According to Ian McFadyen, the man behind The Comedy Company, the much-loved 1980s sketch series was not the beginning of a wave of comedy -it was actually the end.
The hit TEN series, which ran for just two years from 1988, toppled the unbeatable 60 Minutes and launched iconic comedy characters and catchphrases which resonate to this day.
But many of the creatives, McFadyen included, were unable to match its glory in years thereafter.
“The Comedy Company wasn’t the start of a whole new era, it was actually the end of an era. It was the culmination of comedy and the end of an art form. If you’re wondering what took it over, the answer is panel shows,” he says.
“The Panel, Good News Week, The Glasshouse, and to a certain extent Spicks and Specks. Really it has become the standard ever since.
“Oddly The Comedy Company didn’t lead on to other things for me or for others.
“Cluedo was done by Crawford Productions and they asked me to host the show. I did do Bingles which was originally designed for the male members of Comedy Company, but they had all sort of wandered off (into other projects). TEN was so broke that it was a pitifully small budget.”
He also spent 3 years writing about 50 episodes of Newlyweds with Annie Jones and Christopher Gabardi.
“Then there was a great silence and I did very little for about 2 years.
“By the middle of the 1990s there wasn’t much market for Comedy.
“Full Frontal went on for a few years but no-one was really buying new shows. So I sat by the phone that never rang doing a lot of guest speaking.”
Queensland then beckoned with a film and a sitcom work, which has since been home.
“My wife and I looked around at a rainy Melbourne winter and said, ‘I think it’s all over for us here!’”
“There were more venues than there were comedians.”
As he explains on ABC’s comedy documentary Stop Laughing… This is Serious, his comedy was part of a renaissance that emerged from Melbourne’s theatre restaurant and stand-up circuit in Carlton, Brunswick and Fitzroy. Amongst the venues were Foibles, The Flying Trapeze, The Last Laugh, The Troubador, Le Joke (at the Last Laugh) and The Comedy Cafe.
“The Comedy Company and Fast Forward were sort of inseparable from the theatre restaurants which opened in the 70s and which started all those people off: Rod Quantock, Mary Keneally, Wendy Hamer, myself, Peter Moon, Steve Vizard and pretty much everybody.
“There were more venues than there were comedians,” he recalls.
“We would be booked sometimes to do three shows a night, doing a show at the Comedy Café then walking across from Brunswick Street to Smith Street to do a gig at Le Joke and then possibly walking back again for a late show at the Banana Lounge at the Comedy Café.
“It was predictable that it would end up as television comedy.”
The forerunner to TEN and Seven’s sketch hits was a pilot put in motion by producer Bob Weis at Open Channel, who organised a $100,000 grant from the Australian Film Corporation around late 1984. Performers included Ian McFadyen, Maryanne Fahey, Glenn Robbins and Steve Vizard.
While the 45 minute Pilot was not initially picked up by Seven, McFadyen made clever use of the remaining $80,000 to produce a series.
“I did the slimmest television budget in history and said, ‘I believe we can get 8 one hour shows out of that.’
“So we did a show called The Eleventh Hour which was put to air on Channel Seven at about 11pm at night.
“We started to introduce some of the characters. Glenn Robbin was there as Uncle Arthur, the Channel Seven commissionaire. A friend of Peter Moon’s called Mark Mitchell solved a problem in having a compere.
“He did his Bert Newton (act) and became a perfect compere because there was no danger of him becoming the boss of the show. He was like an anti-compere and he proved to be brilliant.
“Steve started doing Derryn Hunch and dodgy salesman characters. There was a news bulletin for kids with a Kylie Mole character.
“In the end that show gave both Steve and myself a kind of showreel in 1987 when Channel Nine and TEN were looking for late night comedy.”
“I don’t think we had any ockers in Comedy Company.”
But while Nine proceeded with Coast to Coast with Graham Kennedy, Ian Gow at TEN committed to The Comedy Company, allowing characters such as Con the Fruiterer, Kylie Mole, Col’n Carpenter and Uncle Arthur to become national favourites, mimicked in offices and schoolyards across the country.
“They were very much tape recordings of new accents in Australians. But I don’t think we had any ockers in Comedy Company. There were no Hoges or Strops,” McFadyen explains.
“It was observing diversity, ethnic and otherwise in a modern Australian society.
“As soon as Comedy Company became a success Channel Seven realised that they had a team of people they had let go. The only people that weren’t in Comedy Company was Steve Vizard who was in Europe doing mining deals as a lawyer.”
Vizard gave up the lawyering and Fast Forward was born, including with 3 members of The D Generation, Magda Szubanski, Marg Downey and Michael Veitch plus Gerry Connolly, Ernie Dingo, later Gina Riley, and Jane Turner.
“Steve ended up with a team that was just as strong as the Comedy Company. Somehow we almost divided up the cream of the cabaret talent between us.”
“It totally anticipated the Big Brother evictions ten years later.”
McFadyen’s other comedy success was the overt, reckless medical pastiche, Let the Blood Run Free starring Peter Rowsthorn, Lynda Gibson, Jean Kittson and Brian Nankervis. It too was borne of the comedy club circuit and included what is claimed to be the a pioneering ‘interactive’ element where the audience would phone poll to vote for a cliffhanger resolution.
“It was the first attempt at interactive, and we did that because it came out of the Last Laugh improv nights,” says McFadyen.
“They developed this crazy send up of The Young Doctors where they would get ideas from the audience.
“They would stop the show and ask the audience ‘Should Nurse Effie commit suicide or should she marry Dr. Dick?” and they would take a vote from the audience. So I thought it would be good if we could somehow do that on TV.
“It totally anticipated the Big Brother evictions ten years later.”
Let the Blood Run Free was sold to 70 countries including to Germany, which loved the show so much they financed a second series.
“TEN was bankrupt but the Germans said ‘What if we paid in advance?’” he chuckles.
These days McFadyen is less active in television, preferring pursuits in book writing or occasionally university teaching. But his real passion is painting.
“I prefer painting to sketch writing because with painting nobody messes around with what you’ve done. If you do a painting of a bowl of fruit you don’t have to sit at a meeting the next day where people say, ‘Ian, we love the painting but we’ve just got a couple of notes. Does it have to be a grapefruit?’” he asks.
“I’ve sold a few. It’s very enjoyable but it doesn’t make much money.
“I’m probably going to have to look for a job soon!”
Stop Laughing …This is Serious airs 9pm Wednesday on ABC.