When you think back over the best sitcoms of all time, what tends to come to mind: wacky comedy situations or wacky comedy characters? Sadly my mind reading powers aren’t what they used to be, but it’s a fairly safe guess that characters came first. That’s because characters are, unlike most other things, pretty much universal: you create a well constructed comedy grouch and pretty much everyone is going to know someone like him or her. But characters are one of the tougher things to make work in a comedy: not only do you need a good actor in the role to bring them to life. Often you don’t even know what you’ve got until a few episodes in, which is why most US sitcoms (which can run for half a year each season) often change a lot over the course of that first season.
So it’s perhaps understandable then that Australian sitcoms of recent years tend to have focused on hilarious comedy situations for their laughs rather than creating lasting characters. Not to mention situations are easier to sell overseas than character-based shows: Wilfred sold to the US (and was successful), as did Laid (though it was never developed), while no one’s rushing to turn the more character-based Upper Middle Bogan into an overseas sensation just yet. All of which is a long way of addressing the fact that out of the two Australian sitcoms that have gone to air in 2015, both of them have been built around wacky comedy set-ups. In SBS’s Danger 5, it was ’80s action movie parodies (plus anything else they could think of the throw in), now with ABC2’s Maximum Choppage it’s a kung fu parody only with a wimpy guy (Lawrence Leung) in the lead. It’s a good basic set up and Leung is a great lead – he’s a mild-mannered guy without slipping into an exaggerated comedy wimp performance – while his two friends are different enough from each other (and with enough character) to leave the door open for future storylines. But when your basic premise is “kung fu antics in Cabramatta”, it doesn’t seem all that likely that the kung fu stuff is going to fade into the background and be replaced by more character-based hijinks.
The thing is, it’s not like Australia can’t do character comedy: what else would you call Kath & Kim? And while Frontline got a lot of praise for taking apart the current affairs business, the characters (especially Mike Moore) were what kept people coming back. But those were characters that developed over time – Kath & Kim had been in sketches before they got their own show, Frontline had 13 episodes in its first season and the current affairs jokes carried things until Mike Moore’s “Mmmmmm” after each report became a laugh-getter on its own. Maybe the days when an Australian comedy had time to develop its characters is behind us (though Upper Middle Bogan did an ok job); if the situation is what counts in our sitcoms, at least Maximum Choppage has one that’ll get a laugh.
By Anthony Morris