It’s News But Not As We Know It

Have You Been Paying Attention? is back for 2022 and it’s like it never went away. Well, apart from all the panelists seemingly having gotten engaged or had children over the break; guess all those lockdowns last year had an effect after all.

With the election campaign dragging itself into the final week, in its first episode back HYBPA? cast a rare glance towards politics to make a few quick gags early on before moving onto more traditional territory; jokes about Tom Gleisner’s age, Ed Kavalee’s startlingly ripped torso, Kitty Flanagan’s campervan, and Aaron Chen’s rich history of watching two musicals.

Later on we got the trainwreck that was “Candidate or Cartoon” (trust us, you had to be there), which further underlined the show’s stance on politics: the candidates might be funny in and of themselves, but as far as their actual politics goes… hey, does anyone remember Amy Wong, supporting character from Futurama? Because we’re going to be talking about her a lot more than we are about policy.

The real political coverage coming out of Working Dog this week was on The Cheap Seats, largely because the news clip format means they’re tied to the week’s news coverage. But there’s also more of a sense with The Cheap Seats that – despite a lot of jokes that are a product of the HYBPA? writers room – we’re watching a more specific take on the week.

They’re the hosts and the faces of the show, and yet it’s still easy to overlook the contribution Melanie Bracewell and Tim McDonald make to The Cheap Seats. They take a show that’s 80% clips and (decent) scripted gags and turn it into something that feels as freewheeling and lively as, well, HYBPA?

But it took that show years and a bit of tinkering to silence the “it feels too scripted” critics; meanwhile the glee and disbelief with which Mel & Tim introduce their new segment “Crime Time” turns what is basically yet more news clips of shabby types and ram raiding sheep into the kind of silly fun the ABC would kill for if they still made comedy panel shows.

This also means The Cheap Seats has a personality – or just a point of view – in a way that HYBPA? doesn’t quite manage. HYBPA? does have a bunch of running gags, mostly revolving around Tom (the sniping between Sam and Tom, references to Tom’s age, Tom turning up in the promo shots for the car sponsor), but that’s comedy character stuff; push Gleisner under a bus and Glenn Robbins could slide right in.

When HYBPA? touches on politics (or anything else), it does so lightly, briefly, and in as generic a fashion as possible. Ed Kavalee making an Engadine Maccas reference is almost startling; it’s a show that gets its laughs by focusing on laughs over everything else – and if there’s something that might stop some viewers from laughing, like a strong political opinion, it’s not going to make it to a second joke.

It’s clearly an approach that works, but it has its limits. When Melanie Bracewell says “I’m going to die if I hear that again” after they play that “There’s a hole in your budget, dear Labor dear Labor” jingle, it’s both a personal opinion and the kind of thing that endears you to an audience that – at a guess – is made up of around 80% people who are also absolutely sick of that jingle. Can’t wait for Gruen to tell us it’s marketing genius!*

HYBPA? works because it has a solid format, the jokes are much more hit than miss, and the guests (and host) make it just shambolic enough to feel like the comedy is flowing naturally. The Cheap Seats has a lot of the same core DNA and loose style, but the hosts give it an individual spin – by using that looseness to come across as individuals.

… actually, make that, likable, funny individuals; we wouldn’t want to get them confused with 90% of the hosts on Australian television.

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*this prediction went on to come true, surprising pretty much no-one – “I do think the Liberal Party has some of the best negatives I’ve ever seen” was one somewhat memorable quote from the Gruen panel, though presumably they only meant in an advertising sense

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