The ABC’s sitcom incubator Comedy Showroom includes those who mistakenly believe comedy is a tool to fix the world’s problems or protect our freedoms. By Helen Razer.

ABC TV’s ‘Comedy Showroom’

Alison Bell in ‘The Letdown’ from ABC TV series ‘Comedy Showroom’
Alison Bell in ‘The Letdown’ from ABC TV series ‘Comedy Showroom’
Credit: ABC

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Late last year, I wheedled my way into a media seat to see the single Australian show by comic sensation Amy Schumer. For a couple of reasons, it wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped. First, the newly, and very defensibly, lauded Schumer had been enjoying so much triumph, she’d not yet recovered that sense of personal failure necessary to every great stand-up set. Second, although my seat was good, it was set smack dab in the middle of a row of reviewers. Pens and iPads are fairly distracting, but not half so distracting as the posture of a critic who has decided a particular joke is sound or unsound.

Seated inopportunely together, we comedy reviewers were forced to provide for each other a kind of secondary performance to this threshold show. Was the Herald Sun laughing at the jokes about people with a disability? Was Overland tut-tutting at those same jokes? Were our own critical theatrics reflecting our publications, and were we, despite ourselves, laughing when we really shouldn’t, or failing to laugh when we should? We were all looking sideways at each other.

This could seem like the claim of a paranoiac narcissist – surely, everyone but you was there to have fun, and not to look at you, Helen. But critics rarely have fun and are uniformly paranoid and, in any case, this event had unfolded after a year of very wide public debate about the moral function of comedy, in which Schumer herself had appeared as both figure and participant.

Comedy, it had been largely decided in that year of Charlie Hebdo, had an even greater cultural purpose than that very noble one of simply making people laugh. This year, it’s not just critics who are led to believe in the moral power and responsibilities of comedy, but producers of comedy themselves. Several in the new series of sitcom pilots currently airing on ABC1 and iView as Comedy Showroom attempt to do the right thing, rather than the funny thing, as per the terms of this debate.

The debate, such as it really isn’t, is minted on to two sides of the same coin, both of which buy the fiction that comedy’s chief function is to urge for a good cultural shift. One group of critics says that comedy is the best measure of a free society. Another claims that it is the best route to a free society.

The day after the Schumer show, I saw this split play out when I read reviews written by those who had sat beside me. Some reviewers took delight in those jokes that poked fun at the “politically correct”, while others were disappointed that she had not chosen to “punch up” towards other more serious masters during every one of her 90 minutes.

Either way, there was a broad critical understanding that comedy is a truly liberating art. In order to be funny, so this new wisdom goes, comedy must now attack whatever the critic has decided is the planet’s most damaging orthodoxy.

Most often in the case of Amy Schumer, that orthodoxy is whatever happens to be annoying her in a given moment. In the course of her career, and during her set, she has seemed, as every actually funny comic must, impatient with just about every master. She “punched up” toward conditions of social inequality, but also at those who give her precise guidelines for how this punching up should be done.

For Schumer, punches are largely thrown in any damn direction she pleases and she said to social media critics of this boxing method, “I will joke about things you like and I will joke about things you aren’t comfortable with”. Which doesn’t mean for a moment that Schumer, who will often tell jokes about the need for everyone else to shut up, comes squarely down on the side of comedy’s free speech advocates. All it means is that she’s a comic usually led by comedy’s best tradition: she just wants to make people laugh.

What you happen to laugh at is, of course, a very subjective matter – and it’s cutely Lord of the Flies that ABC affirms this by asking us to vote online for the Comedy Showroom pilot that will make it into series production. But the idea that comedy is an important and instructive cultural force sets itself up as an objective truth. And, if we don’t count “show the man, show the banana”, objective truths don’t tend to serve the understanding or the execution of comedy very well at all.

The talented entertainer Eddie Perfect does show the man and the banana in his Showroom pilot, The Future is Expensive. What he also shows is some deadening deference to the idea that comedy has a lofty purpose. In a work that marries magic realism to Everybody Loves Raymond, he seems to want to say something substantial about the changing nature of masculinity and his character’s failure to meet these unstable status shifts. He fails to make this believably funny. This is due in part to the fact that no one can buy a guy with Perfect’s looks and elocution as a put-upon schlub husband in the Ray Romano register. But it’s also due to Perfect’s unmistakable need to say something big.

