Australian Tumbleweeds

Australia's most opinionated blog about comedy.

Money Changes Everything

Press release time!

Screen Australia has announced 14 feature films, eight online projects and 20 television dramas that will share in $1.6 million of Story Development funding.

The latest slate includes Toni Collette’s directorial debut with feature film The Best Of, and an anthology of Shakespeare’s works re-imagined by teams of creators including Leah Purcell, Elise McCredie and Anchuli Felicia King called Shakespeare Now.

Screen Australia’s Head of Development Nerida Moore said, “While this has been a turbulent, challenging time for many in the industry, it hasn’t stopped the drive, passion and imagination of Australian creative teams. In fact we have continued to see applications coming through with really strong and distinctive content, with the application numbers across March-June this year up 76% on the same period last year.”

“It’s exciting to see re-imaginings of well-loved stories such as Shakespeare Now and an animated series inspired by The Sapphires. And we continue to support storytelling on all platforms, with two online series from comedians Gabriel Willie (better known as Bush Tucker Bunjie) and Chloe Black who are each creating their first scripted narrative comedies.”

You can read the whole thing here, and rarely have we seen a more sustained assault on the idea that scripted television production in Australia is in any way driven by audience demand. So yeah, business as usual.

Still, after spending much of the year (decade?) bemoaning the fact that there simply isn’t all that much Australian comedy around, you might think we’d be thrilled at the prospect of a rush of new comedy projects lurching towards our screens. Oh sure, none of them sound funny – more on that in a moment – but it’s the execution that counts in comedy and any one of these could conceivably be a winner.

Unfortunately, it’s extremely unlikely that many (any?) of these series will ever make it in front of an audience. Well, the Shakespeare one probably will as they’ve already got the ABC on board and adapting Shakespeare means they don’t have to spend money on scripts, but by the time they get around to making this the ABC will be a couple of people driving around in a car shouting out the weather report to passers-by so lets not count our chickens just yet.

But otherwise? This is development funding – cash being given out to various insiders, mates and cronies to polish up some concept or another until the free money runs out they can pitch it to a network willing to put in some real funding to make it happen. Do we have any of those in Australia interested in this kind of thing? Do you really have to ask?

This (partially) explains why so many of these concepts are pitched as “comedy”, despite sounding about as funny as… well, this:

A six-part television comedy called DNA Dad (working title), centred on neurologically diverse young man Michael who discovers his biological father is UK actor Ben Miller, and travels to London to meet him. The connection leads both men to discover the true meaning of family.

Hilarious stuff, and we haven’t even got to The Mayor of Nothing, in which Andrew Knight decides to remake his hit Seachange only instead of moving to a quirky seaside town now our lead “in a grief-induced act of insanity, buys a rundown village in rural Italy and drags his three daughters on an ill-conceived restoration mission”. Yeah, that grief-induced insanity always gets the big laughs.

But because “comedy” sounds slightly more commercially appealing than “drama”, pretty much everything not set in the past or featuring a “mysterious young girl” is either a comedy or a dramedy, thus rendering those terms completely meaningless. You want proof?

Six-part dramedy New Animal, from writer Marieke Hardy (Laid), based on the upcoming debut novel by Ella Baxter. The television series follows 28-year-old oddball Amelia who works as a cosmetician at a family funeral parlour. After the sudden death of her mother, she is drawn into the local BDSM community in an attempt to deal with her grief. New Animal will be produced by Jason Stephens and Helen Bowden of Lingo Pictures (Lambs of God).

Where to start? Putting aside the involvement of perennial funding body favourite Hardy, what exactly makes an “upcoming debut novel” worthy of funding when presumably the whole idea of putting cash into adapting novels is that if you wait until they’ve been published you can pick the successful ones? Oh right, because the novel has such a brilliant concept the funding body wants to get in early and lock down the rights. What’s this book about again?

