Making topical comedy isn’t easy. Forget the time constraints: we’re talking about having to make comedy out of the daily news. In Australia no less, land of no amusing news in good times or bad. And at the moment, things are pretty, pretty, pretty bad.
Was 2021 the year that much of Australia woke up to the fact that the LNP approach of slotting in bullies, thugs, accused rapists and corrupt do-nothings as political leaders maybe isn’t the right way to go when faced with a global pandemic requiring governments to do more than pork-barrel marginal seats and hand out cash to their mates / secret lovers? Fucked if we know, we just review comedy. What we do know is, there’s not a lot of laughs in that scenario.
Sure, times are just fine if you’re making the usual smug garbage the ABC tries to pass off as comedy. You know what we mean – topical comedy where the core assumption is that so long as house prices continue to soar and tradies can find work on building sites, everything else (for people with secure work and at least one house) will take care of itself. Excited about Question Everything? We sure are!
Considering it’s now just Charlie Pickering behind a desk talking about other networks’ news footage, we have no idea why we’re not getting a second season of The Weekly this year. We’d like to think it’s because someone in head office finally realised that when things are actually going bad out in the community, the show that gave us Corona Cops isn’t just missing the mark, it’s insulting what little remains of its audience.
That kind of smug unfunny “centrist” comedy is basically the equivalent of being gaslit by your local Murdoch rag, a pissweak attempt to pass off sneering assumptions from 2006 as something somehow related to the world everyone else is living in today. At least with The Cheap Seats they’re mostly making fun of wacky news clips from overseas, not re-voicing actual local news footage to make cheap jokes about *checks notes* *voice drops a couple octaves* a deadly pandemic.
So yeah, times are tough. And Mad as Hell stepped up. It didn’t escape our notice that the final episode was, for large chunks of the run time, basically just a laundry list of all the things the federal government has completely screwed up. Which is absolutely what a topical comedy show at this point in time should be doing, because what bigger news could there be than the revelation that during a national crisis our federal leaders are… well, let’s keep it at “not up to the task”?
Unlike this post, Mad as Hell wasn’t a grim litany of failure shrieked out by a demented lunatic either. Jokes! Funny bits! The cast all swapped characters! A musical number! These were all good things.
But really, the show’s big achievement this year was that it managed to be funny while making fun of a national situation that’s increasingly just a bit shit. It wasn’t the much-vaunted by idiots “escape from the grim headlines” kind of show; rather it was a crack team of comedy professionals seeing the world clearly and finding the humour in it no matter how deeply it was buried. Renew Mad as Hell for 2022 now, you cowards!
Also they made fun of Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery, and that show is rubbish.
The funniest thing to ever happen in, on, or around Rosehaven was the recent news that this current season would be the last because writer-creators-stars Ceclia Pacquola and Luke McGregor had “run out of stories”. To which a nation replied as one: Rosehaven has stories?
Lest you think this is our usual baseless snark, let’s look at the stories they decided they did have to tell: in the first episode back, Luke wants to buy a new car, Celia has to rescue her ex boyfriend from doing too many odd jobs for the neighbourhood watch, and the comedy highlight is riding around on a ride-on mower. It’s not exactly Melvin, Son of Alvin.
Maybe we are being a bit snarky; even a low stakes story is still a story. But Rosehaven has set the bar so low as far as narrative goes that the idea of somehow ever running out of stories about a pair of friends at a real estate agency in a tiny Tasmanian town seems bonkers. If you could drag this out to five seasons – of eight episodes each, making this easily the longest running Aussie sitcom this century if you pretend Pizza / Fat Pizza never happened and why wouldn’t you – then why not ten? A hundred?
It seems slightly more likely that Pacquola and McGregor have come to the same point the rest of us did a few seasons ago: they’ve had a gutful. You can’t blame them for being slow on the uptake, what with the show actually making them money while costing us our time and will to live. Remember when they were just two of the supporting cast from Utopia? Now if you believe the press they’re Australia’s greatest comedy team since Dad’n Dave.
