Knox Knox Knoxing on Heaven’s Door

Respected entertainment reporter – yes, there really are such things – David Knox wonders why we don’t make sitcoms in Australia. He wonders this a lot. He wondered it in November 2013:

Will anybody ever take the kind of risk necessary to achieve one, or are our writers simply not interested?

Then it turned out he’d already wondered it elsewhere a day earlier:

If it wasn’t for our public broadcasters we really wouldn’t see much in the way of local comedy on Free to Air. Commercial networks have given comedy a wide berth of late, preferring to shuffle the laughs into panel shows rather than scripted content. Comedy isn’t even a Logie category anymore.

He wondered it in March 2014:

Aside from the ABC, when was the last time you saw a locally-produced scripted comedy on Australian television?

I’m not talking panel shows or travel specials with comedians, but honest-to-goodness scripted jokes with actors?

He was even talking about it back in 2008:

if Tim Worner thinks comedy is on the rise then he must have heard a different joke.

2008 was the unfunniest year for comedy in ages. There was no Kath & Kim, The Chaser, Summer Heights High or Thank God You’re Here. While it’s true Seven has since snaffled the latter from TEN, what has it decided on the unfunny Out of the Question? And is This is Your Laugh due to resume production? What precisely is the immediate future for new Kath & Kim?

(if he thought 2008 was the unfunniest year for comedy in ages, he must have just loved 2009-2014)

Do we support his push? Of course – we love comedy around these parts. Do we also think it’s a case of wasting effort that could be better spent elsewhere? Well, uh… not that we’d say it to his face or anything, but… you know, his heart’s in the right place, but…

All, the hell with it: the sitcom is dead dead dead on commercial television and has been so in living memory. The last successful sitcom on commercial television was Kath & Kim, which Seven bought from the ABC when it was well past its use-by date. And before that? Do we really have to go back as far as Hey, Dad..!? Because let’s not forget, back in the day sitcoms like Hey, Dad..!, and Newlyweds, and Brass Monkeys, and All Together Now, were considered to be, how you say, “fucking shithouse”.

That’s the thing that really puzzles us here. The only good sitcom of the so-called “golden age” of Australian sitcoms was Mother & Son, and where was that aired? The ABC. Which still airs sitcoms to this day. Problem solved! Man, that was a short article. Where’d we park the car?

Oh right, Knox is talking about multicamera sitcoms – Friends, Seinfeld, that kind of thing. You know, the kind of sitcom the ABC doesn’t make. Even the US doesn’t make all that many of them any more, and they make dozens of sitcoms a year. The UK has moved away from that format too, though not entirely. Mrs Brown’s Boys, anyone? Is that the kind of show our commercial networks should be making?

Knox has forgotten more about television than we’ll ever know, so we’re only putting this stuff in to remind ourselves: Australian commercial networks don’t make sitcoms because it’s cheaper to make hour-long dramas with a bit of comedy stirred in (well, not cheaper but it doesn’t cost twice as much so they get more programming for less money). Dramas are also easier to sell overseas – most Australian comedy sales have been of formats, not finished shows. Good luck competing with American sitcoms anyway because while drama is universal, comedy is often extremely specific. Though wasn’t Hey, Dad..! a big hit in Germany? Must have been the dubbing.

Comedy has always been a cheap product on commercial television. That’s why it clings on there today in the form of panel shows and travelogues. But you simply can’t film a sitcom on the cheap here today – well, you could, but that would mean you’d be relying on the writing rather than the “all-star” cast and production design to get people watching. And as anyone who’s watched even a second of Australian drama over the last decade knows, commercial television does not make quality scripting a high priority.

It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to be making a stink about something that’s been the case for the last twenty years like it’s suddenly become A Big Deal. After all, sitcoms on commercial television here have always been a): rare, and b): shit. Seriously, look at the list of classic scripted comedies he cites:

Mother and Son, Fast Forward, Kath and Kim, Frontline, The D Generation, The Paul Hogan Show, Summer Heights High, The Comedy Company, The Naked Vicar Show, The Mavis Bramston Show.

