Australian Tumbleweeds

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News report that was probably originally a press release time!

Amazon orders first Australian series, ‘LOL: Last One Laughing’

21 August, 2019 by Staff Writer

Endemol Shine Australia is producing the first Australian Amazon Original, LOL: Last One Laughing, which will feature ten local comedians trying to make each other laugh first.

To be hosted and executive produced by Rebel Wilson, the final comedian left standing at the end of the six-part series will win a grand prize of $100,000. The line-up of comedians will be announced in the coming weeks.

“I’m thrilled to be joining the Prime Video family of creators and talent,” said Wilson.

“I’ve already had the chance to work with Alexa – she’s great – and on Audible, so working with Prime Video seemed like an obvious choice. I can’t wait to see what these talented Australian comedians come up with and how far they’ll go to take home the prize.”

The show is based on an Amazon Original format from Japan, Documental, produced by and starring comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, and there is also a Mexican version, hosted by Eugenio Derbez, also titled LOL: Last One Laughing. The Japanese series in its seventh season and the Mexican sixth.

The local version will premiere on Amazon Prime Video in 2020 in 200 countries. Production will take place in Sydney in spring, and is executive produced by Marty Benson and David McDonald.

“We’re excited to bring LOL: Last One Laughing to our Prime members in Australia and around the world,” said James Farrell, head of international originals for Amazon Studios.

“Customers in Japan and Mexico have told us they love Documental and LOL: Last One Laughing. Australia was an easy choice as the next country to bring this to and Rebel Wilson was at the top of our list to host and star. We think our Prime members are going to love it.”

Endemol Shine Australia CEO Mark Fennessy said: “We’re truly thrilled to be working with Rebel and Amazon on this brilliant comedy series. LOL: Last One Laughing is a one-of-a-kind laughter survival format unlike any other. We look forward to bringing Australia’s unique brand of unpredictable comedy chaos to Amazon customers.”

Our best guess? The last one laughing will be the home viewer.

Also, with “Australia’s unique brand of unpredictable comedy chaos” they found a nice way to say “unfunny”.

Meanwhile, over at the ABC we finally get some Content:

Welcome to Lucy’s phone. Lucy is a recent uni grad who lives in Brisbane with her bff Daisy. Lucy is not content with her boring AF existence. But when a car crash makes her a worldwide meme her life changes course forever.

Turns out:

This is the world’s 1st scripted vertical video comedy set on a phone! We don’t just see what Lucy types and browses, but what she backspaces and deletes – everything she wouldn’t want to world to see.

Which was pretty effective when they did it in the first Unfriended movie so maybe this will be slightly more memorable than its title – good luck finding this show on the first page when you google it.

Not So Much Behind the Desk as Under It: The Worst Australian Panel Shows

If you were a newcomer to Australia’s shores, you might be puzzled about – well, about a lot of things really, but let’s stick with panel shows. Why don’t we have more of them? They’re cheap to make, don’t require a whole lot of effort, and didn’t we kinda sorta invent the prime time version of just having people sitting around talking with The Panel back in the late 90s? That’s the kind of innovation (and ratings success) that should have spawned a healthy local industry; instead, a few sports shows and Have You Been Paying Attention? aside, there’s nothing. What happened?

Previous installments in this series have largely charted predictable courses. Australia used to be good at sketch comedy then we lost our way and the audience lost interest; we never really made enough sitcoms to get good at them; topical comedy still sometimes works if talented people are given a free hand. But panel shows? Australian panel shows?

They’re shit. They’re pretty much always shit.

The real struggle here was to keep the total down to ten (shock twist: we failed) because it took Australian television more than a decade of constant effort to finally realise that all Australian panel shows are, as we just pointed out, shit. The reason why there are no Australian chat-based comedy panel shows on television in 2019 is not from lack of trying, it’s from there being so many massive failures that it eventually sank in to even the most dim-witted television executive that making them was a complete and total waste of everyone’s time.

(and yes, by “panel shows” we also mean any kind of quiz or competition that features comedians. Are the comedians taking home real prizes? No? Then it’s basically a panel show)

Honestly, it’s not hard to figure out why. Like most forms of television comedy, there are two roads to success: either feature a group of extremely funny people preferably already skilled at working together, or come up with a very strong concept that can reliably generate laughs. Both those roads are difficult to follow, but there’s no short cuts – sticking a bunch of near-strangers behind a desk and getting them to talk about whatever comes into their heads just doesn’t work. Here’s a few reasons why:

If Thank God You’re Here seems like an odd show to start a list of bad panel shows off with, you’re not remembering it right. Yes, it was a huge hit, ran for years, helped cement Working Dog as the top producer of comedy in this country and so on. But on a week by week basis? Not good. Not good at all. It was basically the closest anyone’s managed to get comedy to become “event television” in this country: the point was to watch each week in case something amazing happened and something amazing happened just enough (usually when Bob Franklin was involved) to keep people coming back. Like much of Working Dog’s shows at the turn of the century, their genius was in realising that people would watch ramshackle television being put together in front of them by skilled comedians. Doesn’t mean it was good television though.

And if you still think we’re being harsh on TGYH, fun fact: it inspired Monster House. If you’ve ever wondered just how stupid Australian television producers are, here’s a reminder. Monster House was a hidden camera prank show – that’s not the stupid bit – featuring a bunch of actors (including shrinking violet Rebel Wilson) who were already well-known. Let’s think about that for a moment. Which is a moment longer than the producers did. It ran two weeks before being axed.

Of course, prank TV didn’t end there on Australian television – though it clearly should have if the local version of Balls of Steel was any guide. The UK version was the last gasp of lad culture; the Australian version was hosted by Chaser member Craig Reucassel, because he clearly needed the fame that could only come from a show featuring local versions of “the annoying devil” and “bunny boiler” pestering people on various Sydney streets. We’re guessing Nazeem Hussain quietly deleted this from his resume about five minutes after season two aired.

The thing about the Spicks & Specks reboot is that Spicks & Specks had been a hit show that had run its course. So why not wait a few years then bring it back? You know, like all the other successful series that have managed that in Australia like… oh, wait. Everywhere else around the world knows that when a show’s hosts want to leave the trick to keeping the show going is to gradually introduce new hosts, have an on-air hand over, keep things as consistent as possible and do everything you can to keep the fans on board. With Spicks & Specks, the ABC did the opposite; the reboot sank in less than a year.

(not that the ABC will let it die – they’ve just announced the original crew will be back for four specials later this year and in 2020)

Does anyone (besides us) even remember Behind the Lines? It was like Spicks & Specks but with sport. And Eddie McGuire. And it was on Channel Nine.

And does anyone (besides us) even remember The Trophy Room? It was like Behind the Lines but with sport. And Peter Helliar. And it was on the ABC.

