Martin Plaza

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.”

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  • pete hill says:

    Once Denise Scott arrives at anything, it pretty much turns into the Denise Scott solo show to siphon yet more laughs from the endless how-much-of-a-slob-is-my-husband barrel. Tony Martin is usually too polite (and sometimes too bemused) to talk over other people in a group situation on TV, although he has more assertiveness on radio, I’ve noticed. It could also be the sign that he’s comfortable enough in his own skin and doesn’t feel the need to remind the audience of how unbelievably hilarious he is every five seconds, unlike Scott, Julia Morris, Wil Anderson and a score of other try-hards. The few eps of This Week Live I’ve watched haven’t impressed me to be honest- the potential is there but the cast seem to strain with the thin material.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    That’s our big big problem with panel shows – being “too polite” and “comfortable in your own skin” is a big drawback on them, and yet a big plus in real life. These formats actively encourage people to act like hateful arseholes.

  • Baudolino says:

    Oh my god. PLEASE tell me those responsible for this blog are currently preparing a suitably disdainful response to Ben Pobjie’s latest column. As soon as I had read the article my immediate thought was “I need to read Australian Tumbleweeds’ take on this”.


  • billy C says:

    Next Up Pobjie will be telling theatres top stop performing plays. Should drama go single camera? Of course not. Single cam is a incredibly effective in some situations but is getting very old hat now and is not always appropriate. Pobjie knows very little about making tv and less about writing it. That’s fine but he should limit his criticism to why he likes something or not.

  • urinal cake says:

    So hey more dramedies and dark comedies like ‘Laid’ and PLM for everyone!?

    If they’re so damn simple why can’t the ABC make a good one? I can’t believe Pobjie gets paid for this stuff.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    We saw it and we thought about it but twice in just over a week seemed a bit much even for us. But yeah, he’s clearly not being employed for his sharp insights into television. Our best guess is that his basic “duhh, crappy American sitcoms are crappy”-style efforts are meant to be some kind of voice of the people thing – he’s thinking what you’re thinking!

    That said, traditionally that TV column has been shit for a whole variety of reasons largely to do with it appearing in the part of the paper aimed at people who are “too good” for television. So having him constantly express in the vaguest possible terms the kind of “insight” you’d expect from a disinterested high school media studies teacher is probably what he’s been hired for.

    Seriously though, when you think about the sheer quantity of high-level drama series out at the moment then consider the level of quality applied to the book review pages of the section of The Age he appears in, his column must be some kind of joke. He could be talking up really excellent television every week of the year but that’s clearly beyond his abilities – or more more likely, his interests. Because why wouldn’t you hire the guy best known for a Masterchef parody to be your TV columnist during a golden age of quality drama?

  • urinal cake says:

    Isn’t there a serious reviewer for that?

    First he’s lauding Australian comedy, now he’s trashing current American sitcoms so next he’ll be dismissing British panel shows*? It speaks of some sort agenda.

    *which really have gotten worse but I’ll take a current British panel show over an Australian iteration any day.

  • Tony Coca-Cola says:

    I don’t understand the hate directed towards studio-based sitcoms.
    They’re infinitely more difficult to do well than single camera shows. There’s a “reality” to single camera shows that automatically gives it more, well, reality. The theatricality and falseness of studio-based sitcoms makes everything they do a lot harder.
    If someone slips on a banana peel in The Office, you believe it.
    If someone slips on a banana peel in Friends, it’s completely contrived.
    They’re different forms with different rules (except, of course, to make us laugh.) They both serve a different function. Get a fucking clue Pobjie.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    “Isn’t there a serious reviewer for that?” At Fairfax? *cue hysterical laughter* Sadly, no.

    Tony Squires is their daily reviewer and Melinda Houston reviews the week in the Sunday paper. Much as we plan to never mention Tony Martin again, he did have a point here:

  • urinal cake says:

    You made me do some research- I was thinking of Giles Hardie who is more of a film reviewer.