Aside from Summer Heights High – which was made by Chris Lilley, who’s still making shows for the ABC so listing him in an article about how networks aren’t supporting comedy is a little iffy (same goes for Frontline and The D Generation) – we’re pretty much all talking shows at least 20 years old that aren’t even sitcoms. The Mavis Bramston Show? Next he’ll be complaining that Australia doesn’t make enough shows in black & white. Which is frighteningly easy to imagine:

Aside from the ABC, when was the last time you saw a locally-produced black & white programme on Australian television?

I’m not talking late night old movies or repeats of US sitcoms that are forty years old, but honest-to-goodness Australian television shows filmed in the format Australians loved for thirty years – black & white?

Oh well, at least he’s out there trying. Sure, instead of trying to drum up more work for the usual unfunny suspects by pretending there’s a massive unmet demand for the kind of show you know Dave O’Neil would find a way to get hired on Knox could always agitate for better comedy, but… naaaah.

Long story short: sitcoms still get made in this country. In fact, we actually make a fair amount of them these days compared to the drought of a decade or so ago. So when Knox says:

Collectively, it’s an industry disgrace and it’s letting us all down.

We have to wonder what the holy heck he’s on about.

Now, making Hey, Dad..! in the first place – there’s your industry disgrace…

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  • Urinal Cake says:

    Why now? The issue might be the government’s audit into costs for the ABC/SBS. Comedy (as opposed to light entertainment or topical comedy) doesn’t rate that well and probably doesn’t really fulfill all that cultural \social charter stuff either. Later when cuts are actually made into programming- it would be one of the first areas to take a hit- nobody wants to mess the Bananas.

  • David Knox says:

    Thanks for your considered piece. It’s good we’re having healthy debates about the state of Comedy, to ignore it is far worse. You make some excellent points, but I feel you also misrepresent me with some selective editing and a whole lot of snark. I absolutely referenced classic comedies, but I also noted at least 3 forms of scripted comedy: the sitcom (both multi and single cam), sketch comedy, and the kind of satire Shaun Micallef is producing more cost-effectively. I cited Wilfred as a successful example of low budget experimental comedy that has yielded much success. I discussed at length the option of having emerging comics work on Multichannels. To suggest I am simply waiting for the next multicam Mother and Son is selective. The blog has over the years written about The Moodys, At Home with Julia, Chaser, Strange Calls, Danger 5, Legally Brown, Paul Fenech, Darren Sanders and even experimental comedy on Multichannels. God knows many of these have been ignored by traditional media. Ask the Wilfred boys about the time News Corp was slamming them because Screen Aus money was being wasted on a bong smoking dog. They will tell you it was independent media that came to their defence. The rest is history. I don’t apologise for asking our network execs why they have abandoned comedy. Again, this is what I as independent media do on a regular basis, with my name on my work and my blog (despite becoming a punchline for headlines). I have received many supportive emails from industry for writing this week’s feature. God knows News Corp wouldn’t bother to go there. I regret you saw it as somehow presuming I am awaiting the ghost of Mavis Bramston to be revived. Perhaps I just didn’t get the joke. Thanks.

  • Big Shane says:

    I think David’s point is that there’s no desire to produce a big, mainstream flagship Australian *scripted* sitcom anywhere on the commerical networks. By mainstream I don’t mean a jokeless mumblecore dramedy about inner city tossers. Anything they might produce will either be a panel show or some no-budget sketch show which will be dumped onto a digital channel at 2am.

    Those same networks jump at the chance to show big US or UK multicam sitcoms (Big Bang, Two & A Half Men, Two Broke Girls, Mrs Brown’s Boys, etc). They even snapped up god-awful crap like Super Fun Night. Those shows get good to great ratings, so there is definitely a demand for sitcom, if it’s done well. By “done well” I mean having actual jokes with punchlines, which is something our industry needs to work on.

