Connect the Dots and Win a Prize

Okay, so we know there’s going to be a new head of ABC comedy – one Mr Rick Kalowski – and for once there’s a solid track record of work we can examine to give us an idea of where things might be heading. Time to draw some wild and almost certainly inaccurate conclusions from the little we do know as a way to pass the time until something actually interesting happens with Australian comedy. Deal? Deal.

First up, getting Kalowski, AKA the brains behind Comedy Inc: The Late Shift and Double Take amongst others, to run ABC comedy is a fairly large admission that the last few years of ABC comedy haven’t worked as well as anyone would have liked. Who would have thought in 2011 that the guy behind At Home With Julia would take over ABC comedy? And that the Chosen One, AKA Andrew “hit factory” Denton, would all but retire from public life after having been responsible for the ABC’s biggest ratings failure in years?

That said, Kalowski’s rise is also an admission of just how low the standards have dropped in Australian comedy: let’s not forget, Big Bite and Double Take were… hmm, let’s put this tactfully for once. They were rarely watchable? Barely watchable? Fairly flushable?

If Andrew Denton had been given the gig, at least then there’d be a few career-slash-ratings highpoints to gesture at to suggest he might be able to deliver the occasional moment of brilliance, or at least surprise; giving it to Kalowski suggests that the most important thing in Australian comedy today is the ability to show up on time and provide a reliable if generic product that does what it says on the label without scaring the horses by trying anything surprising or new.

Still, just because someone single-handedly kept Paul McCarthy in work for over a decade doesn’t mean they don’t have what it takes to run ABC comedy. Well, apart from the “spotting new talent” side of things, but as he worked with Jungleboys’ sidekick Phil Lloyd on At Home With Julia it’s fairly safe to assume that Jungleboys will continue to provide 80% of the ABC’s “new comedy” needs. And maybe 20% of the laughs.

But back to that whole “clean slate” idea. What we can deduce from Kalowski’s prior efforts is that when he sets out to make a comedy, he at least tries to make a comedy. Which is not something you could say about recent ABC efforts like Please Like Me and Laid and… well, you know the list. It’s not like we ever shut up about them.

The one massive shining light coming out of Kalowski taking on the ABC comedy chief role – and remember, this is the guy who was head writer for two years on Comedy Inc: The Late Shift, a show that survived almost entirely due to it being counted as a drama as far as Channel Nine’s Australian content quotas* were concerned – is that he may put paid to the practice of ABC comedy being used as a dumping ground for shit “quirky” dramas that manage to appeal to neither comedy fans or drama buffs. Which, in our opinion, would be enough of a plus to let him off the hook even if he decided to go around firebombing war memorials in his spare time.

The downside is that while his past work has largely made a solid effort to engage with mainstream Australian society – which, in news to at least a couple of people at the ABC, is A GOOD THING – the level at which that engagement has taken place can most charitably be described as “fairly low”. Help us out, wikipedia:

A skit which was a parody of “Thomas the Tank Engine” was called, “Ernest the Engine“. This would mainly consists of 3 characters, Ernest the Engine Car, Stevie the Steam Train, and Gale the Guards Compartment who originally made their speaking and lead roles. The main component of this skit is Stevie’s stuttering at inappropriate moments, resulting in words that sound like swearing.


But while ABC comedy in generally has generally been pretty poor over the last few years, one area where it can hold its head up is political satire. When The Chaser or Mad as Hell or Clarke & Dawe go after politicians, it has been on the basis of their ideas, not their vocal tone or choice of swimwear. Kalowski’s previous efforts can not, on the whole, make that same claim.

From what we’ve heard, Kalowski’s appointment doesn’t take place until September, which just happens to be when the next Federal election (and presumably if the polls are correct, a change in government) is due. Kalowski’s already gone on record (and that link’s worth clicking if you’re after some insight into Kalowski’s approach to the media) as being no fan of Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd TV reporters, and no-one’s suggesting for a second that he’s going to drag the ABC comedy department over to the right to pander to our new leaders. We’ve already got an ad agency (Jungleboys) making sketch comedies and sitcoms over and above the various advertising-worshiping Gruen series: the only way things could get more pro-business is if they gave Q&A over to The Sydney Institute.

