Not So Much Behind the Desk as Under It: The Worst Australian Panel Shows

If you were a newcomer to Australia’s shores, you might be puzzled about – well, about a lot of things really, but let’s stick with panel shows. Why don’t we have more of them? They’re cheap to make, don’t require a whole lot of effort, and didn’t we kinda sorta invent the prime time version of just having people sitting around talking with The Panel back in the late 90s? That’s the kind of innovation (and ratings success) that should have spawned a healthy local industry; instead, a few sports shows and Have You Been Paying Attention? aside, there’s nothing. What happened?

Previous installments in this series have largely charted predictable courses. Australia used to be good at sketch comedy then we lost our way and the audience lost interest; we never really made enough sitcoms to get good at them; topical comedy still sometimes works if talented people are given a free hand. But panel shows? Australian panel shows?

They’re shit. They’re pretty much always shit.

The real struggle here was to keep the total down to ten (shock twist: we failed) because it took Australian television more than a decade of constant effort to finally realise that all Australian panel shows are, as we just pointed out, shit. The reason why there are no Australian chat-based comedy panel shows on television in 2019 is not from lack of trying, it’s from there being so many massive failures that it eventually sank in to even the most dim-witted television executive that making them was a complete and total waste of everyone’s time.

(and yes, by “panel shows” we also mean any kind of quiz or competition that features comedians. Are the comedians taking home real prizes? No? Then it’s basically a panel show)

Honestly, it’s not hard to figure out why. Like most forms of television comedy, there are two roads to success: either feature a group of extremely funny people preferably already skilled at working together, or come up with a very strong concept that can reliably generate laughs. Both those roads are difficult to follow, but there’s no short cuts – sticking a bunch of near-strangers behind a desk and getting them to talk about whatever comes into their heads just doesn’t work. Here’s a few reasons why:

If Thank God You’re Here seems like an odd show to start a list of bad panel shows off with, you’re not remembering it right. Yes, it was a huge hit, ran for years, helped cement Working Dog as the top producer of comedy in this country and so on. But on a week by week basis? Not good. Not good at all. It was basically the closest anyone’s managed to get comedy to become “event television” in this country: the point was to watch each week in case something amazing happened and something amazing happened just enough (usually when Bob Franklin was involved) to keep people coming back. Like much of Working Dog’s shows at the turn of the century, their genius was in realising that people would watch ramshackle television being put together in front of them by skilled comedians. Doesn’t mean it was good television though.

And if you still think we’re being harsh on TGYH, fun fact: it inspired Monster House. If you’ve ever wondered just how stupid Australian television producers are, here’s a reminder. Monster House was a hidden camera prank show – that’s not the stupid bit – featuring a bunch of actors (including shrinking violet Rebel Wilson) who were already well-known. Let’s think about that for a moment. Which is a moment longer than the producers did. It ran two weeks before being axed.

Of course, prank TV didn’t end there on Australian television – though it clearly should have if the local version of Balls of Steel was any guide. The UK version was the last gasp of lad culture; the Australian version was hosted by Chaser member Craig Reucassel, because he clearly needed the fame that could only come from a show featuring local versions of “the annoying devil” and “bunny boiler” pestering people on various Sydney streets. We’re guessing Nazeem Hussain quietly deleted this from his resume about five minutes after season two aired.

The thing about the Spicks & Specks reboot is that Spicks & Specks had been a hit show that had run its course. So why not wait a few years then bring it back? You know, like all the other successful series that have managed that in Australia like… oh, wait. Everywhere else around the world knows that when a show’s hosts want to leave the trick to keeping the show going is to gradually introduce new hosts, have an on-air hand over, keep things as consistent as possible and do everything you can to keep the fans on board. With Spicks & Specks, the ABC did the opposite; the reboot sank in less than a year.

(not that the ABC will let it die – they’ve just announced the original crew will be back for four specials later this year and in 2020)

Does anyone (besides us) even remember Behind the Lines? It was like Spicks & Specks but with sport. And Eddie McGuire. And it was on Channel Nine.

And does anyone (besides us) even remember The Trophy Room? It was like Behind the Lines but with sport. And Peter Helliar. And it was on the ABC.

And does anyone (besides us) even remember The Bounce? It was a variety show but with AFL football. And Peter Helliar. And it was on Channel Seven (but not for long)

(if you really want to get worked up about the state of Australian television comedy, just look at the career of Peter Helliar. Someone give the man a Gold Logie)

Hey, quick question – did Peter Helliar appear on completely forgettable, vaguely historical, still being repeated last year ABC comedy quiz show Tractor Monkeys?

Oh you know he did – along with just about every other regular face working the panel circuit at the start of this decade. At the time we were convinced that the cast iron anchor dragging every single Australian show down was the lack of panel show talent in this country, and you know what? We were right: Australia simply doesn’t have the level of panel show talent required to make this kind of rambling, formless, clip-based hunk of junk work. But put that same talent into a format where all they’re allowed to do is be funny for one sentence or less and suddenly they become worthwhile ways to spend roughly an hour on a Monday night and yes we’re talking about Have You Been Paying Attention? – the success of which directly resulted in the ABC finally giving up trying to make shit ideas like this work.

The Unbelievable Truth was based on a UK radio show that involved people giving lectures that contained five truthful statements in a swamp of lies, and the panel had to buzz in when they thought they’d spotted a truth. It sat on the shelf at Seven for close to a year while the network tried to figure out if it was funny. How could it not be? It was hosted by The Chaser‘s Craig Ruecassel oh right.

The White Room provided audiences with the unmissable opportunity to watch C-list celebrities play charades in a white cavern left over from an 80s music video shoot. It was axed after just two weeks. It may surprise you to learn that it was only when Channel Seven stopped trying to make local comedy panel shows happen – we haven’t even mentioned Glenn Robbins’ actually not bad show Out of the Question – that they became the top-rating network in the country.

We’re still waiting for someone – anyone – to explain to us what the thinking was behind the ABC’s seemingly endless (15 episodes!) How Not to Behave. Was it meant to be a sarcastic comedy show featuring sketches that were ironically showing us “how to behave”? Or was it meant to be a straight lifestyle show that just happened to have the wrong title? As it would have required us to watch more than one episode to find out, guess we’ll never know.

And then there’s Cram!

What more can we say?

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