    I wish David every success in his efforts to get the networks to take comedy seriously.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Hi David, thanks for replying. Sorry if you feel our snark and selective quoting didn’t fully represent your views on Australian comedy – snark and selective quoting (and often, getting it wrong) are pretty much our stock in trade here, but we try to put some worth into what we say beyond that where we can.

    Obviously you’ve written a lot about all forms of Australian comedy over the years, as your website manages to provide an impressively thorough coverage of all forms of Australian television. But in this case – your posts calling on the commercial networks to create more scripted comedy – we felt it was reasonable to look at them in isolation, considering it seems to be both a theme in your coverage and these posts are a relatively rare example of a series of stand-alone stories focused on Australian television comedy in general.

    From there our point was born out of minor frustration: as people who write a blog focused solely on Australian television comedy, we feel the issue of a lack of scripted comedy on the commercial networks is a small one, though one that resonates with the public.

    As easily the most high-profile television blogger in Australia, it’s great that you’re willing to make Australian comedy on the commercial networks your focus, but – for the reasons we outlined in our post – we feel it’s not a situation that’ll change any time soon no matter how much media attention is shone on it.

    Obviously we’re never going to be on the same page about this, as we are snarky anonymous critics primarily interested in discussing what we see as the quality of what goes to air. We’re glad you’ve received support from the industry for your story and we’re sure your readers have appreciated it too. We certainly appreciate having someone else in the Australian media willing to talk about Australian comedy, even if our opinions differ in many ways.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Trad sitcoms are in a bit of a vice in Australia though – there’s clearly a market for them but they’re hard to do and there’s loads of easier / cheaper shows we can make (or import) that will rate at least as well.

    Basically, it’s a little like complaining that Australia’s shipbuilding industry isn’t building atomic-powered aircraft carriers – we’re happy to take advantage of the US 7th Fleet so clearly the demand is there, right? Even in our comedy heyday (the 80s and 90s – your milage may vary) we weren’t making a lot of great sitcoms, and things are way more run down these days. At this stage we can’t even make competent sketch shows…

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Comedy probably fulfils the social charter stuff as well as anything – probably doesn’t create the export cash that selling drama overseas does though.

    In recent years the ABC has done a pretty good job of a): making comedy one of their core efforts (you can’t cut our comedy budget, no-one else is even making comedy here) and b): making their comedy seem fairly political neutral (look, we made fun of Labor heaps when they were in power, think about the future, look into your heart *gunshot*).

    Basically, it’s a far cry from when the main ABC comedy show was The Glasshouse insulting Howard government ministers every week.

  • Big Shane says:

    Murder mysteries are hard to do as well (witness Secrets & Lies), but networks still pour lots of money into them. Look at all those lame telemovies which the ABC churns out for $2 million each. You can do a cheapy sitcom for much less than that.

    I was always of the view that a multicam sitcom is a cheap thing to produce because you only need one main set. Correct me if I am wrong.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Murder mysteries bring in overseas sales though – it’s amazing to read Americans talking about how much they enjoy Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries when you’re used to never hearing a word from overseas about Australian comedy.

    You couldn’t do a multicam sitcom on a commercial network these days because it would *look* cheap. Supposedly Australian audiences today won’t watch anything that doesn’t look halfway flash. Or more likely, production design is easier to do than good writing so they’d rather invest in the former than the latter.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I think the other thing is drama has a higher cultural value than comedy as well but point taken. It’d be interesting to see how much ABC earns from selling shows/formats os.

    I think the second part works against their favour. They throw all this money and doesn’t seem to get ratings or rave reviews while other parts outperform them.

  • Billy C says:

    David Knox is I think one of the best television journalists in the country. He actually does interviews, seeks comment and reports widely. The amount of content he puts out by himself puts the mainstream media to shame. He might be nostalgic for a time that didn’t ever really happen when it comes to scripted comedy but he does have a point about the current state of comedy. The ABC or Fairfax should buy TV tonight. It’s better than their current reporting.

  • simbo says:

    Even the “Craig McLauchlan Has A Beard” mysteries sell ridiculously well overseas.