Say what you like about Working Dog, but they definitely know the right way to do an end-of-year wrap-up. Throw in a few old clips, make the hosts dress fancy, and otherwise stick to business as usual. Which is just the way we like it.
Of the two Working Dog series that wrapped for the year recently, Have You Been Paying Attention? was the one that stayed closest to the script for its final episode. After almost a decade of hard graft, it’s a show that doesn’t need to blow its own horn. It rates well, people love it, it’ll be back next year, thanks for watching.
It’s good news for Australian comedy (but bad news for bloggers who need fresh things to write about) that there’s such a rock-solid performer out there week in week out. They rarely even need to bring in anyone new these days: if any of the regular regulars can’t make it (and there were a couple of last minute Covid replacements during the year), there’s another dozen proven performers out there ready to step in.
There’s all the usual points to be made about how much hard work it takes to make a show seem so effortless, and how HYBPA? skillfully works hard to avoid taking much of a firm stance on anything (though even they knew which way the wind was blowing with Scott Morrison). Even the many, many promotional elements – whether cross promotion for the network or external sponsorships – are now pretty much seamless thanks to WD making it clear that the comedy side of things comes first.
Some weeks are better than others. Some panelists stand on their own as comedy powerhouses, others bide their time before delivering a handful of classic lines, and some might just be there for variety’s sake. But overall, the standard is high; extremely high if you’re going to compare it to what the ABC’s been serving up panel-wise.
It moves fast, it’s funny, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome whether at the end of an episode or the end of the year. Australian comedy could use a lot more shows like it.
Considering they’re both made of the same basic material – jokes about news clips – it’s surprising just how different The Cheap Seats has turned out from HYBPA? That’s almost entirely down to the two hosts, and not just because having two hosts (who can banter between each other) has pushed the news jokes into the rough outline of a regular tonight show: opening jokes, more jokes, interview, entertainment, sports, and a final wrap up where things get a little wacky, AKA “What’s On What’s On In the Warehouse”.
Ever since The Panel and Thank God You’re Here, Working Dog have been creating some of Australia’s most expensive cheap TV. They’re experts at making television that has all the look and feel of something endearingly low budget, until you actually stop to think about what’s gone into making it and realise that it takes real effort to make something that effortless.
Put another way, The Cheap Seats looks like a show where a couple of comedians make fun of news clips, then have on some guests who also make fun of news clips. News clips are free and guests are plentiful; why isn’t everyone making shows like this?
At a guess, it’s because those clips come from all over the world, and when you’re taking ten seconds out of a three hour breakfast news program that’s three hours of breakfast television somebody has to watch. Of course, no doubt there’s shortcuts when it comes to finding wacky news clips and hello social media.
But gathering enough material for a show that powers through clips like The Cheap Seats – not to mention writing follow up gags for each one – is a step above grabbing a bunch of the ABC’s usual suspects and getting them to sit around a desk for a couple of hours doing their usual and hello Question Everything.
The other major part of the equation is the hosts, who are likable and have chemistry together and are quick with their own jokes and can make running gags work and all the other obvious things that are difficult to do. But perhaps just as importantly for a show that is, at it’s core, two people laughing at other people, they manage to come across as… well, not underdogs exactly, but as decent people just having a bit of fun.
It’s not hard to imagine how this could all have gone wrong: just listen to pretty much any commercial radio prime time team. The Cheap Seats works because the laughs are inclusive – not so much in a “we’re willing to laugh at ourselves” way (though that is definitely there), but in a way that avoids punching down. Which is fatal for this kind of thing.
Ratbags are celebrated for their ratbaggery; the rich and famous can handle a few pointed digs. There’s not a lot that’s mean-spirited about the show. When the jokes go too far there’s always somebody ready to pull a shocked expression…
…and usually when the hosts go “too far” it’s something to do with sex, which is not an area Working Dog are otherwise known for. Getting young people to do comedy results in comedy about things young people are interested in: who woulda thought?
Anyway, both shows are great, they’ll be missed between now and mid-2023, and hopefully everyone involved is taking a well deserved break before making a whole lot of Donald Trump jokes next year. Comedy ain’t easy under Albanese.