Celebrities Answering Questions With Words

It’s been a while since the glory days of SBS comedy, when Pizza was a legitimate cult hit and Swift & Shift Couriers… wasn’t. But they haven’t given up on local comedy entirely – just the scripted stuff – and oh look, it’s a third series of Celebrity Letters and Numbers Australia. We were going to say “a much anticipated third series”, but it’s as big a surprise to us as it is you that it’s back.

Still, just because it snuck up on us doesn’t mean it’s bad (that’d be Wog Boys Forever, in cinemas this week). Pitched as “the show that’s just like Lego Masters, only without the lucrative merchandising opportunities” by energetic host Michael Hing, and with zero stakes and gag prizes, we are firmly on traditional comedy quiz ground right from the start. Only it’s on SBS! Which means we get fresh faces like… Dave Thornton, Alex Lee, Luke McGregor and Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall. Are we sure this isn’t on the ABC?

It’s always a bit of a worry when a comedy quiz starts out with a lot of banter. Yes, it’s a good way to get in a few laughs that the format otherwise wouldn’t allow, but c’mon. Banter is the lowest form of entertainment; chit-chat is available literally everywhere. If your format requires you to pissfart around for five minutes or so before the show really starts, maybe it’s a bad format?

To be fair, it usually works when it’s 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, which is a hit in the UK (and SBS has clearly been doing well enough showing the UK version to create a local spin-off). The thing to note here is that the UK has so many of these shows airing so often, they have a decent body of comedians who’re skilled in making these quiz shows work. Which is largely why they… well, work.

Do you see Sean Lock (RIP) on this panel? Neither do we.

In Australia comedians have to be generalists. We don’t have that many panel shows (and yet somehow it’s still too many) and not all that many comedians either. So we see the same faces again and again behind slightly different desks fumbling their ways through formats that are just different enough that the comedians never seem to get comfortable being involved.

Time to state the obvious: transplanting overseas formats here rarely works. That’s because the overseas formats stumbled across enough local talent with the skills to make them work. The comedians made the format their own, then local producers took that format, gave it to a bunch of people not really suited to it, and expected the magic to happen again.

[narrator voice: it did not]

Celebrity Letters and Numbers Australia is slightly more of an actual quiz than you’d get on the ABC. That makes it slightly better as a show to watch and slightly worse as a show to laugh at.

Generally speaking, Australian comedy quiz shows tend to shy away from requiring the guests to do actual quiz stuff (in case they look like dimwits?). So this has novelty on its side even as the mechanics of the quiz – lots of figuring out word jumbles here – leaves less time for comedy.

Not that this is entirely laugh-free: describing a “Q” as an O with a kickstand added isn’t bad as far as jokes about the structural quality of letters go. But over the hour, the quiz clearly takes priority over the comedy: the dramatic climax is thirty seconds of everyone looking puzzled as they try to unscramble the word “jellyfish”

If you want to watch a quiz show that’s an actual quiz only the contestants are halfway decent at banter, then this is the show for you. But then you probably want to watch a quiz show with stakes and tension and actual prizes, none of which this has. It’s a puzzle: maybe we could get a quiz show where Australian television producers try to solve it?

Of course, the team at Working Dog already have, with Have You Been Paying Attention? That works in part because the format is so rigid new guests can just go along for the ride and still do a good job. It helps if they provide their own spin on things, but if they can’t there’s always enough straight news jokes to get them through.

This doesn’t have news jokes. It doesn’t have jokes at all a lot of the time. But it does have a lot of opportunities to try and make words out of random letters. Next week: Mark Humphries!

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