It’s a Fine Line Between Pleasure and Pain

What exactly is a comedy? We’ve gone on and on here over the years about the way Australian television is happy to treat comedy as some kind of special ingredient to liven up an otherwise boring project, but it’s an approach that’s become so ingrained that there’s a boatload of shows currently on the air where we’re not exactly sure what to think.

Look, Lego Masters is hosted by a comedian (well, Hamish Blake) who spends most of the show cracking wise, but is it a comedy? Nope. The Australian version of Pointless – yes, it’s still on the air – is hosted by Mark Humphries, a man currently doing comedy sketches on the ABC’s top current affairs program, but is it a comedy? Nope.

So what about the return of Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation? It’s hosted by a comedian and features a bunch of wacky bits – but we’ve already established that’s not really enough to make a show a comedy. It’s tempting to just say “it’s really funny”, because, you know, for the most part it is. But if being funny was all it took to be a comedy then AFL footy show The Front Bar would be getting two thumbs up from us each week.

Actually, that’s not a bad comparison to make: while both shows have a (relatively) serious hook to hang their comedy on, what makes them comedies (as far as our viewing schedules are concerned) is that they both make it very clear indeed that being funny is their top priority. They’ll happily derail a segment to get a laugh, which isn’t something you can say about Lego Masters.

It’s also what separates them from a show like Hughesy, We Have A Problem, which is ostensibly more of an outright comedy but in practice has a host (and a format) that keeps dragging things back to the fairly mundane premise. It’s been around long enough to have loosened up in theory, but each week it feels like a show where the people running it think the comedy gold lies in the various problems being presented and not the guests being wacky.

(to be fair, the guests aren’t always that wacky either)

Of course, Australian television is littered with panel shows that had the opposite problem: they let the guests run wild and the show ended up a sloppy mess. So it’s no real surprise that at the moment the pendulum has swung the other way and even the “off the wall” shows like Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation are relatively firmly locked down as far as what happens and when.

The trick is, as it has always been, to put people in charge who can do both. TAYG continues to work even when it’s clearly a more sedate show than it was during its final years on Ten because Shaun Micallef is able to keep the show moving forward while throwing in as many gags and physical bits as it can handle.

The short answer as to why Hughesy, We Have A Problem (which finished up over the weekend) doesn’t work as well is because as a host, Dave Hughes lacks the confidence to let things go off track. Not that the show would really let him: when you have a (relatively) high concept like “solving people’s problems” (or “making shit out of Lego”), that’s what at least some of your audience have tuned in for, and if you don’t deliver they’re going to be pissed off.

The Front Bar, on the other hand, is based around the idea of a couple of mates talking shit about footy, which is about as low concept as you can get. It’s a comedy because the people in front of the camera are funny, and they’re given enough rope to be funny without having the format hold them back.

But what about TAYG? It has a very funny host who gets to do what it takes to get laughs: it’s also a game show with regular segments and a winning team at the end of the night. Okay, the winners are fairly arbitrary at best, and the segments are really just an excuse for a bunch of pop culture jokes. Also, the team captains are pretty funny in their own right, the guests are usually well chosen, the whole thing moves along at a decent pace and nobody is taking any of it all that seriously despite the decontamination outfits in the final segment.

So either the difference is an extremely subtle one relying on a wide range of variables that are hard to define at the best of times… or Hughesy needs to throw more bananas.

Eh, let’s go with the bananas.

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  • Bernard says:

    What exactly is a comedy?

    Well it wasn’t Mr Black which debuted last night on Ten. Nowhere near as bad as Sando, but still shite. Are you going to cast your critical gaze onto it?

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Expect our sardonically unimpressed review later today.

  • wiff says:

    Team Captains are funny? You could have fooled me, they rarely make a funny line and mostly make me cringe. Especially Laurence Boxhall who whenever opens his mouth I’m sure is either going to be something swatty or a limp attempt to match the surreal invention of Micallef.