This time last year Australian comedy on the big screen was looking pretty good. That’s “good”, not “funny”. But in contrast to previous years where you’d be lucky to get a single locally produced film that could even be loosely defined as “comedy”, in 2012 a slow but steady trickle of local comedies made it to cinemas. The Wedding Party. Any Questions For Ben. A Few Best Men. Housos vs Authority. Not Suitable For Children. Mental. Kath & Kimderella. The not-really-made-for- TV movie Scumbus. And maybe some others we’ve forgotten*. Presumably deservedly so.
They weren’t all box office flops either. A Few Best Men was an actual hit by local standards, and most of the others will probably end up breaking even once the pay TV and free-to-air money comes in. Yet what have we had this year? Reverse Runner. And if there’s anything else coming up on the big screen, they’re keeping good and quiet about it.
Generally speaking, It’s hard not to get the impression that Australian film-makers make films aimed at the general public under duress. If they don’t make a fortune, all involved can say “well, that was a waste of time” and go back to making obscure arthouse crap where it doesn’t matter if it fails because it was never going to succeed. And if they do… ahh, who are we kidding.
But putting that aside for a moment and stepping firmly into fantasyland, the big problem with commercial comedy films is that – unlike films where sharks attack people in a flooded supermarket – comedy often doesn’t travel well overseas. Worse, for some reason that almost certainly has to do with film-makers generally being over-serious tosspots who don’t actually like “comedy”, most of our film comedies seem to take their inspiration from The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie and play things broad. Really, really, wow-that-Kangaroo Jack-was-a-little-too-subtle broad. Which tends not to work here, because surprisingly Australians don’t tend to go to movies that suggest Australians are a pack of gurning fuckwits.
Worse, film-makers are the only ones likely to get comedy films made in this country these days. Any Questions For Ben sunk Working Dog’s film fortunes, probably forever. Kath & Kimderella was always going to be a once-off, and it turned out to be an unsuccessful one. Mick Molloy occasionally mentions a script he’s working on for a third film but after Boytown that seems pretty unlikely to get off the ground. Who’s left to take TV comedy to the big screen? Dave O’Neill?
To take a structural view, what happened to Australian comedy in the late 90s and early 2000s is the same thing that happened to American comedy: television networks became less interested in comedy (well, in good comedy at least), and so the comedians tried to make films.
In America Judd Apatow, tired of television after the failures of Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, decided to make a film. That film was The 40 Year Old Virgin, and movie comedy in America became a massive thing for the next decade.
In Australia, tired of television after the failure of The Mick Molloy Show, Mick Molloy decided to make a film. That film was Crackerjack, and movie comedy in Australia became, well, kind of a thing for a couple of years.
In America, comedy made a comeback on television too, so now you have decent comedies made for television and a steady stream of (okay, increasingly tired) comedies on film as the stars created a decade ago largely maintain their drawing power.
In Australia, movie comedies died, television comedy died on the commercial networks, and now comedy is largely seen as some kind of arty preserve for inner-city types rather than, you know, something everyone can laugh at. Which is bizarre and insane and increasingly means we’ll never see comedy as mainstream entertainment in Australia again unless something massive and sudden comes out of nowhere to change that.
So, good news! Give it another decade or so of turgid ABC stabs at laugh-free serial drama sold as “comedy” and comedy will stop being something Australian film graduates wouldn’t touch with a ten foot lens and will instead be exactly the kind of cool, “serious” project they can’t wait to make. Sure, these comedies will be frighteningly dull hipster-worshipping “dramedies”, but maybe one of them will accidentally have a few good jokes in there in between all the drug use and prostitution and incest (you didn’t think they were going to give those up, did you?).
All blackly choking on our own dying laughter aside, it’s crazy that we don’t have even a handful of big-screen comedies out each year. Comedy is pretty much the only film genre where looking cheap isn’t a fatal flaw, and while getting people to see Australian films is traditionally pretty much impossible that’s because most Australian films look a lot closer to pulling weeds out of the cracks in a factory carpark than something approaching a good time. Meanwhile, despite what the last three years of political reporting might seem to suggest, people still actually like to laugh.
If all we’re ever going to get out of our local cinema from now until the end of time is crappy inner-city dramas about slap-head junkies, here’s an idea: why not make the junkies funny? Real life junkies are pretty funny sometimes. And maybe if your sallow-skinned whiny junkies were occasionally funny, the audience might warm towards them. That way, when they turn out to be sleeping with their own mother and then burn to death in a Brotherhood Bin, the audience might, for once in the history of Australian cinema, give a shit.
*edit: We’ve been reminded we left out Save Your Legs. Having seen Save Your Legs, we’re not grateful for the reminder.