And does anyone (besides us) even remember The Bounce? It was a variety show but with AFL football. And Peter Helliar. And it was on Channel Seven (but not for long)

(if you really want to get worked up about the state of Australian television comedy, just look at the career of Peter Helliar. Someone give the man a Gold Logie)

Hey, quick question – did Peter Helliar appear on completely forgettable, vaguely historical, still being repeated last year ABC comedy quiz show Tractor Monkeys?

Oh you know he did – along with just about every other regular face working the panel circuit at the start of this decade. At the time we were convinced that the cast iron anchor dragging every single Australian show down was the lack of panel show talent in this country, and you know what? We were right: Australia simply doesn’t have the level of panel show talent required to make this kind of rambling, formless, clip-based hunk of junk work. But put that same talent into a format where all they’re allowed to do is be funny for one sentence or less and suddenly they become worthwhile ways to spend roughly an hour on a Monday night and yes we’re talking about Have You Been Paying Attention? – the success of which directly resulted in the ABC finally giving up trying to make shit ideas like this work.

The Unbelievable Truth was based on a UK radio show that involved people giving lectures that contained five truthful statements in a swamp of lies, and the panel had to buzz in when they thought they’d spotted a truth. It sat on the shelf at Seven for close to a year while the network tried to figure out if it was funny. How could it not be? It was hosted by The Chaser‘s Craig Ruecassel oh right.

The White Room provided audiences with the unmissable opportunity to watch C-list celebrities play charades in a white cavern left over from an 80s music video shoot. It was axed after just two weeks. It may surprise you to learn that it was only when Channel Seven stopped trying to make local comedy panel shows happen – we haven’t even mentioned Glenn Robbins’ actually not bad show Out of the Question – that they became the top-rating network in the country.

We’re still waiting for someone – anyone – to explain to us what the thinking was behind the ABC’s seemingly endless (15 episodes!) How Not to Behave. Was it meant to be a sarcastic comedy show featuring sketches that were ironically showing us “how to behave”? Or was it meant to be a straight lifestyle show that just happened to have the wrong title? As it would have required us to watch more than one episode to find out, guess we’ll never know.

And then there’s Cram!

What more can we say?

Going Around in Circles 2: The Donut Factory

One car-based “comedy” ends, another car-based “drama” begins: what exactly does the ABC have against public transport?

Yep, another hilarious zinger from us, but seriously: who is running things over at the ABC that on the same night Squinters finally ends the show that starts up after it is yet another series about a collection of offbeat types cruising around Sydney? Sure, Diary of an Uber Driver isn’t meant to be an out-and-out comedy – and lead Ben (Sam Cotton) actually does seem to be driving around Sydney, not just waving his hands about in front of a green screen – but when a network can barely make a handful of local shows a year, why make two that are pretty much the same thing? Especially when that thing is boring?

Squinters, yeah, fuck that; it ran out of ideas at the end of episode one and while doing an entire two seasons of it was a nice showcase for a reasonably talented cast, there was absolutely no reason for anyone to keep watching a show that was nothing but a bunch of nothing characters saying nothing interesting while going nowhere. It was a hollowed out shell of an idea, a show that might have worked if the ABC was in the business of actually giving funny people a go as far as scripted comedy is concerned; they’re not and it didn’t.

Diary of an Uber Driver is the same thing, but retooled as “lightweight drama” as our bland hero drives around interacting with various forgettable types because if he doesn’t then we don’t have a show. Remind us again: why do we have a show? The idea of having an actual story or ongoing characters that might hook viewers in and get them coming back isn’t so much foreign to the ABC as it seems like something they’re actually allergic to.

Yes, there’s an angle here: Ben wants to make his relationship work, and so he’s become a student of human nature to… ah, fuck it: this isn’t a story, it isn’t even the start of one. It’s a premise to collect some cash from a funding body, a fun way to employ a bunch of decent actors, an attempt by the one who isn’t Josh Thomas to expand his writing credits beyond Please Like Me. What it most definitely isn’t, is a television show anyone actually asked to see.

And yet we doubt anyone involved in the production of this show will see this review – okay, it’s a rant, and almost certainly an ill-informed one at that – as a negative. We’re talking at cross-purposes to the Australian television industry, asking why the latest fighter jet doesn’t fly while everyone is admiring how lethal it looks. The performances are fine, the tone is varied, it looks good and it runs for the required length. There’s a “hilarious” sequence involving a whole bunch of “shocking” dirty talk. What more do you want?

If Australia was full to the brim with genius television writers in the much the same way as it’s packed with decent actors and television crews, then sure, why not try something high concept to stand out from the pack? But Australia has no good television writers; it barely has any good sketch comedy writers and if something happened at Mad as Hell HQ we’d be fucked. Considering the rock bottom standard of pretty much everything written locally that appears on our television screens, why are we making not one but two shows based around a tricky, superficially boring concept that requires Larry David in his prime to make work even for a single solitary episode?

Then again, what do we know about comedy? Fuck all obviously, because it seems this show is, rather than a mildly diverting way for a bunch of skilled technicians to pay their rent, on par with one of the greatest sitcoms of all time:

Many of the greatest comedy writers of history have realised the importance of setting, and how a good one can open up a kaleidoscope of potential comic scenarios. John Cleese was aware how rich a hotel would be for comic scenarios, given that just about anybody can stay in a hotel. The same principle has worked on Cheers and Brooklyn 99 and any number of medical and legal comedies: set your show somewhere that facilitates the introduction of a steady stream of eccentrics, and you’ll never be short of a funny story.

Now comes Diary of an Uber Driver, a show which takes advantage of the near-infinite possibilities presented by the 21st century’s gig economy.

Who knew that the reason why Fawlty Towers was so funny was not because it featured a tight knit group of well-defined comedy characters in a confined setting where the introduction of one variable could rapidly tip things into chaos, but because… well, literally the exact opposite of that? Fawlty Towers was a show where each episode took months to write; has anything on Australian television this century felt like the producers stumped up the cash for a second draft?

That could be the revelation at the heart of Diary of an Uber Driver: the opening up of the potential of human connections. Ward has struck on a premise that allows him to bring anyone at all into his world, but just as it was in his last show, it’s the magic of what happens when strangers collide that brings the funny as well as the feels.

Wasn’t “it’s the magic of what happens when strangers collide that brings the funny as well as the feels” the tagline for Bumfights?

Tonight is not the night – The worst Australian topical comedies and tonight shows

When Tonightly with Tom Ballard was axed last year, Australia not only lost a show which was delivering a solid half-hour of interesting, passionate and funny topical comedy four nights a week but it a lost a show which had been allowed to be itself.

So often, TV executives take a bunch of people who’ve never worked together, tell them what kind of show to make, and then interfere constantly while they try to produce something decent within the constraints they’ve been given. And Tonightly… so obviously wasn’t that.

