The big problem in television comedy for a long, long time now has been finding new people. While there’s plenty of places where stand-up comedians can find their way onto our screens, usually in the form of panel shows, if you’re looking for the breeding ground for the next generation of scripted comedy, well, good luck. When Shaun Micallef – who came to prominence back in the late ’90s first on Full Frontal – is generating excitement for his upcoming sitcom The Ex-PM. Working Dog (who got their start in the ’80s) are one of the few reliable sitcom producers in the land. It seems pretty clear that the next generation of sitcom performers have gone AWOL somewhere along the line.
Part of the problem is that we don’t make enough sitcoms for it to be worthwhile focusing on that side of things. While directors like Matthew Saville (Please Like Me, We Can Be Heroes) and Trent O’Donnell (Review with Miles Barlow, The Moodys) may have been behind a lot of Australia’s recent sitcom output, they’ve also kept busy working on more traditional drama and film projects. But even if sitcoms came back in style and there was a market for a half-dozen new ones each year, where would we get the people to make them? While panel shows provide a useful career path for stand-up comics to get television experience – Dave Hughes is probably the biggest comedian in the land and panel shows are all he’s ever done – for anyone looking to make scripted comedy there hasn’t been a career path for a decade or more.
The sketch shows that used to provide writers and performers with comedy experience have mostly died out, and the few ones that do pop up usually vanish without a trace (is anyone still watching Foxtel’s Open Slather?). For a while YouTube was touted as the place for new scripted comedy, but – The Bondi Hipsters aside – having to compete on a world stage straight out the gate hasn’t worked out for local talent either. So the ABC’s Fresh Blood online initiative has been extremely welcome: last year around 20 or so comedy teams made short run series (three or four episodes of a few minutes each) as a kind of dry run to test out the concepts, and now five teams are back with half-hour pilot episodes. The “fresh blood” angle is a bit dubious when you have shows that feature high(ish)-profile sketch team Aunty Donna and Veronica (Hungry Beast, Mad as Hell, triple j) Milson, but the ideas are fresh. Not all the shows are completely successful: Bedhead is a mildly amusing sit-rom-com; The Record is a solid pilot but might not be a sustainable concept; the two sketch shows on offer are more miss than hit, which leaves Aunty Donna as probably the stand-out. And with ABC2 seemingly out of the original content business, it’s hard to see any of these pilots getting a run on the main channel. But it’s a start, which is more than the Australian sitcom has had for a while now.
Written by Anthony Morris