It’s somewhat telling that Laid is the series chosen to remind readers of what Marieke Hardy is capable of – or at least it would be if she had any other above-the-title credits to her name – because Laid was the last time Australian comedy tried to combine sex and death in such a thought-provoking fashion. Of course, going by the ratings the thought usually provoked was “is there something else we could be watching”, but at least the fine folks at The Age will be there to talk it up yet again because it’s not like they’re now owned by a rival network committed to the downfall of the ABC oh wait we didn’t think this through and fuck when did it stop being 2011.

But here’s the good news:

‘Development’ refers to any stage of a project’s creation as it travels towards production. It can involve everything and anything that will help get a project to the screen, from various stages of scripting to filming a proof-of-concept, such as a short film or series pilot. It can take many years for a project to reach the screen, and each project’s timeline from development to release is different due to many factors including financing, cast, locations and festival timing.

They could have just shortened that paragraph to “don’t hold your breath”.

Looks quizzical

Earlier in this pandemic, some stat went around that podcasting equipment was flying off the virtual shelves so fast that many online retailers were all sold out. Literally, everyone was getting into podcasting.

And while it’s nice that people are finding ways to keep active during lockdown…look, let’s be honest, not every idea for a podcast is worth pursuing.

The Saturday Quiz is a reboot of The Weekend Quiz, a podcast started earlier this year in which actor John Leary (you’ll have seen him in Get Krack!n, The Letdown and Upper Middle Bogan, amongst other shows) asks a couple of celebrities to try and answer the quiz questions in that weekend’s Good Weekend. Guests on The Weekend Quiz included Amanda Brotchie and Adam Zwar, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope, and Celia Pacquola and Luke McGregor. Now, for The Saturday Quiz, Leary uses the questions from The Saturday Paper’s weekly quiz, with all-new pairs of celebs trying to answer them. In the first episode, released a couple of days ago, the guests were Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney.

The Saturday Quiz

If you like hearing comedians on podcasts, you may find The Saturday/Weekly Quiz interesting. But if you like hearing comedians on podcasts being funny then you probably won’t find it interesting. The basic problem is the premise.

On a comedy quiz that’s funny, Have You Been Paying Attention? for instance, the laughs come from comedians giving plausible-but-wrong or silly-but-wrong answers to questions. On The Saturday/Weekly Quiz, the theory is that the laughs will come from the guests struggling to the get to the correct answer. Because, you know, comedy is pain, right?

And if you’re a comedian who’s great at improv, and you’re on The Saturday/Weekly Quiz, then yes, you can maybe get some laughs out of the fact that you don’t know the answer to the question and are flailing about a bit. But we stress the word “some”.

See, that tactic works great for the first few questions. But after that? What the hell do you do? There are ten questions in total – you’ve gotta change things up a bit.

The best examples of anything – comedy, podcasts – look so effortlessly easy, don’t they? Like anyone can do them. But that’s just not true. Good comedy needs planning. And a good podcast has to have a premise that has been thought through.

Imagine if the comedians on The Saturday Quiz had been sent the questions in advance? Not so they could look up the answers, but so that they could plan funny things to say about them. But we suspect that’s not happening here, and it’s why this show isn’t terribly funny or much fun to listen to.

As it is, we’re just glad that The Saturday Paper only publishes 10 quiz questions a week. Imagine if it was 20? Imagine how long and painful that podcast would be.

Vale The Weekly 2020

“Let’s do this baby one more time” said host Charlie Pickering at the start of the final episode of The Weekly for 2020. Here’s a suggestion: let’s not? Oh wait, Pickering already said he’ll be back for The Yearly as part of his sappy moralising end speech that said we’ll all get through this just so long as we’re more like the generation that went through the Great Depression and World War II. What, you mean massively racist?

To be fair, there has been something of a lingering sense of doom hanging over The Weekly this year, what with everything up to and including the set jumping ship, leaving us in a strange limbo where the only thing we could rely on was that Briggs wouldn’t be appearing. Apart from that one time he did. He’s now the second longest running cast member!

