We’re not ones to waste time wondering what might have been here at Casa Del Tumblie. Clearly a world where the Shaun Micallef / Tony Martin project MousePATROL never aired but Wednesday Night Fever got a whole series is the best of all possible worlds. And yet, increasingly even we find ourselves asking: what the hell’s going on over at the ABC?
The first hint we had that something was askew came from a recent interview with Denise Scott:
We’re dining together in lieu of a show Scott and Judith Lucy have devised for the Comedy Festival this year. Called Disappointments, the title reflects the reality both women faced in 2015-16. I confess I thought they were taking the piss with that title. Apparently not. “We were really disappointed in ourselves, in our careers,” Scott says. “Because we both invested a lot of time in individual television projects and in the end they both got rejected. To some degree, rejection is part of our world, it’s not like that extreme or unusual but … You feel it more as you age I think.”
For Scott, it represented a year’s worth of work, developing a sitcom for one of the major networks. Called Denise, it was based on her family life – she appeared in nearly every scene.
In theory they could have been working on shows for one of the commercial networks, or pay TV, or a streaming service. But looking at where the bulk of Australian television comedy has aired over the last few years – between them the commercial networks have run a grand total of one locally produced sitcom this decade – the ABC would really have to be at the top of the list.
So let’s assume until told otherwise that the national broadcaster ended up knocking back shows from both Judith Lucy and Denise Scott: that sucks. But then we asked around a little, and it seems they weren’t the only high profile people to have a show knocked back at the ABC recently. It’s not exactly a secret that Tony Martin relatively recently pitched a television series to the ABC that didn’t get picked up; it’s not exactly surprising to learn that John Clarke pitched a show that went nowhere around 2010. And from what we can gather, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Obviously the ABC gets a steady stream of established names pitching comedy series to them: as pretty much the only game in town, it’s not like they have to go crawling to the talent. And yet the fact that comedians of this caliber are being regularly knocked back by the ABC suggests that getting a show up on the ABC has become a game of musical chairs – only the music has already stopped and all the chairs are taken.
For the last decade or so the ABC has been giving new series almost solely to two kinds of people: people who are already appearing on the ABC (Luke McGregor, Tom Gleeson, Shaun Micallef), and up-and-comers who can bring in overseas money to fund their show (Soul Mates, most of the successful Fresh Blood shows). ABC2 used to give (young) established people a shot at a show, but they’re out of the sitcom business these days. Otherwise, if you have a solid idea for a hilarious show, you seem to be very much out of luck.
It’s not exactly clear why this should be the case. For a long time ABC sitcoms got two series and that was it; while it was far from ideal, it did at least mean that there was a semi-regular turn-over of talent (The Chaser aside, as their cast members seem to have a standing order for at least two series a year every year). But last year the ABC gave us a third season of Upper Middle Bogan; this year we’re getting a third season of Utopia. Neither of them are bad shows, but they’re very much safe choices – and with the kind of talented people the ABC is knocking back, it certainly seems like they had other options.
So why bring them back? Well, both those shows had overseas interest – Netflix picked up Utopia (and re-titled it Dreamland) while last year CBS made a pilot for an US version of Upper Middle Bogan (starring Katey Segal). Again, if overseas interest is what it takes to get a season of a sitcom on the ABC, then a whole lot of decent comedians are shit out of luck.
The result is that we seem to be in the middle of a relatively large shift in the way Australian comedy works. If you’re a comedian whose fanbase is local and you’re not already on the air, you’re not getting on the air. The future of Australian television comedy now involves bringing in overseas money, and that means developing an overseas fanbase: it’s no surprise that the two new comedy shows the ABC has lined up this year are from Ronny Chieng – as seen on The Daily Show – and the Kates from YouTube hit The Katering Show.
But for people like Judith Lucy, Denise Scott, Tony Martin and the late John Clarke – plus who knows how many others – who have built up careers focused on Australia, things seem grim. Which is rubbish: these are people as funny as anyone currently on our televisions, and if we can’t find room for them somewhere then something is seriously wrong.
No doubt some “realists” would see this as a reasonable state of affairs – money is tight, the ABC has to do the best with what they’ve got and risking their limited funds on new shows just might be a step too far in the current climate. Bullshit. All we should be concerned about is the quality of what is being aired. If you think that the ABC’s current comedy line-up represents the best of Australia’s comedy talent, we’re happy for you; out in the real world, we have to disagree.