The winners and losers of the Australian Tumbleweed Awards 2019

We started off last year’s Tumbleweed Awards like this:

Maybe things will get better next year

And people say we’re not funny.

Honestly, if you really want to depress the hell out of yourself – and of course you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this – go back and take a look at the intro to last year’s Tumblies. A thrilling combination of despair at how bad things had become shot through with the desperate hope that surely we’d hit rock bottom, it remains a living testament to just how foolish and optimistic we once were. And we’d just seen Sando.

There was much to applaud in the recent, perfectly above board and not at all suspicious decision by ABC comedy head honcho Rick Kalowski to quit his high profile gig running ABC scripted comedy to go do… something else… but one of the things that made it hard to clap as loudly as we’d have liked to at the news of his departure was the glowing tributes paid to his reign. Sure, you have to say nice things when someone in his position heads for the door, but Australian comedy’s been in a lot of trouble for a long time now and nobody in any position of power has much of anything to be proud of.

Everything that was shit in 2018 just kept on going in 2019 and then got worse. You thought the ABC giving Tom Gleeson two shows was bad? Let’s give him a Gold Logie as well! Remember how Squinters was shithouse at a level difficult to explain let alone justify? It’s back for a second season only without the big names! Mr Black was on twice a week! You think we’re exaggerating here? 2019 was the year Chris Lilley came back and couldn’t even stir up a decent controversy: Australian comedy is dead.

We’re getting so good at clutching at straws at Tumbleweeds HQ it took us almost a full minute to admit to ourselves that Rick Kalowski’s resignation would solve absolutely nothing. After all, gone are the days when the ABC’s scripted comedy department had any real say at all in what kind of scripted comedy the ABC put to air; these days unless you can get overseas funding for a show – and the nature of overseas funding is that getting it means you need to come up with a show for overseas audiences – the ABC’s doors are closed.

Why else would the ABC be committed to endless series of shows like The Letdown, which say ‘comedy’ on the tin but contain no actual humour? Rosehaven is a fully funded branch of the Tasmanian government; if someone told us Squinters was some kind of in-house training scheme for its producers at Jungle we wouldn’t be surprised. The ABC simply doesn’t have the money to have the final say in what shows get the green light; without money to back it up, it doesn’t matter what the ABC’s vision for Australian comedy is.

Of course, over the last few years, the ABC’s vision of comedy has been pathetic at best and depressing at worst. Tired series keep coming back like management is afraid they have no idea what the public wants; the rare new shows that pop up confirm their worst fears. What was the last scripted comedy series that made any kind of splash in the real world? The Katering Show? Oh yeah, the series Rick Kalowski knocked back that was only snapped up by the ABC after it became a hit online. It’s like we don’t even have to mention Wednesday Night Fever here.

And while in 2018 it seemed almost reasonable to suggest that maybe commercial television might step in and save the day for Australian comedy, 2019 once again turned up to punch us in the nose when we answered the door. Ten’s second stab at Pilot Week made a hard swerve away from scripted comedy, and after seeing Mr Black who could blame them? Saturday Night Rove at least managed to keep alive the tradition of Australian live comedy shows being axed as soon as possible, while if you’ve read this far and still somehow think ‘hey, things can’t be that bad’, the news that Fat Pizza was pretty much the highlight of the year in commercial comedy should set you straight.

At least How to Stay Married is due back later this year. Yeah, fuck this.


Worst Sketch or Short Form Comedy

Runner-up

Skit Box

19.61% of the total votes

While far from the worst web series of 2019, Skit Box wasn’t exactly great. It’s central problem? The makers aimed to get laughs from a plot in which terrible men gaslight, manipulate and otherwise exploit women in the workplace. Turns out, no matter what you do, men like that are far from hilarious. Even if Greg Larsen’s playing one of them.

Runner-up

Saturday Night Rove

41.18% of the total votes

Part of us thinks this show was too-harshly-judged by critics and viewers; it could have found its feet, it just needed more time! And anyway, we need a weekly comedy/variety show that can unite our divided nation ‘round the old telly box, like in the days of Hey! Hey!, and indeed Rove Live.

Problem is, the other part of us lives in the 21st Century, where if people watch TV at all it’s unlikely to be live. And we realise that this program was so ill-conceived that it was based on late-1990s/early 2000s notions of what people want to watch, rather than what people these days actually do.

Also, it wasn’t what it needed to be in week one to be worthy of remaining on-air beyond week two: out-of-the-box hilarious. Which meant that when it also wasn’t out-of-the-box hilarious in week two, it swiftly got the chop. Axing it so quickly seems harsh, but it was probably for the best.

