Aside from the ABC, when was the last time you saw a locally-produced scripted comedy on Australian television?
I’m not talking panel shows or travel specials with comedians, but honest-to-goodness scripted jokes with actors?
We have a wonderful track record of narrative and sketch comedy in Australia: Mother and Son, Fast Forward, Kath and Kim, Frontline, The D Generation, The Paul Hogan Show, Summer Heights High, The Comedy Company, The Naked Vicar Show, The Mavis Bramston Show. We have a plethora of performers at the Melbourne Comedy Festival.
So why are our television networks, especially commercial networks, avoiding them like the plague?
Preferring to avoid the cost and risk of comedy they leave it all to the ABC and detour their comedy via travel specials (Hamish and Andy, Anh Do), panel shows (This Week Live, Have You Been Paying Attention?) or specials (Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala). Gag writers not withstanding, these leave comedy writers performers, out in the cold.
It’s as if Ben Elton’s Live from Planet Earth burnt the industry for years to come.
Even Foxtel has an entire channel devoted to Comedy and has avoided scripted content of late, preferring comedy show specials and prank shows (Balls of Steel Australia and Off Their Rockers with someone who fronts ads to sell Lamb). How is this Comedy?
Their last scripted show was probably Whatever Happened To That Guy?
Collectively, it’s an industry disgrace and it’s letting us all down.
Meanwhile the ABC is blazing a trail for the genre: Upper Middle Bogan, The Moodys, Please Like Me, Jamie: Private School Girl, It’s a Date, Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell (a perfect example of scripted comedy without the full expense of a sitcom budget).
Not all of them have succeeded: The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting, Wednesday Night Fever, This is Littleton. But throw a few darts at the target and a few may land close to the bull’s eye.
Other low-budget ABC shows Laid, Review with Myles Barlow, The Strange Calls, Lowdown have triggered international editions.
Wilfred, developed for SBS, has had multiple seasons in the US. It’s the perfect example of what could be developed for multichannels in Australia. But where is the next one?
With a few exceptions, networks are ducking and weaving on the issue.
TV Tonight asked all our network Programmers to please explain: What scripted content will they screen in 2014?
Here are their responses.
Last year Seven had improvisation show Slide Show and Anh Do specials. In comedy this year Seven has specials featuring the Montreal Comedy Festival, and more from Anh Do.
But there is a new scripted show by Housos star Paul Fenech.
“We have Bogan Hunters for 7mate and another comedy which is a bit top secret at the moment but is being made for 7mate as well,” he says.
“We shot a pilot for it last year and we think the best way to grow the show and to hit the key audience is to run it on 7mate, initially.
“We’ve got some comedies in development with some pretty big comedy names, but these things can take quite a while to generate properly. If we can get one of them up in 2014 we will, but they are all in development at present.
“It’s not that we’re not trying, it’s just that you need to find the right vehicle for some of these big names.”
“None of the Free to Air commercials have scripted half-hour sitcoms but what we have is probably more comedy-drama, and there are comedy elements in some of our dramas. We don’t have a straight half-hour sitcom but we are always open to the right idea and to looking at it with the right talent,” she says.
“You think about the amount of American pilots that go through the networks and how many of them work. It’s statistically virtually-none, because it is so hard to get right.
“We’ve restructured our team here at TEN and we have a Head of Comedy now, Paul Leydon.”
TEN currently has panel show Have You Been Paying Attention? from Working Dog.
“We do have panel comedy, and we’ve probably had more of that than the others. Shows like This Week Live are important because it flushes out some great comedy talent,” she explains.
“We also have the Melbourne Comedy Festival which is really important to us. Our audience responds well to Comedy so it’s good to have it on the schedule. But truthfully since I’ve been in Australia none of the Free to Airs have ever had a sitcom, and I don’t think it’s through lack of trying.”
However there is no sign of scripted comedy either as narrative or sketch, despite successes on the ABC.
“It’s obviously something they’re very good at and they have a lot of content on the ABC that is very particular to that audience. That’s probably why that content ends up there and it plays in the right place. We would all be looking for something that would appeal to a big, broad audience which is obviously our brief and our business. So we’re certainly looking at it.”
What about low budget comedy for ELEVEN or ONE? The network has previously dabbled in this area.
“You’re absolutely right. We should definitely find comedy that would work on ELEVEN but it just comes down to the time that the business model makes sense. That day will come.”
