Everyone likes it when the cast and crew of a favourite old TV show reunite for a one-off special, right? But was a reunion of those responsible for the Andrew Denton-produced current affairs/comedy hybrid and new talent initiative Hungry Beast (2009-2011) something anyone apart from those involved with Hungry Beast asked for?
We’re going to go with “sort of” as our answer, as while Hungry Beast wasn’t a show we praised at the time, a peek behind the showbiz curtain is always interesting. Especially when there might be some insights into why a show didn’t always work.
But before we get into the reunion show, here’s a reminder of what Hungry Beast – which was the launching ground for Marc Fennell, Dan Ilic, Veronica Milsom, Lewis Hobba, Kirsten Drysdale and others – was like, taken from a review we wrote of the final episode:
…when it started out Hungry Beast was supposed to be at least as much about comedy as it was about current affairs. Which makes our number one question at this slightly pre-emptive wake for the programme: What happened?
The team exercised some quality control, perhaps? Kinda. Veronica Milsom’s appalling character Veronica Dynamite seems to have been retired, and while that’s definitely a victory for comedy, it was a victory which took at least two series of the show to achieve. And as the ever diminishing number of sketches which have appeared in the show haven’t exactly been funnier (a recent episode featured a series of parodies of board game ads where the games were existing board games reworked to reference something happening in the news, i.e. the kind of waste material which littered the poorer episodes of The Chaser’s War on Everything) it’s pretty much the worst kind of victory over bad comedy that there is: a victory for giving up rather than spending a little time working out why the bad sketches didn’t work and then NEVER MAKING THOSE MISTAKES AGAIN.
Which begs another question, why don’t the senior people in charge of shows like Hungry Beast (or for that matter Angry Boys, a show which on Chris Lilley’s past form was never going to be anything more than the same self-indulgent crap) ever take poorly-performing comedic talent aside and point out some home truths? Andrew Denton the co-creator and one of the executive producers of Hungry Beast has spent large parts of his career getting the mix between serious issues and comedy right, so where was he when If Lady Gaga Wasn’t A Popstar – a sketch literally anyone could have come up with – was being filmed? Or Liberals on Fire, which drags one not particularly interesting satirical observation out for more than 40 seconds. Any decent executive producer would have taken one look at sketches like these and demanded an instant re-write.
Would it surprise you to hear that we didn’t fly to Sydney for this reunion show?
However, we have listened to the audio recording of the reunion show, which was recently released on Dan Ilic’s podcast A Rational Fear and, well, it was pretty interesting…
First up, in his introduction to the show, Ilic apologises for not putting out new episodes of A Rational Fear recently. His excuse? He and 7.30 satirist Mark Humphries (who also got his start on Hungry Beast, as an intern) are currently hard at work on an eight-part narrative comedy for Audible. Ilic’s promising to release a preview when he can.
Wow. Who knew? And as a blog which has long argued that Australian comedians need opportunities to get paid to make narrative audio comedy, we’re intrigued. More news on this show when we get it.
Then, introduction and apology completed, it’s into the reunion, which takes the form of a panel discussion. And one of the first things the Hungry Beast alumni discuss is what an exacting man Andrew Denton was and how he encouraged them to re-write and re-shoot material to make it as good as it could possibly be.
Good advice, of course, except the team found themselves doing lots of re-working. More than 30 drafts-type re-working.
Seriously, 30+ drafts? You’d give up at 25, wouldn’t you? Perhaps they did? And maybe that explains the quality level of the sketches that did make it air. Material which, presumably, had either had the life beaten out of it after 30+ re-writes, or which people were so sick of re-working that they just gave up and put what they had to air anyway. The Hungry Beast team would argue differently, of course, but it chimes with what we thought of much of the show’s comedy output at the time.
And let’s be honest, Hungry Beast doesn’t have a great comedy legacy. Of those from the team who are still working in the media, only a handful are working in comedy. Marc Fennell is the occasionally amusing but mostly serious host of The Feed and Download This Show, Veronica Milsom and Lewis Hobba have a show on Triple J which, again, includes a lot of serious content, Dan Ilic is comedian working in various mediums and Mark Humphries has that slot on 7.30. Everyone else from Hungry Beast is working as a serious journalist or host, or works behind-the-scenes.
