Halloween is When the Dead Spirits Rise

Hey, a guest post! We think it’s an interesting look at a dark-ish corner of the Australian comedy business. As you’ll probably figure out, there’s a reason why it’s anonymous.

Many years ago, in 1999, I had a short conversation with a well-known lawyer-turned-comedian. He was in an office in one of the ABC buildings, which, he said more than once, was not his. He was there writing a sitcom set in a legal practice, and seemed relieved to have an excuse to stop for a minute.
“I’m writing about lawyers because you have to write what you know,” he said.

“Yes but you know this business as well now,” I said, meaning the business of show.

“I would never write about this business,” he said, with a serious look.

“Yes,” I said. “Corpses everywhere.”

I knew what he meant because I was one of the corpses.

I was at the ABC being one of the faces on a current affairs sketch show, called, shall we say, Frontburner. It was to be another frustrating experience. You’re given a script that is kind of satire-by-numbers – it isn’t very funny, but it’s making a point. You know if there’s going to be any laughs you’ll have to make them happen in the performance – so I opted for a Pixie-Anne Wheatley, vacuous but insanely cheerful persona. Three rehearsals later, everyone liked it. Everyone except the leading lady of the series. Just before the show was to be recorded, the director came over and had a word.

“Eloise doesn’t like that you’re playing the character dumb. She doesn’t like the female characters to be dumb. So could you play it more straight please.”

There were no more rehearsals. I had to kill my buoyant bimbo and do it like an ABC bitch. I did it, with one small fluff. There were no laughs. At the end I bowed my head too quickly because I was pissed off.

I had to do it again. So I thought, fuck it, let’s just enjoy ourselves. I did it all Pixie-Anne, and there were several laughs. The director was happy. But I knew I would never be asked back.

The intense competitiveness of what is really a small industry in a small country, combined with the massive overrepresentation of men at the helm of most comedy vehicles at that time, meant one thing – the women felt that they had to kneecap each other to keep their jobs. And they did it with gusto. A similar thing happened at another show on a commercial network, shall we call it, Empty Façade. I was a writer there, and was offered a spot playing a newsreader. Immediately a woman in the cast went to the producer and demanded a promise that I not be offered any more roles. Of course he acquiesced. He called it ‘ruffled feathers’.

So returning to the conversation I began with, what on earth did that popular comedian mean when he said he would never write about this business? Surely there’s an Australian version of 30 Rock just waiting to be written. There at the centre of it all you have put-upon Liz, holding everything together, surrounded by diva performers, slovenly writers and a crazy boss. Poor Liz, she’s the hero that makes the magic happen. Only it isn’t magic – it’s mediocre.

You can’t write about the business because you would have to change it beyond recognition to make it amusing. This is a business where there is no right and wrong, there’s only success and failure. The scandal that erupted around Hey Dad did not surprise me, nor would it surprise anyone who had seen behind the curtain – the show was high in the ratings, why on earth would anyone have rocked that boat? They all had mortgages to pay, after all. It’s an amazing, enabling, all-excusing thing, a mortgage, I’ve found – just drop the m-word and everything is justified. I’ve never had a mortgage, I got the impression early in life that it makes you do unpleasant things.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh – the Hey Dad example is probably the worst imaginable scenario. But it’s the calibre of the people attracted to the business that creates this environment. They are people with something to prove, and they crave attention, power, influence, and of course money. Recently a project I was involved with came to the attention of a producer. For a brief moment it looked possible that my series might actually be made. But the man who had hooked me up with the producer was the kind of amoral low-life I knew all too well. I thought – if this goes ahead, I will have to spend a vast amount of time with the most awful, insincere, manipulative, grasping arseholes, as opposed to spending time with, say, my daughter. So when nothing came of it, a large part of me was massively relieved.

Oh dear, such a jaundiced view! I am a corpse, remember. While working on Empty Façade (loving that name) I was bombarded with unwanted sexual attention. My friend and I decided that this was happening mainly because I was the only female in the writers’ room. Eighteen men and me. It’s OK at the start, if you like the company of funny men, which I did, but after a while the constant gags wear thin. You realise you’re not a part of it, you’re not a part of anything, you’re just there. I was not the only female writer who worked on that show to get to the point of going home and crying to the point of retching. I know that for a fact.

So you can’t take the heat, huh? Too emotional. Sad. Well that’s OK if everyone is happy with only a certain kind of personality making their entertainment for them. The tough ones, the aggressive ones, the ones who understand the politics. That’s great, and we’re all grateful if there’s a little bit of talent there as well. That’s just a lovely bonus.

Let’s skip to the endgame, to the nail in the coffin of my experience at Empty Façade. Perhaps I brought it on myself, by renting a room in the house of another writer, only this writer was on the up. He was, shall we say, politically gifted, he knew who mattered and who didn’t, knew what words to say into which ear, and was driven by a horror of ever being poor. He was perfect, and clearly had a great future ahead of him. We got along alright in the house, I was amiable enough – he even called me the perfect housemate. But as my so-called career crashed and burned, and his was on the rise, it became intolerable to stay in the house, and I left. But a friend of mine decided to tell him, “I think she hates you,” when the subject came up. And this writer who I had lived with, who had now attained producer status, now had the power to decide who worked on the show and who didn’t. And when my name came up for an acting gig, he delivered the decisive blow. Can you guess which word he used, ladies? It’s a d-word.

