Vale Wednesday Night Fever

Usually when a television show – especially a comedy – goes off the rails, it’s because those rails were faulty from the start. Remember how Randling filmed every single episode of it’s 27 episode run before a single one went to air? Oh how we laughed – not at the show, but at the foolishness of filming every single episode before the public had seen a single one. And yet, in hindsight wasn’t that a little harsh?

Okay, obviously not, but go with us here: the way television (and especially comedy) works is that it’s pretty much impossible to turn the ship around in a week if something goes wrong. Australian shows rarely have the budget for vast teams of writers so even “topical” shows have long lead times to write a lot of generic gags they can slot in during quiet weeks when they’re on-air. Non-topical scripted comedy is almost always completely finished before the first episode goes to air; shows like The Hamster Decides and Gruen Nation have tried and tested formats that aren’t going to change.

Basically, what you see in week one is almost always, minor changes aside, what you’re going to get for the whole run: Randling might have been able to tweak its’ format if it had been filmed weekly, but it still would have been basically the same – basically rubbish – show. So pretty much the only interesting thing about the car crash into a train wreck that was Wednesday Night Fever is this: it was a show that actually changed substantially between weeks one and two.

It’s easy to point out Wednesday Night Fever‘s superficial failings so lets do so fast before we get to the interesting stuff. Sammy J aside, the cast was a collection of performers that no-one wants to see. We’ve seen them before, we didn’t like them the first time. Having the creative team behind previously proven flops as Double Take, Comedy Inc: The Late Shift and Big Bite, not to mention the one-joke wonder of At Home With Julia, was hardly a sign that anyone here was going to be reaching for creative excellence.

But if that’s the case, why even make Wednesday Night Fever? Initial reports suggested the show was going to be a showcase for new talent, so when the line-up turned out to be these guys (this list is taken from the inital press release – just check out their high-profile credits!):

Amanda Bishop (At Home with Julia); Paul McCarthy (Comedy Inc. – The Late Shift, At Home with Julia); Genevieve Morris (Comedy Inc. – The Late Shift); Dave Eastgate (A Moody Christmas, Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting); Heath Franklin (‘Chopper’ of The Ronnie Johns Half Hour); Melbourne Comedy Festival sensation Anne Edmonds; music theatre star Lisa Adam and Robin Goldsworthy (At Home with Julia, Paper Giants).

… well, if by “new talent” they meant “shows no-one watched the first time…”

Okay, so the show lacked star power. And being a “satirical political sketch comedy” isn’t really enough to make you stand out on a network that already has The Chaser and Shaun Micallef doing basically the same thing already. Let’s go back to that first ever press release:

ABC TV today announced that Wednesday Night Fever – its new, late night, weekly comedy series from the makers of controversial hit At Home with Julia – will premiere on Wednesday, July 3 at 9:30pm on ABC1.

Did you spot the magic word? Correctamundo: “controversial”. Not “hilarious”, not “critically acclaimed”, not even “much-loved”. The secret ingredient is controversy.

As cast member Genevieve Morris told TV Tonight just before it went to air:

“There’s no point in making comedy if you’re going to play it safe. I certainly don’t believe in comedy having a go at people and taking a cheap shot just for the sake of it. That’s lazy writing. But there will be points made, probably in a provocative way,”

Clearly Morris hadn’t yet seen the script for “Celebrity Whores”

Now, we’ve had discussions with people in a much better position to know such things than us over the years who’ve told us flat out that the ABC is scared of controversy. They do not like the media spotlight being shone on them one bit, and any speculation on our part that they create or promote shows with the intention of stirring up trouble in the hope of boosting ratings is flat-out wrong. But in this case, well, we think it may have worked both ways.

If the question prior to Wednesday Night Fever going to air was “what could they possibly do to get people to watch a show put together by the writers and performers who made the worst Australian sketch comedy of the last decade?”, the first episode answered it loud and clear: swearing! Lots and lots of swearing!

When we reviewed the first episode, we largely steered clear of passing judgment on the swearing, because what was there to say? There was a lot of it and a lot of the time it seemed forced; the show had bigger problems than that. For example, it was harsh and mean-spirited, which the swearing only underlined. When your parody of Kyle Sandilands has nothing to say past “he so fat!”, you’re not exactly expecting applause for your thoughtful deconstruction of his public persona.

Still, it wasn’t surprising that most commentators focused on the swearing and insults – this was a show that made jokes about the “fact” that Ruby Rose supposedly looked like a boy, Jesus Christ – and when word leaked out via a (since taken down) Crikey report that future sketches would feature a range of dubious-sounding efforts including Prince Phillip in blackface, it looked like the kerfuffle might even make it out to the wider press.