Hungry Beast is evidence that new talent initiatives can work – and many of those who were part of it have gone on to achieve great things – but not so much that new talent initiatives for comedy work. Up-and-coming comedians need creative freedom and opportunities to make lots of mistakes in a safe space, and starting someone out on a TV show in a primetime timeslot is a big ask. Audiences expect a lot from primetime and Hungry Beast’s comedy did not meet expectations.
The ABC just announced a big chunk of their line-up for 2020, so you know what that means – press release time!
Teetotaler Shaun Micallef explores Australia’s drinking culture in new documentary for the ABC
ABC and Screen Australia today announced a new 3 x 60’ documentary, Shaun Micallef’s On The Sauce, to be hosted by award-winning ABC favourite, Shaun Micallef, and produced by CJZ.
Shaun Micallef drank neither wisely nor well back in his university days and swore off it in his mid-twenties. Now his sons have hit drinking age, it’s got him thinking – what kind of national drinking culture are they getting into?
In this timely documentary Shaun looks beyond clichés and misconceptions to discover the new face of alcohol in Australia. It’s changing rapidly, right under our noses.
“Personally, I’ve never quite understood alcohol. I don’t get it. It tastes funny and I’m not very good at it. Two glasses of beer and I’m under the table. So about thirty years ago, I decided I’d be better off without it. But I have children now of drinking age, and I’m wondering what advice I can give them about drinking if I don’t understand it?” says host Shaun Micallef.
Across the series, Shaun explores Australia’s long and torrid love affair with alcohol and journeys around the country meeting people whose lives have been touched by alcohol in good ways and bad.
Head of Entertainment Josie Mason-Campbell said: “Shaun Micallef has one of our most curious and interesting minds. We’re proud to work with Shaun on this deeply personal journey. Shaun will traverse Australia to get to the heart of our relationship with alcohol in this timely and important factual series.”
Screen Australia’s Head of Documentary Bernadine Lim said: “Australia’s relationship with alcohol is an important topic, and with Shaun Micallef’s willingness to use his personal journey as a vehicle to prompt broader national discussion, this documentary will encourage viewers to reflect on different perspectives.”
Shaun Micallef’s On The Sauce was announced today at the ABC 2020 Content Reveal and will air on ABC and iview in 2020.
And also, this:
Presenter, prankster and passionate advocate, Craig Reucassel returns to ABC in 2020 hosting two new documentaries funded by Screen Australia. Fight for Planet A: The Climate Challenge will shine a spotlight on the nation’s growing climate change concerns, while Big Weather (and how to survive it) explores Australia’s unpredictable and extreme weather conditions.
Craig Reucassel, host of the two shows, said, “There’s a real thirst for knowledge about how Australia is being affected by changes to the climate and what we can do to prevent it. I’m so lucky to be able to dive deep into this sometimes frustrating topic and can’t wait to share the results.”
Most Australians now accept that climate change is real, but very few of us know what we can do about it. The three-part series Fight for Planet A: The Climate Challenge delves into the climate crisis to understand where our energy comes from, how transport and travel emissions affect our health and just what is the carbon footprint of the things we buy?
Craig will showcase how we, as individuals, families, schools and businesses can help reduce our carbon footprint by making practical day-to-day changes. And far from taking the pressure off politicians and businesses, Craig will check in to see if they are doing all they can to make the changes we need.
ABC Head of Factual and Entertainment and Acting Head of Programming Josie Mason-Campbell says “We’re thrilled to have Craig at the helm of these two ground-breaking series. Entertaining, informative and challenging, both shows will kick-start discussions, change attitudes and encourage Australians to take action!”
The thought-provoking and entertaining three-part series Big Weather (and how to survive it) explores the devastating effects of Australia’s extreme weather and aims to empower communities, families and individuals to prepare, survive and recover from them. By following the weather cycle over the Summer of 2019-20, the series will consider how Australia’s cataclysmic climate tears us apart… and brings us together.
