Thank God You’re Back… Again

The opportunities for Australian comedians on local television have been shrinking for the last [insert depressingly long stretch of time here]. After a while, it becomes a vicious circle: no jobs for comedians means less comedians means less comedy on television means no jobs for comedians. Want proof? Time to open the blue door to the current revival of Thank God You’re Here.

Thank God You’re Here is a pretty limited show in a lot of ways. The details change with every skit, the format does not. So when you’re doing roughly the same thing – comedian is thrust into a comedy sketch, has to come up with snappy replies to lines they don’t see coming – five times an episode, you need to inject as much variety into proceedings as possible.

One of the big ways the original run of the show managed this was with the contestants. Back in the early 00s, comedians were thick on the ground. A lot of the time audiences had even heard of them. Above and beyond the mainstream types keen for a bit of exposure, you had more established figures who actually had comedy personas to work with – Bob Franklin being the obvious example, but even someone like (shudder) Rebel Wilson brought an act with them. You even had people who weren’t an obvious fit but were willing to give it a go (enter Shaun Micallef).

In 2023, that is no longer the case. In fact, going by the 2023 version of Thank God You’re Here, the Australian comedy scene is basically just people who’ve appeared on Have You Been Playing Attention? Some episodes, every contestant has been a HYBPA? regular. Considering HYBPA? is also currently on air, at times it’s been an exciting chance to see the same comedians twice in one week. And then again a few weeks later.

The fact that production company Working Dog is behind both shows (and The Cheap Seats) goes some way towards explaining things. The fact that this is the first (new) series of TGYH, a format that really didn’t start pulling in big names the first time around until it became a ratings smash*, also plays a part. But the result is the same: much like HYBPA?, it feels like it’s pulling from a very limited talent pool**, burning through people who possibly could use a bit more of a gap between appearances.

(it’s notable that even Working Dog have a line they won’t cross: HYBPA? regulars Sam Pang and Ed Kavalee haven’t made an appearance, even though Ed was one of the regular cast on the original run. Cheap Seats co-hosts? They’re fair game)

The thing with TGYH is that once you have a roster of regular guests, you might as well just make a regular sketch comedy show. The show’s appeal comes from being surprised by what the famous-ish comedy types deliver. And yes, there have been performers this season with firm comedy personas. Aaron Chen for one, Ray O’Leary for another. No surprise their appearances have been highlights of this run.

In contrast, you’d think that Rhys Nicholson would be a prime example of what we’ve been calling for: a comedian with an established comedy persona the show could work with. But being a flamboyant performer good at off-the-cuff comments is exactly the kind of performer this show rewards. There’s no tension as we wait to see how they perform, because this is the kind of thing they do well.

Of course, TGYH needs performers like that as well. There’s got to be people up on stage who are going to deliver the goods. But for the show to be anything more than a very sloppy sketch show, it needs a steady stream of guests where the fun is coming from wondering if they’re going to mess up – and how funny that mess up is going to be.

And at the moment, it looks like Australian comedy just doesn’t have enough comedians to make it happen.

.

*Angus Sampson appeared six times in the first ten episodes of the initial run

**Seeing Mel Tracina (The Cheap Seats’ entertainment reporter) on HYBPA? last week was a surprise – she did well, but it did feel like a sign the talent pool was starting to dry up

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