It was a show which came from people who shared similar ideals and were given free rein to come up with whatever they wanted as long as it was nominally of interest to young-ish viewers – and topical. What resulted was sometimes a mess, sometimes needed a bit more work, but usually had a spark of originality, difference or just sheer anger at the state of things, that made it must-watch viewing. For people of all ages.

Rarely do we see that sort of flawed but charming and occasionally hard-hitting comedy program on TV these days. So often we’re served up bland rip-offs of US tonight shows, or topical programs that are about as challenging to our political and corporate overlords as a fawning News Limited editorial about how great the Liberal party are.

And with Rove McManus returning to television with Saturday Night Rove in a couple of weeks, that glorious Australian tradition looks set to continue. Although being Rove, he’ll at least produce something that’s watchable. Something you can’t accuse these shows of being…

Let’s get this out of the way first…for all its faults, Hey! Hey! It’s Saturday was once a ground-breaking and much-loved show. Seriously, what a great idea to turn a free-wheeling Saturday morning kids’ show into something the whole family could watch on a Saturday evening. Celebrity guests! Bands! Novelty acts! Whacky sound effects! They even adapted the puppet characters’ dialogue to give the adults something to laugh at.

The problem was, the show had at its centre an ego-driven host/producer, barely able to disguise his contempt for most of humanity. And as the years marched by and social attitudes changed, that host/producer – and the show itself – resolutely stuck to its guns by continuing to hold the attitude that men were men, women got the piss ripped out of them, and the LGBT+ community and ethnics were pretty funny too.

This just about worked throughout the 80s and 90s, but by the time Hey! Hey!… came back for some specials in 2009, this really became a problem. Especially when the show doubled down by booking a blackface act.

Acceptable in 2009, apparently

Global outrage and disgust duly followed. Something that Channel 9 sort of repeated two years later with Ben Elton’s Live From Planet Earth, a show so notoriously terrible that its name has become a punchline far funnier than anything the show ever aired.

And who would have guessed it? Ben Elton had successfully toured Australia many times with his stand-up show and had written many much-loved shows, including The Young Ones and Blackadder. Surely, this couldn’t fail?

So what was it that caused Live From Planet Earth to lose half a million viewers through its first episode? Was it Elton’s patronising ratings announcement at the start of the show? Was his re-hashing of some of his so-so old stand-up material? Was it the schoolgirl characters, talking about their lives on the internet in a way which only a middle-aged man would think they talked, followed by the middle-aged male writer of that sketch, Ben Elton, saying “hopefully we’ll be hearing more of their philosophy of life as the series progresses”?

Maybe it was Elton’s routine about using natural yoghurt to cure thrush? Or maybe – and this definitely killed it for us – it was the female bodybuilder character played by an overweight man. Seriously, you do not go to an ad break on something as bad and misguided as that.

Oh my God, what is this?

But we’re being kind. Twitter, as we recall, was rather less forgiving. Ditto the critics. And in its second week, the show started with less than half a million viewers and lost about a third of them by the end. (And the schoolgirls were back!)

As for week three… Well, the show went out later than scheduled because of extended news bulletins reporting on the Christchurch earthquake and opened with Elton’s solemn message that he hoped no one thought it would be inappropriate to do the show as planned following the terrible tragedy. Oddly enough, Australia wasn’t in the mood for his terrible program and less than 200,000 viewers tuned in. Live From Planet Earth was axed the next day.

Live comedy shows, it seems, is something Australian television isn’t very good at. 2005’s Let Loose Live, less notorious than Live From Planet Earth, but even more short-lived – it lasted just two episodes – was supposed to be a local answer to Saturday Night Live, complete with cold open, weekly guest host, studio sketches and a big cast.

And in one sense, it was an authentically a local version of Saturday Night Live: a lot of the material was cliched and crap. An early sketch in the show was about young ethnic drivers hooning around in a muscle car. Later, guest host William McInnes did his ventriloquist act, except he couldn’t conceal his mouth movements. Then there was something about an IT guy in an office (played by Sammy J) and the IT guy was, wait for it, a bit nerdy… the first episode’s on YouTube if you can be bothered.

What might have saved the show (or at least made it a bit interesting) was some topical material, something SNL does often and pretty well. So, where in Let Loose Live were the potshots at the government? Where was the satire? Guys, John Howard had been in office for almost a decade at this point, and he’d recently sent our troops off to an ill-advised and unpopular war. IT’S NOT LIKE THERE WASN’T MATERIAL!!! Good grief, even Ben Elton managed a few cracks at Julia Gillard.

But if you think the lesson learnt from Let Loose Live and Live From Planet Earth is that Australia shouldn’t attempt live topical comedy shows and that pre-recorded, satire-focused shows might have a better success rate, then may we remind you of Wednesday Night Fever, a show so out-of-the-blocks crap that we’re just going to share this from our review of the first episode:

Where the wheels totally came off this blunt nothing of a show was in the writing, which never failed to sniff out an opportunity to make cheap, obvious shots at cheap, obvious targets. Making a joke that Ruby Rose looks like a boy? In 2013? What the fuck was that all about? [Regular character] Justice has a “mother” who’s a man? Wow, those crazy feminists, right guys? And why was Julie Bishop stumbling around blindly in the utterly baffling and seemingly endless “Downton Abbott”? Oh right, she’s entirely defined by the “fact” she has a bung eye. The promos for this show said nothing was sacred. Seems that meant having Julia Gillard sing “I was asked if Tim was gay – have you ever seen Thérèse?” Jesus wept.

Wow, Ben Elton’s female bodybuilder sketch seemed like a good idea compared to that.

Downton Abbott

But Wednesday Night Fever (which lasted for just seven episodes) didn’t just take obvious potshots, it did gutter humour too. Swearwords as punchlines? Yep, it had plenty of those. Crude and idiotic humour? Present and correct, madam. So, instead of pointing out that Clive Palmer was an awful businessman involved in various dodgy dealings, we were treated to jokes about his weight. Yes, nothing was sacred on this show!

The only bright spot in the whole Wednesday Night Fever affair was when Crikey gained access to the show’s writer’s Google group (which they’d failed to password protect) and reported that the sketches that had been rejected from the show were even less funny and even more lowbrow, sexist and racist than the ones that did make it to air. Crikey also claimed at one stage (they later took this down from their site) that one writer had proposed a “Prince Philip in blackface” sketch.

There are no words.

Except, it seems, someone liked this short-lived show, as it later went on to win an AWGIE in the Comedy – Sketch or Light Entertainment category, beating This Is Littleton, How Green Was My Cactus and Legally Brown.

And what does this tell us? It tells us that people in the industry are not nearly critical enough when it comes to judging shows, for one. How else to explain the fact that The Roast managed to rack up hundreds of episodes, under several different names, on at least four different online and broadcast channels, over a five-year period? Or that star of the show Mark Humphries has managed to get work since then?

