Tears for Years

Okay so 2020 was a crap year… for comedy (let us know exactly how crap in the Australian Tumbleweeds Awards 2020 – voting is now open!), and in a surprise to just about no-one, The Yearly kept that trend going.

Usually we like to faff around a bit before cutting to the chase, but honestly: if you ever wondered just how much comedy you can get out of “ha ha we didn’t realise how bad it was going to get” jokes, then watching The Yearly will have you thinking exactly that, only without the “ha ha”.

We feel your pain, Judith

Of course, The Yearly‘s job isn’t to be funny: it’s all about providing viewers with a chance to remember things they’ve already seen, like Charlie Pickering’s face. But you know, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wearing masks, TikTok clips, invisible Opposition Leaders, Dave Hughes pulling faces while talking about sport; surely there’s still some laughs left in there somewhere, right?

Unfortunately this overriding mission – it’s 58 minutes of hey guys, remember when this happened? – doesn’t really leave a whole lot of scope for jokes beyond “well, guess we were wrong about that”, “what was the deal with that?” and “yeah, we remember that”, none of which are all that funny after the fourth or fifth time. At least Luke McGregor explaining the budget contained actual information.

Seriously, this was a show looking back at 2020 that had a segment on how scary 2020 was that just… made the same points but in a spooky voice? We never thought we’d miss Tom Gleeson – and we don’t – but at least he had an established comedy character the show could use to put a new-ish spin on the same old jokes. Without him, all this offered was generic gags on “remember when” stories interspersed with sketches that might possibly have been funny if they hadn’t relied on the non-existent comedy stylings of one Charlie Pickering.

But of course, some things in 2020 just weren’t funny. When it came time for the Black Lives Matter protests, out came the sad music and the thoughtful coverage… while in no way examining any of the underlying issues, which was a bit of a problem as over on SBS 2020: The Last Year of Television was doing the exact same thing right down to the serious music, but actually making some real points about how the overwhelming whiteness of Australian television is part of the problem. Anyone see Briggs on The Yearly? Us neither.

As end of year clip shows go, probably the best thing we can say about The Yearly is that the Corona Cops segment only went three minutes. Actually, no: the best thing we can say about The Yearly is that, even more than a regular episode of The Weekly, it really smacked viewers in the face with exactly why Pickering’s “comedy” work on the ABC is so consistently shit.

2020 was a garbage year full of truly awful events; it’s tough material for a comedy show to tackle, especially a topical one like The Weekly. If you’re good at comedy, you find a way to engage with the world while still getting laughs – Mad as Hell, for example, found a strong balance between genuine outrage and silly surrealism. But the theme running throughout The Yearly was basically “all this would really suck… if we gave a shit, ha ha”.

Usually when we hate on the Corona Cops segment, it’s because it’s astoundingly unfunny found-footage bullshit. But here’s another reason: eight hundred people died in Victoria because of coronavirus: public health measures – enforced by police – were a sizable part of what got that outbreak under control. That’s not to say you can’t laugh at them, but making silly, dismissive jokes misses the point of what’s actually going on in at least some of the footage being used.

People who give a shit about the society around them can find a comedic take on that kind of situation (are police really the best people to be on the front lines of a public health emergency adversely affecting migrant and marginal communities?); people who don’t give a shit take footage of cops walking around and dub over it with limp jokes about how their police horse has coronavirus and “can we hide in your place? The virus is out of control!” Because ha ha cops telling people to wear masks is hilarious oh wait 800 dead.

The Yearly is made by people who don’t seem to know how to make the news funny, because to them the news is something that happens to other people. In 2020, that simply wasn’t the case; it was a big hurdle to leap, they smacked right into it, and having Pickering end the show by praising our leaders – that’s right, all of them – for focusing on the nation’s health over the economy while The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ played quietly underneath was stomach-turning. As more than one person said in 2020, get this shit off.

*

Charlie Brooker didn’t invent the bitchy clip show, but he did do a pretty decent job of locking down the format in such a way that now anyone can do it. This isn’t a bad thing: television needs as many sure-fire formats as it can get. So while Mitch McTaggart’s SBS special 2020: The Last Year of Television didn’t bring anything remotely new format-wise to the field of snarky year-in-review programs, it didn’t have to. The content was the point, and when the content is Australian television the laughs (at it) just keep on coming.

Keeping the focus on television gave it a major advantage over the more wide-ranging approach of The Yearly, in that most people don’t willingly watch Australian television. This meant that it was actually new information that, say, The Gloaming was crap or that Home & Away cut out a couple of mild gay kisses in Australia but left them in for the NZ version or that the recent Halifax F.P reboot just swapped out one minor police character for another mid-series without explaining why. Seems the promos on commercial television are totally insane: who knew?

This lazer-like focus on television for the full (SBS-with-ads) hour also had one big drawback: the whole thing got a bit samey after a while. Segment-for-segment, it was easily better than The Yearly, where even Judith Lucy’s take on television felt a little unfocused and an extended toilet paper sketch had us looking back fondly on the toilet paper jokes on Housos vs Virus.

But at least The Yearly kept mixing things up, presenting what was often pretty much the same material as Television (Pete Evans is a nutjob; who knew?) in a variety of ways. Television was the better show, but it just had one rock-solid approach to everything; to be fair, when you’re pointing out how morning shows are massively racist and Australian drama uses rape as a story device, you’re bound to get a bit repetitive.

(bonus points for taking aim at the ABC’s possibly meant to be comedic Operation Buffalo: that series was nuts, and not in a good way. Also, what’s the deal with Australian drama and snipers?)

Fortunately, while pointing out that Australian TV is crap is a cheap shot, it’s a cheap shot that always works; just ask this blog. And it wasn’t entirely a haters parade: Bluey pretty much stood alone in getting the thumbs up, which honestly seems about right for Australian television in 2020.

But when McTaggart did decide to sink the boots in, he went about it the way it should be done: he knew what he was talking about, he chose his targets well, and there was just enough passion behind the hating to make it clear that, on some level at least, this was a show made by people who actually gave a shit about the kind of country that puts racist, simplistic, pandering shows like A Current Affair and Sunrise to air day after day.

Also that A Country Practice clip featuring attempted cow murder was a classic.

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