Sharing stories from communities, frontline disaster crews and experts who are dealing with the effects of our escalating climate emergency, Big Weather (and how to survive it) seeks to answer the big questions: How have extreme weather events shaped our nation’s story? Why are these events becoming less predictable and more intense? And what can we do to adapt, survive and thrive into the future?
Screen Australia’s Head of Documentary, Bernadine Lim said, “We are thrilled to support these original and timely Australian documentaries that I’m confident will not only contribute to the national conversation on the environment but will also encourage behavioural change.”
Sounds like a big year for fans of the ABC telling you what to do.
Of far more interest to us was what was not mentioned today: any new comedy projects. To be fair, there’s already been news on that front – another season of Rosehaven, whooooo, plus Fresh Blood pilot Why Are You Like This? was announced as going to series back in September – and today’s announcements came with the big caveat of “more to come”.
(the full line-up of returning comedy according to TVTonight is: Gruen, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, Anh’s Brush with Fame, Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery, Hard Quiz, Rosehaven, Black Comedy and Mad as Hell, thank God)
But still, not announcing any new comedy at all during what is meant to be the launch of the 2020 line-up does seem like cause for concern. Is “steady as she goes” really the best we can currently hope for?
Fat Pizza is back, and… yeah, who ordered this? Fat Pizza (formerly just plain old Pizza) has been running in various forms continuously since 2000 – especially once you add creator Pauly Fenech’s other series Housos and Swift & Shift to the mix, as they’re all basically the same show set in the same universe (there’s even a bit of a cross-over in the first episode of the new Fat Pizza) – and if you thought the well had run dry then the new series (named Fat Pizza: Back in Business) on 7Mate is going to do absolutely nothing to convince you otherwise.
Not that we’re suggesting Fenech is just churning this stuff out – in fact it’s the opposite, considering he actually goes to the effort of coming up with some new continuity instead of just, you know… making new episodes. Fresh out of an 18 month coma (not to be confused with his fifteen year stay in a sex dungeon in Fat Pizza versus Housos) and with a compensation check burning a hole in his pocket, Pauly Falzoni (Fenech) decides there’s never been a better time to re-open Fat Pizza in the Sydney suburb of Hashfield.
But with former owner Bobo (John Boxer) in prison (again) and co-worker Sleek the Elite (Paul Nakad) now off selling kababs, Pauly has to recruit a new generation of staff to face down the various outraged customers, dominatrixes, junkies, bogans, African gangs, disabled people, drunk islanders, and any other stereotypes that might be handy. As for Habib (Tahir Bilgic), presumably Bilgic’s recent work on Here Come the Habibs has given him a taste for the finer things in life, as he’s nowhere to be seen.
(don’t even ask about one-time series regular Rebel Wilson)
The comedy here is the same as it’s always been: a lot of manic, high energy antics that go at least part of the way towards disguising the fact that high energy antics are pretty much all this has to offer. Sex and violence are constants and are assumed to be funny in and of themselves, as are stereotypes; “isn’t it silly that people think this shit is true” is probably a generous reading of a lot of that stuff.
(the only really iffy material here is the African gangs. They’re depicted as actual threats with no real comedy angle to them, but in this kind of exaggerated world there probably needs to be a real threat mixed in there somewhere – being part of the fun, even as the bad guys, seems more inclusive than ignoring race the way most Australian comedies currently do)
There’s so much going on here that at least some of the jokes are going to work for somebody. The scene where Pauly reveals that his attempt to deliver pizzas via drone failed because his largely Middle Eastern customer base are scared of drones wasn’t half bad; the appearance of Shazza from Housos was a reminder that those characters could actually be funny in ten second bursts. Jean Kitson makes an appearance in episode one as Pauly’s shrink, and it’s always nice to see her doing her usual thing.
