Vale A Whole Bunch Of Shows

As is the way of things, the ABC likes to backload their comedy output for the year, piling on the shows through October and November then bringing things to a screeching halt the first week of December when the ratings period ends. With so much going on and our desks still looking pretty cluttered – we spent good money seeing Fat Pizza vs Housos and we’re going to review it, dammit! – we’re forced to shovel dirt over a bunch of shows loosely tossed into a kind of internet mass grave rather than giving each of them the dignified burial they deserve.

And on that delightful image, let’s get shovelling!

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The Chaser’s Media Circus: “disappointing” is probably an understatement here. The Chaser have always been guys that do their best work when they’re putting in a whole lot of work, and this lightweight panel game show didn’t exactly reek of effort. Sure, there was a lot of research on display and many of the clips and skits were funny, but it was still a show largely built around a bunch of media tosspots sitting on a couch trying to make each other laugh.

As political satirists The Chaser have always been extremely good at acting like they don’t really give a shit about politics – whatever motivates their comedy beyond discovering it was a cushy gig back at university has never been readily apparent – but having Chris Kenny on episode 7 was a new… well, not “low”, but definitely something in that general direction. Sure, Kenny cracked a few decent lines, but having him on (after he sued them and forced the ABC and The Chaser to make a grovelling apology over what was clearly a joke) signalled that they don’t really mean – let alone give a shit about – anything they say or do.

Now that they’re all buddy-buddy with Kenny, either they’re guys who casually called someone a dog-fucker for no reason, or they’re guys who did it for a reason which they later ignored because… they needed a guest? Either way, they’ve kicked away the foundation of their comedy and there’s nothing left but a bunch of guys in snappy jackets: if you’re not going to mean what you say you need to be a shitload funnier than this.

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It’s a Date series 2: Like so much of Australian comedy, this was a good idea from a production stand point, not a comedy one. By being a series of sixteen fifteen minute sketches, it could draw in big names who didn’t have to make a long term commitment. Trouble was, we got sixteen sketches based on the same idea: people out on a date. And as that was the same idea that had pretty much been run into the ground with the first series, this was looking pretty tired long before the finish line. Which might explain why we don’t have much to say about it here; after a while, all the episodes just blurred into one, and even Shaun Micallef as a theatre restaurant Dracula couldn’t stand out from the crowd.

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Upper Middle Bogan series 2: See? Making a decent sitcom isn’t that hard. You just have to come up with a bunch of funny characters that are actual characters with distinct personalities and then play them off against each other. The big problem with Australia’s small scale production model is that sitcoms work best once we’ve had a chance to get to know the characters and how they’ll react. A lot of the laughs in later seasons of US and UK sitcoms comes from the audience anticipating how the characters will deal with the latest crappy situation – and the real shame about Please Like Me getting such a lengthy run is that Josh Thomas has no idea how to write distinct characters so his show fails to get funnier as it goes along.

In a just world this would get at least a third series to capitalise on all the hard work that’s gone into the series to date, but from what we hear that, uh, doesn’t seem likely. Which is a massive shame: this wasn’t brilliant, but it’s the kind of thing that could run and run given half a chance. Lord knows the ABC needs a new crop of reliable laugh-getters now that The Chaser seem to be angling for a vacation and former golden boy Chris Lilley is a joke in all the wrong ways.

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Black Comedy: In the end this turned out to be a surprisingly trad sketch show – perhaps seeing Mark O’Toole in the credits should have tipped us off there. That’s not a bad thing, of course: solid sketch shows are pretty rare these days, and by having the gimmick (that all sketch shows are seemingly now required by law to have) be “the cast are black”, the cast and writers were then free to just do the stuff they thought was funny. It may not have been all that memorable – it was more hit-and-miss than it really should have been, even for a bunch of first-timers – but it showed enough promise to leave us hoping the ABC’s seemingly iron-clad law of giving everything a second series applies here.

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Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery: It’s probably not that hard to make a show that leaves us feeling stupider for having watched it – we have to spell out the big words on The Bolt Report – but this was as dumb as a box of rocks. If we wanted to read New Idea profiles on comedians overcoming trauma to make people laugh *sob*, we’d have done that instead of wasted our time with this.

The occasional snippet of insight or interesting use of file footage couldn’t make up for a production team determined to hit the same note – gee, childhood really fucks you up, right guys? – over and over and over again. As maybe a 50 minute doco made up of the good stuff this would be worthwhile; otherwise this is a delivery that needs to be sent back.

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Soul Mates: As we said when this first aired, our expectations here were pretty darn low. The Bondi Hipsters are not our favourite comedy team – they’re not even in the top fifty – and having one of the guys behind Beached Az involved didn’t really seem to be setting the bar that much higher. So imagine our surprise when… actually don’t bother, we’ll just tell you: in the end, this wasn’t half bad. Sure, repeated slow pans over one of the lead’s abs while he’s tasking a shower is the kind of douchey crap that put us off the Bondi Hipsters in the first place – way to kick off your final episode guys – but overall this managed to change up the jokes just enough across the six episodes to keep the laughs coming.