“She’s difficult,” he said.

And that was it. Job done. Game over.

Foolishly, I thought I would be able to move on to something else. But it is a small industry in a small country. And eventually I left both.

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  • Azz says:

    Wow. What a read. Thanks for this.

  • Pete says:

    Interesting read. I’m trying to figure out who you are.

    >”The tough ones, the aggressive ones, the ones who understand the politics.”

    And I think this explains the heart of the problem with comedy (and television) in Australia in general. Television made by networkers, politically gifted Machiavelli’s, careerists who know what words to say into which ear…would be just fine…if they could also adapt to and please the most important ears of all—the viewers.

    But pleasing viewers will offend the politically gifted, won’t it? Write comedy that people actually like and is funny? No, no. Scrap that. Do it like an ‘ABC bitch.’ Cut those poppies down.

    I’m trying to imagine who I’d consider funny people who fell through the cracks, though, because I don’t agree that the industry is completely closed off. Micallef comes to mind…and so does John Safran. People who are obviously hard working, but who don’t strike me as desperate, and therefore unfunny, careerists. I don’t agree that a small industry and a small country means it’s impossible for you to succeed. Come back and make your show and your projects on your own. The audiences still want good comedy. You don’t have to have anything to do with these comedy institutions. They aren’t the gatekeepers of what gets made.

  • urinal cake says:

    On that note: http://www.tvtonight.com.au/2013/10/abc-seeking-fresh-blood-in-comedy.html

    They should’ve used a ‘True Blood’ spoof instead going by this blog post. I’m not really sure what to think of this. Sites like youtube afaik don’t pay you upfront for development costs so the $10k would be helpful but the terms and conditions seem really strict. A few ‘promising creators’ will get ‘internships’ but do they get paid? It seems like if you were someone like Superwog who’s I think is a talented actor why would you sign up?

  • billyc says:

    The fresh blood idea is ridiculous. They need to chase people who can write and perform not people who know how to budget and crew a shoot. I imagine this is only happen to satisfy the ABC charter obligation that it solicit program ideas from the general public. They role something out every few years.

    The above article does not surprise me but how many shows actually have had writing rooms in this country? Outside of Roving Enterprises and GNW not many. I though I knew who wrote the above but then I realised that if it was who I thought it was she’d totally put her name on it.

  • urinal cake says:

    IIRC the ABC no longer does in-house production so this is probably a way to save money rather than sub-contracting the shooting out. Also some of the guys who get roped into this probably won’t pay themselves/others a wage just to have better production values which is sad. I mean youtube is great for this short stuff but the ABC should be focusing on nurturing talent for regular programming on television.

  • Baudolino says:

    There are a lot of systemic flaws within the Australian comedy industry, but you’re going to have to do a lot better if you want to convince me that Machiavellianism is somehow more pervasive within the industry in this country than it is in the UK or America. Certainly, stories about non-creative factors influencing creative direction are so common in America they are almost an industry cliche.

  • Rutegar says:

    Mmm … not at all surprising unfortunately

    although writer’s rooms in ye olde version of them don’t really exist much anymore.

    a lot of writers now just funnel their stuff in via email from a laptop at home or a cafe
    (which narrows the field again I guess for isolating mystery writer)

    it wasn’t particularly funny, but there was the Mick Molloy vehicle THE JESTERS and the Greg Fleet series DIE ON YOUR FEET

    PS : still trying to work out the EMPTY FACADE reference

  • Pete says:

    The UK and the US produce decent comedy. 100% of the time? No. But their track record destroys Australian track records. I think that’s pretty undeniable, unless you want to defend a lot of weak Australian crap. It’s not the low population of the country either. Even New Zealand and Denmark kill Australia in their entertainment produce. That goes for comedy and film in general.

    The point isn’t that non-creative factors influence a creative direction, it’s that the creatives themselves force themselves into these positions they are not qualified for. You get people like Marieke Hardy using her family connections to make a sitcom, while funny comedians like Daniel Townes never get a chance. Why? Because creative comedians spend time being funny rather than networking and manipulating, which is how shows like Seinfeld came to exist at all. Someone recognised talent and gave it an opportunity. It wasn’t a matter of Seinfeld calling in favours. Now, that’s not to say networking and simply being in the right city isn’t damn important. Comedy is a business, and Machiavellianism is alive and well everywhere. What we have in Australia, and what I think this article describes pretty well, is a breed that is so unhealthy and incestuous it makes perfect sense that nothing good is being produced. Nothing of any quality that the rest of the world truly cares about it.

    Besides that, I can’t really convince you otherwise. Maybe that’s why this blog is so important. Identifying cultural issues in an industry like comedy is incredibly difficult, and most of the time those criticisms are laid down, we just pretend things are the same elsewhere. ‘Oh, no Australia doesn’t have a problem, it’s the same in America, the same in the UK.’ But it isn’t, and the proof is in the pudding.

