The final skit of the first episode of ABC2’s John Conway Tonight has host John slapping on a mortarboard and giving a dodgy speech about having to leave university for reasons (“you all know what I did”) to the general befuddlement of his audience. It seems like the kind of random, ill-judged sketch you’d expect from a community television-standard talk show – the kind of thing a bunch of mates would think sounded hilarious, only to find while actually doing it that… nah.
But there’s a twist: after leaving, Conway returns to berate the audience – it seems the whole idea was that they would give him a Dead Poets Society “Oh Captain, My Captain” style tearful send off, and as they didn’t live up to their side of the deal he’s going to do it again and this time they’d better get it right. It’s a smart twist to a seemingly dud sketch, and if you were actually in the audience it’s a twist that definitely would have improved your experience.
Sitting at home though, it didn’t work quite so well. And that was the experience of a lot of John Conway Tonight, a show that managed to be slightly better than your average C31 talk show without actually being good enough to work on a “real” television network as it-
– and before we go any further here, let’s get one thing straight: we know the joke is that the show is shit. Well, not “shit” but a shoddy mess full of awkward and ill-prepared segments put on by people unafraid of lengthy pauses and fluffed lines. The joke is that the show is a mess and if we wrote a review saying “this show is bad because it’s a mess” then ha ha the joke is on us.
Okay, now if you’re a child then this has just made your show review-proof. “It’s MEANT to be bad, geddit!”. But as people who can legally buy excessive amounts of alcohol we can tell that there’s a big difference between a show that’s making fun of shit shows and a show that’s just plain shit. John Conway Tonight at least occasionally tries to be the former; occasionally it drifts a little too close to the latter.
Then again, maybe we’re reading too much into all this. A lot of the jokes here really did seem like the kind of thing a bunch of mates might think would be funny just to see on television. The Milkman coming up from behind the couch holding up different sized bottles of milk? Cat News? A fairly average phone impression of Michael Caine done multiple times? (Owen Wilson was better, because who does Owen Wilson?) This is all stuff that’s funny when it’s happening right before your eyes in a pub backroom after you’ve had a few; watching it on a Sunday night sober? Let’s not.
Part of the problem is that as a host John Conway is just… John Conway. As comedy characters go he’s a slightly shabby guy hosting a ramshackle talk show… only that’s also exactly what he’s doing for real, and as the host of a sloppy tonight show there’s not enough of a character there to make it work as a send-up of shit shows. Remember Dame Edna? Alan Partridge? Norman Gunston? John Conway will remind you of none of them.
That’s not automatically a fatal mistake – having him seem like a regular guy who’s flailing just a little definitely grounds the show in a way that could work with different material – but when he’s doing bits about raising money to send someone to Milan only they spent the money on guinea pigs then it’d be handy for him to have a comedy character (flailing loser? Angry tightwad? Sadsack dreamer?) that could give an exaggerated response to the craziness.
But every time we were about to give up and walk away – well, change the channel, why would we walk away from our own television set – something just funny enough would happen to draw us back. Conway himself seems like the kind of host it’ll be easy to warm to after a few episodes; the various cheesy Tonight Show elements (crap announcer, sleazy manager moving up from the dead-end world of the fish & chip industry while shouting out bad hashtags) weren’t overdone; the times when they were clearly doing jokes they thought were good (the puns in Cat News) were kind of endearing even when the jokes themselves sank without trace.
The real find, of course, is Aaron Chen as Conway’s sidekick. Often comedy characters based on awkward earnestness are a pain in the arse, but Chen made it work by actually saying funny lines every time he chimed in. His story about apple crumble was halfway decent, and his street talk segment was the first time we’ve found a street talk segment funny in years, with a lot of whip-smart interactions (“what’s your favourite answer?” “What?” “That’s a question”) and a set-up that didn’t revolve around making strangers look stupid.
If Australia has to have tonight shows – and as a grown up country it really should – this is probably the best we can currently hope for: a cheap, shoddy production made by people who really want to get laughs. It’s hardly appointment viewing (if people watched television on Saturday nights then a Saturday night timeslot would be better – people getting pre-loaded before heading out seem like its natural audience) but as community television sinks slowly into the swamp that is streaming content it’s good to see that the tradition of shabby pissfarting lives on – for another twelve weeks at least.