The big plus here over much of Fenech’s recent work is that Fat Pizza actually holds up on a basic comedy level. Swift & Shift never even figured out who the characters were, let alone what was meant to be funny; Housos was just a bunch of one-dimensional supporting characters yelling at each other for half an hour. Fat Pizza at least has a workable sitcom premise – the wacky adventures of a bunch of pizza delivery guys – though it’ll be interesting to see if this series develops any characters on par with the missing originals (who weren’t exactly complex, but at least weren’t just shouting idiots like most of Fenech’s later creations)
Also – and after 20 years this shouldn’t really be a surprise but here we are – this first episode is well constructed and paced. An hour really should be much too long for this kind of cartoony comedy (earlier episodes of Fat Pizza and Housos outstayed their welcome at half an hour; Swift & Shift was dull from the start) but Fenech constantly switches things up, throwing a variety of scenes and scenarios at the audience while keeping the comedy fairly consistent. There’s not a world of difference between jokes about doing burnouts and jokes about how shit Sleek’s raps are, but they’re just varied enough to keep this watchable while the overall story – the re-opening of Fat Pizza and the first night back in business – plays out.
Just about everyone in Australia has had at least some contact with Fenech’s comedy by now, and if you’ve already made your mind up either way this is definitely not going to change that. But if somehow you’re on the fence – if you’ve laughed at some of his earlier work, but maybe felt the last decade or so saw Fenech failing to meet even his own low standards – then we can safely say that this is… maybe a return to form?
And by that we mean that when people get slapped in Fat Pizza they get slapped with a hand, not a thong. That’s got to be some kind of a step up.
In the past month ABC Comedy and ABC iView have released three new web series: Halal Gurls, billed as the “World’s First Hijabi Comedy Series”, Nightwalkers, a story about vampire slayers set in Sydney’s Western Suburbs, and Carpark Clubbing, a show about young women hanging out in a donut stand carpark.
All received funding from Create NSW as part of the Digital First Comedy Initiative, run between Create NSW, the ABC and I.C.E (Information+Cultural Exchange), which aims to give opportunities to up and coming film and TV makers based in Western Sydney. Fair enough but are these shows worth watching?
At the centre of this is Mouna (Aanisa Vylet) an ambitious, twentysomething paralegal who wants to be a lawyer and is trying to get a promotion within the law firm she works at. She’s also juggling family responsibilities, a long-term boyfriend who wants to get married and her Muslim faith.
Much of the comedy comes from Mouna’s interactions with colleagues, mainly her boss Gordon (Bryan Brown), who seems utterly oblivious to Mouna’s commitment, ability and ambition. As for the Muslim thing? No idea.
In one episode, Gordon cooks up a scheme, which he thinks will help, where he dangles a promotional opportunity to a paralegal from a diverse background. This leads to a vicious war between Mouna and Rakesh (Vonne Patiag), a pan-sexual South-East Asian, but results in the promotion going to a disabled white woman, who it turns out is only disabled as she broke her leg skiing.
There are a few extra laughs to be had from Mouna’s social media-obsessed sister Fatty (Hajer) but most of the scenes with Mouna’s family and boyfriend feel more like soap opera than comedy. Having said that, the commentary on young women in the workplace and the older white men who prevent them from succeeding, is spot on.
Inspired by 1980s vampire films, Nightwalkers focuses on two sisters, Charlie (Georgina Neville) and Sam (Taylor Davis), who work as vampire slayers. This seemingly unlikely pair turn out to be pretty effective when it comes to vampire slaying, though, identifying the location of a 12th century vial of vampire blood and dealing with the gang of vampires who want it.
But apart from the odd one-liner – some decent, some not so good – this isn’t a comedy; it’s a story about vampire slayers, with a novel and very Australian twist at its heart.
This series looks at a group of three young women, Bonita (Monica Kumar), Nashrah (Tasnim Hossain) and Sokhey (Sophea Op), who hang out in a carpark near a donut stall. And that’s pretty much all there is to it.
Ultimately it’s a disappointing series because every time there appears to be a potentially interesting set-up – one of them gets dumped by their friends, another gets a boyfriend, another is failing at uni – it seems to go nowhere. Which would be fine if there was funny dialogue or something else happening, but there just isn’t.
Perhaps this is why Carpark Clubbing only goes for four episodes? The makers started out wanting to make a sort of modern-day Sex and the City but with diverse women with no money in Sydney’s West, and just ran out of ideas. Which is a shame, as there’s definitely a place for a witty series about female friendship that doesn’t involve rich, successful white women.