As for the show itself, it’s *heavy sigh* fiiiiiiiiine. Nice scenery, soothing mood, low stakes stories… did we mention nice scenery? Nothing’s all that funny, but it’s not trying to be; at least Anthony Morgan is back later in the series. Where’s his spin off?
Obviously McGregor and Pacquola are the big draws here and rightly so: they have a fun, easy chemistry, they’re a rock solid double act and seeing them piss-fart around is… if not laugh out loud funny, then at least passably entertaining. If anything, their work here is slightly frustrating, as it feels a little like watching a couple of talented professionals dicking around on the easy setting. They could (and elsewhere, have) make something a lot funnier than this.
But being funny isn’t really the point. You couldn’t even call it a dramedy – it’d have to contain drama for that. Rosehaven is basically a fantasy travel show, a half hour journey to a sleepy country village where you can spend time with some nice people who seem to be enjoying themselves.
Or if you’re at Casa del Tumbleweeds, you can turn the television off and see pretty much the exact opposite reflected in the screen.
You always expect that a few sketches in every sketch show will be duds. No sketch show’s perfect, and as long as most sketches in a show are good, the audience can live with the one or two sketches that aren’t. But what if you’re The Moth Effect and your show only has three sketches? Will the audience stick around if one or two of those three sketches are duds? We’re about to find out…
The Moth Effect opened with a sketch imagining that a Ben & Jerry’s-type company – restyled as Jen & Berry’s for the purposes of the show – had decided to take a stand on an issue. (Ben & Jerry’s were presumably chosen because of their recent announcement that they would stop selling their ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territory.)
So, we see the executive team of Jen & Berry’s brainstorming issues they could take a stand on, then coming up with ways to incorporate their new stance into their products. The team settle on the military-industrial complex as the issue, then come up with new ice cream flavours on that theme. Most of the comedy here is in the names of the new flavours, many of which are only fleetingly visible on a whiteboard.
Later, we see the logical conclusion of this in a series of ads for Jen & Berry’s. In one, a senior American official eats a spoonful of Ben & Jerry’s Disarma-Mint and decides to stop all wars and disband the military. In another, we see a distraught Muslim man, whose family have been killed by (we presume) the Americans, being placated with a tub of PTS-De Leche-flavoured ice cream.
To be honest, we could have done without that last one (what even was the satirical point there?), and, in fact, with most of this rather long sketch. Big companies awkwardly trying to care about issues is a good target for comedy, but the small number of laughs we got from the ice cream flavours, some of which were pretty gratuitous in their lack of sensitivity, didn’t really justify it.
So, what came next on The Moth Effect? Hitler and incest, of course. Or to be precise, a trailer for a TV show about a guy who invents a time machine, goes back in history to kill Hitler and prevent the Holocaust and World War II, but finds he can only succeed in doing that if he has sex with his mum and becomes his own father.
Again, there are one or two laughs here, mainly from the endless repetition of the key points about this TV show – Hitler and incest – but that’s kind of it. Apart from that bitter taste of Hitler and incest that the whole sketch leaves in your mouth.
In the final sketch, and The Moth Effect really should have led with this one because it’s the only decent sketch in the episode, we see a news report about rival gangs making life difficult for the ordinary residents of a town in England. The fights between the gangs, who aren’t the sort of gangs you might expect to find in such a town, are funny, the residents interviewed by the reporter are funny (and amusingly captioned), and there’s a variety of English accents and stereotypes to enjoy. What more could you want?
Well, more sketches like that, to be honest. The strength of The Moth Effect, judging by what we’re seen so far, is high concept, funny ideas rather than satire or gross-out humour. So, maybe more creativity and less falling back on cheap incest gags?
Press release time!
Jan Fran and Wil Anderson Question Everything
Forget fake news, here’s a true story: Question Everything, is a brand-new quiz-panel show from the mind of Wil Anderson that aims to give facts their swagger back. Hosted by Jan Fran (The Feed, The Project) and Wil Anderson (Spicks and Specks *fact check result: false), the eight-part series premieres Wednesday 18 August at 8.30pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.