Still in work, it seems

At the time, we were baffled. And we still are. This was a news satire show that never managed to satirise the news. Or even parody it. Where were the wacky news reporter characters? Where were the odd interviewees? Where were the sketches where they poked fun at those in power? To be fair, The Roast wasn’t quite as bad as Wednesday Night Fever, with its crude humour and its ‘Clive Palmer = fat’ jokes, but it wasn’t exactly a satirical powerhouse either. Get laughs out of something awful a public figure said, like the time Myer boss Bernie Brooks said a levy to fund disability care would mean less people spent money shopping? Nah. Instead, The Roast sent one of their reporters around stealing money from people on behalf of the retail giant. Hilarious!

It was the kind of comedy that a bunch of privileged white guys who don’t really have any worries in the world do, rather than the sort of comedy that people who find 90% of what politicians say outrageous and awful do. And it came from the mind of Charles Firth, who’d done exactly the same thing a decade ago as part of The Chaser, a group we should mention in this article as the people who started a particular type of rot in Australia satire: satire that doesn’t really care about the issues.

The Chaser’s War on Everything, lest we forget, wasn’t really a satire show. It was a pranks show involving public figures. What exactly was the satirical point behind the APEC sketch, for example? ‘Ha ha the security’s a bit flawed?’ Turns it out it wasn’t, as the team got caught. Oh well. At least they satirised the hell out of cancer with that Make a Realistic Wish sketch.

But seriously, The Chaser’s War on Everything and various subsequent shows the team did ended-up being the kinds of comedies that politicians sort of embraced – and even voluntarily participated in. And that’s never a good look for a satire show. Satirical comedy should avoid interaction with actual politicians so it’s always free to give it to them when they deserve it. And that’s something The Chaser team have never understood. For them, it’s great because the politicians are on the show, joining in their silly japes. And it doesn’t matter to them that by having politicians on their shows, they’re making those politicians look like good sports, rather than doing their jobs as political comedians and calling politicians out when they deserve it.

It’s one of the many problems with The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, a show that’s become so feeble in its approach that it’s barely bothering to even be topical anymore. Pickering still occasionally fronts a piece about something bad happening in the world, but it’s something we mostly know about already because better outlets have already covered it better.

The Weekly is basically a magazine show that’s on late enough at night to include swearing. In topical satire terms, it just sort of hums along like a mild case of tinnitus. But, hey, at least you got that tinnitus by listening to good music and interesting podcasts. The Weekly as we pointed out recently, doesn’t even seem to get talked about anymore. It’s just there. Presumably because after Australian comedy’s experience making some of the above, it’s the best option there is. Hey, at least people are prepared to tune in for it. Who cares if it’s a bit crap?

Humming along like a mild case of tinnitus

And while this article has mainly looked at shows which were obviously, short-livedly awful, it’s the shows that plod on forever that are kind of the real problem. The shows that are safe, inoffensive and unoriginal, the shows that people are prepared to tune in for, but mainly so they can kill some time. Shows like The Weekly, that no one would miss if they didn’t exist, and that no one need ever have invented.

The Drama Builds

For years we’ve been complaining that Australian comedies keep trying to get more dramatic. But what about the flipside? No, not that crap “romantic comedy” starring Eddie Izzard that was nominated for a Tumblie last year: what about the Australian dramas trying to muscle in on comedy’s turf?

The muscling in comes pretty close to literal in the ABC’s Les Norton, starring Alexander Bertrand as a walking Chesty Bond advertisement prowling around the one side of half of one street the producers could afford to recreate of 80s-era Kings Cross. He’s a bouncer-slash-enforcer for the local crime boss (David Wenham), though the crimes are more along the lines of wacky capers than brutal murders – and with Rebel Wilson heavily promoted as one of the leads, it seems highly unlikely that her “demise” at the end of last week’s episode is going to stick.

Crime is pretty much the only genre Australia makes enough of to be able to take a variety of approaches to, which means even this is part of a long, if not all that healthy, tradition (anyone remember Marcus Graham’s Good Guys, Bad Guys? The ABC’s crooked cop joke-free sitcom Bad Cop Bad Cop?). What comedy there is here is meant to come from the characters and plot twists rather than one-liners, which is a refreshing change from the norm in Australian sitcoms, and because there’s an actual story going on (the series is based on the novels by Robert G Barrett) things keep moving along even when the laughs aren’t there.

So this is worth a look then? Eh, kind of. While it’s a step up from Underbelly, this kind of romp really needs a lot more energy to be worthwhile, and a few good performances can’t make up for the fact that a lot of the other performances are a bit average. Not being familiar with the novels it’s hard to know, but it seems like a lot of the rough edges have been sanded off here too; aside from Les himself, nothing here really feels all that distinctive or memorable, and there’s no sense at all of “the Cross” being more than a few shop fronts and a back alley.

Then again, there’s bound to be a lot more Rebel Wilson in this moving forward. You’ve been warned.


With Andrew (“I worked with Steve Vizard on Full Frontal among many other things”) Knight being partly responsible for the original SeaChange, the series had decent comedy credentials from the start. Not only did it get in first with a local version of the then-and-now popular genre of “city type moves to the wacky country” a la Northern Exposure, it did a decent job of being both dramatic enough to lure in regular viewers (mostly thanks to the will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension with Diver Dan) and funny enough thanks to the wacky locals to be a real hit.

And now it’s back! Only now it’s twenty years later and on Channel Nine with around half the original cast and filmed in a different state. It’s a bit harder to judge with this one after a first episode, but it definitely felt like a lot of gears were being stripped trying to get the engine started here. Which is a problem with a series who’s big selling point was (and is) the idea of escaping the hustle and bustle for a simpler life.

Also, where’s the laughs? SeaChange was never a gag machine but the comedy was always there, while so far here all that remains is the faint outline. There are characters (mostly returning ones) that are clearly meant to be seen as funny, but… yeah, nah. The spark isn’t here yet, and it’s not exactly sure that this version of SeaChange even wants to bring it back.

Despite what some would have you believe, good comedy isn’t about being gentle. There has to be some edge in there, a surprising insight or cutting take somewhere to get a laugh out of an audience. This doesn’t seem to want to be much more than a soothing bath of nostalgia, and while that’s hardly surprising in a reboot – even Sigrid Thornton occupies a very different space in the national psyche than she did twenty years ago – it’s pretty much the enemy of good comedy.

It’s always possible this will find a way to poke fun at the past and find comedy in present-day Pearl Bay, but unlike Les Norton – which if nothing else has fully integrated the comedy side of proceedings into the drama from day one – this hasn’t even set out a case for being considered funny yet. It’s perfectly possible that, unlike the original series, this will be happy drifting along on a cloud of twee nostalgia and bland no-stakes drama.

And we’ve already got Rosehaven for that.

