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.