Change or Die

So it seems How Not to Behave has been bumped for its final episode:

What appears to be the final episode of How Not to Behave will air at 10pm on ABC this week.

The show has made way for the return of Kitchen Cabinet this Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the final five episodes of Open Slather have been reduced to half an hour:

A Foxtel spokesperson recently confirmed to TV Tonight, “We’re finishing this season of Open Slather with five new half hour specials 7.30pm Sundays on The Comedy Channel.”

What do these two things have in common? On the surface, bugger-all: How Not to Behave getting the boot is most likely a victim of the ABC’s programming departments inability to figure out how a calendar works – or just the wash-up from that mysterious period earlier in the year when the ABC ran out of new Agony episodes and ran repeats in prime time for a couple of weeks. If a show is dragging your whole schedule down, you don’t wait until the last episode to replace it, especially if the replacement is the staggeringly ineffectual sop to our politicians’ collective ego Kitchen Cabinet.

Meanwhile, Open Slather‘s bad case of shrinkage is, we’re reliably if anonymously told, due to the producers having blown their budget rather than someone at Foxtel trying to yank them off-air Kerry Packer style. And while the show has had zero impact ratings-wise, it seems pretty much all involved see it as a form of loss leader, with Foxtel planning more comedy – perhaps aimed more at the people who actually subscribe to pay TV, rather than mainstream viewers who might like the idea of old Full Frontal cast members doing sketch comedy but sure aren’t going to pay for it – in 2016.

But given the kind of closer examination only bored comedy bloggers are inclined to give, there does seem to be a common thread linking these two shows. No, not the fact that nobody’s still watching them, though that’s a side effect of what we’re talking about: the fact that from the first episode on, these shows never changed.

For a few years now – since the nightmare that was all twenty-seven pre-recorded episodes of Randling, at least – we’ve been griping that one of the bigger problems with Australian comedy has been the lack of long-running shows: when everything on the ABC is in six- or eight-week pre-recorded chunks, the only chance the creators get to figure out what’s working and what’s not is when it’s all over. Yes, this is probably why the ABC gives pretty much everything two series (or looked at another way, one twelve-part series spread over a year or so); that’s still a lot different from making a show week in week out and reacting to what the audience is responding to.

Both of these shows promised to be a response to that, as a return to week-in, week-out program making where – in theory at least – things could be tweaked as the creatives saw what worked and what didn’t. Open Slather would run for 20 weeks, How Not to Behave 15: after they both started with firmly below-par episodes, surely that was more than enough time to improve?

Yeah, nah.

To be fair, Open Slather did sack around 70% of their writing staff a few episodes in, but did you notice much of a difference? Us neither. Presumably because the guys they sacked weren’t getting anything on the air anyway. But for a show that basically staked its whole reason for existing on breakout comedy characters – you know, the characters that start small, are embraced by viewers and end up becoming icons – they never really seemed to try that hard to figure out what their audience was responding to. Here’s a tip: 60 Minutes parodies don’t really work when no-one under 60 watches 60 Minutes.

As for How Not to Behave, no-one on the production side seemed to care enough about that show to even watch it as it went to air, because if they did they might have noticed some core problems – such as, what was the point of the show in the first place? Why did it have a guest speakers on? Why did those speakers always seem to have wandered in from a dull ABC radio segment? Was the show meant to be a serious guide to living life, or a parody of one? And either way, why wasn’t it a lot funnier?

It’s not like we were totally surprised by this turn of events. Producers being given the kind of opportunities many comedians would kill for and doing fuck-all with them has been a part of the Australian landscape since the days when Comedy Inc was given twenty hour-long episodes a year to play with and gave us a stuttering Thomas the Tank Engine. But just because you’re following a long-standing Australian comedy tradition doesn’t make it right.

And yeah, we know the argument that you get one shot with your audience and if they don’t like you, that’s it. No doubt that’s true. And yet every year we see reality shows that somehow manage to build an audience week after week; if people keep coming back and telling their friends to watch fucking reality television, imagine how many more people you could attract that way if your show was actually funny?

Both of these shows have rightly been dismissed before they finished – that “As some viewers have noticed…” line in the TV Tonight coverage of Open Slather‘s shrinkage is as close to a sick burn as David Knox gets – because for all the effort they put in both these shows might as well have gone into repeats from week two. They started off badly and they showed no desire to improve; no-one who wasn’t pulling a pay check from the producers is going to spend a single solitary second missing them.

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