Yet again, coming up with actual comedy characters turned out to be a pretty good idea when you’re making a comedy. While the show itself gradually turned into a drama of sorts (the caveman stuff stayed a one-joke idea; guess they can’t all be winners) the ridiculousness of the characters kept things funny enough to keep us watching. The New Zealand stuff went off the boil for us quickly enough – action parodies are best kept short and to the point – but it was different enough from the other two plots to prevent any of them from feeling stale.

All this was pretty basic stuff, mind you, and if Soul Mates wasn’t competing against sitcoms like Utopia and Please Like Me where wordplay (Utopia) and fuck-all (Please Like Me) were prized above characterisation and the occasional decent visual joke there’s a good chance this might not have looked so good. Still, credit where credit’s due: this didn’t totally suck arse. High praise indeed!

 

 

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10 Comments

  • simbo says:

    The big problem with Australia’s small scale production model is that sitcoms work best once we’ve had a chance to get to know the characters and how they’ll react. A lot of the laughs in later seasons of US and UK sitcoms comes from the audience anticipating how the characters will deal with the latest crappy situation

    Hang on, that small-scale production model is exactly the same as the production model used for most UK sitcoms. It requires that you hit the ground running and that you are good immediately, not that you use “we’re testing it to see when we can be good in a later series”. Knowing Me Knowing You had a grand total of six episodes and a Christmas special. Spaced is two series of seven episodes each. Falwty Towers, two series of six.

    It requires you establish your characters strongly and early, and you know how to use them. If you have to wait til series 3 before you’ve established your characters properly, you have no business writing a show.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Good point, bad example – by the time Knowing Me, Knowing You (television) came around the character of Alan Partridge had been developed through On The Hour (radio), The Day Today (television) and Knowing Me Knowing You (radio).

    In large part the way the UK gets away with short runs of sitcoms is because a lot of them started out (at least until relatively recently) as radio programs – they have a whole system of using radio as a place to test out new ideas and new comedians that we don’t have here.

    But you’re right, the UK does work on a different model to the US one. It’s just that to a large extent following the UK model of short-burst sitcoms has led to the place we are today, where it’s generally accepted that Australia can’t “do” sitcoms.

  • simbo says:

    Knowing You Knowning You is probably one of the worse examples, although it was the only example I could think of that was one series and bona fide classic. I think Spaced and Fawlty still stand, though, and neither were radio series. And it does seem to be the case that UK series are a lot faster out of the gates in terms of “getting to good” – a lot of Australian series seem to still be developing when they’re in series 2, which is … very concerning.

    Also not a radio series (a selective example) – Blackadder, Absolutely Fabulous, The Office, The Young Ones, Vicar of Dibley, Father Ted, The IT Crowd, Black Books, The Office, The Thick of It and Outnumbered. I don’t think the radio series excuse entirely holds.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Pretty much all of the non-radio examples you cite came from people with loads of comedy experience though – UK sitcoms in large part work because they’re made by people who know how to make sitcoms, having already done a bunch of comedy (both on radio and television). It’s like Kath & Kim working straight out the gate – they had over a decade of experience behind them, plus the characters had been developed on a sketch show. Frontline was from an experienced team, ditto The Games.

    Basically, here we have the worst of both worlds: the short series runs from the UK, and the slow development pace of the US (which is because with every sitcom there everyone is pretty much starting from scratch). Australia simply doesn’t make enough sitcoms for anyone – Working Dog and maybe Gristmill aside – to get that level of experience on multiple sitcoms. And it’s not like anyone learns to write character-based comedy on panel shows.

  • William says:

    Long-time reader and lurker of the comments section. Agree with most of what you’ve written. I was shocked to see Chris Kenny on Media Circus. Why he was invited I have no idea.

    I don’t see it as contradicting the joke on the Hamster Wheel. It wasn’t really a joke about Kenny, he was just the set up.

  • UnSubject says:

    For those interested, Upper Middle Bogan actually did very well in its timeslot:

    http://mumbrella.com.au/upper-middle-bogan-final-watched-590000-266390

    Best cancel that one quick-smart ABC, or perhaps sell it on to a commercial network!

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Soul Mates was a good surprise. Some good characters, set ups and comedy songs. Even the way they built ‘daramedic’ tension in the last episode was well done- something JT has never really achieved.

  • WylieB says:

    Blackadder is not a great example either as it can easily be seen as not really getting going until series 2. In fact, the second series is effectively a reboot and for many, many people their fond memories of what made the show great relate to series 2-4, with series 1 seeming only tenuously related.

  • sdf says:

    Sorry, what’s JT?

  • sdf says:

    Oh right, him. I forgot about him.