Take heart comedians, sitcom writers and comedy fans; Australian comedy will come back to TV, one
way or another.
When you try to think of the last great Australian sitcom on commercial TV, what comes to mind? With
most people, sadly it’s “Hey Dad”. Sure, there have been other sitcoms made by commercial stations
since Hey Dad finished back in 1994, but their names may not even ring a bell (or they were originally
from the ABC or SBS). And the reason for this is that the commercial stations are gutless. They don’t
want to take risks. We’ve all known for a while now that the networks aren’t trying anything untested.
They take all their cues from the US and UK TV industries, which is why we have our own versions
of cheap-to-produce reality efforts like “Australian Idol”, “X Factor”, “Big Brother” and “So You Think
You Can Dance”, panel shows full of B-grade celebs putting in their 2 cents like “Can of Worms”
and “20 to 1″ and emergency-service based shows like “RBT” and “Recruits”. It’s a horrible approach
to an “artistic” pursuit, especially for a medium with so much scope – but the reason it’s done this way
is because they have shareholders who demand returns on their dollars, and we all understand that
the money has to come from somewhere. We see repeat after repeat of lacklustre American sitcoms
at peak TV times because the networks know we’ll watch them, but we could be watching Australian
sitcoms in the same time slots; they just don’t exist. In a country so packed with comedic talent, that’s
a sad indictment on the TV industry.
So where is all the good Australian comedy? Aussie comedy is out there, and it will not be contained.
The truth is that Aussie Comedy never goes away, you just have to look harder than switching your TV
on to find it. Great things are happening in comedy in Australia, with an absolutely thriving stand-up
circuit simmering away in both Melbourne and Sydney (and I assume other cities) where you can
go and see quality stand-up comedy in multiple locations every night of the week. And things have
changed – the humour has a distinct Gen X/Y flavour, the old-school misogyny is gone and if it rears
its head it gets kicked in the balls and put back in its place because it’s not welcome with the younger
comedians. There are more women on the circuit than ever before. The crowds are loving it and
commercial TV is being left behind.
In recent years the only way to see Australian sitcoms has been to switch to ABC or SBS (or cable
TV) for little gems like The Librarians, Laid, Very Small Business, Lowdown, anything by Chris Lilley
(who became known on network sketch show “Big Bite”) and the edgy but outstanding Wilfred.
Another recent example has been “Twenty Something” which actually started on Channel 31 and
is now an ABC series. The good news is that Aussie-made sitcoms, finally, are starting to scratch
their way back onto TV wherever they can. They might not be the sit-coms of old, the style having
been adapted to suit a new crowd looking for something fresh but they are valid and funny and worth
watching. If the networks are so mad for “reality” TV, why don’t we have “Sitcom Idol” where a panel
of B-Celebs/Comedians pick the best two or three submitted scripts, 7 minutes of action from each
competing sitcom script is made and then the audience calls a number to vote for their sit-com of
choice, with the ultimate series winner getting half a dozen episodes commissioned? It’s a tried
formula, it just hasn’t been done with comedy. But why not?
Oddly, the new comedy shows from SBS and ABC are not without some high-level detractors. I
recently attended a “script-writing workshop” where one elder statesman of comedy stated that these
new comedy shows (Laid, Angry Boys in particular) aren’t good because they don’t have “situations”
or “punchlines” and that punchlines must go at the end of a joke. He is wrong in more ways than one
and in my opinion his formula-comedy-bot needs an update to Comedy 2.0. Comedy is a life-form
that evolves constantly with the ever changing society that contains it and it has clearly evolved past
whatever this person’s most recent effort may have been. (I asked around, no-one could remember)
Comedy will not be contained or held to withered formats. If it doesn’t have your permission to
change, it will grow horns and it will change, trample you and mock you with stencilled graffiti painted
using your blood. Remember Peter Cook and Dudley Moore doing Derek & Clive? What about
Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Bill Hicks? Or more recently the great Louis CK? That’s what
happens to comedy when it needs changing – it gets more offensive and smarter than before and it
starts to hit a nerve again. People are smart enough to find humour in everything. A premise, a silly
look on someone’s face, a noise, a punchline…two people sitting on the same couch watching the
same thing are quite often laughing at the same time, although at two very different things.
The ABC recently announced it will be doing less in-house production and outsourcing TV production
to production companies. This is how the BBC has worked for years and the system works brilliantly
over there. As far as I’m concerned, the model is a winner because production companies tend to try
different things. They take risks because they need an edge. And that, for comedians and comedy
writers – and ultimately the viewers – is a big win. Let’s just hope the commercial networks follow the
cue and get back on the very talented, under-utilised Australian comedy bandwagon. We all know that
the comeback is overdue.