It was 2008 when Andrew Denton ended Enough Rope, wrapping a defining interview show on Australian television, and 2009 when he departed our screens with his compendium series, Elders.
Since then he has largely focussed on producing: Gruen Transfer, 30 Seconds, Hungry Beast, AFP, The Joy of Sets and Can of Worms.
But his latest project, Randling, has him so excited even he has relented to step back before the cameras. Having hosted workshops of the word-based game show in development stages, he found he was having a ball.
“I had a chat to Shaun Micallef and said ‘It looks like you’re having a lot of fun on Your Gen’ and he said ‘It really is.’ So I felt having come off a very intense project in Enough Rope that if I was going to come back then I just wanted it to be fun,” he says.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had on television.”
The show pits teams of two against each other across a marathon 27 rounds with parlour games that test knowledge, creativity, improvisation and competitiveness. Teams accrue points across the season as part of an on-going Randling leaderboard.
“It was a lot more complex than we had bargained for, trying to structure the games and scoring so that they were a level playing field for everyone,” Denton explains.
“Each team plays 4 preliminary rounds, but all the points they earn in that game get added up. And for each game you win you get 2 competition points. So it’s structured very much like a sporting competition.
“Then we have quarter, semi and a Grand Final and each of those is sudden death.”
Panellists include Merrick Watts, Julia Zemiro, Rob Carlton, Angus Sampson, Robyn Butler, Genevieve Morris, Annabelle Crabb, Chris Taylor, Wendy Harmer, Benji Law and Jonathan Biggins.
“For all of those who are non-comedians, we’ve made sure to pair them with a performer because different sets of skills are required. Being smart is really good, being able to improvise is really good, being able to create is really good and there’s a bit of luck involved too.”
Denton developed the show with Zapruder’s Other Films‘ Jon Casimir, following a love of words, language and all things lexicon.
“We’ve got a shared love of wonderful words and a fantastic use of the language. Between us we’ve got a huge library of books about this stuff. While we’ve been working on Gruen or Enough Rope we would send ourselves little treats, going ‘Look at this, isn’t this fantastic?’ A couple of years ago we thought ‘There’s so much gold here, surely we can make a show out of this?’” he says.
“2 years ago we packed all the books into the boot of my car and drove up to the Blue Mountains and booked separate rooms, I hasten to add, in a hotel.
“We pulled out our books and said ‘How can we turn these into games?’ We were also going off parlour games we’d played for years. Things like dictionary which people would know as Balderdash, but which I remember playing 30 years ago. We talked about the shows we loved like My Word and sat down with a blank piece of paper and thought ‘How do we turn these things that we love into games that people can play?’”
The result is about a dozen games such as Either / Or and Moment of Truth and various games, some of which are regulars and some which rotate across the series.
“One part of the show asks our players to create new words for existing situations. For example a word for the person who always takes their items to the 12 Items or Less Aisle. That idea you will find in many places, in fact you can go back to the show I did on Seven in the 90s where we brought out a whole book called Words for the Nineties.
“‘Randle’ is a nonsensical poem recited by Irish schoolboys as an apology for farting at a friend. People have said ‘I can’t find this on the internet. It can’t be true?!’ But here’s one of the horrific truths about the show. A lot of what we’ve done comes from an old media now, called Books. So it’s quite exciting to have made a show where you can’t necessarily go online and find out where we got stuff from.”
‘Randle’ comes from a personal favourite, Mrs Byrne’s Dictionary of Obscure and Preposterous Words -and no, Denton insists, Mrs Byrne is not wife Jennifer Byrne, who is also a team player. The host insists loved ones have no advantage.
“I was preparing for tonight’s show in my office and Jen was about to come in, and I said ‘You can’t come in! You can’t see anything!’ and she said ‘I don’t want to see anything!’” he laughs.
“She gets nothing from me, I can assure you. I think the last game we played she was quite irritated at some of the points I didn’t give her.”
The show also draws its questions from other obscure books such as Dictionary of Texan Folklore, 1800’s Dictionary of Thieves’ Language and books on strange phrases from around the world.
The show’s official website will offer more insight, with a section for sources called Pilkunissija -a Russian word “for somebody who is a complete pedant about grammar but translates more commonly as ‘Comma f***er.’”
Of course the show’s biggest challenge is to help lift ABC’s Wednesday nights. Given the show’s prized timeslot of 8:30pm, it is already being compared to Spicks and Specks. But is it a fair test?
“When Spicks started it was completely Off Broadway and in fact with an audience of around 600,000 and over a couple of years it built to the levels it’s remembered for. In an ideal world we would have been on as a book-end with Spicks and Specks. Its departure was very close to when we pitched this to the ABC, so we weren’t thrilled about that,” says Denton.
“Any new show unfortunately is going to be a comparison to what’s come before, so we’re going to have to fly through all the fog of ‘it’s Spicks and Specks, it’s Qi or whatever’ until the audience gets used to the fact it’s neither of those shows and is its own beast.
“The more difficult reality, and I think the ABC is pretty sanguine about this, is that the no longer dominates Wednesday nights as it has for a couple of years. I don’t think anyone, not myself, not the ABC, is expecting Spicks figures. It may take a long time before we get near those figures.
“You’ve got to look at what ABC’s Wednesdays have been this year. Spicks finished last November and they’ve been very different figures (since). So we’re building off that base.
“I personally think if we get around 600,000 on a week to week basis, then looking at where the ABC has been this year we’ll be doing ok.”
Indeed, even Adam Hills’ own show couldn’t match the glory of Spicks and Specks– should the return of a prodigal son be expected to?
Denton notes that if a show takes a while to find its feet then an audience sometimes takes a while to find its ears and eyes. As long as they find their funny bone while they’re at it, he’ll be content.
“A lot of my job is sitting there throwing a little hand grenade at the teams and watching them trying to keep all their limbs!” he says.
“If you watch the series through you’ll see each team get better and better and the stakes get really higher. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of my job is actually just sitting there and laughing.”
Randling airs 8:30pm Wednesdays on ABC1.