Ben Elton says sorry: “Yes, we got the mix wrong”
EXCLUSIVE: Ben Elton says viewers were right -his first live show was too smutty and he aims to strike the right balance this week.
EXCLUSIVE: Following a backlash from viewers Ben Elton admits his first performance of Live from Planet Earth on Channel Nine was too smutty.
In his only media interview since launching his new live comedy, Elton speaks to TV Tonight.
After Live from Planet Earth launched on Tuesday night, online, talkback radio and reviewers had branded it too rude and unfunny. The next morning the ratings bore even more bad news: it had averaged just 455,000 viewers.
Could the man who behind such classics as Blackadder and The Young Ones misfire so badly?
Upon reflection Elton agrees the mix of sketches was wrong, but says smut was not representative of the series. While preferring not to read reviews across his career, he is more than aware of the criticism that has been levelled against him this week, including the lessons that can be learned. But the level of vitriol has been widespread.
“I’m a little surprised,” he says. “Apparently the principal criticism is that it was too smutty, and to be honest I actually put my hand up to that. I do think we got the mix wrong.
“We got rather over-excited because we had a fantastic run through in front of an audience the previous Friday night and it all went terribly well. Everyone was very upbeat. Some of the sketches got huge laughs and inevitably they tended to be the rude ones. And I do think we got rather over-excited and slightly lost the balance of the show.”
It was during the first Dress Rehearsal that he realised the running order of final sketches had resulted in a dose of adult themes, but it was too late to address in a live show.
“I don’t think it reflects the general tone of the piece or my material, but it certainly reflects the first half of the first show,” he says.
“An all-live variety show with a brand new team is going to be a hard call and I personally am very, very proud of the first show. Apart from it being a bit tonally coarse I was very proud of it.”
Live from Planet Earth features an ensemble of comedy performers, some of whom are doing their first professional television gig. It has been a conscious decision on his part to uncover new talent (even Andrew Denton sent him a note congratulating him on this point).
But while viewers may have had a hostile reaction to some of the content, Elton says a show with so many new characters requires time to bed in, which in a Live environment doesn’t have the luxury of second takes.
“Imagine the first day of Little Britain or The Fast Show or Comedy Inc or Fast Forward. You’re basically saying, ‘This is a grower,'” he says.
“The Young Ones was slagged off at first, Blackadder was hugely slagged. We Will Rock You was on the front of newspapers as the most badly-reviewed piece in theatrical history. I’m not saying reviewers are always wrong, I’m saying it takes a moment for the public to decide their taste.
“I’ve written a lot of stuff that people have liked in the past and a lot of it has been initially greeted with howls of protest. If I’d given up on the first morning after We Will Rock You or Blackadder I wouldn’t have created other stuff that people have enjoyed.
“But you can’t expect to get something absolutely perfect -and something that you’re not even editing- the first time.
“If the main point is it was too smutty then I’m more than happy to say, ‘Yes I think the balance was too much.’ We put a live sketch show together, with a lot of sketches and frankly we probably over-burdened it tonally in that maybe it was a little bit too rude. But I reckon 20% back and it would have been great. None of the jokes were offensive, they’re all politically sound, they’re all on the side of the angels. Some of my routines when they deal with sex are actually dealing with sexual politics,” he insists.
“Anyone who knows my material knows it’s going to be adult. I deal with all sorts of issues including bodily ones. But I don’t think anyone in the past would ever have said that’s the nature of my work and it certainly won’t be the nature of my work in terms of Live from Planet Earth. Yes there will always be some rude gags on the side of the angels but there’s a big difference between empowering rude gags and non-empowering ones. Just because you mention a ‘fanny’ or a ‘knob ‘doesn’t necessarily mean it is in itself bad. I stand by all I did, I’m just saying I think we got the mix a little heavily-weighted.