Winner

The Weekly/The Yearly with Charlie Pickering

56.86% of the total votes

The only bit of The Weekly that you can guarantee will be worth watching is Judith Lucy’s segment, a segment which makes up about one-sixth of the show. And this isn’t even Judith Lucy’s best TV work.

What the voters said about The Weekly/The Yearly with Charlie Pickering

Charlie Pickering is awful, as is Tom Gleeson.

Death, taxes and voting for The Weekly as the year’s worst sketch or short form comedy.

I can barely (and rarely) bring myself to watch it. Getting Judith in was an inspired move, but still…meh.


Worst Sitcom, Dramedy or Narrative Comedy

Runner-up

Lunatics

25.33% of the total votes

Chris Lilley’s triumphant return to our screens – well, not ‘our’ screens, as this was a Netflix series and therefore largely ignored by both the local and international press because, well, have you seen how much stuff there is on Netflix these days? That place is worse than that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when it comes to actually finding anything and… wait, where were we? A Chris Lilley series in 2019? Nah, that can’t be right.

Runner-up

Mr Black

25.33% of the total votes

Coming from a proud lineage of sitcoms with exactly the same premise – but more importantly, when it comes to overseas sales, different names – Mr Black should have at least been halfway competent. And yet, here we are. It’s nit-picking to say that Stephen Curry was too young to play a grumpy dad out of touch with society, or that the series’ focus on the newspaper industry was strangely retro, or that this was yet another series written by Adam Zwar where the female lead seemed oddly fine with playing her boyfriend off against a love rival. But as the show was rarely funny, nit-picking is all we have left.

Winner

Squinters

34.04% of the total votes

You know there’s something seriously wrong with the system when there’s a second series of Squinters. Putting aside the question of quality – the producers certainly did – this was a one-joke show initially based largely around the appeal of a number of big names who (surprise!) didn’t return for the second series, in at least one case because their character died. Somebody should have realised there are only so many laughs you can get out of having two people sitting in a car stuck in traffic (the answer is none – there are no jokes); somebody should have said ‘if all we’ve got are two people talking, can we at least get in a couple of comedy double acts who know how to make this kind of banter work?’. We know nobody cares about comedy at the ABC, but having this return was an embarrassment.

What the voters said about Squinters

How many more effing shows do we really need where people sit in cars trying to be funny?

Squinters is just not a very good show. There are lots of elements there which suggest it could be good. But it’s the longest half hour of comedy on Australian television.

Can Australia please stop labelling quirky dramas as ‘comedy’?!! Or putting bad scripts in cars?! Comedy requires this thing we like to call… laughter.


Worst Topical or Satirical Comedy

Runner-up

Sammy J

20.45% of the total votes

Sammy J’s elevation to the ABC’s weekly satire slot following the death of John Clarke was on the back of his Playground Politics series during the 2016 federal election campaign. It was a good series and hiring him seemed like the right move, but several years in, we’re starting to see J’s limitations as a satirist. Basically, he just can’t write a good five minutes once a week – and is increasingly reliant on a small stable of characters and concepts whose few seams of comedy gold he’s already mined. To say his performance is disappointing seems an understatement, on the one hand. But then we remembered what else was served up to us in 2019 as ‘topical or satirical content’ and we realise the man’s a genius!

Runner-up

Saturday Night Rove

29.55% of the total votes

Saturday Night Rove’s idea of topical content was allowing former Prime Minister – and always-and-forever narcissist – Kevin Rudd to come on and play handball. The show was axed the following working day.

Winner

The Weekly/The Yearly with Charlie Pickering

65.91% of the total votes

We’ll say this for The Weekly: after five years it’s still every bit as good as it was on day one. Which is quite an achievement when you think about it, because most shows that start off bad either improve or get even worse, and The Weekly hasn’t. It’s just trundled on doing what it does so very well. Congratulations, guys. No really, congratulations.

What the voters said about The Weekly/The Yearly with Charlie Pickering

Not only can’t I recall anything Pickering said about current events during the previous year, I feel like I remember less of what happened in 2019 thanks to Pickering’s coverage. The man is a black hole of topicality!

Pickering manages surprising consistency in being a poor host, comedian and interviewer. The show’s already named after him, but he still can’t let anyone else have more attention or look better than him. Destroys what little good humour is buried in there week to week.

Charlie Pickering has not improved in five years. Time to move on mate. Fuck.


