Comedy, especially in Australia, is a tough business to make a long-term go of. We can count on one hand the number of comedians from the mid-90s who are still creatively vital in 2014, and once you curl back the fingers for Working Dog and Shaun Micallef the rest of the hand can go home early. So really, with Die On Your Feet we should be celebrating the fact that Greg Fleet even has a sitcom on commercial television in 2014. We’re not going to because we’re horrible people, but we at least wanted to acknowledge his achievement here before we started sinking the boots in.
We’re currently four weeks into the series so chances are you already know the set-up: a group of stand up comedians are hanging out during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Um, that’s pretty much it. While the main characters are played by stand up comedians (Adam Hills, Corrine Grant, Alan Brough, Stephen Gates and Greg Fleet), the comedians aren’t exactly playing themselves; for example Hills, one of the great “nice guys” of Australian comedy despite being kind of bland as a television presence, is here playing something of a massive arsehole. All the better to make the kind of thoughtlessly horrible comments you’d pretty much expect any comedian to make when their guard was down.
It’s all very “inside baseball”, as the kids say because internet culture is American culture and “inside cricket” doesn’t make any sense. It’s a show about comedians that references a lot of stuff only comedians would know, but don’t worry: Fleet is just as willing to dig way too deep into the minutiae of, for example, punk rock (episode four starts off with a seemingly endless and pointless discussion of Brisbane post-punk band The Saints (their classic track “(I’m) Stranded” especially). It might be intended to give us insight into the characters and how they view the world but it comes off more as Fleet just wanting to talk about a band he likes. When a hungover Gates groans “stop making lists”, he instantly becomes the most sympathetic character on camera.
In theory there’s no reason why this kind of “drama set in a very specific world” shouldn’t work; it’s certainly worked on plenty of other shows. The episodes here usually have a loose thematic framework – episode four is addiction, which is why we’re focusing on it considering Fleet’s well-publicised dalliances (he punches out a quick spiel early on – “drug abuse has cost me a lot – around $200 grand – but on the upside if I hadn’t been tripping at my Neighbours audition I would have never got a part on Neighbours, and if I’d never got a part on Neighbours I’d still have my self esteem” – which sounds a lot more polished than anything else in the episode), but there’s not really much deep insight into being a comedian on the gear.
Instead, there’s plenty of talking to camera documentary-style as the (backstabbing yet cosy) cast drop superficial bon mots about the ways drugs and comedy interact. Then Brough’s character gets addicted to the computer game Civilisation. Cue lots of screenshots which look pretty.
Unfortunately this episode, like all the others we’ve seen, lacks the kind of well-plotted spine needed to hold it all together – Grant’s character says she’s giving up the drink but does anyone think that’s going to last? In fact, this often feels like a collection of random scenes just thrown together at, well, random, and not just in regards to the writing: There’s a scene where Brough, Gates and Grant are talking in a pub, then we suddenly cut to a different scene where Brough and Fleet are talking in (presumably) a different pub – no transition, nothing. Worse, the cut is between two shots from the same angle – Brough is on the left of screen facing right, then suddenly we’ve gone to a closer shot of Brough on the left facing right only now he’s sitting across from Fleet instead of Grant. Why put these two scenes back to back when the result is this jarring?
And then we cut back and forth between the two and ahhh it’s meant to be non-linear editing (a scene in the past unfolds intercut with a scene later on) except if you have to stop and think about what you’re watching in a comedy you’re not laughing. Hands down up the back, we already thought of the “we weren’t laughing anyway” line. This just feels sloppy, and not in a good way: considering we were big fans of the somewhat similar Peter Moon behind-the-scenes vehicle Whatever Happened To That Guy, clearly we’re not exactly setting the bar high here either.
It’s not that sitcoms need a cast of great actors to work, but you do need people who can at least act a little. It’s become traditional for idiots to say “but what about Jerry Seinfeld?” whenever this question of acting in sitcoms comes up, but unfortunately for them even a brief glance at an episode of Seinfeld reveals that while Seinfeld himself may not have a great range as an actor he’s perfectly convincing playing a smug man-child. Sadly, based on their performances here Adam Hills and Corrine Grant are barely convincing as structures upon which clothes have been hung, let alone living human beings.
Basically, their performances are so poor they would sink this show no matter what else it had to offer. It’s nobody’s fault – well, it’s their fault for not being able to act, but as high profile and generally quite entertaining stand-ups they were logical casting choices for a sitcom looking behind the scenes at the world of stand up comedy. But they’ve been cast as harsh arseholes, which seems at least somewhat at odds with their actual personalities, and they’re just not good enough as actors to bridge the gap.
But really, all this episode – and the series in general to date – has to offer is just a whole bunch of observations about the world of comedy. Which is different from actual comedy in that many of the observations are more along the lines of “hmm, that’s interesting that photographers ask comedians to ‘do something wacky’ in photos and comedians hate that”, rather than the actual laughs you would have got from seeing a real-life wacky photograph. It’s an in-depth look at what happens in the sausage factory when all we want is something tasty to eat.
Not that this kind of thing can’t work: Tony Martin got a lot of laughs from lifting the comedy curtain on Get This. And considering this was filmed after Get This brought Greg Fleet back onto the radar of a lot of comedy fans, it seems reasonable to assume Martin’s work may have been an influence. But there’s a big difference between a few quick observations about working in comedy made on a radio show full of news jokes and silly sketches, and four solid hours of little more than comedians talking about their jobs. Sure, comedians are slightly better at making jokes about their jobs than, say, people who review comedy. But shop talk is shop talk no matter what the shop, and sooner rather than later shop talk gets stale.
Fleet’s been doing narrative comedy since the mid-90s, both in his own live shows and with more traditional theatre, so the thrown together nature of this is probably the biggest surprise. It feels like a show made by someone who woke up one morning and thought “hey, the stuff me and my mates talk about at work should be on TV – it’s just that funny!”
It never is.