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First printed in the Australian Journal of Comedy - Volume 1 - Number 2 - 1995.  

Situations Vacant.

The Strange Case of the Aussie Sitcom.

Ian McFadyen

1. One of Our Genres is Missing.

Why are there so few good Australia sitcoms? Why are there so few Australian sitcoms at all?

These questions arise persistently. Recently there have been no less than three articles in daily newspapers concerning the lack of Australian sitcoms on television. Is there really such a lack and if there is, why is there? More importantly, should anyone care?

To begin with, let’s just check on a what a "sitcom" is. A sitcom or situation comedy is a television program, almost always half an hour long, with a regular cast and set in a regular location which is usually a household or a workplace.

Sitcoms tend to be made at the same rate as they are screened which the rate of one a week although there is usually a significant gap between recording and broadcasting. Although sitcoms occasionally record material on location, most are filmed or taped in a studio, using multiple cameras, in front of an audience.

In their production methods sitcoms have more in common with theatre than film. Whole scenes are performed in continuous takes in front of the audience and actors must make entrances and exits just as they do in the theatre. They must also deliver their performance in concert with the audience’s reaction, just as they might on stage. The similarity with theatre extends even into the dramatic structure. Indeed a sitcom is essentially a small play.

In United States the half hour time slot is usually interrupted by two commercial breaks, one in the middle and the other near the beginning or the end. For this reason American sitcoms usually fall into two acts, with either a short introduction or a brief epilogue. In Australia there are three breaks, so the Australian commercial sitcom is very much a miniature three act play. There is either a short introduction or an epilogue and three acts of about 7 minutes duration making up a total program length of around 23 minutes.

On the BBC and ABC, there are no commercial breaks and the program length is longer, up to 28 minutes, but the scripts usually still follow the three act format. More about the dramatic structure later.

2. Comedy without comedians.

Situation comedies grew out of weekly radio shows. In the US, comedians such a Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen presented weekly programs which were essentially comic radio plays, complete with sound effects and music and featuring a regular group of characters.

In Britain Tony Hancock and Syd James presented "Hancock’s Half Hour" while "Take it From Here" presented a short family sitcom known as "The Glums." In Australia Roy Rene presented Moe McCaughey and friends in "McCaughey Mansions" while Harry Dearth and George Foster starred in a weekly comedy called "Laugh Till You Cry."

With the coming of television the established American radio teams quickly moved to adapt their popular formats to the new visual medium. Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and Abbot and Costello all quickly translated their radio formats to TV. Other established comedians like Phil Silvers and Jimmy Edwards found formats like "Sergeant Bilko" and "Whacko!" which drew on their personal comedic styles. Because videotape wasn’t developed until the late Fifties many of these early TV comedies, like the radio shows before them, were performed and broadcast in real time in front of the audience. No second takes here. The only reason we have any record of shows such as "The Honeymooners" is that someone thought it might be an idea to record the program on film (via kinescope) while it was going to air so that it could be re-broadcast in other places later on - thus inventing the re-run. Still the initial performances were live to air and that required comedians with considerable expertise. It required performers with theatrical training and discipline.

In spite of the primitiveness of the medium many of these early programs were without a doubt the funniest television ever produced. But there was a problem. There weren’t enough of these experienced, reliable performers to satisfy the massive demand for programs. Television companies were faced with the problem of producing more comedy shows than there were comedians to make them. In tackling this problem the television networks came up with a variety of solutions.

The first step was to stop performing shows live and to adopt film style production in a studio which allowed for mistakes and retakes. "I Love Lucy" was the first sitcom to be recorded by multiple film cameras which was to become, and still is, the standard American method for recording sitcoms. This method overcame the problem of incompatible video-tape formats and allowed the program to be distributed world-wide with no loss of quality. It made Desilu into a major production company.

The second step was to create a warmer, gentler comedy style which could be performed by comic actors; rather than comedians: a style which would be appealing rather than hilarious. Comedy writers, who were far easier to find than comedy performers, could then be engaged to write warm, appealing stories with just the right modicum of warm, appealing jokes. This strategy produced a flood of warm, appealing family shows like "Father Knows Best" and "Leave it to Beaver".