It’s long been obvious that one of the reasons why Australian comedy is vanishing from our screens is because it’s being replaced by the accidentally amusing antics of reality television. So it’s time for the tables to turn: that’s right, we’re talking about the push to have Judith Lucy as the next Bachelorette.
The interesting thing about this wholly unauthorised effort – the petition is probably north of 10,000 signatures by the time you read this – is that it’s actually a good idea. Or at least, a better idea than having her The Weekly co-star Tom Gleeson win a Gold Logie and yeah, that really happened.
After all, Lucy isn’t just one of the funniest women in this country; she’s spent decades turning her relationships (or lack thereof) into comedy gold in a way that’s been both hilarious and insightful.
The insightful bit’s important: it’d be easy enough to get a quick laugh out of the idea of putting a comedian who mocks relationships on the show – just imagine some boorish blokey stand-up as The Bachelor and away you go – but for this to work you want someone who’s willing to seriously engage with the material.
Not to mention it’s not like Lucy isn’t a box office draw: she’s been on our screens for years on both commercial TV and the ABC, so she’s not going to turn up and promptly trash the ratings.
Again, this is the big difference between this idea and giving Gleeson a Logie: Lucy is perfect for the job because her material and the show actually overlap in a lot of interesting ways. It’s not about getting a comedian in to make fun of a tacky show that a lot of Australians look down their nose at; it’s getting a comedian in because they’re funny and they’d have an interesting and amusing take on what’s happening around them that would make the show better, not a train wreck.
Obviously this is at least somewhat unlikely to happen. But it’s the kind of thing that should happen a lot more, especially with established reality shows that can afford to mess around a bit for a series (as arguably The Bachelorette did when they had Sophie Monk on).
These shows are already pretty self-aware, and that’s before you get to the commentary on shows like Gogglebox; having someone actually on who can get a laugh out of what’s going on while still playing along is about as close to a win-win as Australian television gets.
Short-run Australian TV series often start well, leaving us with high hopes and keen to see more, before they crash somewhere around episode two or three, and then slowly burn out over the rest of the run (a big hello to everyone who sat through all of Content). But this is not the case with Sarah Kendall’s Frayed which continues to be a perfectly balanced mix of drama and comedy full of well-drawn characters.
As Sammy (Kendall) sinks back into the life in Newcastle she left behind 20 years previously, we start to understand the drivers for her departure, one of which was abusive sexism. Her new boss, local MP and former schoolmate Chris (George Houvardas), is profoundly chauvinist, alternately belittling her sudden drop in social status and trying to woo her. Puffed-up by his own success, Chris manipulates Sammy into visiting his glamorous home (well, glamorous for Newcastle in the 80s), where he happens to be entertaining a bunch of old school friends by the pool. How he enjoys telling them that Sammy, once the most popular and wanted girl in school, now slaves away for the pitiful wage he gives her.
Meanwhile, Sammy’s idiot brother Jim (Ben Mingay) – also an abusive chauvinist but in a quite different way – has been convinced by his dodgy girlfriend Bev (Doris Younane) that Sammy is up to something, probably trying to get ownership of their Mum Jean’s beachside house – and he’s determined to prove it. While back in London, Sammy’s lawyer and former shag Rufus (Robert Webb) isn’t being entirely honest with her about the state of her late husband’s affairs – and looks set to diddle her out of what little she still has, to impress a woman. But will Sammy find out what Rufus is up to in time to stop him?
There’s a lot going on in Frayed – in this review we’ve barely got time to mention Jean’s (Kerry Armstrong) struggle with alcoholism, or her potential hot new boyfriend (Dalip Sondhi), or what’s happening at school with kids Lenny (Frazer Hadfield) and Tess (Maggie Ireland-Jones) – but one thing’s for sure, the main thrust of this series is women triumphing over the odds (i.e. men). Or at least giving it a red-hot go.
The alliance between Sammy and fellow MP’s assistant Fiona (Diane Morgan) is key to this. As are other stand-out female comedy roles, like ex-boyfriend Dan’s mad Mum (Maggie Dence) and Jean’s over-enunciating Christian friend Shirley (Geneviève Lemon). More so than any other Australian-made dramedy for a while, this is all in the casting. And that brilliantly crafted script.
