Pilot Week Day 6 – it’ll make you hungry

As the only sitcom of Pilot Week, Dave O’Neil’s Dave looked like a breath of fresh air. Until we started watching it.

Dave is about one day in the life of Dave O’Neil, suburban comedian and family man. He takes his kids to school, hangs out with his mates, has to find a famous friend to host the high school fete, and struggles with the burden of being famous enough that people know him without being famous enough that people respect him.

For a while – a long while – after Curb Your Enthusiasm first aired, there was a rush of Australian comedians pitching shows that would be about them and their wacky yet also extremely relatable upper-middle-class lives. Peter Moon did one. Nick Giannopoulos tried to do one. Dave Hughes sort of did one. And now Dave O’Neil has done one. So it’s safe to say this is a straight-down-the-middle pitch to “mainstream Australia.” If you’re hungry for jokes about how much Dave likes his food, you won’t go starving here.

O’Neil has been working off-camera as a writer for decades on countless Australian comedy series, so script-wise this is pretty tight. There are call-backs, running gags, plot twists that make sense, and a few nice moments of character work (ie, Dave’s wife’s slightly OCD worries about leaving the hair straightener on). The suburban locations were good, the cast were strong, and if none of the side characters really made much of an impression past the initial joke… well, this is a pilot: those roles would almost certainly be recast anyway.

Here’s a problem we didn’t think we’d have with Dave: it turns out Dave O’Neil isn’t a great actor. He’s playing a lovable, slightly beleaguered suburban dad, but O’Neil – who’s a likable performer – constantly defaults to a kind of broad comedy bluster that feels a little put on. It’s sketch comedy acting in a sitcom that’s largely aiming for naturalistic, and it means we never quite click with “Dave” the way this kind of story requires us to.

Sure, loads of sitcoms have been built around stand-ups who aren’t great at acting. But this isn’t like Seinfeld where Jerry Seinfeld is part of an ensemble and is deliberately playing a kind of stand-offish jerk: this is a show about Dave O’Neil, where he’s the focus of literally every single scene. He’s got a couple of scenes next to Glenn Robbins and Robbins – playing a character that is if anything slightly less realistic than Dave – is totally relaxed and believable as his character in a way that Dave never quite is.

Are we saying Dave O’Neil is so bad an actor he can’t convincingly play himself? Yeah, nah: just being yourself in front of a camera is extremely difficult, and it’s not a surprise that O’Neil – who’s on-camera work has either been in sketch comedy or playing a comedy version of himself on panel shows – might seem a little forced in a half hour sitcom built around himself. It’s not that he’s not funny either; it’s easy to see him being hilarious in a different kind of sitcom where his broader performance was more in tune with the general tone. But here, in a sitcom shot entirely on location with a cast of professional actors and a story that’s clearly meant to be a slightly heightened version of reality, his performance is just a little bit out of wack.

So should this go to pilot? Well… maybe not this exact show. But a show a lot like this – one where maybe there was a stronger supporting cast, even one where the focus was shifted slightly (O’Neil would be a great dad in a sitcom where the focus was on the kids) – would definitely be something worth watching. Just don’t expect it to turn up on the ABC:

Over the period between shooting and airing, O’Neil struggled to find a home for the comedy, with no luck from ABC.

“ABC is where I became known doing Spicks & Specks, Good News Week, Adam Hills, Randling and all sorts of stuff. But if you are a white middle-aged man they don’t want to see you, basically,” he says.

“They are doing all sorts of diversity, which is great.”

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