Sketchy at best: The worst Australian sketch comedy shows

TV Tonight’s recent article on the all-time best Australian TV comedies got us thinking…what are the all-time worst Australian TV comedies?

Having been blogging about this for more than a decade, we think we have the answers. First up…sketch shows!

If you grew up pre the late-90s, sketch shows were something you saw on TV a lot – and they were hugely popular. The Late Show, Fast Forward, The D-Generation, The Comedy Company, The Naked Vicar Show and The Mavis Bramston Show are just some of the sketch shows that Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers remember with fondness, shows that were every bit as good as their overseas cousins Monty Python’s Flying Circus, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Not The Nine O’Clock News and French & Saunders. And yet, Troy Kinne and the odd pilot aside, TV sketch shows have died an almost complete death in the past 20 years. Why?

The cast of The Comedy Company

The cast of The Comedy Company

It’s not as if people don’t appreciate short form comedy anymore. It’s all over YouTube and social media, and kids – and even professional comedians – are making sketches in their backyards with great success, MyChonny, Aunty Donna and Superwog amongst them.

It’s even possible for these online sketch artists to make money from their work, from YouTube advertising, merchandising and live tours. Not bad for something they wrote for fun in their spare time and shot on a phone.

Problem is, sketch is far less profitable for a TV network – and a lot riskier. Sure, it’s local content you can say you made, but it’s also expensive – too many sets, costumes, locations, actors, FX and stunt performers to pay for – and if the viewers hate it, you’re screwed. Many a post-millennium sketch show has died a long, painful death because the producers assumed we’d all love the Annoying Waiter character they’d created, meaning they shot weeks worth of Annoying Waiter sketches, and even pitched an Annoying Waiter spin-off book to a publisher, and then it turned out that the public hated the Annoying Waiter. Which is a shame, as The Annoying Waiter’s Restaurant Guide had some great stuff in it.

A pretentious male silver service waiter with a moustache carrying two silver trays, one with a chicken toy on it

What we imagine the annoying waiter looks like

So, networks don’t bother with sketch anymore. Not when they can pull in big audiences for cheap – and meet their local content quotas – with reality shows.

Of course, part of the reason no one watches sketch shows on TV anymore could be that younger audiences, i.e. the Millennials and Generation Z, don’t have the happy memories of sketch comedy that Baby Boomers and Gen X have. If they’ve watched TV sketch show at all it was Comedy Inc, The Wedge, or, God help them, Open Slather.

And can we really blame them for turning away from TV sketch shows when their only experience of them are shows like these?

So, let’s remind ourselves of what TV sketch has been like over the past 20 years…

It was all going so well. After a 90s where comedy on TV was king, networks entered the 2000s with a programming mindset that included sketch comedy. And in 2003, Nine and Ten each launched a new sketch show. skitHOUSE, Roving Enterprises’ effort for Network Ten, ran for 19 episodes and featured Peter Helliar, Corinne Grant, Roz Hammond, Tom Gleeson, Cal Wilson and Tripod, amongst others. Comedy Inc., which featured Emily Tahey, Paul McCarthy and Hey Dad’s Ben Oxenbould, ran for an astounding five series on Nine. Yep, those were the days when sketch shows could stay on air not because they were good but because the networks needed to make and air local content.

The cast of Comedy Inc.

The cast of Comedy Inc.

And so, Comedy Inc. gave us recurring characters like oddball neighbours Matt and Bray, plus shitload of TV show parodies featuring Paul McCarthy playing basically the same character in every single one, and skitHOUSE gave us Tom Gleeson’s Australian Fast Bowler. You remember the Australian Fast Bowler – he was a cricketing superhero that saved people using his cricketing skills – he was on the show multiple times every damn week.

Being on TV multiple times every damn week is something Tom Gleeson presumably learnt during his time on skitHOUSE, but, alas, the Australian Fast Bowler’s time was soon up, as Network Ten launched a new sketch concept in 2005… The Ronnie Johns Half Hour.

In theory, The Ronnie Johns Half Hour was a good idea – a bunch of ex-university comics who’d already been touring around in revues for a while. Yes, it would be just like The D-Generation, who’d done the same thing in the 1980s and had come to dominate TV comedy for years afterwards.

Or not, as it turned out. The one stand-out was Heath Franklin’s parody of Chopper Read, which considering Chopper was at this point a sort of a stand-up, was basically just a rip-off of Chopper’s own act. And given that Franklin still does Chopper, who’s now long dead, an increasingly tasteless one.

But in 2005 Network Ten didn’t just give us Ronnie Johns, it also gave us The B Team with once-popular Triple J duo Merrick & Rosso. Axed after eight episodes, it’s mainly remembered for Rosso dressing up as Russell Crowe (or Rosso Crowe) and fooling members of the public. Classic.

Of course, the early noughties ABC was also serving up sketch comedy duds. Anyone remember Flipside, which featured all three Curry brothers? It was such a good program that the ABC put it out late at night on a Saturday, in a timeslot when only the most dedicated, or those who’d remembered to set the video, would ever see it. We caught a few episodes and boy did it suck. And we’re saying that as people who remember the final series of Totally Full Frontal, a once-great, or at least half-decent, sketch show which had become so tired by this point that entire sketches consisted of a cast member dressed up as John Howard dancing down the street.

