It’s been a long time since local comedy had a future on Australian free-to-air television.
Watching comedy – well, the trends in comedy – is a great way to figure out where television is going in general: it’s a niche product on the sharp edge of production, so whatever’s happening there will eventually happen everywhere. Based on what’s been happening in comedy, you’d be looking to sell those commercial TV shares sooner rather than later.
What does this have to do with Taskmaster Australia? Taskmaster – a popular UK series, which already has a NZ version – is a show where a snarky host (here it’s Tom Gleeson) and his sniveling-slash-hard done by sidekick (Tom Cashman) boss around a bunch of comedians and Julia Morris, getting them to perform various vaguely comedy-adjacent tasks.
(Like running Channel Ten? – ed)
If you’re a fan of such things, it was pretty good; the more cynical among us might note that to date pretty much all the versions of Taskmaster have been “pretty good”, and that the format itself might be the real winner here.
But to be fair, for once Gleeson’s snark was put to good use, while the contestants pretty much all got laughs at one point or another – even Julia Morris, who we grudgingly have to admit seems to have lifted her laugh-getting game in recent years.
So on the comedy side of things, it achieved its goals. It even did okay in the ratings, though it’s no Gogglebox. Maybe Ten’s fairly consistent support of local comedy is starting to pay off? Hahaha yeah nah. Nope.
Ten recently announced the return in 2023 of Thank God You’re Here, the improv show with guide rails which usually managed to be entertaining and somehow faintly disappointing at the same time. It presented a great collection of comedy legends and Rebel Wilson at a time when comedy was hard to find on free-to-air TV – so some things never change – but it dropped them into pre-scripted situations with other cast members to keep things running so the default result was usually “ok, I guess”. Some people managed to make the format work for them (Shaun Micallef, Bob Franklin); a lot did not.
More relevant to today’s argument is that TGYH‘s return is a revival of an old format. Taskmaster: overseas format. Would I Lie to You Australia: overseas format. The Cheap Seats: look, we love it to bits, but it’s a format as old as the hills. At least Have You Been Paying Attention? is a new format… or it was when it made its debut a decade ago.
You can’t get people excited – or more accurately, excited enough – about things they’ve seen before. These are all safe bets that are relying on familiarity and nostalgia to get them over the line wait did someone mention We Interrupt This Broadcast?
A show like Taskmaster is the kind of show people should be talking about. The whole point of the tasks is to create scenes that’ll have people saying “did you see that?”; pretty much every episode had a couple of moments that should have got people talking, if only to say “geez, they took that a bit far”.
But this isn’t happening; nobody is writing Taskmaster recaps, no Taskmaster hashtags are trending, nobody is feeling left out by not watching it. It’s not building an audience, it’s not getting any buzz, it’s not creating any stars, it’s not providing a launch pad for new faces.
Free-to-air television is a declining market. If you’re just treading water, you’re going backwards. Australian television comedy isn’t generating any breakout hits because all the choices being made are safe ones. That means Australian television comedy is going backwards, and there’s not a lot of room left before it backs right off a cliff.
Taskmaster Australia was a perfectly good show. That’s not good enough.