Have You Been Paying Attention… to the lack of new faces in comedy?

There’s basically two kinds of comedy showcases on television. There’s the ones where new talent gets a chance to strut their stuff, and the ones where established talent bring in the viewers. Guess which kind is the only kind we currently get on Australian television?

It wasn’t always this way. It wasn’t even all that long ago that Have You Been Paying Attention? – which is back tonight, good news there – was putting a new face or two on the panel on a semi-regular basis. And who could forget that Covid lockdown-era series of Wil Anderson’s Question Everything where they had to go with fresh faces because all the big names were self-isolating? Funny how we never saw much of those fresh faces again.

Those shows – and others like them, like Just for Laughs Australia, which may even be back this year – were an important part of the career ladder for comedians in this country. You did stand up. Then you got a few showcase slots on shows that gave new talent a shot. Then you became enough of a name to turn up next to established faces. It hardly ever worked out, but it’d keep you busy for a decade or so.

The implied next step after that – getting your own show – was always pretty unlikely. These days? Yeah, nah. Sure, there is still a path (kind of) to getting a half-hour dramedy on the ABC. It just doesn’t involve being a comedian. People are trying to tell us Austin is a sitcom and sure, we’ll check it out. But watching the trailer, the phrase “heartwarming” comes to mind. You know what doesn’t? Laughter.

As far as we can tell, this year the ABC’s sitcom line-up consists of a new season of Netflix smash hit Fisk, and… yeah, that’s it. There is a local version of the very funny Guy Montgomery’s Guy Mont Spelling Bee coming up though. What was that about the only gigs for local comedians being on game shows?

That’s not to say those gigs can’t be funny. HYBPA? is all but single-handedly (if you count The Cheap Seats as a spin off, which it is) keeping funny television alive in this country. Even if it’s a very restricted kind of funny, squeezing in one-liners between current affair questions. And yet, if you want to get laughs on television, a semi-regular spot on HYBPA? is about as good as it gets in this country.

Which is a bit shit when you think about it.

It’s been a long while since we’ve had an even half-successful sketch comedy show here. But it’s telling that the current big names in local comedy – your Tom Gleesons, your Kitty Flanagans – got their first big boost on sketch shows. Sketch shows are great on pretty much every level for developing and honing talent. Guess that’s why we don’t have them any more.

(yeah yeah, the people doing sketches are all online now. Still waiting for any of them to make the leap to television here. Whatever happened to Superwog anyway?)

What we now have is a bunch of shows that require comedians to operate – we haven’t even mentioned that Peter Helliar and Luke McGregor are going to be on the upcoming Celebrity Australian Greatest Race, and why would we – and no real way for new comedians to make a name for themselves. Ok, maybe the current crop are so good we just don’t need any new faces. We did mention Peter Helliar, didn’t we?

To recap: Australian television is acting like it no longer needs new comedians. The programs that gave up-and-comers a chance to get good are gone; what remains are shows that take advantage of the fame they’ve already accrued. Even today’s fresh faces only seem fresh because everyone else is a 20-year veteran.

Shit, Aaron Chen got his big break on Aaron Chen Tonight back in 2017; if this was the 90s he’d have already had two solo series, starred in a hit sketch show, and have found whatever blackmail material Wil Anderson’s been using to get steady work at the ABC.

For comedians, what’s the point? Australian television no longer offers any kind of creative outlet or satisfaction. Aunty Donna spent ten years being hilarious to get one season on the ABC and that’s it. If you want to host game shows or do zany tasks or have Sam Pang call you a drunk, great! Otherwise, you may want to reconsider your career path.

And for audiences? Well, the fact that local television is no longer making any kind of investment in the future is probably not a good sign as far as the future of local television goes. Seen anything good on TikTok lately?

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