Situation Unfunny: The Worst Australian Sitcoms

Let’s be honest: last week we took it easy on sketch comedy. After all, Australia used to be good at it: for decades our skill at sketch comedy was regularly held up by the experts (TV critics who hated comedy) as world class. And they weren’t entirely wrong either – Shaun Micallef’s sketch shows were legitimately brilliant, and a chunk of the 80s and 90s sketch shows still hold up today.

But we’re not talking about sketch comedy now.

There’s been no point in living memory where you could seriously claim Australia makes decent sitcoms. Partly that’s because they’re hard to make and we just don’t make very many of them; mostly that’s because the ones we do make are shit. There’s plenty of excuses why, and back in the 20th century they may have even made sense. When our shoddy local product was being compared to US sitcoms, the problem was that we didn’t make enough episodes to work out the kinks and didn’t have enough writers to create a polished product; when we were being compared to the UK it was that our sitcoms didn’t start out on radio where the (smaller team of) writers could, again, work out the problems holding the comedy back.

Remind us: how many years did Hey, Dad..! run for?

The correct answer is “too many”

So by the time the 21st century rolled around, everyone had their excuses ready. And they were going to need them. Oh sure, when Kath & Kim was firing on all barrels sitcom was king – so kingly in fact that hardly anyone else bothered making them – but after that, well… let’s just say that we were able to come up with a list of rock-solid 21st century shockers without having to resort to Mr Black, Here Come the Habibs, The Wizards of Aus or (shudder) Bogan Pride.

Let’s start out with an easy one: Sando. The hilarious tale of a crap furniture outlet maven trying to win back her only slightly less crap family’s love, this was designed as a showcase for Genevieve Morris, who then had to withdraw from the show for health reasons. Good to see those reasons (she’s currently in remission according to wikipedia) haven’t prevented her from continuing to appear in a range of recent comedy series, including the most recent run of Squinters… which we’ll get to in a moment. Sacha Horler stepped up for the lead role and promptly spent six weeks struggling to bring to life a character parodying something that had died out in the real world a decade earlier on a show seemingly designed to connect with the members of  “mainstream Australia” by sneering at them. It shed almost half its audience during those six weeks; we’re surprised anyone stuck around at all.

At the other extreme – time wise at least – remember Flat Chat? This particular shocker (from the dark ages of 2001) is memorably largely for Jean Kitson wheeling out another performance so big it was visible from space as a snob forced to live in her own stables when her husband dies and her mansion is bought by a cashed-up bogan. The long and proud tradition of our commercial networks when it comes to producing sitcoms too broad to appeal to comedy snobs yet too shit to appeal to people who like to laugh is too often ignored… much like Flat Chat itself.

Just to drag this list off down a third direction, The Urban Monkey with Murray Foote was a series of five minute mockumentary episodes in which Sam Simmons stood around repeating words and doing what was then known as “animal whimsy” – pointing out weird shit about animals and so on. This kind of short yet still somehow drawn out format is another mainstay of bad Australian sitcoms, giving performers just enough time to be irritating without providing enough scope for their painfulness to end up somewhere amusing. Basically, if there’s a sitcom format, Australia has been rubbish at it; let’s move on.

Oh wait, we spoke too soon. Squinters is yet another sitcom that’s barely a sitcom – rather, as we’ve pointed out seemingly every single time we’ve mentioned it, it’s a sketch show where all the sketches are the same. And unfortunately, by “same” we mean “variations on those awful restaurant sketches Fast Forward used to do” where two people sit down, talk to each other for a while, and then it ends without a joke – or a point – having been established. It’s a sitcom where the situation is “driving to and from work”, which might possibly work if it was “two funny people are driving to and from work”. It’s Australia; we don’t have two funny people left.

Which is as good a segue as any into The Letdown, which is only here because the ABC continues to insist that it’s a sitcom and not what it looks like to anyone with eyes to see: a half hour drama based around the kind of observations that’re mistaken for comedy by people who don’t really like to laugh. There are plenty of jokes to be made around the idea that being a new mum is tough, but they require a cast and crew looking to make jokes, not the kind of show that has new parents gasping “finally someone’s telling our side of the story” like nobody’s ever pointed out that crying babies are crap before.

Please Like Me

Drinking a cup of green putty through a straw? Hilarious!

Of course, we wouldn’t have shows like The Letdown without Please Like Me, the trailblazing series that put Australia on the map labelled “DRAMA-INFUSED COMEDY”. You’d think a sitcom that ended every single series with the death (or near death) of yet another semi-core character might have taken a lump or two in the reviews but no – everyone was too busy calling a show about twenty-somethings where nobody seemed to have a real job or money worries “realistic” to stop and consider that maybe all the death, emotional pain, and Josh Thomas picking up hot guys despite whatever the hell was going on with his hair was more about presenting an emo fantasy of youth than anything designed to entertain an audience. Not that it had one in this country but hey, overseas funding is the only thing keeping Australian sitcoms going so who cares if they’re funding shows nobody here wants to watch.

How to Stay Married was and very possibly still is Peter Helliar’s latest salvo in his forever war to convince the Australian public that he’s putting the rom back into com. Unfortunately, the aimless I Love You Too and the merely forgettable It’s a Date pretty much seem to have exhausted everything Helliar has to say on the subject of love and relationships – they’re tough, right guys? – and so this show revolves around a wife reluctantly back at work and a husband reluctantly staying at home in a hilarious inversion of The Way Things Should Be. Also hilariously inverted here: the idea that sitcoms should be funny.

You may recall we mentioned last week that The Wedge is one of the worst sketch comedies of this century. Mark Loves Sharon was a spin-off from that damp cough of a series, featuring Jason Gann’s “breakout character” Mark Wary, disgraced sports star and… that’s about it. So yeah, why not give six episodes over to a mockumentary about Wary and his dirtbag mates hanging out at his tacky mansion? Please don’t give us actual reasons why not, we’ve seen the show and we already have plenty.

The first episode of The Other Guy revolved around series creator and lead actor Matt Okine’s character trying to deal with a piss-stained mattress that was possibly some kind of metaphor for how his romantic life had fallen apart. Unfortunately, like so many of the series on this list, absolutely nothing funny was done with this idea. If there’s any advice we could give Australian sitcom writers, it’d be this: it’s not enough just to have a funny idea – you have to do something funny with it. So many of these shows have halfway decent premises but then seem to think their job is done. It’s not: a funny premise is funny for about thirty seconds and then you need to start doing funny things with it if you want to keep the audience laughing. Well, unless you’re writing The Other Guy, because that had a whole lot of other problems on top of the bad writing. Second series starts later this year!

Ha ha ha men are so gross

And then there’s Laid. What more can we say about the first ever comedy to combine sex and death that we didn’t say across the tens of thousands of words we wasted here trying to express just how bad this show was as it first aired? Here’s something: creator, writer, and star of numerous Green Guide feature articles Marieke Hardy is now in her second highly celebrated year running the internationally acclaimed Melbourne Writers Festival despite writing a sitcom that spent an entire episode making jokes about the female lead’s attempts to rape a man she’d drugged into unconsciousness. We’d say those gags about creating a splint for his limp dick with paddle pop sticks haven’t aged well, but they weren’t exactly funny at the time.