What we are suggesting is that it might be a good idea to pay close attention and see if the current crop of intelligent political comedies – which generally tend to lean to the left, largely because the right currently have no policies past “stop the boats!” and the usual screwing over of the poor – are downplayed in favour of the kind of shows Kalowski’s been involved with in the past, which have tended more towards mocking politicans’ personal quirks and surface issues rather than the core things our leaders actually stand for.

Put another way, we don’t give a fuck about Gillard’s accent or Abbott’s speedos, and if the ABC starts serving up jokes about that kind of crap rather than jokes about their attitudes and policies we’d be feeling more than a little short-changed.


*Commercial networks have to show a certain amount of Australian-made drama each year as part of their license. Seven and Ten managed this easily due to their nightly half hour soaps; Nine, which had neither local soaps nor successful prime-time dramas, relied on NZ imports and the cheaply made late night Comedy Inc (which, as scripted comedy, counted as “drama”) for much of the early 00’s to make it over the line. It’s no coincidence that Comedy Inc walked out the door at almost exactly the same time as Underbelly walked in.

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  • Jimbo says:

    Aw, c’mon, look on the bright side. The ABC could have announced Denton or Marieke Hardy or even Josh Thomas as the new head of comedy. At least they’ve appointed someone who at one point in his life actually wrote a joke. You can’t say that about the creators of Laid, Lowdown, Please Like Me, Librarians, etc [insert standard list of shite Australian comedy here].

    I enjoyed At Home With Julia. Yeah, it was inconsistent, but it was a huge cut above the usual crap the ABC comes up with. I’m looking forward to what he does with the ABC. I think he’s going to have his work cut out for him given the Coalition’s antipathy towards the ABC (booga booga “culture wars” booga booga). I know many senior people in federal government, and they’re all gearing up for massive budget cuts in the upcoming budget (and this is on top of the ongoing efficiency dividend which has been in place for several years), and the next budget under the Coalition.

  • James says:

    If the Herald Sun has a slow news day, and more’s the point, if the show had any traction, they’d be writing hysterically about some of the sketches from tonight’s Elegant Gentleman. The terrorist/child final sketch is a thousand times more provactive then anything that they made a stink about in the mid-2000’s.

    Meanwhile, the show has improved these last few episodes. It’s a pleasant watch but to be clear it still has that one trifling problem – no sound came out of my mouth all episode.

    It occurs to me though that a big part of why it’s not funny is that it doesn’t have a funny rhythm. I think if you fed Big Train (an obvious influence) scripts into this sausage machine the great writing would still come out ho-hum. Everything ticks along like a metronome of nothing.

  • Albert says:

    TV commercials are largely refined 30-second micro sketches. So how did Jungleboys’ Elegant Gentleman end up so slow and inelegant?

  • Jimbo says:

    Speaking of recent ABC comedy efforts, according to Todd Abbott on the show’s Facebook page, Please Like Me came THIRD in the recent Series Mania TV festival in Paris. It beat Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. There have been several reviews in the French media where Josh is being compared to Woody Allen (yes, you read that right). This is indeed proof that the end times are upon us.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    The established acts should be fine- they’re too beloved. Shaun might get the shaft but he’ll just move back to SBS or maybe even 10. It’s the politically ‘active’ (as opposed to aware) young talent that will probably suffer as a more apolitcal push is made. That said I can’t really think of anybody very, very political apart from FoBP.

    I can see the resemblance between Thomas and Allen but it’s probably that’s because Thomas in part modelled himself on Allen. Anyway the next Allen is Amstell.

    It’s weird they started quite similar in that they wanted fame from a young age and used comedy as a way to get it. But Amstell by Thomas’s age you could see was getting tired and cynical about the whole thing and then reduced his public profile and concentrating on comedy while Thomas seems to do the opposite.

  • Jimbo says:

    “Thomas in part modelled himself on Allen”? You have got to be yanking my chain.

    Josh Thomas does not even know who Woody Allen is. One of Woody’s pubic hairs stuck to the side of the shower screen is more funny than the entire creative output of Josh Thomas over his entire lifetime.

  • notyourkind says:

    I’m always a little bewildered by some of the Australian Tumbleweeds blogs (and comments). I know that anger is your schtick, but I sometimes think there’s nothing but angry 14-year-old straight boys around here. I thought Please Like Me was fantastic – I laughed out loud often, and I loved the characters of Peg and Josh’s mum (and I’m no fan of Thomas himself, so the fact that I enjoyed the show so much surprised me).

