Strike the Tents

True story: when this week’s episode of The Chaser’s Media Circus came on, one of us got up from their seat, walked out the back door, walked up the driveway to the street, and then stood there for a full minute wondering exactly what it was they were doing. We’re not saying Media Circus is a show that we’d rather leave the house than watch; this is a case where actions clearly speak louder than words.

The Chaser have never been afraid to cosy up to the groups they’re making fun of, so seeing a bunch of commercial television presenters on the couch for this week’s episode wasn’t exactly a surprise. But it did hammer home our initial suspicions: this isn’t so much a satirical look at the week’s news – and the way it’s being reported – as it is a comedy panel show based on the news. Presumably somebody somewhere likes these things; it’s certainly rating well.

As we said when we looked at the first episode, the big problem with this format is that while the hosts get to talk shit on a couch, those at home get a lot less actual comedy per minute. Making news jokes first requires you to tell the news story; Mad as Hell gets away with it by being tightly scripted and fast paced, which are two things no-one is saying about Media Circus. Plus being a quiz show means there’s more dead air while people actually answer the quiz, and then – maybe – you get to a joke.

So in week two they extended it to thirty-five minutes and going by that logic, Wednesday Night Fever would have been brilliant if they’d let it run for three hours a night. Then for this week’s third installment they added a few more members of the commercial media and occasionally let them talk about how the media works. Well, at least it was more informative than the “horse race or military operation” quiz.

Hey, remember when Randling would do “Either Or” where teams would have to guess if a name belonged to (say) a Shakespearean Character or a Car? That’s right: we just compared Media Circus to Randling. Bam. At least Media Circus is smart enough to get both teams competing to answer the same question rather than drag this unfunny shit out for minutes at a time. Still, Randling comparisons: that’s shiver down the spine stuff.

And then there’s the couch banter. To date there’s been three main food groups here: Chaser members, Chaser: The Next Generation, and old media pros. Notice anything missing? That’s right: where are the funny other comedians? Sorry, Peter Berner doesn’t count. Obviously this is a Chaser production and they’re the ones creating the laughs, but it wouldn’t hurt to drop in the occasional seasoned pro just to grease the wheels.

In part that’s because the C:TNG crew are, well… not really living up to expectations. They’re not unfunny, but it’s the same problem Working Dog had when they started with The Panel: panel shows are fiercely competitive and when you have a bunch of mates and professionals gunning for air time anyone not up to scratch is going to be left out. The new guys usually hold up ok on The Checkout, but here they’re being thrown in at the deep end and it’s not a format where “young smartarse” is really the face you want to put forward.

(Then again, what do we know? That was pretty much the persona projected by The Chaser for most of their careers and look how well it worked out for them.)

Over on Channel Ten they’re currently repeating episodes of Have You Been Paying Attention?, and it’s interesting to compare the two: for one thing, HYBPA? moves like greased lightning. The jokes there are broader (read: less “ABC”), based more on general news and pop culture (which means they don’t have to explain the context for everything), and the banter between contestants is never less than snappy. Obviously in going for depth The Chaser have to slow things down to explain what’s going on, which is… oh wait, who gives a rats? Be funny or get out.

The Chaser’s Media Circus is a weird mix of sloppy tossed-off stuff and well-honed comedy chops, which is why it’s difficult to dismiss it outright. They’ve built up a formidable research machine over the last few years (as seen in the oh so much better Hamster Wheel), so the clips they build their gags on or use to underline a point are often spot-on. The stand-alone segments (usually involving Andrew Hansen) are solid stuff too, and we’ll always have time for Chaz – his fact-checking snippets also have the advantage of being joke-based rather than setting up bad couch-based material.

But then there are long stretches made up of firmly average couch banter, riffs that go nowhere –

– for example, host Craig Reucassel brought up the weirdness of television news having traffic reports because no-one watches TV in their cars so this “news” is of no use to the people who actually need it, which is a good point only no-one answered it and there was no joke at the end so wow great observation there guys –

– quizes that drag out and a general feeling that in 2014 at least some of The Chaser wanted to make a television series that, unlike their previous efforts, didn’t require a huge amount of ongoing preparation. Guess what? It’s preparation that makes them – and just about everyone else on television – funny: if you don’t want to do the work to make a really funny television show, what exactly are we tuning in to see?

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