The real problem with Australian sitcoms has always been two fold: we don’t make enough of them to come up with a great one through sheer weight of numbers, and our system of television production doesn’t give talented people enough opportunities to get good at a complicated job like telling a funny story that goes for half an hour. The same goes for actors too: we have plenty of decent stand-up comics with funny personas, but the number of funny actors in this country are… well, once you go past the cast of Mad as Hell the rest are probably on a plane to Hollywood as you read this.

Sitcoms come from television cultures that value a wide range of specific types of being funny – funny writers, funny performers, funny creators. Australia requires anyone wanting to be funny to be funny at pretty much everything at once because it’s a lot cheaper to get a show produced when the writers and actors share a paycheck. Very, very few people can pull that off at a decent level: if you can, you can make a whole lot more money somewhere where they actually make comedy.

No Easy Answers

It must be the best of all possible worlds right now for Tom Gleeson. Sure, he’s won a Logie, but who gives a fuck about that? What’s really important is that he took his hilarious comedy persona to new heights with his Gold Logie campaign and now we can all reap the rewards on Hard Quiz. That was the whole point, right? To make his show funnier?

It’s kind of odd then to report that Hard Quiz post Gold Logie-gate remains basically unchanged. Gleeson doesn’t take his act to new heights; he doesn’t take his act to new anywheres. Obviously “if it ain’t broke” applies here – after multiple seasons everyone knows what to expect from this quiz show and you’re either on board or you’re not with Gleeson’s mildly snarky antics – but then what exactly was the point of trashing the Logies?

Considering Gleeson didn’t walk out on stage at the start of the show waving his Gold Logie about (not a euphemism), it seems likely the show was recorded pre-win and his “threat” to stop production on Hard Quiz if he didn’t win the Gold Logie was even more dodgy than first expected. Maybe he would have halted production – but with a bunch of episodes already in the tank, the show would go on.

Was it even good promotion for the show? A prize-free quiz show that’s basically just regular people being tested on their claims to know stuff about a particular subject doesn’t sound especially appealing to the traditional Logies fanbase, and considering Gleeson’s win was, as they say, “marred by controversy”, the Gold Logie isn’t exactly a stamp of approval here.

Also, and this doesn’t seem to get mentioned much with Gleeson, the broad appeal of a comedy dickhead is often that we get to see the comedy dickhead get his or her comeuppance. The obvious promotional angle for Gleeson’s Logie’s win is: “he trashed the awards – now see the public get their revenge on Hard Quiz!” But that’s never been how Hard Quiz works – it’s mellowed a bit since the early days, but even when the contestants get a snappy comeback or two it’s still clearly a show where Gleeson makes (mild) fun of a bunch of would-be smartarses.

It’s all set-up, no punchline with Gleeson’s act. He goes around acting like a dick, and… that’s it. You could maybe argue he was taking the piss out of people who deserve it with the Logies, but on a quiz show with regular contestants, firing off insults is an odd path to go down. Which is presumably why it’s increasingly underplayed on the show itself these days.

Gleeson can go around calling himself a Gold Logie winner, but so can Rove McManus and his career hasn’t exactly soared since Rove. Unless you’ve really done a lot of work over a long, long period of time, winning a Gold Logie is as much about the show you’re on as who you are. So the real fuck-up here is that, as far as Hard Quiz is concerned at least, Gleeson won by acting out of character; he might be a snarky bastard elsewhere but as a quiz show host, he’s basically just another quiz show host. Anyone who tunes in to see more of the “fuck the Logies” guy is going to be disappointed.

But if you want to see people answer questions about rugby players and Jewish holidays, then this is your lucky day.

Sketchy at best: The worst Australian sketch comedy shows

TV Tonight’s recent article on the all-time best Australian TV comedies got us thinking…what are the all-time worst Australian TV comedies?

Having been blogging about this for more than a decade, we think we have the answers. First up…sketch shows!

If you grew up pre the late-90s, sketch shows were something you saw on TV a lot – and they were hugely popular. The Late Show, Fast Forward, The D-Generation, The Comedy Company, The Naked Vicar Show and The Mavis Bramston Show are just some of the sketch shows that Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers remember with fondness, shows that were every bit as good as their overseas cousins Monty Python’s Flying Circus, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Not The Nine O’Clock News and French & Saunders. And yet, Troy Kinne and the odd pilot aside, TV sketch shows have died an almost complete death in the past 20 years. Why?

The cast of The Comedy Company

The cast of The Comedy Company

It’s not as if people don’t appreciate short form comedy anymore. It’s all over YouTube and social media, and kids – and even professional comedians – are making sketches in their backyards with great success, MyChonny, Aunty Donna and Superwog amongst them.

It’s even possible for these online sketch artists to make money from their work, from YouTube advertising, merchandising and live tours. Not bad for something they wrote for fun in their spare time and shot on a phone.

Problem is, sketch is far less profitable for a TV network – and a lot riskier. Sure, it’s local content you can say you made, but it’s also expensive – too many sets, costumes, locations, actors, FX and stunt performers to pay for – and if the viewers hate it, you’re screwed. Many a post-millennium sketch show has died a long, painful death because the producers assumed we’d all love the Annoying Waiter character they’d created, meaning they shot weeks worth of Annoying Waiter sketches, and even pitched an Annoying Waiter spin-off book to a publisher, and then it turned out that the public hated the Annoying Waiter. Which is a shame, as The Annoying Waiter’s Restaurant Guide had some great stuff in it.

Silver service waiter with moustache and silver tray with a chicken on it

What we imagine the Annoying Waiter looks like

So, networks don’t bother with sketch anymore. Not when they can pull in big audiences for cheap – and meet their local content quotas – with reality shows.

Of course, part of the reason no one watches sketch shows on TV anymore could be that younger audiences, i.e. the Millennials and Generation Z, don’t have the happy memories of sketch comedy that Baby Boomers and Gen X have. If they’ve watched TV sketch show at all it was Comedy Inc, The Wedge, or, God help them, Open Slather.

And can we really blame them for turning away from TV sketch shows when their only experience of them are shows like these?

So, let’s remind ourselves of what TV sketch has been like over the past 20 years…

It was all going so well. After a 90s where comedy on TV was king, networks entered the 2000s with a programming mindset that included sketch comedy. And in 2003, Nine and Ten each launched a new sketch show. skitHOUSE, Roving Enterprises’ effort for Network Ten, ran for 19 episodes and featured Peter Helliar, Corinne Grant, Roz Hammond, Tom Gleeson, Cal Wilson and Tripod, amongst others. Comedy Inc., which featured Emily Tahey, Paul McCarthy and Hey Dad’s Ben Oxenbould, ran for an astounding five series on Nine. Yep, those were the days when sketch shows could stay on air not because they were good but because the networks needed to make and air local content.