For its slim commissioning budget, SBS has managed to produce some distinct if modestly-performing comedies including Housos, Legally Brown and Danger 5. This weekend it also begins a non-scripted interview series Stand Up @ Bella Union.
“Comedy is a really important genre for us and we have a number of projects in development. We are going again with Danger 5,” he says.
“Legally Brown performed well for us and we’re looking at Legally Brown 2 and are in discussions about that at the moment.
“It’s important to us and it’s vital. It’s a genre we believe we can take some ownership of.
“It provides us the ability to be distinctive and bold, those things that are important.
“You will see more of it on SBS.”
Nine has not screened a locally-produced scripted comedy in some time, and admits there is nothing on the horizon to remedy this anytime soon.
“Our biggest comedy locally is Hamish and Andy, which I think is fantastic. Scripted comedy we haven’t gone down that path and I think it’s a really hard area to get right. When you go to the LA screenings, you see how many sitcom pilots are made each year. There are heaps, because when they work they are incredibly valuable. Look at Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, Frasier, Friends, Seinfeld,” he says.
“But it’s a very hard area to work in and you need significant investment to find the ones that work. It’s an area that we’re really not concentrating on.”
What about developing a low-budget comedy, in the vein of Wilfred?
“The question we have to ask is do they sit on a big commercial channel, like Channel Nine? As good as it is, and I am a fan, I don’t think Wilfred would fit on Channel Nine. I don’t think it fits with our brand or our audience,” he admits.
“ABC has done a sensational job in this area. They have been the market leader in Australia developing this stuff.
“But once again does it translate to a commercial channel and can we take those kind of risks? Everytime you take a risk like that and it doesn’t work, the impact on your schedule is enormous. A lot of our job is about mitigating risk. Taking a risk, but mitigating them as much as you can.”
Backwell concedes that even to develop a show for multichannels, the mathematics don’t always stack up.
“Multichannels would be the perfect area to do this because you don’t have the same ratings pressure. But we only have so much production budget, so we would have to take money off our main channel, where we get a return, and put it on a multichannel where you don’t get the same return. So unless there is a lot more money for us to play with in terms of production, I can’t see us investing in risky, multichannel local productions,” he says.
“We get a better return for our money on Channel Nine.”
“We have a major project in development with Working Dog,” Director of Television Brian Walsh confirmed.
“To my knowledge what they’re doing has never been done on Australian television. So don’t expect a panel show,” he said.
“Don’t expect it to be like anything you’ve seen before. It’s a very fresh, original idea.
“We do have another comedy series we’re just formalising now. It’s an international format that will be adapted for the Comedy Channel. But it would be premature of me to say any more at this stage.”
The undisclosed new project is, however, unscripted.
ABC has already screened first-run scripted comedy this year on two channels. While it gallantly waves a flag for the genre, this year it returns other established brands and introduces Utopia, Jonah From Tonga, Maximum Choppage and We’ll Have to Leave it There from The Chaser team.
“Comedy is one of the defining characteristics of the ABC. We’re the only ones really trying in Australian comedy,” Dahill insists.
“Do we want to be another ‘me too’ (network) or do we want to be the only one? Currently, Australian comedy is defined by the ABC. I think that’s sad that we’re the only ones making Australian comedy, because everybody wins by more people making it. You get more benchmarks and everyone having to raise their game constantly, which is what’s happened in Australian Drama.
“Australian Drama has become incrementally better every year because nobody ever gets better at doing anything by ‘not doing it.’ The more Drama that gets made the better we get at making it and now we have world class Dramas getting picked up everywhere.
“I think we are already in a space where, even with just the ABC playing, we’re now making world class comedy. Upper Middle Bogan and The Moodys I think are world class.”
While comedy remains subjective, and some shows achieve better success than others, ABC proudly recognises its role in developing new work and new performers.
“For a public service broadcaster it’s a really important part of our mix and, particularly in Australia, our sense of humour defines us. The way we are prepared to laugh at ourselves says a lot about you as a nation,” he explains.
“I think it’s a shame that more isn’t made of it. For any network if you get your Drama and Comedy right, in particular, it defines the network.
“Moodys, Upper Middle Bogan and Chris Lilley define the ABC. When lots of people think about the ABC that’s who they think about.
“Comedy is the crown jewels of the network.”