If you’ve ever stumbled into a cinema only to realise that not only is there a film festival going on but it’s a (gasp) short film festival, then you know just how much hard work goes into making a sketch comedy series. That’s because every short film festival has at least one and usually half a dozen or so short films where a halfway decent sketch idea is dragged out well beyond its natural run time to create “a short film”. Ever wanted to see one 15 second joke turned into a seven minute film? Now you know where to go.
Or you could just watch Cancelled!, the latest attempt by SBS’s The Feed to throw satire fans a bone. A half hour (well, 23 minute) special looking at a bunch of fictional scandals over the years and hosted by the Ghost of Baby John Burgess – guess Ray Martin was asking too much for ironic hosting after last year’s work on At Home Alone Together – it features pretty much everyone you’d expect in front of the camera. Andrew Denton is back! But why?
The first segment is padded out with the usual observations about old television – they’re sexist, they’re smoking, it’s old and overly formal – which… shit, yeah, people did used to smoke, guess they’ve got us there.
Otherwise it features one (1) joke, which for the first five minutes of a sketch show is a pretty low strike rate especially when the joke involves Harold Holt. It’s not a bad joke, but you know how on social media whenever news breaks there’s a wave of people rushing to make every possible joke about it? Imagine that going on for forty years and you’ve got Harold Holt.
The other three “scandals” lift proceedings slightly, though they’re all structured in pretty much the same way: a lengthy introduction to set the scene, then a shock reveal of why they were cancelled (which is THE JOKE). Each sketch largely just peters out after that, leaving the point of it all something of a mystery. Do they even still make these “celebrities talk about the past to pad out a clip show” programs any more? Armando Iannucci’s Time Trumpet was taking the piss out of this stuff fifteen years ago, which is roughly a millennia in comedy terms.
Still, the ABC does make the occasional local talking heads doco so presumably people under thirty have some idea of how this format is meant to work (only joking – as if people under thirty watch the ABC). And it’s hardly like this is devoid of laughs either; when it gets around to juxtaposing the seriousness of the format with the silliness of what’s being discussed this works pretty well. It just doesn’t do it often enough.
It’s not that comedy always has to have a point, but this particular comedy could have done with another couple of drafts to figure out exactly why it was being made. If they just wanted to be funny, great – be funny! Because a lot of this feels more like a handful of jokes around a bunch of points they grabbed off social media. Corporations will unthinkingly co-op diversity issues for marketing purposes? Sexist white guy music was in style then went out of style? You don’t say.
Segment three is about a novel so successful yet so violent people were calling for it to be banned – which it then was, for a reason you can almost certainly guess. While the back half of the sketch is throwaway gags as usual, this time they’re the best part because they’re actually jokes about something. They present a situation (“can we separate the art from the artist”) that, while not exactly original comedy-wise, does at least put a comedy spin on actual discussions people are having today; the first half is just dull premise-establishing stuff that could have been handled in a couple of lines.
(also, “what if people wanted to ban American Psycho because it was violent and then it turned out they actually had a good point?” is kinda close to “hey, maybe banning things is good”, which is probably(?) not what they wanted to say with this sketch)
The whole thing wraps up with a segment on Australia’s most offensive band TLDR, who turn out to be a couple of dudes (played by women to defuse any potential confusion about where the sketch’s politics lie) singing crude songs about sex. Did Chris Lilley do it better? No, because Chris Lilley did nothing better.
That said, if you’re going to have a parody of an offensive song, maybe listen to some actual offensive songs because a song where the lyrics are just “ass ass ass ass” is a children’s television jingle by today’s standards. Music today is a nightmarish hellscape of pornographic excess that’s all but impossible to parody (also, catchy tunes) that makes the likes of 3OH!3 seem like… damn, we already used the children’s television jingle comparison.
Time and again the parodies here are close but no donut. They’re good enough to suggest the thing they’re parodying, but not good enough to get laughs of recognition – there’s nothing going on with the TLDR videos to make you think, for example, “yeah, what exactly was the deal with the guy with the cardboard box on his head in the LMFAO videos?”
This feels a lot like the kind of project put together by a bunch of skilled comedy professionals who came up with an angle the commissioning board thought was topical. Which is great when you’re dealing with actual funny people and not just skilled comedy professionals, because what this really needed was someone with an actual comedic point of view at the helm to make the whole thing feel like it had a reason for existing beyond “being cancelled is topical and hey look, Andrew Denton”.
Then again, good luck making comedy about the concept of being cancelled because the whole thing is super-politicised and the only people who think we shouldn’t have some kind of standards in the media are literal Nazis. It’s comedy gold!