough around the edges, obviously the benefits of giving new talent a run far outweigh the uneven quality of the end result.
Excuse us a second, we’ve just been handed this press release:
Produced by the award-winning Jungleboys and the creators of Review with Myles Barlow and A Moody Christmas, THE ELEGANT GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO KNIFE FIGHTING creates a brand new uncharted space for sketch comedy in Australia.
Based on the experimental online comedy site of the same name, the series has attracted a formidable lineup of the country’s finest comedic and dramatic actors.
Patrick Brammall (A Moody Christmas, East West 101), Phil Lloyd (Review with Myles Barlow, A Moody Christmas), Damon Herriman (Breaking Bad, Justified), Georgina Haig (Fringe, Underbelly), Darren Gilshenan (A Moody Christmas,Top of the Lake), Robin McLeavy (Hell on Wheels, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Craig Anderson (Next Stop Hollywood, Laid), Janis McGavin (The Urban Monkey, Laid) and Dave Eastgate (A Moody Christmas, Problems) lead an amazing lineup of onscreen talent.
Behind the camera is an equally distinguished lineup of creative talent. Among the directors: one of Variety Magazine’s Ten Director’s to Watch, Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, Redfern Now); Trent O’Donnell (Review with Myles Barlow, A Moody Christmas), Craig Melville (John Safran’s Race Relations and John Sarfan Vs God), the Van Vuuren Brothers (Bondi Hipsters, The Fully Sick Rapper), Abe Forsythe (Laid, Mr & Mrs Murder), award-winning documentary director Stephen Oliver (Chateau Chunder: A Wine Revolution, Skippy: Australia’s First Superstar) Alex Morrow (rage, Triple J TV), Alethea Jones (Tropfest and IF award winner) and first-time TV directors Scott Pickett and Leigh Richards.
Taken in light of these just-to-hand facts, what we have here is not a hit-and-miss show where newcomers get a chance to develop their comedy skills, but an “amazing lineup of onscreen talent” revealing they’re not really all that good at comedy. And why? The secret lies in a close reading of this very press release, which goes out of its way to list the cast and directors while failing to mention anywhere the names of the people who actually wrote the jokes we’ve come here to laugh at. Who gives a shit about writers? They just write the show.
[Or do they? We’ve heard a third-hand rumour that at least one cast member, unimpressed with the quality of sketches they were appearing in, suggested new jokes and punchlines on the day of filming. Punchlines the producers then went with instead of the scripted ones.]
Having established the producers’ priorities, many of this show’s problems become a lot easier to grasp… in that pretty much all this show’s many, many problems stem from piss-poor writing. Yes, there are plenty of poor performances here as well, but as they largely stem from bad writing – many of the cast members, as that press release is so keen to remind us, have been tolerable in other things – we’re going to stick with blaming the bad writing.
Avoiding the obvious segue, here’s the opening of the Knife review at Molks Tv Talk:
The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting is new sketch comedy from the pens of the Jungle Boys (Trent O’Donnell, Phil Lloyd & Jason Burrows) that doesn’t just push sketch comedy in a ‘different direction’, it picks it up kicking and screaming and carries it over there; then consoling it at their collective bosom whilst changing it’s nappy of shame which it soiled in the process.
Where to begin? For starters, this supposedly insanely edgy and out-there sketch show features a sketch where an Amish I.T. guy tries to fix a computer monitor with a hand drill. May we refer you to #16 (“Wooden Spoons”) in this list of offbeat Saturday Night Live sketches. Or this sketch from the UK’s It’s Kevin, which aired slighter earlier this week. Or the extended Amish jokes in the recent US teen sex comedy film Sex Drive. Or just comedy in general. Amish jokes – look, they’re people who don’t get modern technology! – have not been taking comedy in a “different direction” since roughly a fortnight after the Amish first came to America. They may still be funny, but making them is about as conservative and safe as sketch comedy gets.
