Tonight is not the night – The worst Australian topical comedies and tonight shows

When Tonightly with Tom Ballard was axed last year, Australia not only lost a show which was delivering a solid half-hour of interesting, passionate and funny topical comedy four nights a week but it a lost a show which had been allowed to be itself.

So often, TV executives take a bunch of people who’ve never worked together, tell them what kind of show to make, and then interfere constantly while they try to produce something decent within the constraints they’ve been given. And Tonightly… so obviously wasn’t that.

It was a show which came from people who shared similar ideals and were given free rein to come up with whatever they wanted as long as it was nominally of interest to young-ish viewers – and topical. What resulted was sometimes a mess, sometimes needed a bit more work, but usually had a spark of originality, difference or just sheer anger at the state of things, that made it must-watch viewing. For people of all ages.

Rarely do we see that sort of flawed but charming and occasionally hard-hitting comedy program on TV these days. So often we’re served up bland rip-offs of US tonight shows, or topical programs that are about as challenging to our political and corporate overlords as a fawning News Limited editorial about how great the Liberal party are.

And with Rove McManus returning to television with Saturday Night Rove in a couple of weeks, that glorious Australian tradition looks set to continue. Although being Rove, he’ll at least produce something that’s watchable. Something you can’t accuse these shows of being…

Let’s get this out of the way first…for all its faults, Hey! Hey! It’s Saturday was once a ground-breaking and much-loved show. Seriously, what a great idea to turn a free-wheeling Saturday morning kids’ show into something the whole family could watch on a Saturday evening. Celebrity guests! Bands! Novelty acts! Whacky sound effects! They even adapted the puppet characters’ dialogue to give the adults something to laugh at.

The problem was, the show had at its centre an ego-driven host/producer, barely able to disguise his contempt for most of humanity. And as the years marched by and social attitudes changed, that host/producer – and the show itself – resolutely stuck to its guns by continuing to hold the attitude that men were men, women got the piss ripped out of them, and the LGBT+ community and ethnics were pretty funny too.

This just about worked throughout the 80s and 90s, but by the time Hey! Hey!… came back for some specials in 2009, this really became a problem. Especially when the show doubled down by booking a blackface act.

Acceptable in 2009, apparently

Global outrage and disgust duly followed. Something that Channel 9 sort of repeated two years later with Ben Elton’s Live From Planet Earth, a show so notoriously terrible that its name has become a punchline far funnier than anything the show ever aired.

And who would have guessed it? Ben Elton had successfully toured Australia many times with his stand-up show and had written many much-loved shows, including The Young Ones and Blackadder. Surely, this couldn’t fail?

So what was it that caused Live From Planet Earth to lose half a million viewers through its first episode? Was it Elton’s patronising ratings announcement at the start of the show? Was his re-hashing of some of his so-so old stand-up material? Was it the schoolgirl characters, talking about their lives on the internet in a way which only a middle-aged man would think they talked, followed by the middle-aged male writer of that sketch, Ben Elton, saying “hopefully we’ll be hearing more of their philosophy of life as the series progresses”?

Maybe it was Elton’s routine about using natural yoghurt to cure thrush? Or maybe – and this definitely killed it for us – it was the female bodybuilder character played by an overweight man. Seriously, you do not go to an ad break on something as bad and misguided as that.

Oh my God, what is this?

But we’re being kind. Twitter, as we recall, was rather less forgiving. Ditto the critics. And in its second week, the show started with less than half a million viewers and lost about a third of them by the end. (And the schoolgirls were back!)

As for week three… Well, the show went out later than scheduled because of extended news bulletins reporting on the Christchurch earthquake and opened with Elton’s solemn message that he hoped no one thought it would be inappropriate to do the show as planned following the terrible tragedy. Oddly enough, Australia wasn’t in the mood for his terrible program and less than 200,000 viewers tuned in. Live From Planet Earth was axed the next day.

Live comedy shows, it seems, is something Australian television isn’t very good at. 2005’s Let Loose Live, less notorious than Live From Planet Earth, but even more short-lived – it lasted just two episodes – was supposed to be a local answer to Saturday Night Live, complete with cold open, weekly guest host, studio sketches and a big cast.

And in one sense, it was an authentically a local version of Saturday Night Live: a lot of the material was cliched and crap. An early sketch in the show was about young ethnic drivers hooning around in a muscle car. Later, guest host William McInnes did his ventriloquist act, except he couldn’t conceal his mouth movements. Then there was something about an IT guy in an office (played by Sammy J) and the IT guy was, wait for it, a bit nerdy… the first episode’s on YouTube if you can be bothered.

What might have saved the show (or at least made it a bit interesting) was some topical material, something SNL does often and pretty well. So, where in Let Loose Live were the potshots at the government? Where was the satire? Guys, John Howard had been in office for almost a decade at this point, and he’d recently sent our troops off to an ill-advised and unpopular war. IT’S NOT LIKE THERE WASN’T MATERIAL!!! Good grief, even Ben Elton managed a few cracks at Julia Gillard.