In a world dominated by fake stories, false claims, scams, frauds and outright lies, Question Everything will dissect the news, sort the real from the rumours, separate fact from fiction and flatten conspiracy theories back down to Earth. Helping Jan and Wil question everything each week will be a revolving panel of up-and-coming comedians with the occasional big name thrown in too. At least that’s what anonymous sources close to the show tell us.
Question Everything is the show for anyone who has ever been lied to by the media. So, all of us. It’s also a show for anyone who believes the information and rumours sent to us through social media news feeds, WhatsApp or has had to mute a family member on Facebook. So, all of us.
From the team behind Gruen, Question Everything will give audiences the tools to understand everything they see, read or sometimes share without reading. Viewers will be immunised against fake news, unless they refused to be immunised because they think it’s all a plot by Bill Gates to install 5G in their brain.
Jan Fran says “I cannot wait to get started. Question Everything is our chance to take a microscope to all the misinformation that we are bombarded with every day to see where it starts and how it spreads. At least, that’s a rumour someone sent to me on WhatsApp.”
“I’m excited by the chance to showcase Australia’s best new comedy talent, and also make history as the first comedy news panel show on the ABC. Please don’t fact check that,” adds Wil Anderson.
Nick Hayden, ABC Head of Entertainment says: “I don’t usually trust press releases. They’re spin from the media elites trying to sell you something, wake up sheeple! But Question Everything truly will replace all the fake news in the world with facts. I read that on Facebook.”
Question Everything will air Wednesdays at 8.30pm from Wednesday 18 August on ABC TV and ABC iview.
So it’s Gruen, but about the news, and with a panel of comedians? When the only logical comparisons are “breakfast radio but with pictures” and “every other panel show ever made”, you know you’ve got yourself a winner.
There is at least one element of this show that’ll come in handy when it comes to following the news: if you need practice in believing two contradictory things at once – as many of us have to do when being told by the Murdoch press that “Scott Morrison is a great leader” while also having memories of what Morrison has been up to these last few years – simply re-read the parts where this features “a revolving panel of up-and-coming comedians” while also being “from the team behind Gruen“.
No doubt this will feature comedians that count as “up-and-coming” as far as the ABC is concerned. But considering many of the usual names have already announced on social media that they’ll be writing for this show, how much “up-and-coming” comedy this will feature – as opposed to the usual Gruen gags Wil Anderson will be dropping to let the children know playtime is over – is an open question.
Mad as Hell aside, ABC comedy has largely delivered the same old over the last few years. We’ve seen various shows excitedly presenting us with subtle variations on the same kind of bog-obvious yet utterly forgettable “satire”. This is going to be a news panel show, not a new talent showcase: changing the front-of-house staff doesn’t mean much if it’s the same team out the back churning out the product.
So here’s a question: with the old stuff clearly impressing nobody, when will the ABC give someone new a go?
The Cheap Seats: now even cheaper in week two! It wasn’t really surprising that things were a little… looser in their second outing – while they presumably had weeks to get the first episode right, they only had seven days for the second – but when that’s the biggest change with a live show after week one you’ve got a show that’s pretty sure they’re on the right track.
To be fair, there’s not a whole lot they can do to change things up even if they want to*. The news jokes side of things was strong straight out the gate – as you’d expect considering producers Working Dog have had close to a decade’s practice with Have You Been Paying Attention? – and everything else around it was pretty much just there to prop the jokes up.
That’s maybe a bit harsh: the banter between hosts Melanie Bracewell and Tim (Tom?) McDonald is both funny in its own right and a vital gear change from the rapid-fire pow-pow-pow of the news clip gags. So going a little bit looser worked out well; the opening few segments in last week’s episode set the kind of breathless pace that left the second half hour feeling surplus to requirements, whereas this week’s show spaced things out just enough to make a full hour feel like just enough of a good thing.
And a decent comedy news round up is most definitely a good thing. Unlike shows like The Weekly (or even The Project), where the news comes first and the comedy has to work around that, The Cheap Seats is firmly joke-led: if a news story doesn’t have a funny angle or some decent footage, it’s not getting in. Which is exactly how it should be: if you want serious news, you’re not exactly hurting for it on television.
