Ratings have begun for 2020 and the ABC has decided to lure viewers away from the horrors of a Australian summer with a big Wednesday night of comedy. But how big is ABC comedy in 2020?
It can’t be that big, because Hard Quiz is back, and it’s still just a solidly competent time-waster for fans of mildly engaging facts. Even the days of a nasty mis-match between Tom Gleeson being smarmy and contestants looking like they were about to cry is over now that the ABC casting department got the memo about only letting on flashy-dressing nerds. Logies all around?
The traditional defense when it comes to wondering exactly why a quiz show needs to be hosted by a smug insult comedian is “it’s just an act”. Trouble is, it’s just not a good one. There’s no levels to what Gleeson does beyond “making fun of people is funny”, which is a pretty dubious proposition even if these days the show is doing a better job of finding contestants who both deserve it and can give it back. After all, all that really means is now it’s a show where smug types insult each other. How is that an improvement?
Onto Mad as Hell, and hey, why not flip the script and start off the season with a musical number? Otherwise it’s business as usual – extremely usual in fact, with no new characters or segments to be seen. Maybe Shaun shaving off the beard was seen as already enough of a shock?
It’s traditional for a returning Mad as Hell to take a “steady as she goes” approach to the first episode of the year, but even so this felt like there hadn’t been any break at all since 2019. Which is… interesting? These days Mad as Hell occupies a slightly unusual position somewhere between those older satire shows that had relatively short runs and were often pretty free-wheeling as far as format went (The Gillies Report), and the more traditional model where the format remains largely the same and the change is the news that’s being mocked (The Weekly). The best of both worlds? Sure, why not.
Of course, Mad as Hell doesn’t really need to shake up the format: it’s an extremely well-polished machine for sinking the boot into the government of the day, and with the current lot it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be any shortage of material. It’s nice to see that the level of political thought on display extends beyond the usual “urggh, politicians are greedy and stupid” too: pointing out things like the Coalition currently feel no need whatsoever to actually answer questions, and that Andrew Forrest’s $70 Million bushfire donation was largely to himself for tax reasons are the kind of self-evident truths that the mainstream media seem strangely reluctant to point out.
So yeah, it’s still the best comedy on Australian television, and would be even if the bar was a lot higher.
Black Comedy has been the last vestige of traditional sketch comedy on the ABC for four seasons now. Reportedly this is the final season; it’s been a pretty good run, especially as the show’s flaws have remained remarkably consistent over the years.
As you’d expect from a sketch show, it’s hit and miss – a basement zombie training sketch doesn’t go anywhere, while a sinister all-white Indigenous Support Center is both funny and on point (tho to be honest, any time you have someone saying “it’s all a lie!” and a smash zoom to a skeleton wearing clothes it’s a winner here). The cast remains the show’s strongest point; there’s nobody on here that can’t get laughs in the right sketch.
But a sketch on whether it’s okay to wear an flag t-shirt if you’re not black but are hot underlines Black Comedy‘s biggest problem: there’s plenty of strong concepts here but not all of them are developed into actual sketches. It was literally just three people sitting on couches talking*; why not set it in an actual pub and have someone coming back from the bar with drinks?
(Money. The answer to those kind of questions is always money)
It’s not a matter of punchlines – the running sketch about the Indigenous Support Center didn’t have a great punchline, but it earned the extra time with a couple of okay twists – but too often the sketch is just a funny concept that’s not developed comedically beyond the initial idea. Sometimes it still works (ie: “What if the Tooth Fairy wanted to borrow some money”); too often it doesn’t.
That said, the party sketch with the mate who’s just a little too right-on had the best punchline of the night when a white guy ran in and said “You aren’t going to believe this – Chris Lilley just showed up!” followed by the Black guys saying. “Lets get out of here”.
Just end every single sketch exactly like that and it’ll be two thumbs up from us every week.
*it did feel a little like it was possibly a set-up for a running sketch about student types lounging around discussing the big issues, which wouldn’t really make much difference to our point