We’ve waited a while before passing judgement on Tonightly, ABC Comedy’s new tonight show, because unlike pretty much every Australian comedy of the last decade or so its a show that’s able to do its growing up in public. A four-episodes-a-week talk show doesn’t have to be perfect fresh out of the gate – which is good, because the first episode was a bit of a mess – so why not give it a week or two to iron out the kinks? We’ve seen plenty of comedies that have been fully committed to being shithouse from day one; there’s no harm in seeing if for once we might get a show that develops in the right way.
So the good news: Tonightly is pretty good for what it is. And what it is, is Tom Ballard doing around 20 minutes of topical stand-up / monologue each night, broken up by the occasional (middling) sketch or (tolerable) interview. It’s about as bare bones as a tonight show can get: no band, no string of guests promoting something, and an audience that sounds like a handful of mildly interested cleaning staff. Considering the vast number of recent tonight-ish shows that have gone in the other direction – the parody of Aaron Chen Tonight, the earnest lecturing of The Weekly – it’s surprising someone didn’t try the low-fi version earlier. Especially as it’s both cheaper and a lot more likely not to suck.
As the host Ballard is good, not great, but he’s lucked out with a (cheap, bare bones, but efficient) format that – in a startling rarity for Australian comedy – lets the host just be funny. Australia is full of radio jocks whose only skills are likability and being able to deliver a joke; you could give just about any regular from Have You Been Paying Attention? this job and they wouldn’t stuff it up. But Ballard is the one in the hot seat and while he’s not exactly breaking new ground here with his “genial host” act, he’s mostly coming across as both likable and funny without skidding into “arrogant prat”.
(his on-camera support crew are largely forgettable, which is actually a step up considering how annoying we’ve found some of them to be previously. Which we’re going to say means they’re hitting the sweet spot where the jokes and not “hey look at me I’m hilarious!” comes first)
Likewise, the jokes are aren’t classics – there’s plenty of shouting “what the fuck?” over clips of politicians doing or saying bad things – but it usually feels like they’re trying to be funny first, delivering a right-on lecture second, and these days that goes a long way in political comedy. Even when its political comedy that occasionally feels like it’s being broadcast live from the set of one of those Up Late Game Shows from 2006. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that when they do the self-deprecating “hey, the real joke was that we did a joke that bad” thing it usually feels like they mean it. Take note, The Weekly.
Come to think of it, this whole show must be a serious concern for The Weekly, considering it’s doing roughly the same thing only four times as often and a whole lot better. It’s safe to say that Charlie “not really all that good at seeming likable” Pickering’s setting himself up for disappointment when he’s saying things like this:
He agrees Australia could do with a permanent tonight show format, and sees an “older version” of himself in such a role.
Because if Tonightly is any guide, that role’s already been filled.