Vale Stop Laughing…this is Serious

The final episode of Stop Laughing…this is Serious, three hour-long documentaries about Australian comedy, aired last night. And while we’re as delighted as anyone that 180 minutes of ABC time were given over to programs on this theme, they were sadly rather unsatisfying surveys of the subject.

“Australian comedy” it turns out is a massive topic, and even though it was pretty much narrowed down to the TV era it still felt like the makers had barely scratched the surface of what the Australian sense of humour is and how TV comedy has impacted on Australia and the world, let alone said anything new or interesting about any of it. Or to put it another way, this was so feather-light and crammed with ill-informed talking heads it might as well have been called The Agony of Australian Comedy.

Here at Australian Tumbleweeds we know quite a lot about Australian comedy – we’ve even spent time in libraries researching it – so perhaps we’re the type of people who were never going to be satisfied by this. But neither it seems was TV Tonight, and like we said a couple of weeks back it’s inaccurate to do a survey of Australian TV comedy and leave out key players and shows, even if you do kinda make up for it by including sections on lesser known themes such as Aboriginal comedy.

Yet even when the right subjects were chosen Stop Laughing…this is Serious felt like a tick list of Australian comedy documentary cliches. A recent episode of Justin Hamilton’s podcast Can You Take This Photo Please? highlighted the problem, when Tony Martin described being interviewed for the program and how he was prompted to talk about the things most people know about Graham Kennedy already – his crow calls and the sketches where things fall on top him – rather than the broader context behind why Kennedy dominated comedy in the early years of Australia television. For anyone who wasn’t around at the time, Kennedy’s popularity is still a bit of a mystery and some extra insights in to his work would have been helpful. Or, how about something about how acts like Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton went on to influence later comedians? Not that Bert was in this at all…

There were some parts of this series which did work. Noeline Brown discussing The Mavis Bramston Show‘s satire of the cultural cringe was pretty interesting, and the section on the bicentenary Australian comedy “invasion” of the Edinburgh Festival, Oznost, was honest enough to admit that most of the acts who went on this taxpayer-funded trip ended up playing to no one. Footage of Wendy Harmer dying on her arse on Ben Elton’s Friday Night Live and Rod Quantock, mid-bus tour, getting hassled by the local police as a BBC film crew look on, was also fun.

When there were interesting stories like these to tell this documentary nailed it, but sadly it spent a lot of its time trying to cram in too much, making glaring omissions, and grouping together various semi-unrelated topics via a series of logical leaps and generalisations. In the final episode, about the impact of Australian comedy overseas, it was concluded that what success there was (in the UK at least) was down to the popularity of Neighbours. Right… Later there was a nod to today’s comedians putting their stuff on the internet, yet no examples of Aussie online success in the international market were cited. (Hello, The Axis of Awesome!)

Overall, this was an erratic and misguided series that would probably have been better off as six half-hours, having more focused themes, or simply narrowing the focus to look at a particular time period, or even a small number of key stories. There are potentially fascinating shows to be made about how the live the scene of the 70’s and 80’s led to the TV comedy boom of the late 80s and early 90s, how that boom was a virtual bust by the end of the millennium, and how panel shows rose up and resurrected TV comedy a few years later. Speaking of which, where the hell was Spicks & Specks, probably the most-watched Australian comedy of the past decade, in all of this? You guessed it, nowhere.

Also, why in the section on The Castle did Steve Vizard say more about the film than Santo Cilauro? And did they seriously go from Mavis Bramston to Ja’mie with “funny voices” as the link? And did anyone actually fact-check or question anything any of the famous comedy talking heads had to say? What the hell was Rove talking about when he said that we should look to radio for funny people because that’s where Graham Kennedy came from? Is he aware it isn’t the mid-50s and that comedy on radio these days is just people gabbing about their lives? Why the hell would we want to see them on TV? Oh, and what was that thing about YouTube being great because it offers “instant feedback”? Have these people read any YouTube comments?

Look, all we wanted from this program was to get a new perspective on the history of Australian comedy, learn a few new things and for it to have been properly researched. We know it’s not a documentary about World War I but if you’ve got three hours to play with there’s no excuse to make this much of a mess. As per the title, it would have been nice if they’d taken Australian comedy seriously.

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5 Comments

  • Tony Tea says:

    As a connoisseur and/or affectionado, which you obviously are, you are unlikely to be satisfied by what amounted to a three hour collective back patting exercise.

  • yeps says:

    The final five minutes of that last episode might be one of the most despairingly, deludedly, hyperbolic things I’ve ever seen.

    I know documentaries like these – particularly the lightweight variety this one turned out to be – like to end on a hopeful note, but hearing narrator Eric Bana say that today, we live in a comedy ’embarrassment of riches’ made me feel ill.

    I mean,they have the ’embarrassment’ part right; as if to prove it, that line was spliced over footage of Dave Hughes mumbling through one of the fifteen hundred thousand shitty Glasshouse routines where he put a funny hat on and the audience laughed at how bad he was at improv. Meanwhile, we got glimpses of all that marvelous bounty awaiting us… Crap radio jocks! Chris Lilley’s ongoing game of chicken with his audience’s patience! ‘Elegant Gentleman’s Guide To Knife-fighting’ …because that worked, right?!

    I’m not suggesting there aren’t funny people out there – of course there are – but holy fuck: try getting any of those people on television, the radio, or film anymore – let alone with even a sliver of their original vision intact.

    …Although, that was nice of them to let Steve Vizard out of gaol so he could contribute.

    …What’s that? He never went to gaol? …WHAT? Even after all of the [redacted] that took [redacted] years of work to [redacted] for gross tax [redacted]? Surely everyone he [redacted] got together in some kind of class action lawsuit to expose his [redacted] even after that pissy airline steward skit he did at the Logies. That was a complete [redacted]!

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    The problem was more with whose backs were being patted. Why they went for quantity over quality in the guests would remain a mystery if the ABC clearly didn’t think that letting a talking head say more than two sentences in a row causes audiences – you know, the people who’ve actually chosen to watch a documentary on this specific subject – to change the channel.

    (that approach makes sense with the Agony series, because there if a scene runs longer than fifteen seconds people might fall asleep.)