The New King of Comedy

With Taboo making its debut later this week on Ten, we now have the unusual situation where one commercial network all on their ownsome is showing roughly double the amount of Australian comedy than the ABC. Yeah yeah, we know: is Mr. Black really comedy? Let’s put it this way: it may not be all that funny, but it’s a shitload closer to comedy than The Letdown.

And really, if we’re going to pick nits here, how much comedy does the ABC air these days? Rosehaven is maybe kind of like a comedy, but it’s a lot closer to one of those cosy UK rural series only without the murders; The Letdown is basically an observational comedy that thinks merely observing things is good enough. Get Krack!n ain’t coming back; Utopia is, so at least that’s something.

In contrast, whatever you think of shows like Kinne and Mr Black, they’re comedies first and foremost; Have You Been Paying Attention? requires no qualifications at all. And if we’re letting The Weekly into the comedy club – c’mon, it’s an interview show with a news round-up bolted on the front – then Taboo deserves a look in even if 75% of it is just hanging out with terminally ill people. With any luck they’ll do an episode on Tom Gleeson’s career after his latest Logies push flames out.

Normally this would be a good thing. Okay, it still is: the more options out there for comedy, the more chances there are of Australia actually getting something decent. But it’s bad news for the ABC, which is traditionally bad news for comedy. Anyone else noticed they haven’t announced they’ll be running their Fresh Blood program again this year?

Making local comedy runs against the current global logic of television production. It’s niche material that doesn’t travel: while you might be able to sell the format rights overseas, there’s very little chance that you’ll be able to sell the actual show anywhere. And if you’re in a small market (Australia!), the main way to attract overseas money is by making the kind of television that does travel – murder shows, shows about murder, thrillers that usually involve murder, and series where people investigate murders. Not a whole lot of laughs to be found there.

While Ten’s approach might not make a whole lot of sense from that angle – and let’s be clear, that is 100% the angle the ABC is taking with its scripted programming; good luck finding anything there that isn’t a co-production alongside someone with deep pockets overseas – it’s the smart play if you happen to be running a network that relies on ratings, because here’s a fun fact about Australian comedy: it’s (relatively) cheap and it rates (relatively) well.

Australian drama has to compete with drama from all around the world and good luck with that. Here’s one stumbling block: we simply can’t afford to make a Chernobyl, let alone a Game of Thrones (remember Cleverman? Us neither) and they cost pretty much the same to watch as some crapsack local murder show.

But Australian comedy only has to compete with overseas comedy, which – as previously mentioned – doesn’t always travel well; there’s a shitload of mainstream US sitcoms nobody here has heard of, and for good reason. And the stuff which does travel often doesn’t have widespread appeal: there’s a lot of viewers here who like to laugh but don’t really want to watch the second season of Fleabag.

Obviously there’s a case for making local drama – local stories, local jobs, blah blah. Which the exact same case as for making local comedy, only local comedy is cheaper and rates better. In good times when the cash is a’flowing, sure – why not do both? But now, when money is tight and the ABC really needs to start putting a very strong case to the public that they’re vital to Australian culture, some hard decisions really do need to be made.

Because the ABC’s lack of comedy in 2019 can only be described as a massive fuck-up. For the last six years their budget has been under the hammer, and much as we’d like to feel sorry for them, when they did have money they made shows like Myf Warhurst’s Nice, so… yeah. Now the cuts are really going to bite, and with a federal government perfectly happy to see them sink under the waves, their only real hope for survival is to appeal to the general public. You can see where we’re going with this.

For most of this decade the people running the ABC have chosen to focus on making a range of shows of marginal interest to most Australians in the hope of bringing in enough money from overseas to continue to make shows of marginal interest to most Australians. Which is no surprise; this is what they’ve always done. But in the past they had enough spare cash to throw mainstream audiences a bone in their comedy programming; once the money dried up, that stuff was the first to go.

If the ABC is to have any hope of survival under this government they’re going to have to turn to the general public and say “you still like us, right?”. And on the whole, Australians do – only for a lot of them, that like is based on the kinds of shows the ABC stopped making years ago. Remember shows aimed at teenagers? Remember satire that wasn’t Charlie Pickering reading a news story and ending with “what’s up with that?”? Quiz shows not hosted by Tom Gleeson?

(seriously, if the only possible counter-argument to us is “but what about Hard Quiz“, the ABC might as well shut up shop now. ABC management’s bizarre commitment to betting pretty much all their remaining chips on the non-existent “popular appeal” of Charlie Pickering and Tom Gleeson deserves its own Royal Commission)

Obviously the ABC hasn’t had the cash to indulge our every whim. But Ten’s current line-up points out an inconvenient truth: dumb local comedy is (relatively) cheap and it often rates (relatively) well. By turning their back on that, the ABC has made it a whole lot harder to appeal to exactly the people they’re now relying on.

Yes, maybe those people would never watch the ABC anyway and yes, maybe trying to go mainstream would have just been a waste of money and oh wait Spicks & Specks used to bring in a million viewers a week every week and the ABC axed it. And replaced it with Randling. Didn’t they recently knock back a reboot of Seachange, their most successful show in living memory and the basis for two decades of commercial knock-offs? Why yes they did:

The reboot was discussed initially with the ABC but Mott says the national broadcaster had responded by saying it “did not feel right for them at the time.”

When your feelings lead you to make shows like Tomorrow Tonight, maybe it’s time to start using your brain instead.

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