The Future of Comedy isn’t Fisk

Okay, so to get the obvious out of the way: Fisk is the best sitcom the ABC has served up in years, and if it’s not a bonafide comedy classic it’s very close to being one. The cast is great, its sense of humour is spot-on, the whole thing is nicely paced and there’s even a warm fuzzy moment at the end when Fisk finally gets the hang of dealing with clients. Our reputation as haterz has faded (a little) over the years, but even so it’s a rare pleasure to have a series come along that we can point to and say “more of this, please”.

That said, it’s not without flaws. Kitty Flanagan has been funny on our screens for over 20 years now, almost always as a brash, straight-talking, slightly larger-than-life type. As Helen Tudor-Fisk, she is not that. As the series spells out, she is not a “people person”. Nor is she big on fashion, dealing with loud noises in cafes, or facial expressions beyond looking slightly puzzled at having to operate in the human world. She’s still funny – at times very much so – but for a sitcom that in many ways is kinda old-fashioned she isn’t the big brash comedy character you might have expected.

But even we can tell that’s in part because she’s set up to be the voice of reason in a workplace full of nutjobs (and with more coming in the door as clients). Again, this doesn’t so much subvert expectations as put an entertaining spin on them. Julia Zemiro’s office manager is set up to be a straight-laced comedy foil, but she’s the one who happily sits for Glenn Robbins’ penis painter (as in, he paints with his penis). And this is a show featuring Glenn Robbins as a man who paints with his penis, so it’s not like it isn’t going for big laughs.

That’s what’s so – we were going to say “refreshing”, but “good” is probably more accurate – about Fisk: it’s always going for laughs and it never apologises for it. Every scene either has jokes or is setting up jokes (and then has jokes); everything around the jokes is either there to make the jokes funnier or is trying hard not to distract from the jokes. At a time when it seems like every single ABC sitcom is required by law to constantly undercut the comedy with “dramatic” scenes or “arty” camerwork or “tasty” shots of food, watching a comedy that’s just “hey, let’s have a laugh” is a blessed relief.

So if this is so good, why doesn’t the ABC make more sitcoms like it? At a guess, we’d say in part this exists because the ABC wants a return on those years of investment in promoting the team at The Weekly. They made Flanagan an ABC personality and if she wants to do her own show it’s a decent way to (hopefully) recoup some of that PR spend. If you or I turned up at the ABC’s front door with an equally funny script but no ABC personality attached, we’re not getting through that door.

(this is also another reason to think less of Tom Gleeson: given an opportunity to move on from The Weekly and pitch whatever he liked, he chose a game show)

To get a comedy as retro as this up in 2021 you almost certainly do need friends in high places, because comedy doesn’t work if you’re not paying attention and today’s networks aren’t interested in shows you have to actually watch. Hang on, let’s explain this properly:

Back in Ye Olden Days, the whole idea of television was to get you to pay maximum attention to it. That was how they made money: they grabbed your attention, then sold it to advertisers. And comedy was perfect for this, because the more attention you pay to comedy, it better it is (you know, unless it’s crap).

But now, all that’s changed. Networks – by which we mean streaming services, who set the tone for everyone else (especially as everyone moves online) – don’t make their money by selling ad space: they make it by selling themselves as a service. So what they need is big flashy attention-grabbing shows to get you to sign up, and then once you’ve signed up they have to be as mild and unobtrusive as possible so you won’t think “why am I paying for this shite?” when it’s on in the background.

Comedy, as you might have guessed, is no longer optimised for this environment. For one thing, you have to pay attention to it for it to work; a joke half-heard is a joke that won’t get laughs. For another, while a crap drama still seems like a drama, a crap comedy isn’t funny and people aren’t keen on paying for duds.

With the stakes now higher – in the old days you might change the channel to avoid a bad comedy, but you’d be back because the channel wasn’t going anywhere; if a show is so shit you cancel the service, it’s going to take a lot to get you back – comedy has become a bad bet.

Fisk is very funny stuff, but for a casual viewer it’s mostly just a woman in a drab outfit sitting behind a desk. And with everyone surrounded by screens these days, we’re all casual viewers. So the moral of this story is: watch Fisk, and tell your friends to do likewise. Not just because it’s funny (again: it is) but because it’d be great to see more shows like it.

After all, what’s the alternative in a world where Tom Gleeson’s hosting a game show and Charlie Pickering’s back later this year with his Hypotheticals knock-off – Corona Cops the series?

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