Unfortunately for those of us who just want The Weekly to dry up and blow away, changing things up – even if forced upon them by the coronavirus – was exactly what the show needed. It didn’t stop it being shit, obviously, but it did stop it being stale. Yes, the new, more homely look was almost as much of a cliche as the fake news set and by the end of the series a new, just as boring rut had been dug, but for a brief shining moment there Pickering was appearing on screen without a jacket and they can never take that away from us.

Otherwise the show continued to set the bar low and then trip over it. Luke McGregor’s economics segments were pretty basic but still a thousand-fold improvement over Hard Chat, Judith Lucy did whatever she liked and was funny as usual, Corona Cops was frankly puzzling in just how amazingly unfunny it was determined to be each week and those segments focusing on Andrew Bolt’s love of scotch made him look like a harmless eccentric instead of a huge racist so thanks for that.

This was also the series that saw Tom Gleeson finally figure out he didn’t need to bother with this shit and could just go off and be a game show host for the next decade or so. Why he bothered coming back at all was a bit of a mystery: initially he was in lockdown on some property in rural Victoria, which… seemed a real thing? And then he just never bothered coming back. Presumably he wanted to take a victory lap at some stage because he’s Tom Gleeson and that’s what he does (which is probably why he didn’t just quit between series) but his few half-hearted appearances just made it even more obvious that the show didn’t really need him hanging around any longer. Kitty Flanagan went out on a high note; Gleeson went out on the brown note.

But the one thing that remained consistent throughout this year – and the show as a whole – is this weird idea that The Weekly is somehow something more than just a random collection of shit news jokes. Pickering giving a final “we’ll get through this” speech like some overly earnest glad handing politician trying to sell a new housing development in a bushfire zone that is also a flood plain was bad enough, but why put it at the end of the episode? “We’ll get through this” is exactly what we need to hear at the start of any given episode of The Weekly. Especially if the remote isn’t close by.

The problem is that whatever Pickering is like in real life, on The Weekly he comes off as a smug prick. While that occasionally works in his favour comedy-wise – some of the one-liners during his opening news round-up have almost been not bad this year – it chops off at the knees any attempt (by him) to seem like a trusted authority or audience surrogate. And yet the show still keeps on trying to ram his square peg into that round hole like he’s six months away from being called up to read the national news.

A snarky smart-arse taking pot-shots at current affairs? Yeah, when his writers are firing he can almost manage that. But a serious commentator on important issues? What possible reason could he have for thinking that’s what people want him to be? “If I’m guilty of anything,” you can imagine him saying, “it’s of caring too much… about myself”.

Guess somebody has to.

Ring my bell – Ding Dong I’m Gay: series one

The first episodes of web series Ding Dong I’m Gay, piloted two years ago, have now been released. We thought the pilot showed some promise when we reviewed it in 2018, and based on the first two episodes of the series proper, we were right.

In the pilot, Toby (Brayden Dalmazzone), a country boy, moves to Sydney to stay with his gay cousin Cameron (Tim Spencer). Except Cameron assumes Toby’s straight – and homophobic – and tries to hide his sexuality in front of Toby. But it turns out, Toby’s gay too. This leads to Cameron offering to mentor Toby around the gay scene, except, in true sitcom fashion, Cameron’s advice is often useless, while Toby turns out to be pretty cluey for a country bumpkin.

If this sounds like a classic sitcom premise, a bit like 80s/90s favourite Perfect Strangers, say, then yes, there are elements of that. Although the butt of the joke in Ding Dong I’m Gay is Cameron (rather than the out-of-town cousin), who seems to grow less and less sure of himself by the second as he repeatedly fails to snare almost-boyfriend Jack (Rupert Raineri), while Toby bags all the hot guys (including a local porn star).

Where exactly Ding Dong I’m Gay is heading, though, is a mystery. The pilot shows – and indeed the title sequence for this series – feature a pregnant neighbour, Lucy and a paranoid Chinese student, Sweetie, but there’s been no sign of either of them so far. Also, what’s up with the music video Instaboy featuring wannabe Instagram influencer Anton, whose hot mate got up close and personal with Toby in episode two? Will we be seeing more of him? You will have to subscribe to the channel to find out.