Cut to week two, and huh? Where’d all the swearing go? From more fucks than a half-price brothel on Friday night one week to a single solitary “shit” in week two. Remember how the ABC doesn’t like controversy? Rumour had it that the producers had admitted the show had gone a bit far (or had been told so by their superiors) and decided to dial it back. At least they managed to still air most of the “offensive” sketches they’d pre-recorded… though surprisingly, blackface Prince Phillip seemed to have been left on the cutting room floor.

For a show like this, this was a massive change. Basically, its only point of difference – apart from a slightly creepy strand of social conservatism – had been taken away from it. This was going to be the “controversial” comedy where “nothing was sacred”; as no-one involved seemed capable of living up to those terms without swearing or fat jokes, all that was left was a fairly tame comedy largely built around impersonations where the performance was far stronger than the writing.

And that was pretty much that. In hindsight it’s obvious that the swearing and “edgy comedy” (read: insults) were meant to cover up the fact that this had nothing to offer that the public hadn’t already rejected, and with them gone all that was left was a series of flop-sweat desperate attempts to create cult characters (Clive Palmer, Margaret & David, Justice Whatshername) while bending over backwards to keep Amanda Bishop’s Julia Gillard character in front of the cameras despite the real Gillard having vanished from public view days before the first episode aired.

Obviously at least some of the show’s misfortunes were out of the hands of the cast and crew. But if you set out to make a nasty, spiteful show designed to get laughs from ending every sentence with “fuck” and making fun of people because they don’t conform to your ideas of what people should look like, you deserve a much worse kicking than anything we could hand out. This was a lazy show trading on cheap jokes – “politicians swearing” largely summed it up – and every hurdle it faced only forced it to move closer to what it should have been from the start: a show that tried to be funny.

Shame it failed at that too.

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  • BIlly C says:

    Apart from the significant problems you’ve raised was the host. Sammy J is not a mean snarky host and he’s not in my experience hugely political. I think he’s a great comic. The Forest of Dreams is one of the best shows I have ever seen. It was an entire musical performed by two people and it was brilliant. But here he was cast as a presenter of a show that was pretty mean and low brow. That’s not him. Anne Edmonds isn’t an impersonator and I’d say the same for Dave Eastgate. The band should have been sacked after week one or at least mixed properly. They were trying to do a show with impersonators without good impressions. This wasn’t satire it was just bad parody. Live sketch rarely works, the format was okay but it was too big and over the top. Too desperate to please. It was funny that this is one of those shows that from the moment it was announced was being dissed behind the scenes. Everyone knew it would be double take 2.0. How could it ever have been anything else? It’s a wasted opportunity to essentially take the cast from failed shows and try again.

  • Blues says:

    Pretty spot on review. It always felt like they were going for an older audience most of the time with such broad characters as Justice or hauling out their At the Movies schtick soon as they thought it got laughs. With Sammy J it felt like they shoehorned him in, padding for time because he can sing and play piano, when he did talk it was awkward set ups for more Kevin Rudd or to point out how he doesn’t give a shit about how people care about certain things to set up a skit making fun of people who do, of course the targets wouldn’t be watching the show because they know better than to watch this constant car wreck.
    It wouldn’t surprise me if this gets renewed still, they’d argue that the Ashes stole the audience and the poor timing with Gillard being outed, but really this show should be buried so deep no future head of comedy can revive it. The worst part about WNF was that every skit felt like padding, nothing felt like it was current or funny enough to be aired unless the situation was dire.

  • Rutegar says:

    Um … so was the show axed or did it just complete its intended run with renewal up in the air ?

  • BIlly C says:

    It completed it’s run. Tractor Monkeys got renewed so you never know.

  • philly says:

    When I was watching it, I remembered an older ABC show ‘The Dingo Principle’ (remember that one?) which was arguably a spin-off from ‘The Gillies Report’ given that had a few of the same cast and a similar format of comedy satire, often based around musical numbers. It probably hasn’t aged well, given the topical content and the 1970s-ish ragtime political satire-style of its sketches. But I do remember the controversy it generated, in particular with the Iranian and Russian embassies in Australia. This arose from a mock interview sketch with the Ayatollah Khomeini appearing as a guest and his first lines were ‘So little time, so much to destroy’ and a musical number about left-leaning University students slowly turning into conservative yuppies as they grow older in which a singing Lenin entertains the crowd. Given that the Murdoch-owned media had already embarked on its ‘We hate the ABC and will gleefully pounce on anything about it that could be made to look controversial or dodgy’ campaign, in hindsight, it was probably all storm in a tea-cup stuff. The difference here though is that the show did not self-consciously set out to generate controversy, it stood up to be judged on its material.

  • Rutegar says:

    Yup. And bloody BIG BROTHER is back on Australian screens.

    Maybe Aussie audiences did something REALLY bad in a previous life.

    … okay, I can think of a few possibilities …

    Our dispossessed Indigenous predecessors must look upon what the white fellas have wrought with bemusement.
    “Seriously ? You call that progress ?”