Sure, this does mean there’s a lengthy sports segment, which is a useful reminder that on commercial television you’re required to cover things people are actually interested in. It’s also a more traditional comedy segment, in that they have to actually explain things to set up the gags rather than just going “covid!” and cutting to some clips of politicians crapping on.
Another thing it does is slow things down a lot, which is a reminder that unless you’re really, really, really good at this stuff you’re just another person doing this stuff. And there’s a lot of “hey, here’s a news story with a joke on the end” stuff out there. Which means that the real trouble going forward is that format-wise the show itself doesn’t have a lot of wriggle room.
The news jokes are the unique selling point here. If the show’s focus slips to a series of wacky segments with mildly funny experts then basically we’ve got The Project 2.0 – or worse, a more polished evening version of a morning show.
On the flip side, an hour is too much time to fill with non-stop news gags. Start piling them on and the whole thing begins to feel like a breathless race; space them out too much with banter and long-winded set-ups and… what’s the point of all this again?
*and with the first episode pulling in close to 500k viewers with little promotion while also being up against the Olympics, why would they want to?
Superwog is a smart sitcom masquerading as a dumb sitcom. On the surface it looks like yet another example of ‘wog humour’, relying on ethnic and gender stereotypes, slapstick and broad gags to get laughs. But in reality, it’s much smarter than the likes of Housos or (and here’s one for those with long memories) Acropolis Now.
What’s more, this isn’t a show that only gets laughs out of stereotypes – although when it does, it does it well. Wog Dad (Nathan Saidden) is an ethnic stereotype, but he could also be anyone twisted and embittered by their quest to triumph over someone or something. His rage is universal and relatable to anyone whose seen wounded pride quickly escalate into a dangerous obsession.
Similarly, Superwog (Theodore Saidden) and his best friend Johnny (Nathan Saidden again) are working-class inner-city male stereotypes, yet their interactions with everything from the Google search engine to public officials are more intelligent than you might think.
Who expected a satire on contemporary art or a deconstruction of empathic woke culture in Superwog? It’s more the sort of material you might expect from a show which aims to be a smart social satire sitcom, like Why Are You Like This?, yet Superwog managed to make material on these topics funny while Why Are You Like This? struggled.
But if you’re not interested in a satire on art or woke, Superwog switches seamlessly to some gags involving people shouting at each other or getting hit in the face with a ping pong ball. Truly something for everyone, there.
The only letdown is Wog Mum, a sometimes pointless character, who doesn’t seem to do much more than giggle, shout or wear that fur wrap. In many ways, she seems like the sort of female character typical in a 1970s comedy, where women were relegated either to ‘sex object’, ‘harridan’ or ‘bimbo’. Yet the Saiddens are capable of better; female guest roles in Superwog have been as diverse, realistic and funny as any of the male roles, so why’s Wog Mum such a badly-drawn character?
Yet, despite this, Superwog is still something to celebrate. It’s doing something rarely seen in Australian sitcoms: embracing a wide range of comedy styles and making them all work. There’s something for those who enjoy seeing dumb, aggressive men get their comeuppance, there’s something for those who like to see our institutions get a kicking, and there’s something for those who find projectile vomiting funny. And in a world where most Australian sitcoms can’t even make one of those things work, Superwog is a comedic triumph.
With the Olympics fast approaching, The Power of the Dream, a new web series written by and starring Alexandra Keddie and Bobbie-Jean Henning (previously seen in The Housemate) is a worthwhile reminder that not all those who strive for greatness achieve it.
This mockumentary, now available on Facebook and Instagram, follows cousins Amy Bland (Keddie) and Brooke Bland (Henning), a professional dog walker and a Best & Less deputy manager, respectively, as Brooke trains Amy for Olympic greatness at Tokyo 2020. The problem is, Amy’s a hopeless athlete and Brooke’s a hopeless coach.
Another problem is…that’s pretty much all there is to this series: Amy and Brooke failing at sport/coaching and no one having the heart to tell them to stop. Not that this series contains much in the way of other characters who could stop Amy and Brooke, even if they tried. The only character who has any sort of airtime on the show is Aunty Pam (Christine O’Neill), and she’s barely in it. Which can, at times, make this series feel rather one-note.