That’s Not A Comedy

Probably the most annoying thing about The Very Excellent Mr Dundee (now available on Amazon Prime) is that it didn’t have to be shit. It’s hardly a surprise that it is thanks to a whole range of factors including but not limited to it being an Australian comedy film starring Paul Hogan, but still: watching it (our recommendation: don’t), there’s just enough signs of life scattered throughout to make the constant dull thud as joke after joke clangs leadenly to the ground more painful than it needed to be. It was never going to be good, but it didn’t have to be this bad.

This isn’t actually in the movie, possibly because it’s funny

It’s tempting to say the rot started with the central concept, which is “hey, it’s Paul Hogan’s real-life adventures in Hollywood, only not really”. It’s true that the idea of a wacky “look behind the curtain” at a faded comedy star is both fifteen years past its use-by date and something Peter Moon already did. But it’s not a irredeemably bad idea, especially for Paul Hogan, knockabout Aussie larrikin. So of course, this instead gives us Paul Hogan, sad burnout who’s sick of the celebrity life and just wants to move back Down Under. Comedy!

Having thrown out literally the only comedy premise that’s ever worked for Hoges in movies – that of a charming fish out of water – this decides to go the Hollywood satire route, as Hoges (as himself) goes through a string of disastrous comedy mix-ups that constantly put him in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Two of these mix-ups involve (accidental) racism, and even though both times the film makes it pretty clear that racism is bad, if racism is bad (it is) why have your comedic lead be racist? Hoges works on screen as a likable decent guy, not some edgy comedy firebrand; considering the director also directed Hoges’ three previous films (Charlie & Boots, Strange Bedfellows and the awful That’s Not My Dog) even this mild accidental racism in 2020 seems like a fairly fundamental misunderstanding of his comedic persona.

So the premise doesn’t work and Hoges is playing against type: what else can go wrong? Having no actual story doesn’t help matters, as this is just a series of one-note scenes that go in circles without escalating or developing in any way until suddenly there’s a time jump and everything gets resolved. The awkward scenes do get bigger as they go from bad business meetings and angry fan events to car chases and a helicopter catching him hugging a blow up crocodile in his back yard, but they never build to anything and the whole “stay out of trouble or the Queen won’t give you a knighthood” angle isn’t exactly a high stakes drama in the first place.

And yet somehow despite looking like it was filmed for seven dollars in a generic suburb with “Hollywood” painted on a fence, it’s not a total loss. You wouldn’t think filming a bunch of celebrities saying shit about Hoges at a red carpet event for something else entirely would be all that funny, but the one thing this does have going for it is that it’s perfectly happy to go after Hoges hard. Well, during the Hollywood parody scenes at least – there’s plenty of sappy crap with Hoges and his granddaughter (weirdly, her mother is never mentioned) to let us know he’s a decent bloke at heart no matter what the media says, but the media gets the edge here because they’re mildly amusing and his granddaughter can’t even manage that.

There are also celebrity cameos. If you are a John Cleese or Chevy Chase completist, they are in this film. If you are a Wayne Knight completist, maybe find a better hobby? And if you are a Julia Morris or Paul Fenech completist, stop.

Paul Hogan is now eighty, and there’s no good reason to think he’ll ever make another film. This would be a bum note to go out on, but it’s not that much worse than 2001’s Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles or any of the other movies he made in the 90s so it’s hard to feel particularly bad for him. It’s more frustrating than anything else; even at eighty Paul Hogan still has decent comedy chops when required, charisma to burn and enough name recognition to get movies made.

This whole thing just feels like a waste of his talents, limited though they may be. Even now, it’s easy to imagine him making better films than this – and not just because it’s hard to imagine films much worse.

Shaun Micallef Hits the Piss

If the ABC really wanted to pull a crowd with Shaun Micallef’s On The Sauce, they should have got Mick Molloy to host it. Having Micallef host a mildly anxious series about how maybe drinking is not great for everyone just feels like a natural fit: having Molloy out there desperately trying to fit his boozy persona into the ABC’s sober agenda would have given this series a spark that – it pains us to say – it really needs.

