Adam Hills admits to being a bit “blown away” by the figures for Spicks and Specks. 1.4m last week, and 1.6m this week -the best ABC result not only for the year, but on par with the show’s best ever which was when The Chaser pulled their APEC stunt.
“This year’s been our strongest year for ratings ever. I think there are a lot of reasons. We’re having better shows this year. We’re ad libbing a lot more, playing around a lot more,” he told TV Tonight.
The return of The Chaser and the recession are no doubt helping bring big audiences to the show, now in its fifth season. But there’s also another inadvertent boost coming from another network.
“Thank God You’re Here helps us. I was talking to Rob Sitch and said ‘TGYH helps our ratings’ and he said ‘well vice versa, it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog, because Spicks and Specks is such a mainstay of Wednesday night comedy on Australian television, that if you programme comedy around it Spicks and Specks actually helps it, and vice versa.’
“So people tune in to watch an hour of Thank God You’re Here and as soon as it finishes they switch over to us.”
In a few weeks’ time that strategy will go into overdrive when Hills even guests on Thank God, for the first time.
The success of Spicks has arguably prompted other networks to have another bash at mimicking its success. TEN and SBS both unveiled new panel formats in recent weeks.
“I heard on the set of Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation, because they film at the ABC studios, where there have been a few times when they haven’t quite nailed it, and someone said ‘just do what they do on Spicks and Specks!’ which is a massive compliment. But it surprises me that it’s taken 5 years for a commercial network to start making comedy panel shows.”
Of course there were others attempts, notably on Seven, that didn’t fare so successfully. So just how did the ABC get it so right in the first place?
“As much as I’d like to take the credit for that, I think the majority of the credit must go to a guy called Peter Faiman,” insists Hills. “The ABC employed him as a consultant in the early days of Spicks and he showed me everything he had learned from Don Lane, Graham Kennedy, Paul Hogan, Bert Newton and even American talk shows. He showed me exactly how to be a host and to make it a comforting, welcoming show that is warm and people really connect with.
“The original producer of the show was Paul Clarke (Long Way to the Top, Love is in the Air, Eurovision). He came up with a whole bunch of games.”
These days it is series producer Anthony Watt who is the main developer of the games.
“But it’s kind of a democracy where we all sit around and chip in ideas. ‘Malvern Stars on 45’ came about because one of the writers thought it would be a good name for a game. And then it was ‘ok we’ve got the name, what’s the game?’ until someone came up with the idea of a bicycle powered record player. Which, remarkably, has become one of the most popular games. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s just that watching someone power a record player with a bike seems to be enjoyable television.”
ABC also films its episodes in the first half of the year, freeing up Hills to pursue his commitments on the international comedy circuit. With that in mind there are occasionally a few times when filming so far out inherits a few risks.
“We had one instance where we had a big chat about Pavarotti and he died the week before it was due to go to air. So back into the editing suite.
“There was one episode where we had a Kylie Minogue video and someone made a joke about her breasts. Two weeks later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. So we had to go back and do a quick edit on that, so that the viewing audience didn’t think we were referring to her breast cancer.”
Hills says he will stick with Spicks while it is still enjoyable, being very conscious of not boring people and over-staying their welcome. He says it’s also a delicate act not wanting to leave early too. He acknowledges that in the future he expects to do his own variety show, at some time, not necessarily on a commercial network. Not a bad career trajectory for someone who was once the warm up guy for Wheel of Fortune with Baby John Burgess and Adriana Xenides.
“I’ve had talks with a couple of networks but they know not to even try now,” he said. “I’m having so much fun doing Spicks. It’s all about the opportunity to do what I want to do, and a cheque is not going to convince me. If they’re not going to let me make the show that I want to make, then no cheque is worth that,” he said.
“I can imagine at some point down the track a chat show, variety show or talk show would probably be where I’d end up. But one of my managers, because I’ve got them around the world, said to me no-one hosts a talk show when they’re under 40. Letterman, Leno, Conan and all of those guys….there’s a certain life experience you need before you can host a Tonight show.
“But certainly down the track it would definitely be something I’d be aiming at.”