If this sounds vaguely like Chris Lilley’s We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year, then it is. Both series have the same problem of too much focus on the star characters, with little in the way of contrast or balance. This, in turn, puts an awful lot of pressure on those star characters to be consistently funny, and when they sometimes aren’t, it’s a disappointment. (Although, unlike We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year, The Power of the Dream at least manages to avoid any white performers doing yellowface.)
But when The Power of the Dream does make it work, it can be pretty funny. And Keddie and Henning have worked hard to find every single way they can to get laughs out of Amy sucking at sport and Brooke sucking at coaching.
Keddie, who does most of the slapstick, is particularly good at being uncoordinated in or around a pool, on gymnastic equipment, on a running track, as a weightlifter or almost anywhere else you can name. While Henning’s mix of earnestness, ignorance and optimism make her a perfect bad coach, with Brooke trying out endless, half-understood and half-baked techniques to improve Amy’s performance.
So, while The Power of the Dream isn’t gold medal-worthy in the Olympic comedy stakes, it might make the final. Or get damn close.
If you’ve ever stumbled into a cinema only to realise that not only is there a film festival going on but it’s a (gasp) short film festival, then you know just how much hard work goes into making a sketch comedy series. That’s because every short film festival has at least one and usually half a dozen or so short films where a halfway decent sketch idea is dragged out well beyond its natural run time to create “a short film”. Ever wanted to see one 15 second joke turned into a seven minute film? Now you know where to go.
Or you could just watch Cancelled!, the latest attempt by SBS’s The Feed to throw satire fans a bone. A half hour (well, 23 minute) special looking at a bunch of fictional scandals over the years and hosted by the Ghost of Baby John Burgess – guess Ray Martin was asking too much for ironic hosting after last year’s work on At Home Alone Together – it features pretty much everyone you’d expect in front of the camera. Andrew Denton is back! But why?
The first segment is padded out with the usual observations about old television – they’re sexist, they’re smoking, it’s old and overly formal – which… shit, yeah, people did used to smoke, guess they’ve got us there.
Otherwise it features one (1) joke, which for the first five minutes of a sketch show is a pretty low strike rate especially when the joke involves Harold Holt. It’s not a bad joke, but you know how on social media whenever news breaks there’s a wave of people rushing to make every possible joke about it? Imagine that going on for forty years and you’ve got Harold Holt.
The other three “scandals” lift proceedings slightly, though they’re all structured in pretty much the same way: a lengthy introduction to set the scene, then a shock reveal of why they were cancelled (which is THE JOKE). Each sketch largely just peters out after that, leaving the point of it all something of a mystery. Do they even still make these “celebrities talk about the past to pad out a clip show” programs any more? Armando Iannucci’s Time Trumpet was taking the piss out of this stuff fifteen years ago, which is roughly a millennia in comedy terms.
Still, the ABC does make the occasional local talking heads doco so presumably people under thirty have some idea of how this format is meant to work (only joking – as if people under thirty watch the ABC). And it’s hardly like this is devoid of laughs either; when it gets around to juxtaposing the seriousness of the format with the silliness of what’s being discussed this works pretty well. It just doesn’t do it often enough.
It’s not that comedy always has to have a point, but this particular comedy could have done with another couple of drafts to figure out exactly why it was being made. If they just wanted to be funny, great – be funny! Because a lot of this feels more like a handful of jokes around a bunch of points they grabbed off social media. Corporations will unthinkingly co-op diversity issues for marketing purposes? Sexist white guy music was in style then went out of style? You don’t say.
Segment three is about a novel so successful yet so violent people were calling for it to be banned – which it then was, for a reason you can almost certainly guess. While the back half of the sketch is throwaway gags as usual, this time they’re the best part because they’re actually jokes about something. They present a situation (“can we separate the art from the artist”) that, while not exactly original comedy-wise, does at least put a comedy spin on actual discussions people are having today; the first half is just dull premise-establishing stuff that could have been handled in a couple of lines.