But if you think the lesson learnt from Let Loose Live and Live From Planet Earth is that Australia shouldn’t attempt live topical comedy shows and that pre-recorded, satire-focused shows might have a better success rate, then may we remind you of Wednesday Night Fever, a show so out-of-the-blocks crap that we’re just going to share this from our review of the first episode:

Where the wheels totally came off this blunt nothing of a show was in the writing, which never failed to sniff out an opportunity to make cheap, obvious shots at cheap, obvious targets. Making a joke that Ruby Rose looks like a boy? In 2013? What the fuck was that all about? [Regular character] Justice has a “mother” who’s a man? Wow, those crazy feminists, right guys? And why was Julie Bishop stumbling around blindly in the utterly baffling and seemingly endless “Downton Abbott”? Oh right, she’s entirely defined by the “fact” she has a bung eye. The promos for this show said nothing was sacred. Seems that meant having Julia Gillard sing “I was asked if Tim was gay – have you ever seen Thérèse?” Jesus wept.

Wow, Ben Elton’s female bodybuilder sketch seemed like a good idea compared to that.

Downton Abbott

But Wednesday Night Fever (which lasted for just seven episodes) didn’t just take obvious potshots, it did gutter humour too. Swearwords as punchlines? Yep, it had plenty of those. Crude and idiotic humour? Present and correct, madam. So, instead of pointing out that Clive Palmer was an awful businessman involved in various dodgy dealings, we were treated to jokes about his weight. Yes, nothing was sacred on this show!

The only bright spot in the whole Wednesday Night Fever affair was when Crikey gained access to the show’s writer’s Google group (which they’d failed to password protect) and reported that the sketches that had been rejected from the show were even less funny and even more lowbrow, sexist and racist than the ones that did make it to air. Crikey also claimed at one stage (they later took this down from their site) that one writer had proposed a “Prince Philip in blackface” sketch.

There are no words.

Except, it seems, someone liked this short-lived show, as it later went on to win an AWGIE in the Comedy – Sketch or Light Entertainment category, beating This Is Littleton, How Green Was My Cactus and Legally Brown.

And what does this tell us? It tells us that people in the industry are not nearly critical enough when it comes to judging shows, for one. How else to explain the fact that The Roast managed to rack up hundreds of episodes, under several different names, on at least four different online and broadcast channels, over a five-year period? Or that star of the show Mark Humphries has managed to get work since then?

Still in work, it seems

At the time, we were baffled. And we still are. This was a news satire show that never managed to satirise the news. Or even parody it. Where were the wacky news reporter characters? Where were the odd interviewees? Where were the sketches where they poked fun at those in power? To be fair, The Roast wasn’t quite as bad as Wednesday Night Fever, with its crude humour and its ‘Clive Palmer = fat’ jokes, but it wasn’t exactly a satirical powerhouse either. Get laughs out of something awful a public figure said, like the time Myer boss Bernie Brooks said a levy to fund disability care would mean less people spent money shopping? Nah. Instead, The Roast sent one of their reporters around stealing money from people on behalf of the retail giant. Hilarious!

It was the kind of comedy that a bunch of privileged white guys who don’t really have any worries in the world do, rather than the sort of comedy that people who find 90% of what politicians say outrageous and awful do. And it came from the mind of Charles Firth, who’d done exactly the same thing a decade ago as part of The Chaser, a group we should mention in this article as the people who started a particular type of rot in Australia satire: satire that doesn’t really care about the issues.

The Chaser’s War on Everything, lest we forget, wasn’t really a satire show. It was a pranks show involving public figures. What exactly was the satirical point behind the APEC sketch, for example? ‘Ha ha the security’s a bit flawed?’ Turns it out it wasn’t, as the team got caught. Oh well. At least they satirised the hell out of cancer with that Make a Realistic Wish sketch.

But seriously, The Chaser’s War on Everything and various subsequent shows the team did ended-up being the kinds of comedies that politicians sort of embraced – and even voluntarily participated in. And that’s never a good look for a satire show. Satirical comedy should avoid interaction with actual politicians so it’s always free to give it to them when they deserve it. And that’s something The Chaser team have never understood. For them, it’s great because the politicians are on the show, joining in their silly japes. And it doesn’t matter to them that by having politicians on their shows, they’re making those politicians look like good sports, rather than doing their jobs as political comedians and calling politicians out when they deserve it.

It’s one of the many problems with The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, a show that’s become so feeble in its approach that it’s barely bothering to even be topical anymore. Pickering still occasionally fronts a piece about something bad happening in the world, but it’s something we mostly know about already because better outlets have already covered it better.

The Weekly is basically a magazine show that’s on late enough at night to include swearing. In topical satire terms, it just sort of hums along like a mild case of tinnitus. But, hey, at least you got that tinnitus by listening to good music and interesting podcasts. The Weekly as we pointed out recently, doesn’t even seem to get talked about anymore. It’s just there. Presumably because after Australian comedy’s experience making some of the above, it’s the best option there is. Hey, at least people are prepared to tune in for it. Who cares if it’s a bit crap?

Humming along like a mild case of tinnitus

And while this article has mainly looked at shows which were obviously, short-livedly awful, it’s the shows that plod on forever that are kind of the real problem. The shows that are safe, inoffensive and unoriginal, the shows that people are prepared to tune in for, but mainly so they can kill some time. Shows like The Weekly, that no one would miss if they didn’t exist, and that no one need ever have invented.

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