By the Sixties the old generation of comedians had used up the store of comedy which they had developed over the previous thirty years. They were also getting old. While networks were all able to build amusing family comedies around competent actors like Ray Milland, Bob Cummings and Shirley Booth, there was a glaring deficiency at the hilarious end of the scale. This gave rise to the third strategy: Wacky Premises.

Whereas the traditional sitcoms usually contained an unusual or ebullient character such as Gracie Allen, Sergeant Bilko or Lucy Ricardo, the action usually took place in a normal setting. In the Sixties however, creative efforts turned to finding extraordinary "situations" on which to base comedy series. The basic imperative was still to provide family entertainment, that is to say, entertainment for families, about families, so the setups continued to be based on the classic sitcom format but they were enlivened by the inclusion of one or more characters with unusual, usually inhuman or superhuman, abilities. Thus we had "Bewitched", "I Dream of Jeannie", "My Favourite Martian", "My Living Doll", even "My Mother the Car".

Other formats threw curves at the traditional family structure itself as in "Eight is Enough", "The Brady Bunch" or "My Three Sons". Others put the family in exotic locations and times such as "Lost in Space" and "The Flintstones." The outer limits of this twilight zone were undoubtedly reached when the basic stories of "Father Knows Best" were superimposed onto characters from cartoons and horror movies - i.e. "The Addams Family" and "The Munsters."

The benefit of the Wacky Premise strategy was that once you created the hilarious setup, each episode could thereafter consist of no more than a simple story (quite possibly one recycled from "Gidget"), a smattering of lightweight one-liners and a series of endlessly repeatable routine gags. Through repeated exposure the audience learnt the mechanics of the show and, therefore, where to laugh. Thus every week we saw a newcomer enter the Addams’ or the Munster’s house and be terrified by them; we saw Sergeant Schultz hear about of one of Colonel Hogan’s schemes and say "I know nuzzzinkk!", and we knew that after he broke something Maxwell Smart would say "Sorry about that Chief". Each episode of these programs became a ritual ceremony in which the regular characters would work their way through the list of standard gags. Lack of originality became a positive feature.

Of course, repeating the same jokes, or variations on the same jokes, considerably reduced the burden of having to create hilarious scripts for each episode, which was after all what it was all about - producing funny TV shows en masse without having to be all that funny. But they seemed funny, for although they were shot film-style in a movie studio, audience laughs were added later by an audio engineer. It’s quite likely that the laughs added to "Gilligan’s Island" were originally recorded at a live to air performance of "The Honeymooners"

In the Seventies, an entire generation moved away from the ideals of suburban family life, and television. For the Baby Boomers, rock and roll, and a massive renaissance in cinema swept television into an abyss. A generation who were post feminism, post sexual revolution, post Watergate and post Vietnam were not going to accept the old "Father Knows Best" messages no matter how much they were dressed up in space suits or vampire costumes. For television comedy to attract this new audience, a whole new set of skills and attitudes were required.

The U.S. networks rapidly sought out a new generation of writers and producers who could create "relevant" sitcoms but, as often occurs, the innovations came from Britain. Johnny Speight’s controversial sitcom about scouse battler, Alf Garnett, fulminating over the social changes erupting around him became a model for other countries.

"Til Death Us Do Part" inspired "All in the Family." and even "Kingswood Country." Later in the U.S. "Taxi" and "Barney Miller" ignored family setups to deal with eclectic groups of characters who might have walked out of O. Henry. Later "Cheers" dealt with the complexity of marital and sexual relationships in the Eighties and "Family Ties" presented "All in the Family" one generation later - hippie parents with capitalist kids.

Other social changes such as the upward mobility of African-Americans produced a swag of sitcoms about middle class black American families, portraying them as being, in TV terms, now only about three decades behind middle class white America.

However, over all, in the age of Starsky and Hutch and then Miami Vice, situation comedies in the Eighties, seemed to be either hopelessly dull or dangerously experimental. Then, unexpectedly, sitcoms started to see something they had not seen for years. Comedians.

