The State of Play in the World Today

Looks like someone at Fairfax has noticed there isn’t much Australian comedy on the commercial networks these days:

Those of us who remember the halcyon days of TV comedy of the late ’80s and early ’90s will know that shows such as The Comedy Company, Fast Forward and Full Frontal were “appointment” television – wildly popular, they made several contributions to the Australian vernacular (who could forget gum-chewing schoolgirl Kylie Mole’s punchline “she goes, she goes … she just goes”?) and gave an outlet for some of the country’s brightest comedic talent, including Magda (Szubanski), Gina (Riley) and Jane (Turner).

Sadly, those days are long gone, and commercial television has very few comedy programs on offer. In fact, outside of the ABC – which continues to support a range of locally-made comedy – and to a lesser extent SBS, there is very little to laugh about. Instead there is a constant stream of reality TV shows, the demand for which never seems to diminish.

Or put another way, if you can remember the Cold War, you might be able to remember the last time Australian comedy was worthwhile. Uh, what?

The trouble with these kind of articles is that they often – well, this one does at least – come from a place that demands a very specific kind of comedy. Unless Australia is generating a series of pop culture-mocking commercial sketch comedies (like they did when the author was young), it’s in the shitter. Still, at least this one isn’t asking why the commercial networks aren’t making sitcoms.

Where to start with the problems here? Well, for one thing, the commercial networks are making local comedy: Seven has two series of Kinne under their belt, Ten has three series of Have You Been Paying Attention, and Nine is never going to let Hamish & Andy back into the country. It might not be the same as all the kids in the playground talking about how awesome last night’s Fast Forward was, but it’s a lot healthier than the market for other late 80s relics like talk shows or late night news programs.

And then there’s the more subtle mistakes:

Comedy shows, on the other hand, tend to run for half an hour at a time, and even after that investment is made, they can flop spectacularly – Nine’s Ben Elton Live from Planet Earth and Seven’s Let Loose Live are examples of local comedies that had very short runs simply because their ratings tanked.

No, they had very short runs because their ratings tanked and they were broadcast live, and so could be openly axed without leaving behind a stockpile of publicly embarrassing episodes to get rid of. Remember the second series of The Wedge, shown late on a Saturday night after it flopped? Remember how Randling just kept on going long after everyone stopped caring?

And how this line got through to the keeper is a mystery:

[Andy] Ryan [Nine Network co-head of drama] also argues that comedy takes a slightly different guise these days, citing the hybrid genre “dramedy” House Husbands, for example.

Clearly he’s referring to comedy taking on the guise of something that’s not funny.

Like all good newspaper features, this firmly avoids coming to any real conclusion and yet still somehow manages to serve one up anyway: sure, Australian comedy (as we narrowly define it) might be dead on the commercial networks right now, but don’t worry – it’s coming back!

Um, no it’s not. Mentioning that the commercial networks have a couple of comedies in the pipeline isn’t cause for a sigh of relief, because they always have a couple of comedies in the pipeline. And they never get out of the pipeline because compared to pretty much anything else local they could be making, they cost too much and promise too little.

We’ve explained a bunch of times in our reviews of The Weekly why the old Full Frontal model of comedy is dead: even in Australia, pop culture is just too fragmented in 2015 to find enough targets everyone knows. Another Downton Abbey sketch? Uh, no thanks.

Without pop culture – and putting aside sport, which has its own comedy ecosystem (even we don’t cover The Footy Show) – all that’s left to laugh at on commercial television is the news and the world of personal relationships. The commercial networks aren’t going to go hard on news, as it might piss off advertisers, plus news is a big ratings winner for them, so a show that points out that much of their product is drivel might not go down well.

As for personal relationships… hey, you’ve already got House Husbands.



P.S. Anyone else notice that this article miscaptioned Fast Forward member Steve Blackburn as “Steve Blackman”. Shows you how much they really loved the old days of Aussie comedy, doesn’t it?

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  • Bernard says:

    I’ve pitched scripted comedy projects to producers and networks. They avoid them because there is just too much risk and cost involved. They can churn out a shitty soap opera for not much money. Even something as mind-numbing as Wonderland gets half a million viewers.

    And reality TV costs very little to produce. There is an endless supply of brain-dead bogans who are prepared to make dicks of themselves on national TV without needing to be paid.