But let’s get back to the mid-noughties, a time when it was announced with great fanfare that 80s comedy legends Ian McFadyen (The Comedy Company) and Steve Vizard (Fast Forward) had developed The Wedge, an exciting new concept in sketch comedy where all the sketches would be set in typical Aussie suburb of Wedgedale. Amongst these was Lucy, a delusional schoolgirl who lived her life online, played by Rebel Wilson, and a parody of newsreader Sandra Sully called Sandra Sultry. Future Wilfred creators and stars Adam Zwar and Jason Gann were also in the show. The latter creating a recurring character, disgraced sports star called Mark Wary.

Rebel Wilson as Lucy

Rebel Wilson as Lucy

But the central problem with The Wedge wasn’t so much the concept or the personnel, but the fact that the writing was so bad and none of the cast knew each other. Sketch comedy works best when it’s centred around an established duo or team, who have a distinct style and shared point of view. McFadyen and Vizard, who’d worked together since the 80s, might have had shared a point of view, but the cast and writers were just random people they’d hired, so this sucked.

Hilariously (or not hilariously as it turned out) the exact same thing happened almost ten years later when the ABC made This is Littleton, a show about characters in the fictional city of Littleton, featuring a bunch of people who’d never worked together. It included sketches about a trophy wife, a Schapelle Corby-type character, and some old Greek men who discussed youth phenomena like Snapchat. And it lasted just four episodes.

Another one-series screamer of a sketch show was Seven’s Double Take, notable only for Paul McCarthy (he was in all the worst sketch shows) and his Kochie parody. And we only remember that because we wrote about it here.

One of the hallmarks of great sketch, of course, is taking a simple, funny premise and expanding it from there. Monty Python’s cheese shop with no cheese, for example. Meanwhile, at the turn of this decade, Beached Az took the idea of a cartoon whale on a beach with a New Zealand accent and…that was the entire joke. They somehow sold a lot of merch off the back of it, though.

And so, we move on, ultimately, to crap sketch comedy of the 2010s. 2013’s The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting has been one of many attempts in this decade to revive the sketch show by having it written by new writers. New talent initiatives like Fresh Blood and Channel 10’s Pilot Week have always had a least one ensemble sketch show, either featuring an established act from the live scene who couldn’t get their material to work on TV, or a bunch on stand-ups and character actors shoved together into a show written by the usual hacks.

In this context, The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting looked kinda interesting in that it brought together a group of new writers who’d all had their work presented online and then brought them to TV. Except, oh dear, the new writers only managed to write the same old unfunny crap that all the established writers seemed to be writing. We described the full horror of it over here if you can be bothered.

So, it seemed, hacky comedy was the future of sketch. Or at least the makers of 2015’s Open Slather thought so. This show, made by, of all networks, Foxtel, saw Fast Forward alumni Gina Riley, Jane Turner, Marg Downey, Magda Szbanski and Michael Veitch teamed-up with newer comedians such as Demi Lardner, Emily Taheny and Shane Jacobson, and appearing in parodies of Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, sketches about Gina Reinhart…and loads of even less memorable stuff.

The cast of Open Slather in character

The cast of Open Slather

When it works, sketch comedy is amazing. It’s funny, it’s quotable, it’s re-watchable and sometimes it’s even generation-defining. But when it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work a lot, it’s a reminder of how much money and human effort you can waste on a pointless folly.

Sketch comedy is hard, but the secret to it is quite simple: bring a group of people together around a central comedic premise or attitude, and spend ages making every second of the show as funny as humanly possible.

In the past two decades, the only shows that seem to have achieved that on Australian TV have involved Shaun Micallef. And as much as we love Shaun Micallef, that’s a big, big problem.

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  • andrew says:

    i grew up in the era of Australia You’re Standing in It, D Gen, Comedy Company, Fast Forward and The Late Show. All pretty excellent shows.

    But of the last decade or so the only one I’ve found remotely worth watching was The Big Bite and that didn’t last long. Kinne is not bad. Never really got into skithouse or the Wedge.

  • Tallulah Bankhead says:

    Just placing my reader request for your list of the best Australian comedies.

  • EvilCommieDictator says:

    No “Live from Planet Earth”?

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    We will cover this in a future “Worst of” article.

  • imoatama says:

    I appreciated this thorough write-up, thanks! I arrived searching for that totally full frontal sketch with the raver dancing to the car alarm, somehow.

    you say the lack of good sketch comedy on Aussie TV is a big big problem, but in the era of Youtube and Patreon, I wonder how much it is really?

    As you point out, there is good sketch comedy being made, and the producers are making a living from it (btw I don’t think describing the work of Aunty Donna and their ilk as “something they wrote for fun in their spare time and shot on a phone” is really accurate or does justice to its quality). Yes it’s been unbundled from its previous bundled incarnation of a half hour show used to sell ads on network TV, but that’s a good thing.

    How much of your feeling is driven by a nostalgia or special feeling for TV?