It probably began when the producers of Happy Days hired stand up comedian Robin Williams to do a guest spot as a extra-terrestrial whereupon he was extraordinarily funny. Before you could say "Nano nano!" Mork was born. "Mork and Mindy" was as close to a rerun of "My Favourite Martian" as you could do without being sued and the scripts as mushy as any family sitcom, except there was this extraordinary performer running around in it. The word promptly went out. Scour the comedy spots. Leave no stoned comedian unturned. Comedians were suddenly the biggest thing in comedy. Veteran performer Bill Cosby bedded down comfortably into "The Cosby Show". Roseanne Barr dramatised her stand-up comedy in the family life of the Connors in "Roseanne" which was definitely not "The Donna Reed Show", and Tim Allen, Garry Shandling and Gerry Seinfeld became "overnight" stars, but only after working fifteen years apiece in the clubs. Which brings me to an important point about sitcoms.

Sitcom as a Performer’s Medium

Over the last 40 years Australia has produced many successful sketch comedy series. "The Mavis Bramston Show", "Auntie Jack", "Norman Gunston", "The Naked Vicar", "Australia You’re Standing In It", "The D-Generation", "The Paul Hogan Show", "The Comedy Company" and "Fast Forward" are among the most memorable. However there have been considerably fewer situation comedies. "Mother and Son" and "Frontline" stand out as two of the few undisputed successes.

From time to time people wonder about this discrepancy and ask television executives and comedy producers if there is a reason for it. The reason that is most often given is "There just aren’t any people who can write sitcoms."

Now, given all the above, this seems to be a very odd explanation. Why should Australia have people who can write sketch comedy, drama, TV commercials, songs, poetry, feature films, plays, books, operas and short stories but no one who can write sitcoms? Why should we be deficient in one single category? Are we to believe that writing sitcoms is the hardest form of writing known? If it is, why does the United States have hundreds of sitcom writers who fuel the dozens of shows from "Married With Children" to "Hanging with Mr Cooper".

The truth is that as suggested above, situation comedy at its best is not a writer’s medium at all but a performer’s medium.

If this were not apparent from the history above, we can gain some sense of it by looking at the fees paid to sitcom performers. An episode of "Roseanne" currently costs the U.S. network well over a million dollars. That’s because Roseanne Arnold gets about $700,000 an episode. That’s not per series that’s per episode.

While an Australian sitcom writer gets about $5000 an episode a U.S. sitcom writer may well get 4 times that. However, while an Australian sitcom star may get $3000 an episode, Gerry Seinfeld gets 100 times that amount*. So we can see that, while U.S. writers are paid more, U.S. comedy performers are paid astronomically more.

You may attribute this simply to star appeal and the fact that in a way the star of a sitcom holds the program to ransom. You can replace Becky in "Roseanne" but you can’t replace Roseanne herself. But there’s more to it than that. Stars like Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Bill Cosby, Gerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser (from "Mad About You"), Robin Williams, Bob Newhart and countless others spent years, in some cases, decades, writing, performing, testing and refining comedy about the topics on which their sitcoms are based.

George Burns and Gracie Allen performed as a husband and wife act in the Twenties in vaudeville before moving to radio. So did Jack Benny and so did Tony Hancock.

All of these people not only spent years performing comedy across different media, they explored a particular style or area of comedy. They found material which interested them and concentrated on it, mapping out the terrain, finding the veins of humour and perfecting the tools which would bring to life comedy about those topics.

By the time these comedians came to do television they had an individual style, a vast array of topics, a catalogue of jokes and situations and a toolbox of techniques and characters. Most of all however they had, some sort of enveloping attitude or outlook which gave their comedy a unique appeal. Writers were then brought in, given the set up, the characters, the style and the philosophy (called in the trade "the bible" of the show), and told to go away and write scripts to those specifications. If they couldn’t, they were simply told to go away.

So while some sitcoms such as Yes Minister and Mother and Son have been generated by writers, they are in the minority. Today, in the ranks of successful sitcom, the performer-based shows reign supreme.

The reason comes down to two things:

(a)The natural ability of certain actors to perform certain characters and

(b) the comedian’s crucial role in the R&D of the product

The Expensive Search for the Magic Formula

The reason that Roseanne and Gerry Seinfeld get all that money is firstly because they have an ability to perform compelling characters. Successful comedy creations are non-transferable; there are no substitutions. Try to imagine "Fawlty Towers" without John Cleese. The show’s success rests on the character of Basil Fawlty and Fawlty, in turn, emanates from the irascible, arachnoid performing style of Cleese. Only Cleese can DO Fawlty, just as only Mark Mitchell can DO Con the Fruiterer and only Rowan Atkinson can DO Mr Bean.