The cast of Comedy Inc.

The cast of Comedy Inc.

And so, Comedy Inc. gave us recurring characters like oddball neighbours Matt and Bray, plus shitload of TV show parodies featuring Paul McCarthy playing basically the same character in every single one, and skitHOUSE gave us Tom Gleeson’s Australian Fast Bowler. You remember the Australian Fast Bowler – he was a cricketing superhero that saved people using his cricketing skills – he was on the show multiple times every damn week.

Being on TV multiple times every damn week is something Tom Gleeson presumably learnt during his time on skitHOUSE, but, alas, the Australian Fast Bowler’s time was soon up, as Network Ten launched a new sketch concept in 2005… The Ronnie Johns Half Hour.

In theory, The Ronnie Johns Half Hour was a good idea – a bunch of ex-university comics who’d already been touring around in revues for a while. Yes, it would be just like The D-Generation, who’d done the same thing in the 1980s and had come to dominate TV comedy for years afterwards.

Or not, as it turned out. The one stand-out was Heath Franklin’s parody of Chopper Read, which considering Chopper was at this point a sort of a stand-up, was basically just a rip-off of Chopper’s own act. And given that Franklin still does Chopper, who’s now long dead, an increasingly tasteless one.

But in 2005 Network Ten didn’t just give us Ronnie Johns, it also gave us The B Team with once-popular Triple J duo Merrick & Rosso. Axed after eight episodes, it’s mainly remembered for Rosso dressing up as Russell Crowe (or Rosso Crowe) and fooling members of the public. Classic.

Of course, the early noughties ABC was also serving up sketch comedy duds. Anyone remember Flipside, which featured all three Curry brothers? It was such a good program that the ABC put it out late at night on a Saturday, in a timeslot when only the most dedicated, or those who’d remembered to set the video, would ever see it. We caught a few episodes and boy did it suck. And we’re saying that as people who remember the final series of Totally Full Frontal, a once-great, or at least half-decent, sketch show which had become so tired by this point that entire sketches consisted of a cast member dressed up as John Howard dancing down the street.

But let’s get back to the mid-noughties, a time when it was announced with great fanfare that 80s comedy legends Ian McFadyen (The Comedy Company) and Steve Vizard (Fast Forward) had developed The Wedge, an exciting new concept in sketch comedy where all the sketches would be set in typical Aussie suburb of Wedgedale. Amongst these was Lucy, a delusional schoolgirl who lived her life online, played by Rebel Wilson, and a parody of newsreader Sandra Sully called Sandra Sultry. Future Wilfred creators and stars Adam Zwar and Jason Gann were also in the show. The latter creating a recurring character, disgraced sports star called Mark Wary.

Rebel Wilson as Lucy

Rebel Wilson as Lucy

But the central problem with The Wedge wasn’t so much the concept or the personnel, but the fact that the writing was so bad and none of the cast knew each other. Sketch comedy works best when it’s centred around an established duo or team, who have a distinct style and shared point of view. McFadyen and Vizard, who’d worked together since the 80s, might have had shared a point of view, but the cast and writers were just random people they’d hired, so this sucked.

Hilariously (or not hilariously as it turned out) the exact same thing happened almost ten years later when the ABC made This is Littleton, a show about characters in the fictional city of Littleton, featuring a bunch of people who’d never worked together. It included sketches about a trophy wife, a Schapelle Corby-type character, and some old Greek men who discussed youth phenomena like Snapchat. And it lasted just four episodes.

Another one-series screamer of a sketch show was Seven’s Double Take, notable only for Paul McCarthy (he was in all the worst sketch shows) and his Kochie parody. And we only remember that because we wrote about it here.

One of the hallmarks of great sketch, of course, is taking a simple, funny premise and expanding it from there. Monty Python’s cheese shop with no cheese, for example. Meanwhile, at the turn of this decade, Beached Az took the idea of a cartoon whale on a beach with a New Zealand accent and…that was the entire joke. They somehow sold a lot of merch off the back of it, though.

And so, we move on, ultimately, to crap sketch comedy of the 2010s. 2013’s The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting has been one of many attempts in this decade to revive the sketch show by having it written by new writers. New talent initiatives like Fresh Blood and Channel 10’s Pilot Week have always had a least one ensemble sketch show, either featuring an established act from the live scene who couldn’t get their material to work on TV, or a bunch on stand-ups and character actors shoved together into a show written by the usual hacks.

In this context, The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting looked kinda interesting in that it brought together a group of new writers who’d all had their work presented online and then brought them to TV. Except, oh dear, the new writers only managed to write the same old unfunny crap that all the established writers seemed to be writing. We described the full horror of it over here if you can be bothered.

So, it seemed, hacky comedy was the future of sketch. Or at least the makers of 2015’s Open Slather thought so. This show, made by, of all networks, Foxtel, saw Fast Forward alumni Gina Riley, Jane Turner, Marg Downey, Magda Szbanski and Michael Veitch teamed-up with newer comedians such as Demi Lardner, Emily Taheny and Shane Jacobson, and appearing in parodies of Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, sketches about Gina Reinhart…and loads of even less memorable stuff.

The cast of Open Slather in character

The cast of Open Slather

When it works, sketch comedy is amazing. It’s funny, it’s quotable, it’s re-watchable and sometimes it’s even generation-defining. But when it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work a lot, it’s a reminder of how much money and human effort you can waste on a pointless folly.

Sketch comedy is hard, but the secret to it is quite simple: bring a group of people together around a central comedic premise or attitude, and spend ages making every second of the show as funny as humanly possible.

In the past two decades, the only shows that seem to have achieved that on Australian TV have involved Shaun Micallef. And as much as we love Shaun Micallef, that’s a big, big problem.

Like a Highway at Night

Having had this article drawn to our attention, we can’t seem to look away.

ABC head of comedy Rick Kalowski has a ready answer when producers complain they can’t get a show funded because they have been unable to land an international financier or co-producer.

“If you can’t co-finance your scripted show internationally it’s not because it’s too local, it’s because it’s not good enough,” he tells IF.

That’s an interesting way to put “the only way the ABC will pay for your show is if you get somebody overseas to pay for your show”, but hey, we don’t work in television production. It’s just good to have it on the record that being “too local” is in no way an obstacle to getting money from overseas networks looking for programming they can show to audiences who know next to nothing about Australia.

“One of the few good things about the budget cuts in the past few years is that they have forced us to think internationally about our financing,”

Which sounds great if the international financing people are just handing out money willy-nilly and are happy to fund exactly the kind of shows the ABC wants to make with zero input into the show itself. Let’s hope that’s what’s happening! Because otherwise what this means is that the scripted comedy output from the ABC now relies on the approval of overseas funding bodies, which doesn’t sound ideal.