That’s right kids, drinking is bad

Those expecting Micallef in comedy mode would have been sorely disappointed by tonight’s episode, but comedy was never really on the agenda. This was always going to be yet another serious series where a comedian investigates a topic of personal interest in a mildly informative manner – in this case, Micallef needs to find a way to try and persuade his teenage sons to follow in his footsteps and stay off the grog, only with them skipping the handful of years where Micallef was a youthful tearaway sculling bottles of scotch and passing out outside bars.

While this initially presents itself as Micallef investigating the world of alcohol – a world he’s avoided for the last 30 years – so he can become an informed guide for his kids, you don’t have to look too deeply to see that this was only ever going to play out one way: hey kids, booze is bad. Which does tend to cut off the few comedic possibilities this series might have had, because the only way to scare people off booze is by taking booze extremely seriously. Fans of comedy vomiting and “youze are my bestest mates evaaa”, look away now.

So when Micallef goes to hang out with people who actually do drink, they’re always treated with a kind of bland arms-length respect. Micallef himself (who is out of his comfort zone more than once here) often seems a little awkward around them – possibly because, in this context at least, he has nothing in common with them – and their drinking is presented in a kind of “not for me but fair enough” fashion that rarely provides any real insight. A harsher show could have found a lot of mean-spirited comedy here, but (thankfully?) this is above that.

One thing that is interesting (and which ties in with the general anti-booze tone of it all) is that while the people who drink are treated with respect, the only reasons ever given for wanting to drink are social ones – peer pressure, making friends, being part of the group and so on. The idea that anyone might like to drink because they enjoy the effects of alcohol is barely touched upon (and then only extremely clinically) presumably because if you want to argue that drinking is bad then having it actually be pleasurable makes that a lot harder to do. But if drinking is purely a social thing, then it’s perfectly reasonable to replace it with sober social activities and get rid of the booze entirely – please sign our petition to make Australia a dry continent, thanks.

There’s also a weird sense here that drinking is somehow largely (entirely?) a cultural thing. The reason why Australians drink is presented as the result of the way Australian society is set up (farmers need to bond quickly with strangers, immigrants need a quick path to blending in, sport is linked to booze through advertising, we’ve always been a nation of pissheads, and so on), and not because of any personal desires – well, not any good ones at least, as the dark side of drinking is most definitely covered here too. Which means that if we could only change Australian culture, then Australia’s drinking problem would go away. Please sign our petition, etc etc.

(the fact that Australian drinking rates are in decline and have been for decades gets a very brief mention)

This opens a big door labelled “problematic”, because whose culture are we talking about here? Micallef is a clear outsider when it comes to boozing whatever the context, but for much of this first episode the people who drink are very obviously very much unlike him – mostly young people, often rough around the edges in a way that suggests they’re probably not big ABC viewers. This may just be accidental; on the other hand, everyone here is pretty white (at least until episode three, when the impact of alcohol on indigenous communities is supposedly going to be looked at), which suggests someone somewhere thought about what kind of Australia was going to be put under the microscope here.

It’s not quite getting into us versus them territory (and next week promises a visit to a boozy book club, which is about as ABC an activity as you can get), but there is the occasional sense here that drinking is really only something that other people do and maybe they need to be told to stop… you know, for their own good. Which is pretty much how the “alcohol debate” currently works in this country, so no big surprise there.

Well, maybe a little one if you were expecting something with a bit more genuine inquiry underlying things. But it’s clear that Micallef himself is no fan of the grog (and for good reason going by a couple of personal stories), and if the summaries of future episodes are any guide this three part series ends up as more of a “how do we stop people drinking?” show than anything else. You have been warned.

On the upside, how about those early Micallef clips, huh? Theatresports! The ABC had an entire channel named ABC Comedy and they never got around to repeating that. It’s enough to drive you to drink.

Vale Hard Chat

It was a shit segment and it should have ended four years ago. Good fucking riddance.