But these performers have not just been blessed with a certain style. They are people who have spent years exploring comedy in an attempt to work out a successful formula. As in chemistry, it is the formula that counts and everyone is looking for one that works. It takes a long time and the research is carried out at the performer’s own expense - both financial and emotional. There are many dead ends and failures: a comedian typically exploring many veins of humour before hitting on one that works. They may experiment with many different characters or styles of comedy before striking that winning combination.

Tim Allen found his vein in the psychology of the modern male, Cosby has made his career mining the topics of marriage and parenthood while Roseanne struck the mother-lode in the life of the working class family.

It’s generally difficult for someone who is just a writer to come up with a formula because, for the formula to work, the performance has to be just right and writers have no control over the performance. More importantly, few writers spend the greater part of their career writing about a single area of concern. An exception to this might be someone like Anthony Jay, who specialises in writing scripts about corporate and political behaviour. After years of writing business training films for John Cleese’s company, Jay created the great "Yes Minister" and "Yes Prime Minister". Like Kafka or Joseph Heller, Jay had a particular province of human folly which he enjoyed exploring. Fortunately Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne were able to fasten onto Jay’s strong personal style and bring it to life in the series.

The implications of the above is that developing successful comedy in any medium usually requires a lifelong commitment. Barry Humphries has been performing Edna for forty years. The people who wrote and performed The Comedy Company and Fast Forward had been writing and performing comedy for periods ranging from 5 to 20 years.

So where are all the Australian sitcom creators? I hope the answer is that they are doing what Burns and Allen, and Jack Benny, and Tony Hancock and Bill Cosby did before they did sitcom which is performing on stage, working on radio, forming partnerships with other comedians, exploring topics, trying out routines, polishing techniques, generally trying to make a living while they develop something which may, in ten years, produce some brilliant television (if television is still here.)

The reason that there is a shortage of comedy practitioners NOW is that vaudeville and radio comedy died for twenty years, so there was no non-TV place where comedians could get ready for TV. Even with the recent rebirth of these other areas, it’s hard for anyone to make a living doing comedy in general let alone specialising in a particular vein of comedy. Most comedy writers and performers have to work across the board doing radio sketches, a bit of stand-up, maybe a newspaper column, hosting "Australia’s Weirdest Home Accidents" or whatever, just to pay the rent. This means that the exploration of particular areas, the sort of work which may generate sitcoms is constantly interrupted.

And it’s fatal to hit TV before you’re ready. Australian TV is tough. In the USA a show with 10% audience share is a major hit. In Australia a 10% audience share is don’t bother to come Monday. An Australian series needs to consistently rate in the twenties to have any chance of continuing. (An imported series is safe on 16 or 17) And there’s no time to settle in. Critics and programmers will shoot on sight. "Cheers" took two seasons in America to catch on; "Roseanne" rated single figures for its first year in Australian then gradually built up a firm following. An Australian sitcom rating low teens would be axed after half a dozen episodes.

And if you’re producing a sitcom, you’ll have to make the whole series before they put it to air. That means, if something isn’t working, you won’t be able pick it up from feedback in the first couple of weeks and fix it. You’ll have to sit and watch it not work for the whole 13 weeks. And they’ll probably put the show in the wrong time slot. (1)

Does this mean I’m springing to the defence of all Australian sitcoms? No. Many of them have been terrible. Some truly, truly, woefully dreadful and awful. I’ve looked at things I’ve written myself and cried out "What was I thinking. How could I think that was funny?" But the reality is - just as the Americans have to make the fifty of sixty truly abominable sitcoms (that we never see except in non-ratings periods) in order to create one "Cheers" or "Barney Miller" - we have to go through all the terrible stuff in order to come up with the occasional gem. Unfortunately, every time a show doesn’t deliver as much as the creators and the audience hoped for, journalists shake their heads and launch into the hand-wringing "Why can’t Australians do comedy" lament.

Does this mean that a successful sitcom simply requires:

One of two gifted performers with a direct affinity to, and a close relationship with the development of the subject at hand,

A set of gifted supporting performers, and .

