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Why don’t we make sitcoms anymore?

Will Australia ever produce a multicam sitcom again? Comedy experts weigh in.

2013-11-25_2336If it wasn’t for our public broadcasters we really wouldn’t see much in the way of local comedy on Free to Air.

Commercial networks have given comedy a wide berth of late, preferring to shuffle the laughs into panel shows rather than scripted content. Comedy isn’t even a Logie category anymore.

While ABC has given us Ja’mie: Private School Girl, A Moody Christmas, Upper Middle Bogan, It’s a Date, Please Like Me, Twentysomething and #7DaysLater, SBS has recently produced Housos and Legally Brown (7mate recently announced Paul Fenech’s The Bogan Hunters for 2014).

But despite the various successes of these, it’s not uncommon to hear somebody ask: “Why won’t somebody please make a sitcom?”

By this they mean the traditional multicam sitcom, so perfected by the Americans.

Hey Dad  was one of the longest-running sitcoms in the world. Mother and Son (pictured) is widely-regarded as our finest. While there have been elements of sitcoms in such shows as At Home with Julia, there are few that follow the model of a Live audience in front of a multicam, studio situation comedy.

Even the Comedy Channel on Pay TV has avoided scripted comedies of late.

Last week at the Screen Forever conference during a comedy session, a question was put to the panel about the dearth of these. Will anybody ever take the kind of risk necessary to achieve one, or are our writers simply not interested?

Adam Zwar (Wilfred, Lowdown, Agony Aunts / Uncles), said: “I know from an acting point of view a lot of Australians go over to the States and audition for multicam comedies and don’t do very well. The Lawson brothers (Josh, Ben) are the only two who have actually broken in.

“When you think about how well Australian actors are doing in the US that’s quite extraordinary. But that’s not our home turf. I think the studio comedy comes from farce. The 4 door farce comes from British theatre and it relies on a very different acting style.

“It’s not thee sort of acting Australians generally do. Australians underplay, and we sit off the joke a lot of the time.

“It’s not really in our wheelhouse…. hitting every beat of every mark, and that’s the same with writing those shows.

Years ago Australia has produced comedies that subscribed to the form. Acropolis Now, All Together Now, Kingswood Country, The Last of the Australians, My Name’s McGooley What’s Yours? and Newlyweds were chief amongst these.

“I don’t think we have a tradition of it. I’d love to see it corrected. There have been some good ones in the past, but I don’t think we have a tradition of it,” Zwar contends.

Debbie Lee from Matchbox Pictures said the sitcom form was under consideration when she was Head of Comedy at ABC (she left a year ago).

“We were talking about doing it, but it was also a budget thing. We could either throw all of our eggs in one basket and try and do a 22 or 40 week thing, and not do anything else, potentially. Or we could do a number of things,” she admits.

Rick Kalowski, who has since replaced Lee in the role at the ABC, remains optimistic.

“I’m a lover of all forms of comedy. I love studio comedy –Cheers, Spin City, who doesn’t love those shows?” he asks

“Generally speaking, at the moment studio comedy is a bit unfashionable. That’s probably because a lot of writers don’t have a lot of respect for the big, notable half hour comedies. But I personally think in this country we’re only one comedy away from it being perfectly acceptable again.

Kalowski is developing projects that may buck the trend should they ever reach the screen.

“I’m about to put something in development which is a very modern attempt to do a studio comedy. It could be a total disaster, but watch this space,” he says.

“We are open for business in terms of having conversations about studio audience comedies. The ABC would love to be the place that brought studio audience comedies back. We have such a tradition at the ABC of studio audience entertainment with shows like Gruen, The Chaser an Micallef.

“It doesn’t have to be daggy. Black Books, The I.T. Crowd are not daggy shows. This is an unfashionable view but I think How I Met Your Mother is one of the best written shows on television. It’s actually not a studio show, they make it sound like it is. They have so many scenes they shoot it in a studio then add the laughs later.

“I don’t love Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory but let’s not forget they are two of the most successful and profitable shows in the world.

“We might do shorter runs: 6 half hours, 8 half hours or 10 half hours. We can throw ABC resources at it because we have studio space both in Sydney and Melbourne.

“I’d love to do it.”

31 Responses

  1. The head of comedy at ABC doesn’t like The Big Bang Theory? That’s your problem right there.

    We need our writers to go and learn from sitcom makers in the US and UK. Then we need to create a show that aims for actual laughs (not wry smiles)

  2. There’s a doco on remaking Raymond in Russia and the creator talks with great passion of his love of theatre and vaudeville which was an eye opener for me on the attraction of multicam studio-based sitcoms. A real joy in playing to the back row.

  3. I would think for the same reason we don’t make quality TV generally: lack of talent, being in a sheltered workshop means we don’t have to compete against world best practice, lack of foreign sales means we can’t spread the costs over various countries and an aversion to taking the time to get it right.

    Of the list mentioned, it’s very hard to identify any that make even mediocre level. There are exceptions – Mother and Son and Frontline were world class but they are the exception and most struggle to make it to the level of the abysmal Hey Dad.

  4. Not sure why Kath and Kim isn’t listed in this article somewhere.

    I don’t even think US sitcoms are very popular anymore, considering the ratings winners are so poorly written. There is nothing to compare in quality with the heydey of Cheers or MASH or Seinfeld. Instead they are almost all low-rent Friends or Raymond ripoffs. No imagination.