“The objections people had with it are not reflective of how the show will develop and I’m sorry about that. Clearly that was something we got slightly wrong but it’s not endemic of our process, it’s just that two sketches, three sketches in a row with ‘fannys,’ what can I say –it was a mistake.”
Before the credits even rolled on Live from Planet Earth on Tuesday night, the Twitter-verse had spoken. With his long career in comedy, television, film and musicals, Elton is no stranger to a bad review. But the speed and anonymity of Twitter is changing the dynamic for performer and audience and new works may become its victims.
“It’s very difficult to open a play or a musical because the Critics are saying, ‘We’re trying to obey the rules but we’re being out-Twittered. There’s a hundred reviews on the internet and we’re expected to wait until Opening Night,'” he says.
“I think in terms of the ‘Twitterology’ of TV I really do hope that the mainstream media and indeed the more dignified new media get over analysing Twitter. There’s been Twitter forever and it was called ‘the pub.’ If you walked into a pub, you’ll always here someone saying ‘I thought that was shit,'” he says.
“In the long run most people don’t feel the need to Twitter. Frankly someone who half-way through the first section feels the need to tell everyone what they think is not really the opinion I think should be reported. It’s almost like reporting the worst opinion.
“We’re getting to a point where the loudest, bolshiest, most-trainspottering voices are the actually becoming the ones who are being heard. It’s like asking at the stage door what a show was like. The people at the Stage Door are actually, with the greatest respect, not the public. The public are the 2000 people who watch it, chat to their mates and go home.”
The show also represents GTV9’s first live show from the expansive Docklands Studios. While it may not be perfect for television comedy, Elton says he isn’t complaining about the room.
“In the long run what we’re really talking about is the camera. I think what came across on the camera was really good. I think it looked like a really slick, live professional piece of entertainment with the added frisson that we were doing it on the wing,” he says.
“But you get no previews, you get no second shots and I think for a first show we did bloody well and if we were a bit rude then fair enough, ok, I’m sorry.”
While the very busy Elton is solely responsible for the Creative of the show, he is open to material from the cast, noting Genevieve Morris was already adding a lot of improvisation in her ‘Elaine Front’ interview with Ruby Rose.
“The original idea was mine but she’s such an amazing performer that she’ll just get up and run with it. I have a couple of great guys in the office who throw ideas around but at the moment I’m writing it.
“I want the actors to start thinking of things and we’re open to anything, really. We don’t know what it is –it’s Live from Planet Earth!
“I’m writing it all but I’m very, very open. It’s not like me being a megalomaniac.”
If the show is given time to find an audience Elton says it could uncover new talent that will benefit all of the industry.
“If I find some good new people they’ll be on TEN and Seven next year, so that will be good for everybody. But apparently TEN and Seven program against Nine and Nine programs against Seven and TEN trying to kill new stuff. I think that’s incredible. This is such a small industry, so the idea that it’s not a good thing for anyone to have a success…they’ll be on the other channels next year and it will promote local writing and local acting. Otherwise it will just mean they get more American stuff,” he says.
Despite the tepid reaction, Nine has remained supportive of its new venture. The Elton vehicle, in conjunction with FremantleMedia Australia, is one of the network’s brash new offerings for 2011.
“They’d like to have gotten bigger viewing figures but I’d always warned them that I’m not really well-known in Australian commercial TV, I’ve always been more an ABC / BBC sort of thing,” says Elton.
“But they’re leaving us alone, which I think is terrific.”
This week’s show will include Tim Minchin, Circus Oz and surprise guests. And while he isn’t about to entirely retreat from his comic tone, he hopes to strike the right balance.
“I am no doubt going to do more bodily-function jokes and sexual politics in any way I want as long as I am allowed to do so by not being chucked off the network. But having said that the mix that appears to have been reflected, and I accept was on the screen… it’s not all about fannys and bums,” he insists.
“I’m very sorry if people were either disappointed or offended. All I can say is when they watch the next show there will be less.”
Ben Elton Live from Planet Earth airs 9:30pm Tuesday on Nine.
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