A television network which is prepared to run the show in the right timeslot,
promote it and stick with it until the audience take it to heart?

Unfortunately no. There is still another whole issue to take into consideration.

Sitcoms and National Culture

One part of the problem may be that we have always expected an Australian sitcom to be LIKE an American or British sitcom. Heaven knows the number of proposals that have landed on my desk which bear descriptions such as "an Australian Fawlty Towers" and "an Australian Home Improvement."

But can styles of sitcom cross national boundaries, or are they pegged to particular cultures? And is it possible that the sitcoms we’ve become used to from Britain and America aren’t compatible with the Australian ethos? To explore the relationship between comedy and culture we must try and define links between national cultural characteristics and comedy product. Note that there is tautologous component to this process because we partly infer the attitudes of a people by observing what they laugh at.

For example, from looking at their comedy we can infer that the English are socially, materially, emotionally and sexually repressed. They are terribly class conscious for their comedies are almost invariably about social position: "Keeping Up Appearances", "Steptoe and Son", "Till Death Us Do Part." The upper class are civilised, intelligent and slightly dotty. Their humour lies in their formality, their tweeness and their distaste for the lower class. The lower class are loud, crass and shallow. Their humour lies in their bad taste, their bluntness and their distaste for the upper class.

Upper class people watch upper class comedy ("To the Manner Born.") and smile with reassurance at their little foibles, while the lower class watch lower class comedy ("Benny Hill", "On the Buses") and rejoice in their freedom from the constraints of propriety. And young people who hate the whole system find release in "The Young Ones." Or "Bottom."

The British comedy industry is highly differentiated but governed by one overall concept: we all have our little niche in society and somehow we all get by.

Americans on the other hand are not concerned with class but with their own behaviour. Americans are guilty. They are always on the lookout for self-improvement. Americans invented the sitcom with a message. "Father Knows Best", "Leave it To Beaver", "My Three Sons". Even the madcap Mork would always end sitting up on the couch talking to Mindy, biting his lower lip and saying, "I guess what I’ve learned Min, is that deep down everyone is scared."

It is interesting to note that this tendency to have a moment of learning or realisation is unique to American sitcoms and has no equivalent in British comedy. No British sitcom ever ended with someone having learnt a lesson or having a moment of self-awareness. The pay-off in a British sitcom is typically ironic if not downright cynical but in America, "All In The Family", "The Cosby Show", "Full House", "Seinfeld" and "Northern Exposure" (an hour sitcom) all deal with moral and social questions. How do we relate to each other? How do we behave? How can we relate and behave better? How can we be better people?

In this way, the two sitcom cultures seem to be mutually exclusive. The Americans find the British sitcoms too bleak, the British find the Americans too pat and maudlin. So, is there anything which links them into a common product?

The first thing that both comedy cultures have in common is a sense of frustration. We might say that frustration is the emotional engine of sitcom. For all her strivings, Hyacinth Bucket never makes it into the upper class, Dianne Chambers never succeeds in turning Sam Malone into the faithful sensitive partner she wants, Sam never reconciles his affection for Dianne with his compulsion to philander. Nearly all sitcom characters, be they American or British, are frustrated by being caught in a situation from which they cannot escape.

So we might say that situation comedies are about people who are trapped in a situation and hence the name.

The situation may be physical, but it is more likely to be emotional. Archie Bunker is trapped in the values of his generation, Edina and Patsy are trapped in the mores of theirs. Tim Taylor is trapped in his male persona. This sense of not being able to change the situation is not only built into the psychology of the sitcom but is implicit in the structure of sitcoms as a television product. A situation comedy is, by definition a comedy with a set cast, and a set location which is goes on from week to week. In other words, a tendency not to change is built into the product. Although characters may strive to change, they are in a sense doomed to return each time to somewhere very close to their starting point.

Thus, the second thing British and American sitcoms have in common, is that the characters are like corks bobbing on the sea. They rise and fall with the waves but always come back roughly to where they began. The first part of a typical sitcom episode is the rise where the characters’ expectations are elevated; the second part is the fall where their plans are dashed and they fall to a point below that from which they started; the third part is the return to equilibrium. Mathematicians will recognise this as the classic sine-curve: from zero up to 1, down to -1, and then back up to zero again.

