Most TV documentaries take a chronological approach to their subject, charting its history in strict order whether that tells the viewer anything or not. Others organise themselves by theme, usually finding they have to uncomfortably crowbar one or two parts of the story in so as not to leave them out. But most of the time history is messy, contradictory and hard to compartmentalise, and Stop Laughing…this Is Serious, a new three-part documentary on Australian comedy, at least gets it right by keeping its themes as broad and all-encompassing as possible:
Episode 1, Look at moi, look at moi, “looks inwards at the importance of our ability to laugh at ourselves”, examining suburban, rural, ethnic and female comedy and comedians such as Dame Edna, Kylie Mole, Dad and Dave, Paul Hogan, Kenny, Kevin Kropinyeri and Denise Scott.
Episode 2, Faark, Faark, “looks upwards at those in authority”, including an examination of the work Graham Kennedy, The Chaser, Les Patterson and Tim Minchin.
Episode 3, Hello Possums, “looks at Australian comedy on the world stage”, and shows how performers such as Barry Humphries, Adam Hills and John Clarke have gone international.
Having said that, the themes of this series don’t entirely work; they’re too general to really tell us much, and some comedians and comedies are examined over and over again while others are left out entirely. There is also a heavy bias towards ABC comedies (usually more edgy and less mainstream), while high-rating and populist comedy/entertainment shows of their eras such as Hey Dad..! and Hey! Hey! Its Saturday are barely mentioned.
Okay, we get why mentioning Hey Dad…! wouldn’t be a great idea in 2015, and we do see its writer/producer Gary Reilly discussing his other hugely popular sitcom Kingswood Country, and there are one or two clips from Hey! Hey! in the series, but even after one episode of Stop Laughing… it’s clear that this won’t present a definitive view of the subject and, as much as we’re pleased to see Daryl Somers excluded from anything, that’s kind of a shame.
There’s also very little in the way of new information for hardened comedy fans, and when you’ve gone to the trouble of interviewing more than 60 comedians that’s…kinda crap. And if you were expecting that significant and popular radio comedies such as Martin/Molloy or Hamish & Andy would be covered…keep waiting*. Still, there is a fairly sizable sequence where Nick Giannopoulos and Mary Coustas discuss their work, which makes you wonder how The Late Show got away without being sued by them for their legendary sketch Beware of Wog: The Lou Interligi Story…
…and the sections on female cabaret/comedy and the work of Aboriginal comedians do make you wonder why these topics have been overlooked or underplayed in almost every previous Australian comedy documentary or book.
Overall this is a solid if unsurprising and incomplete look at the history of Australian comedy, which will make you wonder why more archive comedy isn’t available on DVD or iView, or anywhere else for that matter. Or why no one seems able to or willing to fund a definitive account of the topic. Is Australian comedy really that difficult a topic to define or discuss? Even in three hour-long shows?
* There’s a brief mention of the TV version of The Naked Vicar Show, but that doesn’t count.