  • James S says:

    I assumed empty facade was Skithouse but that’s just a guess. It’s a pretty short lists of Australian comedies with more than a couple of writers.

  • urinal cake says:

    Isn’t ‘Empty Facade’-‘Full Frontal’? It would explain why\how the ‘lawyer-turned-comedian’ and anonymous knew each other.

    I’m interested in who the writer-turned producer myself.

    I thought that producers lead TV in the US, the ‘talent’ lead TV in the UK and in Australia the ‘execs’ lead TV but these anecdotes seem to tell us that writers lead TV which you wouldn’t be able guess. I gather it must have changed since the late 90’s and early 00’s.

  • Baudolino says:

    “The point isn’t that non-creative factors influence a creative direction, it’s that the creatives themselves force themselves into these positions they are not qualified for.”

    The article does not mention or allude to anything about creatives moving in to positions they are not qualified for, so I don’t know how you could assert that that is “the point” of the article. What our mystery writer does touch on is how the industry is politicised, and how being “tough” and “aggressive” are necessary qualities. Machiavellianism is described in the sense that women apparently need to “kneecap each other” to get jobs in the industry, and success is apparently only possible if a person “understands the politics”, etc.

    I was critiquing the quality of the arguments made by the article itself, not defending Australian comedy in general. Believe me, the LAST thing I would ever do is defend the Australian comedy industry. The fact that UK and US comedy have much better track records than Australia is, as you say, manifestly obvious, and I was alluding to the respective track records when I said that Machiavellianism is rife in those countries too; the point I was making is that while the state of Australia’s comedy industry is fairly dismal, the article does not do a particularly good job of shedding light on what makes it so uniquely awful, given that the issues raised are hardly exclusive to Australia.

    Again, you’re right that Australia has problems – and yes, it’s definitely not the same in American and/or the UK – but for me this article does little to elucidate broader “cultural issues” we have in this country that other countries do not. The points you raised in your post (which I mostly agree with, by the way) are much stronger than those raised by the article itself.

  • Baudolino says:

    I’ve been trying to decipher what “Empty Facade” is referring to since I first read the article. Presumably it’s a sardonic comment on the real title of the show in question…beyond that, I’ve got no idea.

  • Pete says:

    Hey listen, I understand, I wasn’t trying to patronise you. Machiavellianism was possibly the wrong word for me to bring up as it’s so misunderstood and most people have never read the Prince anyway. It’s clear to me that you weren’t taking an aggressively defensive position.

    When I identified this argument in the article it was just my own response to it, and what I think is the issue with Australian comedy in general. I may be entirely wrong about this, but I think the problems are so subtle it’s hard to put them into words. In fact, the problems are so subtle, so difficult to discern, that it’s not clear how things should change let alone if they should. I suspect the problems run far deeper than mere careerists, and in the general attitude of Australia itself.

    You of course see all of the above depicted in American sit coms. Power relations are part of being human, obviously. This article could have been written about the accounting industry. The personalities of most involved would be rather similar.

    And anyway, on the point of people moving into positions they shouldn’t, I think the article kind of does allude to this at its core. If the rule of comedy is to make funny stuff, and someone is in a position who says no to that idea, then I think that person is in a position they aren’t qualified for. The only qualification necessary for comedy is is the person funny. Not—hey, they need to be politically minded, and try not to offend x,y,z. That doesn’t mean humour needs to be gratuitous or sexist, necessarily, but people see through this sanctimonious bullshit and, as the mystery writer says, the room goes cold.

    But this is all very complicated and I don’t think I can prove my point anyway. All I’m saying is, the industry is corrupted and we’re doomed forever or until Superwog gets a tv show.

  • pete hill says:

    So the legal sitcom the lawyer-turned-comedian would have been working on was ‘Welcher & Welcher’ ?

  • Anonymous says:

    I wrote the article – I don’t think the Australian industry is writer-led and I’m sorry if I left that impression. The writers on this show had very low status – but some writers were more savvy than others. The issue is really creative integrity, of which there was very little – by which I mean you make your decisions based on quality, originality, not on what is going to go down best with a demographic you have never met and personally have no time for. If you want to make it a cultural issue you could look at the pragmatism that is so prevalent in the Australian psyche, the impatience with details, and with anything whimsical or eccentric. (Do I need to say there is other, good stuff in there as well) All I can write about is what happened to me, and I am very concerned with being absolutely truthful about that. I didn’t even go into my other experiences at the ABC, the ineptness just defied belief.

  • Anonymous says:

    That should be ineptitude. Shame on me.

  • urinal cake says:

    Thanks for the clarification.

    The other thing I was wondering about was Rebel Wilson talked about ‘not having notes handed to her’ about creative decisions while in Australia compared to America. I gather working for SBS or as the lead writer/performer is quite different.

  • Rutegar says:

    BTW : it’s another telling comparison that being “difficult” is considered an artistic asset in the US. I remember George Miller being told he needed to act more like a spoilt diva on the set of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK because it was expected.