At the end of the episode the cycle is complete, the situation restored, lessons have been learnt but we are back where we started ready to begin next week’s episode. The point is that, unless an actor wants to leave the series, or there is a major change of focus, the basic situation never changes.

So, even though she constantly embarrasses him, Ricky Ricardo never leaves Lucy, Al Bundy never leaves Peg, Arthur Bear never leaves Maggie, Saffy never leaves Edina. Sergeant Bilko never gets rich,(2) Dobie Gillis never gets Thalia the blonde prom queen, Jim Hacker never succeeds in implementing his reforms, Roseanne is never free from children, no one at Grace Brothers ever gets a better job. Life goes on as it did before. It is Vladimir and Estragon. "Waiting for Godot" is in fact a minimalist sitcom.

Doesn’t this quality of stasis in sitcoms bother the television audience?

Not at all. In fact it is precisely this lack of change which gives a sitcom, for the audience, the sense of mimicking real life. The characters on the screen who play out short segments of their trapped lives every week, are mirrors of the people who sit trapped in their own lives, watching them every week. Thus there is a significant correspondence between the psychology of the sitcom and the psychology of its audience. The more people age, and find themselves trapped in jobs, families, mortgages and particular circles of friends, the more entertaining they find these programs.

In the typical American, or Australian, family sitcom we see wise-cracking, teenagers running rings around their decent, but rather dull parents. Kids enjoy these shows because that is how they see their parents. The parents also laugh because that is how they see themselves. But it doesn’t matter. Sitcoms say to the audience, "Look, it’s like this for everybody. This is what life is like, so you’re no different." The message is that life is full of traps and most things you attempt are doomed to fail, but it doesn’t matter. You just go on and that’s what really counts. Sitcom characters try to fly like Icarus, are burnt by the sun, but are reborn Phoenix-like from the ashes, ready to start again. Death, resurrection, renewal

Sitcoms in Australia

If comedy is an externalisation of the concerns of a population, we should be able to work out what Australians are concerned about by looking at what they find funny. So what’s the highest rating comedy show in Australia? At the time of writing, in Melbourne, the answer is "The Footy Show". Yes. The Footy Show. This is Australian comedy at its best. Free-for-all. Knock-about. Off -the-cuff. One-in-all-in. So is this what Australian comedy is all about? Hyphens?

It’s probably no accident that the most popular comic entertainer on Australian television ever was Graeme Kennedy who worked in a live tonight show, with no net, poor scripts, but a quick and fearless mind. Second is probably Paul Hogan who also walked up and engaged the audience directly, arms folded like a footballer, as if he were chatting to you in the pub. The spearhead of the Comedy Company was Kylie Mole, a tough, gum-chewing, lip-curling, (there are those hyphens again) little scrubber who hated school, teachers, parents and Amanda, the girl with the Derwent pencils. Along the line we have also seen the much begloved Auntie Jack and Norman Gunston insulting the rich and famous.

If a theme emerges here it is that of comedy which is cheeky, rough and defiant. It is not in the least about frustration or a desire for self-improvement but rather unrepentant self-assertion. I used to think that Kylie Mole was funny because she sent up a certain sort of person. I was later to realise it was because much of the audience (in this case: teenagers) identified with her attitudes, agreed with what she was saying and were delighted that she had the guts to say it. (3)

In Melbourne, sports commentator Sam Newman has become a celebrity by stating forthrightly and without apology his somewhat traditional views on women. "In Kingswood Country" Ted Bullpitt used to exclaim, when his son-in-law, played by Lex Marinos, entered, "Oh oh. The wog’s here." While Ted, as an Australian equivalent of Alf Garnett and Archie Bunker was someone we were supposed to laugh AT it is certain that he was also a character that a lot of people laughed WITH.

Does this mean that Australians respond principally to comedy that is anti-authoritarian, anti-intellectual, sexist, racist, male chauvinist, scatological? The answer is "To a great extent… yes!". The reason for this has a lot to do with the issues of culture, conformity and communication.

First it must be noted that the tendency to this type of humour is not unique to Australia. It runs through all cultures. It is perhaps not as repressed in Australia because of the cultural tendency to be, shall we say, uninhibited, Australia seems to be devoid of that American guilt, and that British sense of class which prompts people to suppress certain attitudes. But whence comes this fearlessness, this lack of inhibition in Australian culture?