In “not exactly shock news” news:
Season Four of Rosehaven begins filming in Tasmania today.
It’s not even new news, as the TV Tonight post went up yesterday. Then again, considering we’ve been banging on for months about how the ABC these days doesn’t seem to axe anything before they get at least four seasons out of it… like we said, this isn’t exactly shock news.
Still, this is the good bit:
Celia Pacquola and Luke McGregor said: “We’re ridiculously happy to be back for a fourth time – so we can say ‘HA!’ to all the people that said we’d never get four seasons. Unfortunately, no one said that, everyone’s been really supportive. If anyone did say that, they haven’t said it to our faces – so we have no way of knowing who to say ‘HA!’ to – but if you’re reading this… ‘HA!’. Thank you to everyone who helped us get here. You know who you are – and we’re not just saying that because we’re too lazy to list all of you”.
ABC Head of Comedy Rick Kalowski said: “Rosehaven is a comic gift that keeps giving, as popular as it was on debut, and even more loved now as a national institution. ABC couldn’t be prouder of this hilarious, beautiful show.”
“As popular as it was on debut” probably is actual praise in today’s television market. We wouldn’t quite call it a “national institution”, mind you. It’s not exactly a show that people bring up in conversation or anything. Brilliant investment by Screen Tasmania though.
It’s mildly interesting that in the past this kind of cosy country content would have been filed under drama rather than comedy – if it had been built around solving murders rather than real estate there’s no doubt this would be a much bigger hit – but like literally everything about Rosehaven that isn’t Anthony Morgan, “mildly interesting” is as far as it goes.
So this stirred things up a little over the weekend:
Between Hannah Gadsby’s Emmys win, Becky Lucas and Rhys Nicholson landing stand-up spots on the US show Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Demi Lardner’s Best Show nomination at the Edinburgh Festival in August, Australian comedy is having a world-class moment.
Not that you’d know it looking at our local TV screens.
“Because they’re cowards,” says Lardner of the commercial networks’ reluctance in offering opportunities to young comic talent.
Cowards? The people who put Trial by Kyle on the air? Never.
It’d be easy to dismiss this article as the griping of a comedy generation who don’t know how lucky they are – and a lot of people on twitter did just that.
After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Australian comedians had next to no opportunities to establish themselves anywhere, let alone on a global stage. Remember when the biggest venue for Australian stand-up on television was Hey Hey it’s Saturday? Even Bill Hicks couldn’t make that work.
For most of the 90s, the Australian media was fenced off and unless you were already behind the wire – which is to say, you were a white male baby boomer of Ray Martin vintage – you had no chance of getting anywhere (Mark Davis’ book Gangland is a useful guide to this grim time). There were zero opportunities for anyone new to make a mark in the media for a solid decade or more; comparing that time to this, it’s hard not to wonder what the current crop of stand ups are complaining about.
Thing is, if you look back just a little further you actually will find a time when Australian comedy did provide opportunities – good ones – to up and comers. If you were making comedy in the 80s, there was a firm path to success; people on community radio were getting steady work on commercial radio, people doing live comedy were getting work on ABC shows that led to series on commercial television. The result? A golden age of Australian comedy we’re still looking back on fondly today.
So what went wrong? Generally speaking, having a recession in the early 90s didn’t help. It turned out that having wave after wave of up-and-comers eventually left you with a whole lot of established comedians who didn’t want to leave the country, or retire, or just generally make room for the next lot.
Going to university suddenly cost money, so students focused on getting their degrees instead of piss-farting around in student revues being funny. Networks started to lose interest as comedy stopped being “the next big thing”. Pick a reason; we’ve got loads more.
So Lardner is right: Australian television today is letting down the current generation of comedians. Unfortunately, Australian television today is also letting down anyone who likes drama, variety, decent current affairs, and just about anything that isn’t sport or reality television.
The ABC, as we’ve mentioned before, doesn’t have the money to make anything that isn’t an international co-production; the commercial networks are following the ratings and in 2019 they don’t lead to comedy without Andy and / or Hamish.
But just because comedy is stuffed in this country doesn’t mean there aren’t still options – for one, Australian television could provide a showcase for up and coming talent.