  5. Great thread, David; an always consciousness raising issue this one. Having worked in the situation comedy unit at the ABC in the 90’s, the costs are always an issue. The spending more on less has been the way to go especially when Kath & Kim were being made in the 00’s. I think it is a matter of budgets as well as faith in the talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Thanks to Lucy and Desi it has been such a well oiled machine for 60 years in America, they churn them out like pez dispensers. The number of misses are still high compared to the hits, but the sheer size and volume of the industry makes it look more viable. It is so boutique in Oz now.

  6. @Tex – Channel 7 have already started a short run drama (13 episodes), called A Place To Call Home and season 2 will start around April 2014 (as it did in April this year), so the impact of Downton Abbey has already been acted on (given APTCH is set in the 50’s after WW2).

  7. I’m happy with single cam comedy shows over multi-cam studio audience ones.

    There really is a bit of a miss with aussie comedy. I found it annoying that foxtel would sometimes make a decent show like 30 Seconds and then after a 6 episode season cancel it.

  8. Thanks for the article David! I’ve been whining about this on TVTonight for too long. Seven, Nine and Ten have all but abandonded home grown comedies, sitcom or otherwise. Then again, Australia has all but abandoned nearly every genre that isn’t crime or a bogan family. Sci-fi, fantasy, action, thriller, horror. These are things we’ll never see made by an Australian. The lack of innovation by Australian networks is troubling.
    As for just a general comedy, surely a couple of sets and only a few actors would be cheap in comparison to shooting on location with a large cast?

  9. I’ve just spent the last year writing a multi-cam studio sitcom. It’s hard work. You have to establish – and then maintain – a rhythm with the audience whereby you deliver a certain number of jokes (verbal, physical, situational, conceptual, etc) per minute. As soon as you break that rhythm, the comedy falls apart. On top of that you have to weave together mutliple plot-lines to keep things moving because of the static nature of the studio environment. You can’t just grab a camera and hit the streets to keep the story moving.

    There’s no such thing as an “easy” sitcom to write, but single-cam comedies are certainly easier than multi-cams.

  10. I’ve always had issues with Oz comedy/comedians as being too, sarcastic I guess is the best word. Sure, there are some great stand up comics and entertainers who can throw out a great ‘gotcha’ with uncanny timing, but for a scripted comedy show I don’t see much out there.

    As others have mentioned, the panel/reality shows have pretty much cast comedy in a negative light that will take some time to overcome.

  11. There will never be another Blue Heelers that can go on for 40 weeks in the year and be 500+ episodes. Just look at Rush, eventhough it was a short run seasons, it still dies because there was no funding to keep it going.

  12. I have commented more than once on this site that it’s a shame that there are no Aussie sitcoms. Hopefully it does change as the amount of reality programming is becoming rediculous and you can only watch so much drama.

  13. For the same reasons we no longer make police dramas (e.g. Cop Shop, Water Rats, etc), family dramas (e.g. Country Practice, Sullivans, etc), or combinations of the two (e.g. Blue Heelers). Reality is cheaper, lends itself to the big ‘event television’ that networks prefer &, at the moment, rates better.

    The latter changes over time (see the popularity of Downton Abbey etc), but by the time anyone here wakes up to it, does the development, gets funding, makes it, and airs it, the peak has passed. We rarely innovate or set trends – we follow, and late. Sad, but true, and that’s it.

  14. The first 10 examples given in David’s article is why. At best one or two were mildly successful and the others were all trash. What there is a shortage of in Oz are decent scriptwriters and many reasonable actors have been made to look rather ordinary because of woeful scripts.

    When it comes to Aussie sitcoms etc. Tony Coca-Cola has got it absolutely right. We do need to try harder.

  15. I despise multicam comedies bar a few exceptions such as a few CBS comedies (TBBT, HIMYM)

    The fake laugh track and always one side view of the scene/setting gets old very fast.

    The main three networks hardly do any 30 min comedies anymore. It’s always 1 hr dramas with a side of comedy at most.
    It it because the cost won’t justify producing 30 min shows when they can fill a whole hour with a drama instead?

  16. I imagine a Ten sitcom would be produced by Rove & star Dave Hughes & Meshel Laurie…no thanks.
    Seven would have Rebecca Gibney & Consentino.
    Nine would star Grnton Grantley & Julia Morris.
    Commercial networks in Australia aren’t innovators & love to recycle the same shows & faces.
    I am sure though that if a commercial network did have a successful Aussie sitcom then the other 2 would produce them too.
    The other thing it is hard to program a 30 min show in Australia & would need to be paired with a successful US sitcom, therefore Nine should maybe look at pairing an Aussie sitcom with Big Bang.
    Just a thought.

  17. TBBT is talked about as possible the last hit multi-camera sitcom. Its a dying artform.

    Digital technology means it is easier, cheaper and you can do much more using a hand-held camera on location. As they point out they faked HIMYM to have the best of both worlds.

    Low budget comedies like Laid and Please Like Me are what is made for niche audiences. A large scale sitcom is too risky and expensive these days.

  18. Studio-based sitcoms get a bad wrap.
    They’re infinitely more difficult to do well than single camera shows.
    There’s a “reality” to single camera shows that automatically gives it more, well, reality.
    The theatricality and falseness of studio-based sitcoms makes everything they do a lot harder.
    If someone slips on a banana peel in The Office, you believe it.
    If someone slips on a banana peel in Friends, it’s completely contrived.
    Wish we tried more.
    Actually, I’ll apply that comment to Australian TV in general – wish we tried more.

  19. The reason why there isn’t any commercial tv comedies is that:
    Skit comedy killed it
    Panel shows buried it
    Reality shows sealed it
    There is no money or inclination to make them anymore. It is just too easy to buy them from overseas then to make your own.

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