Worst Panel/Game/Interview/Light Entertainment/Stand-up Show

Runner-up

Hard Quiz/Celebrity Hard Quiz

31.11% of the total votes

The most depressing thing about Hard Quiz (and it’s not a short list) is that it’s exactly the same as the half dozen ABC quiz shows before it that ‘failed’, only this one was aired in a safe prime time slot and was kept there for long enough that it’s now considered a ‘success’ despite being – as we just said – pretty much identical to the failures before it. Someone at the ABC decided Paul McDermott was out and Tom Gleeson was in: any chance of getting a third option?

Runner-up

Gruen

44.44% of the total votes

Remember that brief period when Will Anderson was trying his luck in the USA and it looked like Gruen was going to quietly fade away? Just imagine all the eager young producers with exciting new ideas eagerly waiting for the official confirmation that Gruen was finished before hitting up the ABC with their exciting new pitches for shows that would blatantly pander to some other powerful industry full of wankers getting rich off treating people like idiots. Oh well.

Winner

Hughsey, We Have A Problem

48.89% of the total votes

Hughsey has put his days as a live wire rage case behind him, and this is the result; reading out limp audience questions while a bunch of local laff-getters of varying quality jostle to come up with answers that will make the promo. You’d think this show was a consolation prize for comedians who can’t make it onto Have You Been Paying Attention?, but a lot of them have – and they were a lot better there than they were on this.

What the voters said about Hughsey, We Have A Problem

Australian comedy is so bad right now that any improvised-spontaneous-think on your feet-show is infinitely funnier than anything scripted.

This has a problem: it was shithouse!

Hughesy’s voice alone… Jesus…


Worst Film

Runner-up

Little Monsters

27.27% of the total votes

Oh look, it’s a comedy about zombies! Must have been at least twenty minutes since we last saw one of those. At least this one had a decent selling point (and lead performance) with its story of a primary school teacher trying to protect her students from the horrors of a zombie outbreak; why the film had to take a third of its run time messing around with yet another boring Aussie yob before getting to that remains a mystery.

Runner-up

The Naked Wanderer

27.27% of the total votes

Hey, John Cleese was in this one! That’s a definite step up from that rom-com that brought Eddie Izzard out to Adelaide. Plus it also features comedy nudity, which is as good a basis for an Aussie comedy film as any.

Winner

Palm Beach

63.64% of the total votes

A bunch of rich old people sit around a million-dollar beachfront mansion wondering where it all went wrong. Hilarity ensues, though only if you stop to think why the producers thought anyone would find this funny. Of course, considering this was in large part funded by a tourism body – as are most Australian cinematic comedies these days – the joke is really on anyone who thought the producers gave a shit about comedy in the first place. Can’t wait for the remake of The Castle set at Noosa!

What the voters said about Palm Beach

Didn’t see any of them.

When was the last time you physically paid money to go see an Aussie movie? When was the last time you couldn’t wait to see an Aussie movie in anticipation? When was the last time you truly enjoyed an Aussie movie because it was good not because you forced yourself out of patriotism? When was the last time you cheered on an Aussie movie at the Oscars?…The state of cinema in Australia is well and truly dead. RIP.

Please stop making films like Palm Beach. NOBODY wants to see it.


Worst Pilot

Runner-up

KGB

26.92% of the total voters

This oddly paced slapstick caper about indigenous cops in Perth seems unlikely to progress beyond this pilot series, which is probably for the best. It’s not that slapstick capers are inherently bad, more that this was a bad slapstick caper. So bad, in fact, that it made Paul Fenech look like Buster Keaton in comparison.

Runner-up

Halal Gurls

34.62% of the total votes

Like Skit Box much of the failure of the comedy here was down to the well-observed scenes about white male privilege in the workplace not being particularly funny. As for the rest of the show, it was basically a soap opera about Muslim families in Australia. Perhaps an actual soap opera about Muslim families in Australia would have made for a better series?

Winner

Carpark Clubbing

38.46% of the total votes

The central idea of making a sort of Sex and the City but with diverse, penniless women in Western Sydney, is a perfectly decent one but… plot… laughs… there was none of that in this series. It wasn’t even a character piece, just some women talking. Makes you wonder who greenlights this stuff, because even a show tucked away up the back of iView should have achieved a level of competence that this show can only dream of.

What the voters said about Carpark Clubbing

Some women in a car do…some things. You kinda need more than that.

Pretty crappy-looking future on all fronts, eh?

The upside to these pilots is that they are so bad that you genuinely believe that even you and your mates can get together and do a better job….and probably will!