(is that going to be it? – ed)

Okay, fine. Usually we at least try to get in somewhat early with our so-called “news coverage”, but when we heard that Tom Gleeson was finally retiring his excreteable Hard Chat segment from The Weekly a good 80 episodes after it stopped being funny, we thought “hang on, let’s wait a minute here”. No point digging a perfectly good hole when we’re not 100% sure the fucker’s dead yet and all that.

After all, our only source for this information was Tom Gleeson, a performer who’s carefully developed over the last decade or so a subtle and nuanced comedy persona that’s best described as a lying sack of shit. Oh wait, we mean “colourful prankster” who just happens to say whatever the hell he likes so long as there’s a bit of publicity in it for him. Because it’s funny! To him at least.

So claiming his long-running segment had finally staggered to an ignoble end only to exhume the corpse in a week or so’s time is totally in keeping with whatever the fuck kind of comedy character he’s supposed to be playing these days.

“That’s the joke” his fans say, “he’s pretending to be a self-obsessed jerk who’ll insult anyone for attention! He also tells lies! Hilarious!” and no doubt in the hands of a skilled comedy practitioner – or even with a bit of context around it, as Gleeson sometimes provides during his actual comedy performances and on quiz show Hard Quiz – this kind of act works just fine. Well, probably not “fine”, but you can see what he’s trying to get at.

But the whole point of the increasingly pointless Hard Chat was that Gleeson was a loose cannon willing to talk shit to anyone anywhere, and that eventually spread out into the real world with things like his efforts at The Logies. Which again, wasn’t automatically a bad thing, except that unlike other professional bullshit artists around the globe there was no real comedy character – or joke – behind it. Gleeson wasn’t pretending he’d axed his show and it wasn’t coming back unless he won the Gold Logie to make any kind of greater comedy point, or even just to get laughs; he did it because he wanted to win a Gold Logie.

And now he has one. There’s even a reasonable chance he has the final one: TV Week just got bought by an asset-stripping venture capital firm almost certainly looking to cash in then cash out, and wasting money on an awards night that hands out statues to the likes of Tom Gleeson isn’t going to look good on the balance sheet. There’s a high note to go out on.

Hard Chat wasn’t just a one-joke segment that relied almost entirely on the quality of the guests involved and stopped being funny three weeks in: it took Tom Gleeson from rarely amusing comedy dickhead to the dizzying heights of award-winning quiz show host. Which means it took him from being the Ginger Ninja to somebody we can pretty much ignore, which is a win-win all around.

Mind you, it was still a shit segment that should have ended four years ago. Good fucking riddance.


This Is Planet A

Press release time!

Presenter, prankster and positive planet-promoter, Craig Reucassel returns to Tuesday nights on ABC to once again inspire our thinking and challenge our behaviour, in the must-watch series Fight for Planet A: Our Climate Challenge.

[guess social distancing is over – coming soon, Craig Reucassel: Superspreader]

Premiering Tuesday 11th August at 8.30pm, over three episodes, Craig takes on a climate challenge to reduce our carbon emissions and 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 eat?

Craig says: “I can’t wait to share this series with everyone. The bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic have seen a depressing start to 2020. While the effects of climate change remain one of our planet’s biggest issues, it’s an area where we can hopefully find some more optimism. There are so many things we can do right now to reduce our individual and communities carbon emissions – we just need to make a start. I hope all Australians will join me in the Fight for Planet A.”

Fight for Planet A will entertain, inform and challenge our thoughts on climate change. Craig will showcase how individuals, families, schools and businesses can help reduce our carbon footprint by making practical day-to-day changes, especially in our homes. We’ll meet five very different Aussie households, who will take on Craig’s “climate challenge” to reduce their energy, transport and food carbon emissions.

Far from taking the pressure off businesses, Craig will check in to see if they are doing all they can to make the changes we need and challenge them to do better.  He’ll question our politicians and meet some inspiring Australians who are working toward solutions for the future of our planet.

