Melbourne-based writer and journalist. Purveyor of finally crafted radio plays. A Muppet of a man.
The regular broadcast was delayed by Channel 9 last night, in favour of an hour-length broadcast special news coverage on the Christchurch earthquake event in New Zealand.
Without making light of the event, I’m sure Channel 9 didn’t struggle with the decision for very long – If Elizabeth Hurley was still shacking it up with Shane Warne, they would have delayed Ben Elton’s show in favour of an hour of live-crossing to that event as well.
Ben Elton’s show was a strange beast. It potentially tested great amongst its target audience, the 18-35 demographic in the Andromeda Galaxy, but it’s hard to tell as the ratings out that way aren’t heavily monitored.
One thing’s for sure, the jokes aren’t really aimed at viewers closer to home. This week’s episodes included jokes about the election, Julia Gillard saying ‘moving forward’ quite a lot, and some material on Jessica Watson. You remember, that teenage girl in a yacht. Good, contemporary material. The rest of what I could stand to watch was mostly Ben Elton being defensive and slandering his critics.
Bringing in 455,000 viewers for the first episode, it managed to claw 97th position for the week. Episode two was watched by 384,000 people, and a large number of those were probably changing the channel to see if the show was actually as bad as the reviews claim – it’s surprising it didn’t do better than that on negative publicity and morbid curiosity alone. Episode three has ushered in a new low, somewhere less than 200,000 viewers.
Blame is being passed back and forth. Many of the critics are saying the show was unfunny and crude. Elton has pointed the finger at negative viewers on Twitter (although I struggle to understand how feedback can make a show bad), and goes as far as to compare himself to Shakespeare, and the critics to Hitler. I can’t remember Juliet ever sending a photo of her ‘fanwa’ to Romeo on Facebook, but I’m sure if Shakespeare was contemporary, he’d be putting that scene in.
For a respected comedian who has a great track record, the show is a weird low. It’s a mix of strange stereotypes and jokes about body parts. It’s like Ben Elton has been standing behind the school shed taking notes for his material, and this is from a guy who had a hand in Blackadder, arguably one of the best scripted comedies of all time. Watching this just makes me miss his old work.
Its current competition is seen to be a new show from the ABC, Adam Hills in Gordon St Tonight. Another show relying on the star factor in its name, Gordon St has managed to pull in twice the viewers despite having the exact same guests as Ben Elton a day later. Both shows are rather similar on the surface.
Australian television comedy shows have fallen into a cycle – the networks appear to be reluctant to spend budget on acting, decent scripts, and sets. It’s much easier to give someone from radio a desk to sit behind and a guest or two, and let the studio audience and some YouTube clips do the heavy lifting. I’m not saying that they don’t make good viewing, but this pattern is followed by The Gruen Transfer, Spicks and Specks, The 7PM Project, Hey, Hey it’s Saturday, and (by the sounds of it) the upcoming Tony Martin-hosted The Joy of Sets.
Australian network has taken chances in the past with comedy, and sometimes that has paid off fantastically. Hey Dad! ran for seven years, Kath and Kim went around the world (but not before being rejected by every network and sitting on the shelf at the ABC for years), and Summer Heights High has become critically acclaimed.
At the moment the only comedy show that doesn’t involve a man behind a desk is Laid on the ABC, and it deserves some attention.
It’s not that we don’t have the talent either. Any one who has been to a live standup show in recent times knows that we’ve got talent in our land beyond the established few. For every Adam Hills and Shaun Micallef, there’s a Lawrence Mooney, Andrew McClelland or Dave Thornton. Comedians who deserve a chance and a bit of screentime. Until that happens, we can’t complain about generic talk show comedy, or even back to back episodes of Two and a Half Men.
Australia deserves a decent, homemade sitcom. We’ve embraced Packed to the Rafters and Underbelly, and that should prove that we can be trusted with a decent scripted comedy. Channel 9 may well brand itself as the home of comedy, but it’s not a great claim when little of that comedy comes from home.