People occasionally ask us why we’re not big fans of the panel format. “It’s got comedians on it and they’re being funny’n shit” says this almost certainly fictional idiot, “what’s not to like?” Well, a lot of things really, but let’s stick to one: some very good comedians are no damn good on panel shows.
We’re big Shaun Micallef fans here, but let’s face it: unless you let him do something like this-
-he’s pretty much wasted on a panel show. He’s just not that kind of comedian: he works by creating his own world, and while he can be great interacting with a host, once you have comments coming from more than one direction any attempt to build anything more complicated than a one-liner is doomed to fail.
Then there’s Tony Martin, a comedian we usually have a lot of time for around these parts and a man you’d expect to do well on panel shows, what with his years of commercial radio experience and, you know, being funny. But as a guest on a panel show? It’s probably fair to say he sometimes struggles.
There’s a bunch of reasons why this might be. He could be more of a monologist, who does his best work when he’s given a bit of time to tell a story. It could be that his best material requires a bit of set-up, which often gets drowned out or taken in another direction by the rest of the panel. He might just not be that good at talking over the top of other people. For whatever reason, while he usually gets a few good lines out in a panel setting, it’s rarely a setting that shows off his skills to best advantage.
Let’s come at it from another direction for a moment. We were never the world’s biggest fans of The Panel, but that show did have one major strength at least some of the time: it featured a panel full of people who’d worked together for years. These guys knew each other’s sense of humour, they knew each other’s timing, they knew when someone was building to a joke and they knew enough to let them get to it. And then you had Kate Langbroek, who was seemingly hired because she had none of those abilities. Yes, they needed at least one woman and yes, they needed someone who would speak up and not let the boy’s club run roughshod all over them – but comedy was still the big loser.
Panel shows encourage a certain kind of comedian, and generally speaking that’s a kind of comedian we don’t have a lot of time for. Sure, there are people out there who are fast, loud and funny, but generally speaking you only need to be two of those things to get semi-regular panel show work. Guess what usually falls short? Here’s a clue: it’s not “loud”.
Part of the reason why we’re currently enjoying This Week Live slightly more than we expected to is because it adds a few twists to the panel show formula. The first ten minutes or so are just various members of the regular panel doing various bits, and the rest of the show has non-panel sketches and segments scattered around the place. Plus the four regulars have a bit of chemistry between them – we’re not talking Panel levels just yet, but increasingly they seem to know enough about how each other works to let them get on with the job.
So it’s not all that surprising that Tony Martin’s appearance on last night’s show was probably his best panel show work in a while – Meshel Laurie feeling the bizarre need to explain his Chopper / Heath Franklin joke aside. They let him talk on the panel, he got to dress up like a pimp, and if he spent a lot of time promoting the upcoming Ross Noble show he directed, at least it led to a couple of Howard Jones jokes.
Of course, once the panel chitchat began in earnest Martin rarely got a word in edgeways and then vanished from the show altogether, but that’s business as usual. Let’s leave the last word to fellow guest Denise Scott, who at one stage summed up pretty much all the problems with panel shows when she apologised to Tommy Little for continuing with a story. “I thought you had a gag coming,” she said, “and I felt I cut you off.”