    I also thought Outland was fantastic, a brilliant (and hilarious) series I’m sorry not to see more of. I wonder if Outland and Please Like Me had been about straight guys we would have seen the same vitriol on this site (do you guys hate Girls as well? I can’t remember. Because Please Like Me reminded me of Girls, in a good way).

    Both shows were far funnier than the abysmal Twentysomething, which I seem to remember you gave an easy ride to (god, it was AWFUL). And the suggestion that the ABC should be in the business of making ultra-mainstream comedy for white straight males pisses me off – SURELY THAT’S WHAT CHANNEL 7 IS FOR. I get that comedy is subjective, but I seriously do not understand how so many of you couldn’t enjoy Please Like Me or Outland (Outland in particular was the most gag-packed show I’ve seen on the ABC in years, which is the kind of thing you’re always complaining about wanting).

  • Urinal Cake says:

    You have let hatred cloud your eyes. Watch Allen and then Thomas’s stand-up. Thomas’s delivery does owe something to Allen.

  • Jimbo says:

    I don’t “hate” anyone, especially Josh Thomas.

    For me, Woody Allen is the defining comic voice of the twentieth century. I feel all soft and gooey inside whenever his name is mentioned. Comparing Josh to Woody, in any way, is like being arse-raped by a 200kg guy called Bubba in a prison kitchen.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    So, you’ve read all the arguments against those shows and comedians, and you’ve concluded that everyone involved in this blog – as a writer and commenter – must be an angry 14-year-old straight boy? Fair enough…but you’re wrong.

  • Jimbo says:

    I sat through the entirety of both Outland and Please Like Me. I have an open mind, and have no problem with gay (or other minority) comedy. I’ve seen just about every comedy made in the US, UK and Australia in the last thirty years, from the mainstream stuff to weirdo stuff on digital channels that looks like it was shot on a mobile phone. If it’s funny, I’m up for it.

    However, both of those shows were more of an endurance test than comedy. They just weren’t funny in any way. They both suffered from some severe problems, mainly:

    Lack of overall plot (it’s the plot that creates the conflict, and it’s conflict that creates the comedy),
    Lack of character development (both had main characters who hardly even spoke),
    Lack of actual jokes (one lame joke every 10 minutes does not constitute comedy),
    No depth to the comedy (throwing a dildo around for 25 minutes is not funny, nor is campy silliness),
    Lack of comic beats (both shows just seemed to diddle around and not go anywhere comically),
    I could go on…

    I agree that Twentysomething was awful, but so was just about everything else on the ABC. Lowdown, Librarians, Strange Calls, Laid, etc were all “straight” comedies, but were equally (and deservedly) criticized by this site. There’s no conspiracy going on here, unless dumping on crap comedy is a conspiracy.

    I’d be interested to know exactly what the “gags” were on Outland. Perhaps you could spell some of them out for us. I must have missed them. The Youtube trailer doesn’t even have any jokes, and it contains all the “good stuff”:

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    I’m slightly offended that you think anger is “our schtick”. Sorry, but it’s not a put on: we really do like comedy, and we really do dislike shit comedy. If it helps, we really hated Laid, which was jam-packed with straight sex and hetronormative characters.

    We agree that mainstream comedy is what Channel Seven is for, but if they’re not going to make it it’d be nice if someone else did. As previously stated, we’re comedy buffs here, and the sad fact is that in 2013 there isn’t enough Australian television comedy being made of any stripe to justify giving bad comedy a free pass because of its subject matter.

    And if you get that comedy is subjective, that’s all that needs to be said, isn’t it?

  • Urinal Cake says:

    and white!

    Before playing stacks on- reading between the lines I suppose he\she thinks because we’re all white, heterosexual angrymales we don’t ‘get’ PLM or Outland(which I haven’t seen) since comedy is subjective, based on experience etc.

    The problem is I liked ‘Queer as Folk’ (not strictly a comedy but neither is PLM) and loved ‘Grandma’s House’. If you’re trying to imply some heteronormative bias- it doesn’t apply to me when it comes to ‘comedy’. I can’t speak for the others on this site.

    Comedy is pretty easy to judge- you laugh or you don’t. I didn’t.

  • Billy C says:

    I’m going to wait and see what he commissions before passing judgement.
    So basically what comes out in the second half of next year should have his finger prints on it.