Best New Comedy

Runner-up

Riot Act

13.16% of the total votes

The surprise hit of 2019, Riot Act took the topic of right-wing talkback radio and turned it into a solidly funny and well-made audio sitcom. Sure, you’ll need to sign-up to Audible to hear it, but it’s worth it.

Runner-up

Glennridge Secondary College

31.58% of the total votes

If you haven’t taken a look at Aunty Donna’s latest series of sketches, set in a typical suburban secondary school, then you’re a fool to yourself. Violence, wordplay, extras trying not to piss themselves – it’s all there and it’s all hilarious!

Winner

Frayed

42.11% of the total votes

Has Australia ever produced a decent dramedy? It has now. Frayed was a simply outstanding series, looking at growing up, coming home, a clash of cultures, getting revenge and facing reality, amongst other things. With a great cast and a script that had been honed to perfection, this should get a second series.

What the voters said about Frayed

It just kept on getting better.

The best Australian dramedy since…ever.

A show that kept on getting better.


Best Comedy

Runner-up

Get Krack!n

36.73% of the total votes

Get Krack!n may have been a bit rougher in its second and final season, but that was kind of the point: an increasingly strident comedy howl at the way western civilisation doesn’t even pretend to give a shit these days, its bluntness was a feature, not a flaw. It increasingly seems like a fluke that Australia produced anything as ruthless and relentless as this; don’t hold your breath waiting for anyone to follow in its footsteps any time soon.

Runner-up

Have You Been Paying Attention?

36.73% of the total votes

The kind of institution that you think will run forever until one cog comes loose and the whole thing falls apart, Have You Been Paying Attention? remains a show that seems simplicity itself until a (rare) dud guest or wobbly segment highlights just how skilled everyone involved really is. Consistently funny, always entertaining and the only comedy show on commercial television that doesn’t feel like a programming error, it’s a national treasure.

Winner

Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell

69.39% of the total votes

It’s telling that the top three comedies of 2019 all rely on rock-solid writing; much as producers like to think a bunch of people piss-farting about will come close enough to entertainment to suck in an audience that’s probably not even paying attention, comedy is a craft that requires skill at every level to work. And so Mad As Hell is consistently Australia’s only world-class comedy program, a show that reflects on and takes part in the national conversation in a way that its rivals can only dream of. Funny in an increasingly old-fashioned way – it tells jokes rather than shouts at people – and with a cast that brilliantly brings to life an ever-expanding collection of oddballs and creeps who perfectly mirror the people who strut Australia’s increasingly wobbly public stage, it is, to quote a classic of Australian criticism, ‘rooly good’.

What the voters said about Mad As Hell

Actual laughs.

What else needs to be said? Shaun Micallef / Tony Martin. More of everything they do please. Oh, and maybe the ABC can pull their finger out and commission the Mouse Patrol sketch series these two (and Gary Mccaffrie + Michael Ward) cooked up in the early 2000’s. It would be nice to see some competent sketch comedy back on television.

The gold standard Australian comedy.


What did you think of Australian comedy in 2019?

By and large, it stunk. Meaning that 2019 was a typical year in Australian comedy.

Predictable, recycled, little innovation.

Utter shite. Mad As Hell is literally the only thing remotely funny. Is Shaun Micallef really the only funny person in the country?

There was a lot to like this year…that’s probably the first time I’ve felt like this in years. Riot Act was a very nice surprise to round out the year. Tony Martin showed that he can still produce comedy that zigs when everyone else is zagging (although it would be good if somebody paid him to make this sort of stuff). Get Krack!n may have had a few faults this year, but its good outshone its bad. Glennridge Secondary College was, at times, divine. And Shaun Micallef was…Shaun Micallef. For better or worse, a lot of this year’s best comedy was released via non-traditional media, not funded by the ABC. I don’t know what that says about the future of comedy. Maybe in spite of the Federal Government’s funding cuts to the ABC and the arts, the best comedy-makers will find a way to get the best comedy to Australians. Maybe the internet has actually democratised comedy in Australia. Maybe everything’s going to be alright? Probably not.

Underfunded, unappreciated and mostly unremarkable.

I was a bit concerned that the Sharon Strzelecki UberEats ad compromised the integrity of the Kath & Kim Extended Universe.

Australian comedy is the great ‘what could have been’. So much talent, so many great ideas, so much wasted. Why do we call quirky and weird dramas, ‘comedy’? Why do we have a publicly funded “comedy” channel that is filled with foreign shows? Let’s hope 2020 brings comedy with laughs.

The funniest thing I read all year was the press release announcing Rick Kalowski’s resignation where they said ‘Rick has a lot to be proud of’.

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