The end of Mad As Hell begs the question: is this the last we’ll see of sketch comedy on Australian television?
OK, it probably won’t be. There’s occasionally some sort of sketch show in the various new talent showcases and pilot weeks that periodically appear in the schedules. Except, they’re usually terrible and the pilot episode is all we ever see of them.
There have also been rumours of a new sketch show for Seven in 2023, but is that likely to last? Seven’s sketch show heyday was in the early 1990s when there was no internet, streaming or even Foxtel to provide alternatives to the five free-to-air channels. Consequently, audiences were more tolerant if a sketch show included a few dud sketches. These days? They’d have switched over to Netflix the second they stopped laughing. Assuming they’d switched over from Netflix in the first place…
And this is a pity, as it is sketch shows that have historically been a way into television for young comedians. Sketch shows are a place to try out ideas, develop characters and get the experience of making TV comedy that you need to get your own show. The creators of Have You Been Paying Attention?, Fisk and many more great shows all started out in sketch.
Shaun Micallef’s own career benefited from his time on Full Frontal in the early 90s. Until he joined the cast, Full Frontal was a lacklustre ensemble sketch show, trying to crawl out from the shadow of its popular and much-loved predecessor, Fast Forward. But when Micallef hit the screen in 1994, suddenly Full Frontal was worth watching.
The Australian National Nightly Network News sketches, featuring Micallef as former boxer Milo Kerrigan, Francis Greenslade as weatherman Phil Toinby, and another up-and-comer, Kitty Flanagan, as newsreader Narelle Parkinson, were a fan favourite. Viewed almost 30 years on, they seem like a pilot for Mad As Hell, with their surreal dialogue, oddball characters and digs at TV news presentation.
David McGann, another character featuring Micallef parodying TV presenters, also had his debut on Full Frontal.
McGann later appeared in The Micallef P(r)ogram(me).
There is no question the decades of experience Micallef, Francis Greenslade and writer Gary McCaffrie (another Full Frontal alumnus) brought to Mad As Hell were key to its decade-long run. Which is why we worry about the future of TV sketch comedy. Where, exactly, are tomorrow’s comedy teams supposed to get experience?
There are few opportunities to write and perform sketch on TV in 2022. Sammy J and Mark Humphries are basically solo acts, The Feed’s Jenna Owen and Vic Zerbst write and perform their own material, and The Weekly with Charlie Pickering focuses on comedy reportage rather than sketches.
YouTube and podcasting can occasionally propel people to fame and a decent income (Superwog, Aunty Donna) but it’s often a hard slog. Aunty Donna, who’ve been popular on YouTube for more than a decade, will finally get a series on ABC television next year. And the excellent podcast Newsfighters (which technically isn’t a sketch show but if turned into a TV show could easily fill the gap in the Wednesday night topical comedy slot) might not survive unless it can get enough Patreons and sponsors.
If TV sketch comedy is to survive, and we hope it will, broadcasters need to commit to and invest in it. And in the current environment, that takes guts. The last real attempt at this was Tonightly, a topical sketch show made by up-and-coming comedians, which, had it survived, would have been ideal to take over the Mad As Hell slot.
Unfortunately, it was axed. And even worse, it wasn’t replaced with anything. This means that it’s possible that the closest we’ll get to sketch comedy in 2023 is The Weekly with Charlie Pickering. No wonder #SadAsHell was trending.
P.S. We know that Micallef intends to bring back Mad As Hell, or a spin-off, or a 2.0 version, perhaps acting as a script editor or mentor. But it’s far from certain that this will happen, let alone work.
It’s hard to imagine the audience immediately accepting Mad As Hell without Shaun Micallef, for example. Or to imagine the ABC commissioning a new comedy show which isn’t fronted by an established star. So, unless it’s Wil Anderson’s Mad As Hell, or a sitcom featuring Donald McEngadine, we may have to accept that this is really all over.