Small actions can lead to big changes and we can all play a part, so it’s time for Australians to collectively change the way we think about climate change and join the Fight for Planet A.

Prankster? Still? Guess Reucassel did do a short skit on At Home Alone Together.

On the other, more realistic hand, we really shouldn’t be surprised that the ABC’s grim determination to make worthy educational television seem entertaining by putting a comedy face out front continues apace. First Shaun Micallef, now this; if Chris Lilley hadn’t been cancelled Ja’mie definitely would be presenting a “confronting” look at Australia’s troubled teens.

Oh yeah, there’s a clip:

Stories from a different age

There’s never been a better time for broadcasters to plunder their archives to keep us locked-down folk entertained, but there’s been a disappointing amount of decent archive comedy dropping on the various streaming platforms. So, it’s nice to see that Stories from the Golf is on SBS On Demand.

Originally aired in 2004, Stories from the Golf is a series of five-minute episodes from Gristmill (Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler) focusing on the weird and wonderful people who rent a silver 1998 VW Golf from a Melbourne car hire company.

Journalists, crims, an elderly man taking a last drive before he hands in his licence…we meet all sorts in this. Many of the characters are played by Hope and Butler but there are also guest appearances from the likes of Roz Hammond, Bob Franklin, Matt Parkinson, Brian Nankervis, Tony Martin, and Camilla Ah Kin (Mrs Habib from Here Come the Habibs!).

16 years after it was made, Stories from the Golf holds up well, but some of the differences between it and today’s sketch comedy are obvious. On the one hand, the cast is almost entirely white, most of the characters are male, and there is, perhaps, less sensitivity around LGBT and mentally ill characters. On the other hand, this is a hell of a lot more creative than a lot of today’s comedy. Apart from Sandi (Irene Korsten), who runs the car hire company, there are no recurring characters – and there are no recurring themes, beyond the fact that someone’s hired the car, meaning this show can go anywhere, and often does.

One episode, The Journey, about a couple taking a day trip down the coast, is shot in black and white in the style of a French arthouse film. Another, Syncopated Road Rage, starts off as the tale of a frustrated businessman stuck in a traffic jam but then turns into a musical. Then there’s the story of a son unable to handle the death of his domineering father, who refused to allow him to change his embarrassing Danish-origin surname: Fückstocker. Difficult not to find that surname funny.

Thomas Fückstocker

Playing with tone and format – or just inventing stupid surnames – seems to be less common in today’s sketch comedy, with its dedication to recurring characters, realism, and over-arching themes, and we miss this kind of comedy. There should be more flexible and open comedy formats like Stories from the Golf, where anything can happen.

There is one little mystery about SBS adding Stories from the Golf to On Demand, however. Why isn’t episode 4, Christian Soup, available to view?

In Christian Soup, five Christians hire the Golf to attend a healing weekend, but they crash the car on the way. And as they deal with this, sexual tension between members of the group causes conflict when it emerges that they’ve pretty much all slept with each other – and are all rather messed-up people generally.

The whole thing feels in slightly dubious taste, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what about this episode might make it unacceptable today. Is it the sexism displayed by one of the male characters (who likes to touch up the female characters)? The negative portrayal of Christians (comedians don’t take the piss out of Christians so much these days)? Or is the explanation more banal (the show is rated G on On Demand but was rated MA for its mid-noughties DVD release)?

Any ideas on why Christian Soup isn’t there? Let us know. Otherwise, enjoy this slice of comedy from sixteen years ago while you can.

Rolling Your R’s

Not for the first time, we’ve realised we’ve been going about this comedy thing all wrong. For years we’ve been watching sitcoms while shouting “be more funny” and “where’s the jokes” and “are they ever going to get out of the bloody car”, when what we should have been focusing on was the most important question of all: do we want these guys to be our friends?

The ABC’s new back-to-back Wednesday night sitcom line-up of the returning Rosehaven and the all-new Retrograde are a firm reminder – if one was needed, which it clearly was in our case – that your modern sitcom is all about hanging out with your virtual friends for a perfectly pleasant half hour or so. The more friends a show offers, the greater the chance you might find one abrasive (that is to say, funny) – but don’t worry, the overall effect remains roughly the same as a glass of warm milk.