(also, “what if people wanted to ban American Psycho because it was violent and then it turned out they actually had a good point?” is kinda close to “hey, maybe banning things is good”, which is probably(?) not what they wanted to say with this sketch)
The whole thing wraps up with a segment on Australia’s most offensive band TLDR, who turn out to be a couple of dudes (played by women to defuse any potential confusion about where the sketch’s politics lie) singing crude songs about sex. Did Chris Lilley do it better? No, because Chris Lilley did nothing better.
That said, if you’re going to have a parody of an offensive song, maybe listen to some actual offensive songs because a song where the lyrics are just “ass ass ass ass” is a children’s television jingle by today’s standards. Music today is a nightmarish hellscape of pornographic excess that’s all but impossible to parody (also, catchy tunes) that makes the likes of 3OH!3 seem like… damn, we already used the children’s television jingle comparison.
Time and again the parodies here are close but no donut. They’re good enough to suggest the thing they’re parodying, but not good enough to get laughs of recognition – there’s nothing going on with the TLDR videos to make you think, for example, “yeah, what exactly was the deal with the guy with the cardboard box on his head in the LMFAO videos?”
This feels a lot like the kind of project put together by a bunch of skilled comedy professionals who came up with an angle the commissioning board thought was topical. Which is great when you’re dealing with actual funny people and not just skilled comedy professionals, because what this really needed was someone with an actual comedic point of view at the helm to make the whole thing feel like it had a reason for existing beyond “being cancelled is topical and hey look, Andrew Denton”.
Then again, good luck making comedy about the concept of being cancelled because the whole thing is super-politicised and the only people who think we shouldn’t have some kind of standards in the media are literal Nazis. It’s comedy gold!
Slightly delayed because we weren’t entirely sure it was an actual comedy series press release time!
ViacomCBS Australia and New Zealand today announced that its first original Australian commissioned drama series, Spreadsheet, has begun production in Melbourne for Paramount+.
Starring UK actress Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd, Doc Martin), Spreadsheet features a stellar cast including Stephen Curry, Robbie Magasiva, Rowan Witt, Katrina Milosevic, Ryan Shelton, Zahra Newman, Tina Bursill and Richard Piper.
Produced by Northern Pictures in association with ITV Studios and created by Kala Ellis, Spreadsheet is an eight-part comedy series about divorced, hectic mother-of-two, Lauren (Katherine Parkinson) who is looking for sex without commitment.
With the help of best friend Alex (Rowan Witt), she develops “Spreadsheet”: a database of sex options, customised to ensure her sushi train of sex rolls around with variety and order amidst the chaos of her life. What Lauren didn’t expect was a slew of needy men, which apparently even a well-managed excel tracker can’t control.
Head of Drama and Production, Rick Maier, said: “When you read an idea this fresh and laugh out loud funny from such an original voice as Kala Ellis, it very quickly gets into your system. Then when you add Katherine Parkinson and this sensational ensemble you know you’re really onto something. I can’t think of a better first original commission for Paramount+.”
Northern Pictures Executive Producer and Head of Scripted, Catherine Nebauer, said: “Northern Pictures prides itself on creating unique series’, which surprise and delight, and this is certainly one of them! It’s been a joy to see Spreadsheet come together, with such a talented team behind it. Director, Darren Ashton and Creator/Writer, Kala Ellis have worked closely together to create the perfect blend of comedy, drama and spice, which only Katherine Parkinson can deliver!”
ITV Studios, EVP Global Content Julie Meldal-Johnsen, said: “Just thinking about Spreadsheet puts a smile on my face. Kala’s writing is warm, funny and poignant at the same time – making Katherine Parkinson the perfect person to play the hilarious and chaotic Lauren. Working with producer Northern Pictures again is a pleasure and we are very proud to be bringing Paramount + Australia’s first original comedy commission to our international clients. The show is sexy, frank, unapologetic and we are sure will engage and entertain people around the world.”
So wait, it’s both their “first original Australian commissioned drama series” and “an eight-part comedy series”? We’d say make up your mind, but this is how scripted television works in 2021: everything is a drama aimed at an overseas audience who probably won’t get the “jokes”, unless people start laughing (unlikely), at which point of course it’s a comedy, everybody loves those things.
Just not enough to actually make any of them.