Australia evolved as the "working man’s paradise", a nation built by arduous physical labour and glorified by physical endurance and fearlessness in two world wars. Male strength, male solidarity and a certain laconic male savoir faire have always been highly valued in this country. Australia became renowned as a classless society where no one was better than anyone else and there were no ingrained authority structures. The phrase commonly used to describe this ethos "Jack’s as good as his master" did not really go far enough in telling the story for in Australian society there really were no masters, just the boss, who shared a beer with the men down the pub.

This led to a paradox. In a society which repudiated ruling classes, a new ruling class sprang up which was the class of working men. The attitudes of this class came to completely dominate those of other groups, including women, intellectuals, artists, and people of other races and nationalities.

It is important to note that this ruling class was not really a class in the strict sense of the word. Membership of this class was not defined by the individual’s occupation, income, education, or title but defined by adoption of the egalitarian, working class ethos. The social imperatives of the class were to suppress any display of competence, or excellence; to keep things simple, never complain and to never appear to be a "smartarse."

Thus Australian men admire the footballers on "The Footy Show" because they display excellence, both in physical skill and in humour, without ever appearing to be upper class, or intellectual. Woe-betide a footballer who compared last week’s game to the Second Punic War.

So dominant has this cultural influence been in Australia that males from almost every walk of life have sought to align themselves with it. In fact there are distinct social penalties ranging from ostracism to outright violence to be encountered in not adhering to the ethos.

Thus Australian poets are celebrated because, although they are poets, they also like to share a beer with blokes down the pub; novelists and playwrights make much of the fact that they like to go to the footy and we make tribute to intellectuals, who, although they are historians or philosophers, still have a "larrikin" streak. All this is justified as a sort of red-blooded, Socialist anti-elitism with accompanying homilies that we must remember our roots. The real reason is that deep down these Aussie intellectuals are still small boys frightened of being beaten up in the playground.

This dominant class of Australians might be called the AWCs, or Affluent Working Class. They have what might be called an unelaborated social and intellectual code. The tenets of the group’s culture forbid its members to adopt a more elaborated approach to life. The AWCs are therefore distinguishable from those who pretend to a more elaborated code who are the ISAs or Intellectually and Socially Ambitious Australians. They are people have aspirations to intellect, art, science, sensitivity, communication or anything else connected with introspection or self expression.

I reiterate that membership of these classes has nothing to do with income, family background or even intellect but simply to the adoption of a set of attitudes. Hence it is as easy to find a AWC in the boardroom or a film festival as it is to find an ISA in a factory.

The implications for comedy in such a cultural divide are profound. Since the AWC culture precludes displays of intellect it is very difficult to imagine an Australian program based, as is the American show "Frasier", on the fortunes of a middle aged, divorced psychiatrist. Andrew Denton, while having a loyal following amongst people who might be described as tertiary educated, struggles to attract a more general audience. He is a "smartarse" if ever there was one.

More importantly, along with the standardization of intellect amongst AWCs, comes a standardization of feelings. It is generally accepted that Australian blokes are not allowed to get emotional about very much except for a few activities specially designated and designed for that purpose i.e. sport. It is regarded as quite unmasculine, in fact downright sissy, for men are get emotional about politics, religion, literature, social welfare, the environment, animals, science or relationships.

This means that an AWC sitcom character could never give vent to the voluble Jewish angst of a George Costanza or Jerry Seinfeld. He couldn’t express the vulnerability of a Garry Shandling, nor would the rapid-fire wordplay, banter, feint and counter-feint of a relationship such as in "Mad About You" ring true in an AWC relationship. Indeed verbalisation itself is not an allowed AWC characteristic, and so the snappy dialogue of the New York genre of sitcom cannot work here.

Even if Australians were given to expressing frustration, the problem is that in real life AWCs don’t really have that much to complain about. If frustration is the engine of situation comedy, an AWC sitcom is soon going to run out of fuel. Not only does Australia not have the oppression of a class system, or a rapidly changing society Australians are not particularly prone to envy, or horror at what’s happening around them. In fact AWCs have so little to concern them that people have to invent things for them to feel strongly about, such as football games.