That sounds risky – “up and coming” often being code for “not great” – but is actually something that Australian television has done a few times in recent years so it’s clearly not a terrible idea.
What is a terrible idea is the other thing Australian television has done a few times in recent years: put on a showcase for up and coming talent and then dumped it without replacing it with something else.
Usually the recent axing of Tonightly gets brought up as a symbol of the ABC’s abandonment of the youth – the “lingering resentment” over its departure definitely got a mention in this article. But the problem wasn’t that the ABC axed Tonightly: it had been running for close to a year and the ratings were in the toilet. It was that they axed Tonightly and didn’t bother with a replacement.
Likewise, the recent Open Slather – which was obviously the show Lardner’s talking about about as a “hot mess”:
“It had too much money behind it, and Foxtel is just poison for comedy. It was the biggest comedic failure I’ve been involved with,” says Lardner.
– was in theory not a terrible idea: get a bunch of old names from the 80s golden age to bring in the viewers, combine them with up and comers (ie: Lardner) to bring the funny, and you have a winner. Except that we’re talking about Australian television here so of course, it wasn’t.
“When you’re forced to be creative, which is how young people have to be because we have barely any money, things turn out way better because it’s interesting and we’re not the same 10 50-year-old white dudes they’ve been hiring since Full Frontal.”
Who could she possibly have been talking about?
One of 2018’s better comedies was the three-part BBC radio series Australian Trilogy, based on Sarah Kendall’s real-life experiences growing up in Newcastle in the 1980s. As a teen, Kendall was an enforced loner, stuck in a traditional but depressed industrial town where anyone different – especially a nerdy redhead girl – was always going to be picked-on and an outsider. As Kendall’s reflected in her stand-up, she always knew she had to leave Newcastle, and it’s this theme of being an outsider, of wanting more and of running away from social pressure and bullies, that underlies her new dramedy series Frayed.
Frayed begins in 1988 in a mansion in a posh part of London where Australian-born Simone (Kendall) is called to a hospital where Nick, her rich British businessman husband, has been rushed. Simone quickly discovers that Nick has died, of a heart attack brought on by an evening spent abusing multiple substances and engaging in some niche and very 1980s sexual activities with a prostitute (Kerry Godliman).
Later, in a meeting with her lawyer (Robert Webb), Simone finds out that Nick’s business activities have been less successful than she’d thought and that he’s left her with nothing. Simone realises that she has little choice but to move back in with her Mum (Kerry Armstrong) in Newcastle, taking her confused, posh English kids Lenny (Frazer Hadfield) and Tess (Maggie Ireland-Jones) with her, where the three of them have to learn to live in a completely new environment – and to confront all the lies Simone has told. A big one being that she’s really called Samantha.
As a first episodes go, this is very good, quickly establishing the main characters, setting up plots involving Samantha’s family and old school friends, which will play out in future episodes, and perfectly balancing the comic and dramatic elements. And speaking of the comedy bits, they’re actually funny in Frayed – a rarity in dramedies, where idiot characters doing something stupid is about as funny as it gets (hello SeaChange).
Partly this is down to really good comedic writing from Kendall and partly it’s down to the excellent Australian and British cast who’ve been assembled. In the British scenes are not only Robert Webb (Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look) but also Paul Putner (Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle), Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and Rufus Jones (W1A). And in the Australian scenes are not only Kerry Armstrong (who it’s great to see not as ditzy Heather Jelly) but also Trystan Go (The Family Law), George Houvardas (Packed to the Rafters) and Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk).
It’s pretty rare from us to want to see more from a dramedy, but when a show gets the comic and dramatic elements right – and gives us the best depiction of the Australian/British cultural divide since The Adventures of Barry McKenzie – then, yeah, we’re up for more.
We don’t usually bother with The Australian, which is one thing we have in common with the entire Australian population, but this did manage to catch our eye:
Others have pointed out the irony of The Australian leaping to defend comedians they sued (successfully) over a joke; The Australian having spent the last decade or two demanding the ABC’s funding be cut to pocket money levels didn’t go unnoticed either. You can read it here, but why give them the clicks?
