Why Are Articles On The Death Of Australian Comedy Such An Easy Sell?

The end of SBS Comedy’s online branch has sent shockwaves through… well, mostly SBS Comedy. We’ve already mentioned Jazz Twemlow’s hard-hitting take on why satire sucks – short version, it keeps firing Jazz Twemlow – and now we’ve been pointed towards Alice Frazer’s fairly despairing overview of Australian comedy as a whole:

Maybe Australia’s just not funny enough as a country to be allowed a flourishing comedy industry.

No argument here!

Well, maybe just a tiny one: what exactly is the definition of “flourishing”? Because sure, we’d all love to return to the days of Fast Forward and The Comedy Company, but HYBPA? runs half the year, the ABC shows thirty weeks or more of news satire (okay, more than half of that is The Weekly, but it’s still technically “comedy”) plus a steady stream of sitcoms, and even Channel Nine is back in the sitcom business with Here Come the Habibs. Things could definitely be better, but it’s not like it was a decade ago when Spicks & Specks and Chris Lilley were pretty much all the Australian comedy we were getting on television.

Of course, television isn’t the be-all and end-all of comedy. Movie comedy here is pretty much dead, likewise radio, and the stand-up scene is, depending on who you listen to, either full of ground-level excitement or slowly dying as everyone focuses all their attention on the major yearly festivals and ignores stand-up for the other eleven months of the year. But then again, there’s YouTube and “The Internet” giving performers big breaks, so let’s just say it’s probably all evened out… only now nobody is making any money, just like every other form of the creative arts in the 21st century.

The unpleasant truth is, as a country, we don’t seem to like comedy very much.

And yet comedians Hamish & Andy’s latest show was the fifth-highest rating television program nationwide for the second week running. So maybe we do like some kinds of comedy?

As a nation we don’t look after our comedy. After a while, however much we talk up our love for a laugh, it starts to seem suspiciously like maybe we aren’t really that into it.

As consumers of comedy, the idea that we have to “look after” Australian comedy is a bit of a worry. It’s not our job to safeguard Dave Hughes’ career; in fact, it’s nobody’s job. If an audience isn’t laughing and you think “maybe [they] aren’t really into it”, that sounds a lot like blaming your audience for not realising how funny you are. Let us know how that works out for you.

There’s a bunch more here like this:

There’s a weird helplessness that seems apparent in the refusal of Australian industry to give enough time and space to make projects work – when support can make the difference between success and failure, it’s often held back. There’s a wait-and-see attitude coupled with a total unwillingness to actually wait and or see.

(wait, doesn’t the ABC give pretty much everything two seasons automatically? Didn’t SBS Comedy online run for three years?)

And this:

Part of the problem might be Australia’s unwillingness to look at itself. Really interesting comedy has to come from truth, and we have a deep unwillingness to really acknowledge a lot of the reality of our country, from the atrocities of Manus Island to the fact that we’re not really as live-and-let-live as we pretend to be.

(wait, do you really want to be the comedian who goes out there with a tight five on how funny Manus Island is?)

But it seems the real problem being discussed here is this:

This is anecdotal of course, but it’s hard to get people out of the house to watch live comedy shows. We just don’t seem to have that culture that exists in, for example, the UK where people consider a comedy show as one of their default options for a night out. This is a problem, because dying repeatedly in front of generous audiences (who are willing to roll the dice in the hope of seeing something extraordinary, or truly enjoy a night of watching noble failure in the pursuit of laughs) is the best training ground for good comedy, and without that grass-roots market for taking risks on comedy, why would we expect people to take chances with their time or money on supporting Australian television or film comedy?

And there’s the rub. If your definition of “a flourishing comedy industry” is “a wide range of live comedy venues that pay money” then sure, things are in the toilet: they’ve been in the toilet for years. Australia is a big country with a small sports-mad population and long daylight hours featuring generally excellent weather so getting people to go out to a dive bar to hear someone tell jokes is always going to be an uphill struggle. Especially as your advertising pitch seems to be “leave the house for the chance to see a bunch of shithouse try-hards fail at their job because they need the experience if they’re ever going to grow”.

Australian comedians are kind of fortunate in that, because we live in an English-speaking nation with a largely western culture, they have easy access to the biggest and richest global market for entertainment. There are more opportunities in the UK than here; there are more opportunities in the US than the UK. The flip side of that is that all this overseas comedy also has easy access to our market, which means that Australian comedians are competing with a large chunk of the world when they try to make Australians laugh. Making hard-hitting comedy that examines the underpinnings of Western Society has international appeal so you’re competing with the world’s best; in contrast, overseas acts aren’t really offering many dumb jokes about the footy delivered in a nasal whine.

So when you say:

Really good comedy leaves us checking our own heads for dicks, and as a society we don’t seem to have a taste for that.

Good news: thanks to being fluent in English, you can focus your career on another society where they do appreciate that kind of comedy. Speaking entirely based on a whole lot of not much, we’re guessing that the percentage of people who want to go out and see live comedy that may not work and might call the audience dickheads (or various other “hard truths”) is a consistent but fairly small number across the globe. In a small country like Australia, the numbers aren’t enough to sustain a decent* live comedy circuit: in the UK and USA, they are.

And as for this:

Work together to support some interesting projects til they become sure bets, because it’s a sure bet that our industry isn’t taking risks any more

You might want to focus your ire on the overseas networks that seem to be funding pretty much all of the ABC’s scripted comedy output these days – you know, the networks who don’t actually come from our risk-adverse, comedy-disliking culture.

The fact is that Australian comedy has always been a tough sell. We’re a small country, so even the best at getting laughs have had to hustle to stay in work. Remember when Shaun Micallef was on breakfast radio? The Chaser are doing radio now too; Dave Hughes’s stand-up career was built on the back of radio and television appearances, likewise Wil Anderson’s. And people often have to diversify their material if they want to keep working: Mick Molloy didn’t become a “sports comedian” until two decades into his career, while Chris Lilley kept on making the same show until demand dried up.

Hell, even Carl Barron made a crap movie. If having that in cinemas doesn’t show our national commitment to comedy, what will?



*to be fair, Rodney Rude and Kevin “Bloody” Wilson seemed to do pretty well with what we do have.





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