Similarly, West Australian producers Mad Kids offer us something that seems to want to start a conversation much more than it wants to provoke a laugh. The Legend of Gavin Tanner chronicles the adventures of a stump-dumb, footy-mad pot dealer, which is a fun premise but actually a fairly tedious and loud half-hour of confused class consciousness. It’s like a criminal Kath & Kim, but without any of the jokes, the character development or the affection for the lumpenproletariat. It looks as if someone said “we need more bogans on the national broadcaster”, and was too exhausted by this initial effort of representation to actually write any gags. In this sense, it feels a bit like Here Come the Habibs!, Nine’s only sitcom effort in the past decade. Producers seem so entranced by the good works they are doing, they fail to actually do any good work.

Precisely the same cannot be said for Ronny Chieng’s International Student, which is a nice take on our sandstone universities. That Chieng appears to be writing directly about the absurdity of life as he has experienced it, rather than in the terms of the “diversity” ABC viewers often like to think they crave, delivers this young artist from comic disaster. Chieng is green and his transition from stand-up to watchable situation comedy is a few years off, but thank goodness the ABC has given this promising guy a chance to develop his craft.

Kates McLennan and McCartney, who have written the Showroom piece Bleak, have less need of development. After all, if these women get any funnier, the rest of the nation’s TV comedians are likely to take out an injunction against them. The Katering Show, which debuted on YouTube and now finds its home on iView, is the most accomplished local moment of media piss-taking since Shaun Micallef decided he might like to try his hand at a “news” show. Actually, The Katering Show is the funniest Australian thing of any sort in years. The Kates’ fantastical Bleak, which depicts the loss of a thirtysomething woman’s status and marbles, is not as good as The Katering Show. But not much can ever be that good.

For my ABC vote, however, the two pieces vying for first place in the Showroom are Lawrence Mooney’s Moonman and Alison Bell’s The Letdown. In the former, Mooney plays a fictionally degraded version of himself as a comic, as Louis CK and Larry David have so ably done. If, like me, you’re a fool for a midlife pit of diminished hope and self-loathing, you’ll love it.

If you prefer optimistic comedy, then Bell’s motherhood assay isn’t for you either. With co-writer Sarah Scheller, the well-regarded stage actor has performed the improbable and found a novel way to skewer parenthood. In promotional interviews for this standout piece, the writers have said that they intended to make new mothers feel better about themselves. On screen, they depict maternity with such extreme and funny revulsion, you just know this can’t possibly be true. The road to comic paradise is paved with bad intentions.

Beyond the man and banana, perhaps the only “objective” thing we can say about comedy is that it is best when produced in an abject posture. Comedy that comes from a subject who knows they can never be free tends to be the stuff that we laugh at.

That comedy can ever deliver freedom, either of speech or of peoples, is a persistent lie. It was one powerfully retold by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, where the “loss” of the book on comedy from Aristotle’s Poetics is depicted as a form of social control. If we understand comedy, then we can understand how to topple the totalitarian, says Eco.

Upon the 1961 opening of his London club The Establishment, Peter Cook defied this idea when he said the venue would operate in the spirit of “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”. This is a very good joke that evidenced its own truth when it failed to stop people taking comedy so damn seriously. After the atrocity in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, dozens of well-meaning newspaper commentators said of the jihadists “what they fear is laughter”. To call this liberal bromide simple does disservice to finger-painting.

Laughter is not the best medicine. Laughter is not the “thing they fear most”. Laughter is a pleasurable expression of fear, and no kind of antidote to it at all. Thank goodness, and the ABC, that there are artists such as Micallef, Bell, Mooney and the Kates still swigging anarchically on fear. It’s a difficult act when surrounded by critics who demand that you solve the world’s ills, rather than simply laugh at them.


1 . Arts Diary

MULTIMEDIA Ulla von Brandenberg: It has a Golden Yellow Sun and an Elderly Grey Moon

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, until July 17

VISUAL ART Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori

Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until August 28

SCIENCE Pint of Science Festival

Various pubs, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Newcastle, Adelaide, Canberra, Perth, May 23-25

FESTIVAL Vivid Sydney

Various venues, Sydney, May 27-June 18

BALLET Play Rewind

Brunswick Mechanics Institute, Melbourne, May 26-29

PHOTOGRAPHY World Press Photo

State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, until June 21

BALLET Swan Lake

Adelaide Festival Centre, May 26-31

Last chance

MUSICAL Pennsylvania Avenue

Sydney Opera House, until May 22

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "The lost laugh".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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