Most of our objections to the state of modern Australian comedy can be boiled down to two points: most of it isn’t even trying to be funny, and it’s not even any good at whatever it is trying to do. So we’re actually kind of pleased to see both The Checkout and Have You Been Paying Attention? back in 2014. Yes, they’re the kind of diluted crap the networks constantly serve instead of actual comedy – but they’re rare examples of good crap.
Of the two, The Checkout is the one we probably won’t be bothering with much this year. The Chaser are still involved (well, Julian Morrow and Craig Reucassel out front, with Chas Licciardello behind the scenes) alongside a bunch of other comedy faces – and Heath Franklin, who clearly needs the work now that he can’t keep pretending to be Chopper Read – but it’s basically just straight consumer affairs now. And by “consumer affairs” we mean five minute segments outlining the rules and regulations behind the use of the term “Australian Made”. Informative? Sure. Funny? Nuh.
Oh sure, they try to spice things up. But all the wacky animation in the world can’t hide the fact that around a third of the show is basically just reading out letters from grumpy people complaining about stuff. There’s more audience-sourced content too – cue obvious non-joke by Morrow that they’re aiming to have the entire show sourced from viewers soon – but that’s hardly a good thing no matter how severely they edit it. Also, it now features Heath Franklin.
So as comedy fans, we can acknowledge that this show is packed with useful information told in an informative fashion while also pointing out that the comedy content is sinking close to zero. And that’s fine: unlike the various Gruen shows, this at least is telling you stuff you probably didn’t already know in a non-condescending fashion (apart from that guy saying that online “if you’re not paying for something online, you’re not the consumer, you’re the product.” Uh, duh). But if you’re tuning in for the comedy, here’s hoping you find the news that actual food often looks nothing like its promotional photos freakin’ hilarious.
As for Have You Been Paying Attention?, unlike just about every other comedy quiz show in living memory, it’s often actually funny. In part that’s because it’s run as an actual quiz, not as a thinly disguised excuse for the “comedians” to tell pointless and endless anecdotes. A question is asked, someone gives a joke answer, someone else gives the right answer, next question.
Last time around some complained that the show felt overly scripted – or just plain scripted, as the argument seemed to be that no group could be that consistently funny off-the-cuff. Uh, what? You’d rather the show had more people umming and ahhing and making jokes that didn’t work? It’s not like they’re using fake laughter to make shit seem like gold: they’re putting in the work to make an actually funny show, and then people complain that it seems too funny?
Let’s kill this off while we’re here: if you prefer your comedy quiz shows to feature people more obviously fumbling for a joke, you can get out right now. Life is short and we’d like to spend as much as possible of it enjoying comedy. We’re making a firm aesthetic choice here: on this kind of show, where throwaway jokes are pretty much all you’re ever going to get, we want to get as many of them as possible. If that means not having the kind of bullshit “naturalism” that’s been all the rage for the last seemingly fucking endless decade of self-obsessed tosspots thinking that having everyone looking at them was the be-all and end-all of comedy, pardon us while we fail to shed a single solitary tear.
Whether they script all the jokes, or just edit out all the dud moments after filming or the entire show really does happen exactly as we see it on screen, we don’t really care. It’s not a “real” game show; no fraud is being committed. What counts is the end result – and like we just said, this is basically the only funny comedy quiz show this country’s produced in the 21st century. Because here, for once, the joke – not on-screen bonding or establishing someone as “a funny guy” or providing a wanker showcase, or whatever the reason was for The Einstein Factor – is the point.
Would we rather it was replaced by an actual scripted comedy series that didn’t have to act like a topical news quiz? Of course. But as producers Working Dog seem to have at least two scripted comedy series in the pipeline (one for the ABC, one for Foxtel) plus a honest-to-God play coming up in 2014, we can’t really complain that they’re wasting all their time on this crap.
Not to mention that this kind of crap is the crap they do best: a slightly daggy quiz show featuring occasionally dubious gags (at least when Tommy G said Sam Pang played “The Guard” in the Schapelle Corby telemovie, Pang pointed out that hey, why not have him play all the Asian roles?), shonky segments (there were more jokes about how bad the “Drill Down” segment was than jokes in the actual segment) and Jane Kennedy calling Mick Molloy “Don Burke”.
Everyone seems like friends, but the kind of friends who constantly try to one-up each other with a gag. Which are pretty much the only kind of friends we want to see on our televisions. Most of the time comedy quiz shows and half-arsed panel shows look like something all involved tossed off in their spare time without bothering to hide their contempt for the audience they expect to drool all over their “hard work”. When someone comes along and puts in a bit of effort to make the end product funny, they’re going to get two thumbs up from us.