“But duh, that’s not the joke – the REAL joke is that the guy who’s computer is being “fixed” is the only person who realises the Amish I.T. guy is useless! He’s a sane man trapped in a mad world!”. Thank you, imaginary idiot. What you’ve just described is not a joke; it’s lazy writing trying to drag out a one-joke idea for three or four minutes. We know sketch comedy is rare in this country, but anyone who’s watched any sketch comedy at all ever from any source knows that, unless you really put your back into it, the whole “we’re treating this insane idea as if it’s normal” idea is not strong enough to hang an entire sketch on. Especially when your sketches are overlong, as Knife‘s tend to be.
That brings us to the same basic flaw that runs through almost all of the sketches here: what is a moderately funny idea when expressed in one line (“he’s an average guy at a posh restaurant who’s trying to impress his date but he doesn’t know what any of the menu items are!”) is turned into a lengthy sketch, only no-one has any idea where to take it (“let’s have the food served on a naked fat guy!”).
For example, there’s a sketch about a guy who never takes his hat off and his wife pleads with him to let her see his head. It doesn’t matter if you’re bald, she says, I’ll still love you, she pleads and pleads and pleads. If you can’t see how this is going to end, you may want to check if English is a language you actually understand.
The low point comes in a dinner party sketch – yes, for a show that supposedly takes sketch comedy in a “different direction”, this features both a dinner party sketch AND a restaurant sketch, breaking the exact same ground that, say, Full Frontal broke for a full hour 26 times a year in the mid 1990s – in which a guy who looks like a sex criminal acts like an abusive dickhead for what feels like hours before it’s revealed that the reason why he’s acting like an abusive dickhead is – wait for it – because he owns a Prius, and thus is morally superior to everyone else there.
Then he continues to act like an abusive dickhead. Everyone else goes along with it. He drives a Prius.
Then later on there’s a callback to him acting like an abusive dickhead. He gets two women to make out for his amusement, because he drives a Prius.
Then after that there’s another callback to him acting like an abusive dickhead, followed by the only actual punchline in the show. It’s not a great one.
If you’re going to do a sketch show where all you have is good sketch concepts – and none of the basic concepts here are terrible – you need to do one of those rapid-fire sketch shows that just fires out the funny ideas willy-nilly. Oh wait: those shows don’t give the directors a chance to display their chops, or the performers a chance to ham it up for their showreels. Those shows do require writers, and plenty of them. Those shows don’t provide a chance for an up-and-coming production house to give their mates profile-raising work. Those shows do end up being funny for the people at home.
The one sketch here that does work is the one where Captain Cook is berated for his lazy naming of the islands he discovered, and that works because hey, a lot of those names really are lazy! Thursday Island, Easter Island, Christmas Island… the Cook Islands… maybe you had to be there. It is also the only sketch here that isn’t trying to be “edgy”. Could it be that the way to be funny is by being funny, not edgy? Could it be that the last decade of “awkward” comedy got it all wrong?
Let’s be blunt: even with the current slip-shod state of ABC comedy, this just isn’t prime time ABC1 material. This isn’t even C31 material. For a sketch show to work in sketch-adverse 2013, you either need a really solid concept to tie the sketches together (Problems wasn’t a great show by any stretch, but at least it advertised itself as having a definite point of view behind its sketches) or the sketches need to be really, really, really good.
The overall concept’s nearly there, what with most of the sketches (like most sketch shows) being about daily life being taken to awkward extremes (“let’s test out our potential new home by having a fight!” “look, it’s the dad who gets offended and goes into too much detail about sex when he hears his daughter’s pregnant!”); as for the quality…
Let’s give the last word to Molks:
Thank you, ABC1, for the return of hilarious, uncomfortable, giggle-inducing, awkward sketch comedy. The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting is sure to put the cat among the pigeons of comedic taste and we’re long overdue the shit-covered statue that will be the debate surrounding it’s screening.
At least he got the “shit-covered statue” part right.