Who said comedy was dead in this country? Oh right, that was us. How did we miss the campaign to kill Bill Leak?
Obviously this is complete bullshit from top to bottom, but it is moderately interesting to see which “professional larrikins” made the cut. For example, where’s Chris Lilley? You’d have thought he’d have definitely made the grade – but then that’d require the unnamed author to acknowledge that the golden age of shithouse mockery they’re mourning has lingered until… roughly six months ago.
(it’s also a big gap between the D-Generation and “The Chaser Crew” – what happened to comedy in the 90s? Oh right, John Howard)
Presumably the names named were named because they’re all currently not making comedy thanks to the “Twitter diversity Gestapo” – look, satire is dead now that Roy & HG aren’t getting steady work! Unfortunately yet unsurprisingly, they’ve fucked this up too (and not just by claiming John Clarke was “incubated” at the ABC, which must be a shock to both New Zealand and Channel Nine): the bulk of the D-Gen became Working Dog, creators of the strangely unmentioned Frontline – oh right, that was mocking shitty media, touch awkward there – and the just finished for 2019 Utopia.
See, if only The Australian been slightly more on the ball they could have made an argument that held a little more more water, because on one level Utopia is a prime example of what they’re complaining about. No, not the way you can’t show up at work in blackface while calling everyone you’ve been bullying a “poof”; the way Australian comedy no longer “reveal[s] unpalatable truths, lampoon[s] the powerful” and so on. But good news: there’s still lots of jokes about office printers.
Of course, Utopia isn’t really what they’re complaining about. Utopia is what you get when you – that is to say, News Corp and their Federal government allies – wage a relentless war on every level on the national broadcaster: a political “satire” that’s resoundingly toothless and firmly on the fence.
The underlying point of Utopia beyond the generic workplace comedy stuff it’s increasingly focused on is that all politicians are basically the same: obsessed with wasting money on big crazy projects that won’t achieve their stated goals.
This isn’t exactly untrue, but it’s just a generic anti-government message that’s pretty much useless as satire in Australia. It plays well to modern conservatives though – you know, drain the swamp and all that shit.
That’s not to say Utopia isn’t a well-crafted, polished piece of work. Working Dog are the best sitcom team in the country, and Utopia features wall-to-wall snappy dialogue that largely disguises the fact that every episode has the same plot: politicians love crazy expensive schemes that won’t work, the NBA top brass argue against them (and fail), and we get a bunch of wacky office workplace hijinx stuff in between. Inspirational speakers only want to talk about their depressing personal issues!
Still, after four seasons it’s starting to look a little… tired. Where once it was firm ABC policy to give scripted comedy two seasons then show them the door to make room for new series, increasingly the same old shows keep on coming back.
Upper Middle Bogan had three seasons before it wrapped, while Utopia has made it to four; Rosehaven‘s had three and there’s no suggestion it’s finished yet.
That’s not entirely the ABC’s fault: they’re so broke these days everything scripted is a co-production with international producers (even Utopia; Working Dog sold the first two seasons to Netflix and the third to America’s PBS), which means they’ll keep on going until the overseas money runs out (vale Please Like Me… after four seasons).
Throw in a free-to-air television viewership in decline (got to keep those old favourites running) and we definitely wouldn’t rule out a fifth season of Utopia just yet.
We’re not saying Utopia turned into a workplace comedy with a generic political message in an attempt to secure overseas money; those elements were there right from the start. We’re saying that it’s those elements that made Utopia attractive to overseas buyers (and if you don’t think Working Dog were aware of the overseas market, check out how many countries had their own versions of Thank God You’re Here).
In 2019 overseas finance is the only way a sitcom survives on the ABC and Australian issues don’t sell overseas – but that “Ask him to leave” “But it’s my office” joke? Money in the bank.
All of which means the real problem isn’t that the public space for comedy is now “woke and bespoke”; it’s that the space is now international and the overseas guys decide what gets made. If Ita Buttrose really wants to “bring back the larrikin element of Australia”, she needs to give the people making comedy in this country enough money to make comedy for this country.
“When did taking the piss become a crime?” When it turned out the overseas producers who now pay for Australian comedy didn’t know what the fuck “taking the piss” meant.