Nobody expect sitcoms to have big dramatic story developments or anything, but the dueling plotlines in this week’s Rosehaven‘s involving a): a mystery package and b): Emma (Celia Pacquola) being worried that Daniel (Luke McGregor) isn’t properly handling his breakup – AKA his “decoupling” – with his now-in-Japan-but coming-back-soon-ex seem lightweight even by Australian standards. Yes, they get the job done, in that Daniel eventually starts flopping limply onto beds and tables because he has feelings while Emma wanders around meeting all the show’s background regulars (hey, where’s Anthony Morgan?) as she tries to get someone to open the slightly mysterious package. The final scene of Seven this ain’t.

Emma and Daniel are a mildly charming duo with pleasant comedy chemistry acting giggly in a nicely quirky setting, which is great for a glorified tourism promo for the wonders of Tasmania, the island you currently can’t visit. But calling it a comedy? Maybe by process of elimination – it’s not a drama, or a game show, or a talent show, or true crime, or… you get the idea. But it is a show that it’s hard to imagine people actively sitting down to watch and then giving it their whole attention; it’s just so lightweight that it feels better suited as a backdrop for… literally anything else. Most likely a nap.

On the up side, photocopier jokes! Thank god Rosehaven is back otherwise we’d have to wait until the next Working Dog sitcom to get some of that sweet, sweet “does it have enough paper” comedy.

As for Retrograde, it features “young people”, which is to say people in their early 30s acting like they’re teenagers, which helps to differentiate themselves from the characters in Rosehaven, who are people in their mid 30s acting like they’re teenagers. The gimmick here is that it was filmed during lockdown, so everyone is on screen in their own little worlds in a group video chat like a less amusing episode of Have You Been Paying Attention? only the role of Tom Gleisner is played by you at home and everyone else is having an off night.

The good news is, it’s a perfectly decent show on a basic level and didn’t we just say that about Rosehaven? Performances are good, dialogue flows well, the online format doesn’t get in the way, the actual story – our heroine is about to start a new life in Korea so is chatting to her friends online while she packs, only it all turns to shit thanks to COVID19 and she ends up with no job and no home (unless she moves in with the boyfriend she was hoping to ditch) – is decent, and generally speaking it feels mostly like a half hour of proper television and not whatever that collection of At Home Alone Together sketches was that aired afterwards.

(sidebar: while it was interesting to see the sketches AHAT rejected, it seemed like most of them were rejected for either being “too edgy” in an undergraduate way – coating yourself in oil guy was creepy, Chinese guy was political, destroying that My Kitchen Rules‘ guy’s books was probably too much for an ABC board member who’s mates with him – or just being not very good (hey look, it’s Heath Franklin!). But if DVD releases and the deleted scenes they featured are now a thing of the past, we’re not going to fault the ABC for giving us the chance to see the stuff that really wasn’t good enough to go to air)

The problem with Retrograde is that, in the first episode at least, its actual comedy was pissweak. It’s a show set during lockdown, so it featured such hilarious insights as “toilet paper is hard to find”, “small children will interrupt you during a video call”, and of course, “people will make a video call wearing the top half of a suit then stand up to reveal they’re wearing no pants”. There was also a tarot card reading that was supposed to reassure someone so of course the first card drawn was Death. At least the show was trying to be funny?

As we may have mentioned earlier, sitcoms now are really just about providing the audience with fake virtual friends for a half hour or so. Being funny – as in, actually funny, not someone with “banter” – is a drawback, because while everyone wants friends, not everyone wants funny friends and mainstream television can’t afford to alienate anyone in 2020. So while it might seem like we’re being negative about both shows – because we are – judged by the shows’ own standards, calling them bland exercises in virtual friendship is giving them both a big thumbs up.

Then again, all our favourite older, funnier sitcoms have been #cancelled for having blackface episodes, so maybe we should quit while we’re ahead.