And speaking of things that don’t sound ideal:

For calendar 2019 he commissioned six full-length series

Next year he is aiming for a slate of five full-length series, all of which are in negotiation or being financed. He expects between one and three will be renewals.

So the “ambitious agenda” laid out in this article is… “less comedy on the ABC in 2020”? With (let’s split the difference) half those shows being returning series? Get Krack!n‘s definitely not coming back, and Diary of an Uber Driver is a drama (right?) so we’re looking at the possibility of third series of Squinters, a fourth series of Rosehaven, or a jaw-dropping fifth series of Utopia? Suddenly the idea of bringing back Sando seems like a breath of fresh air. Especially as 2021 is already booked solid with the return of The Letdown and the as yet unseen Frayed.

Also, we’re shit at maths, but when you only have five slots a year and half of them are going to returning shows, does this add up?

As well as executive producing scripted comedy production for the network the executive has 30-50 projects in development at any one time

If co-developments are the future and overseas funding bodies are happy to fund Australian shows so long as they’re “good enough”, why is the amount of scripted comedy on the ABC falling from six series to five? Why not double the amount of overseas funding and make (okay, less than) double the shows? If there’s at least 30 shows in development and the overseas money is there, what’s the problem?

As we’ve already mentioned, we don’t work in television production. But we have watched a lot of Australian comedy, and at a guess we suspect the real problem with all this is that international money just isn’t interested in seriously funding decent Australian comedy.

It’s been established wisdom since the dawn of time that – unlike drama – comedy doesn’t travel well. It’s not hard to figure out why: if someone has to explain a joke to you its not funny, and unless you’re immersed in a culture you’re not going to understand the references being made.

If you’re making American comedy, this isn’t a problem: your culture has been exported around the world for decades. If you’re making Australian comedy… half the time Americans can’t even understand what you’re saying. Even the UK isn’t all that interested: Australia is at the bottom of a culture well, where we know heaps about other countries and they know next to nothing about us. You probably know the UK has a new Prime Minister; do you honestly think anyone there who’s not an ex-pat knows who our PM is? Does America even know we have a PM?

So you get shows like The Letdown, which are barely Australian (so as not to confuse overseas audiences) and barely comedy (because overseas audiences won’t get the jokes) but are funded by Netflix. Expect another hilarious look at being kinda bummed out about your shitty baby in 2021.

At the extreme, it’s possible that this “show us the international money” approach to approving local comedy pretty much guarantees that anyone Australian with any kind of uniquely Australian voice is going to be locked out of the Australian market for being too Australian. Which you’d think might be a problem for an organisation called The Australian Broadcasting Corporation but no, it just means you’re not good enough:

“There is so much hunger out there for scripted content that if you can’t finance it, it’s not a conspiracy. Many good Australian producers have had a lot of success selling their shows internationally.”

Just not the shows that have anything funny to say about Australia.

Vale Ten’s 2019 New Comedy Line-Up

It may have taken us a little while to notice – maybe we were distracted by the ABC playing the wrong episode of Mad as Hell, maybe we were too depressed over the return of Squinters – but over the last week or so pretty much all of Ten’s new comedy programs for 2019 have wrapped up. Mr Black; Kinne Tonight; even Taboo. All mates, all dead.

Of course, Ten still has Have You Been Paying Attention?, which for sheer comedy (and ratings) pretty much renders all the rest superfluous. And there’s still a couple of shows left to come from their pilot program last year – not that Trial by Kyle and whatever they end up calling Rove’s Saturday Night variety show are really going to count as “comedy”. But still, for a brief moment Ten was treating local comedy like it was something commercial networks should be making and we’re still struggling to get the surprised look off our faces.

That said, do we really think this brief spurt of comedy is going to have any lasting effect? Mr Black may or may not return but it kind of feels like it probably won’t; Kinne Tonight – or some version thereof – probably will, if only because Troy Kinne has proven remarkably resilient over the years. Taboo only had a handful of episodes in the first place and even then felt like it was maybe outstaying its welcome, but if they can find some more telegenic yet troubled people (pro tip: hang around outside the studios where they film the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That) we wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more episodes somewhere down the line.

What really made this burst of comedy interesting was that it still felt like an experiment. Usually comedy series on commercial networks – and increasingly the ABC, but we’ll get to that – are presented as basically a done deal: here’s our big new comedy series, if you like comedy you’d better watch it because if it flops we’re not coming back here in a hurry. But by putting a range of different shows on at roughly the same time, it felt like Ten was supporting the general idea of comedy rather than putting all their eggs in one basket: here’s a range of comedy, fingers crossed you’ll like at least one of them.

It almost goes without saying that this is a much, much better way to treat comedy. Drama might work just fine when expectations are built sky high, but comedy requires a lighter touch… which is why comedy increasingly struggles to stand out in our hype-focused world. Put another way, nobody ever says a drama was “surprisingly dramatic”, but “surprisingly funny” is high praise indeed. We’re not getting carried away with Ten’s line-up here – none of these shows were ground-breaking, or even particularly fresh – but this is the path to go down if you want to give fresh comedy a chance.

Notably, this is not the path that the ABC has gone down in recent years. While they’ve talked a good game with their various Fresh Blood online efforts and their own Comedy Showroom pilot week, the actual scripted comedy shows they’ve put to air over the last five years or so have almost entirely been renewals of series that nobody really wanted back.

Where previously nothing scripted went past two series, Rosehaven and Upper Middle Bogan both scored three series (so far) and Utopia has its fourth coming up; even Very Small Business got a second season after almost a decade off the air. And the “new” series have just been the same kind of thing from the same handful of producers. What was Sando but a slightly tweaked version of The Moodys? What’s Squinters but a slightly bigger version of No Activity?

“Playing it safe” doesn’t begin to cover it with this tired line-up: the ABC’s scripted comedy is predictable, boring, boringly predictable and predictably boring. The reason why Ten can look a lot better with a handful of shows that aren’t exactly ground-breaking is that there’s a sense that they’re willing to put things out there and see if they work whereas the ABC has already decided what’s going to work long before their shows reach the screen and they’ve locked in a second season no matter what.

Which is even more depressing because Ten’s Pilot Week line-up for 2019 is pretty much devoid of comedy as we know it, instead featuring four reality shows and this, which has “not very dramatic but also not very funny” written all over it:

Part Time Privates.

Two mothers at a local primary school decide to start a home-based private investigation business so they can enjoy flexible working hours. As their business unexpectedly thrives, they find themselves thrown deep into the world of working ‘undercover’; moving between school pick-ups, dance group and lunch orders, to threesomes, insurance fraud and failed relationships. Starring Heidi Arena and Nicola Parry.

Still, at least it’s not another season of Rosehaven.