Now, in reality, many Australians confront daily a great range of problems both material and social however the AWC culture tends to forbids complaining about one’s lot. Also, in a country perceived to be a land of endless opportunity, the prevailing culture has little sympathy with people who are in poor material circumstances. "Till Death Us Do Part" repulsed many Australians, not because of the right-wing ravings of Alf Garnett but because of the appalling standards of living it exposed in Britain. Deep down, Australians looked at the Garnett home and thought, "How can you live like that." The sitcom "Colin Carpenter" was widely rejected by Australian audiences because it depicted people living on the dole, a lifestyle with which the majority of Australians have little sympathy.

Thus, while Australians will identify with some people in trapped conditions - viz "Mother and Son" - there aren’t that many traps that Australians themselves can identify with for while Australian people may be said to be caught up in marriages, jobs and the suburban existence as much as, if not more than, their American or British counterparts, it seems that in Australia there is considerably less frustration associated with the situation.

Indeed the only frustrations in Australia seem to be those arising from the idiotic self-absorbed pre-occupations of the middle class (that is to say the ISA group). That is why the strongest sitcom figure we’ve had in Australia is probably Mike Moore of "Frontline". He is the personification of the personality denoted by the Australian phrase "wanker". A person who is transparently concerned with appearances, pretentious to such a thorough degree that he has quite fooled himself - a modern Malvolio.

The way in which Mike Moore works as a sitcom character illustrates the fine line in sitcom construction. The character must be someone we can laugh at while at the same time recognising that there is something of ourselves in them. It is a delicate tension between two opposite feelings objectification "Thank God I’m not like that" and identification "God, I am a bit like that."

We despise Mike Moore because he is so vain, deceitful, cowardly, pompous, ungenerous and lazy. We feel sorry for him for exactly the same reason. His plans never work. His desires to be more than he is never come to fruition. He sees himself as held back by the network, by his superiors, by the machinations of his colleagues and bad luck, but the truth is that he is really held back by his own limitations. We recognise that, and at some level, tragically - and this is where the sitcom works - so does he.

But Frontline is a show for the ISA population - the ABC watchers. Is it possible to create a sitcom for the dominant culture which is the audience of the commercial stations - the AWCS?

There are two programs which I believe have all the elements of an AWC sitcom without actually being one. One is "Sylvania Waters" and the other is the Channel Nine documentary series "Weddings". These of course are documentaries, about real families, but in my view these programs are more insightful more truthful and more amusing than any Australian sitcom could hope to be.

Having written over 35 episodes of a sitcom about marriage ("Newlyweds") I confess that nothing I could dream up could begin to approach the complexity of relationships, the internecine feuds, the sheer bizarreness of behaviour displayed by Australian families in these series.

Yet, ironically, a family like the Donahers of "Sylvania Waters" does not lend itself to sitcom as we know it. This is because it is a fundamental condition of sitcoms that the characters are aware of the problems they face. Nothing proceeds without this awareness. Even in "Married With Children", which is an unremittingly savage satire on the American family, the characters are aware of the circumstances. In a typical exchange the doorbell rings and Peg Bundy says "I wonder who that could be." Al Bundy replies wearily, "It’s probably God hand-delivering a plague."

But in the world of "Sylvania Waters" and "Weddings," no one has any sense that this is hell. (except the audience). Thus while the Australian middle class (i.e. the ISA class) can be satirised endlessly because, like the British and Americans, they are acutely aware of their position in the world, and are always trying to improve it, the members of the dominant AWCs, defy sitcom, partly because they constantly surpass the best efforts of the comic writer to send them up, but more importantly because they do not possess the most important quality of a sitcom character which is an awareness of the horror of their circumstances. The AWC culture not only suppresses any expression of frustration or discontent with one’s life, it actually removes any awareness that there are problems.

If the lives of the bulk of people in a society are simple and happy and any problems they face are mainly trivial, the likelihood of generating classical sitcoms about such a society is slight. On the other hand if there are absurd or problematic elements which could be dealt with comically, which "Sylvania Waters" and "Weddings" clearly show exist, but the people in question do not recognise those elements as absurd or problematic it is still difficult to generate comedy about the society.

Australian characters may therefore be ideal for sketch comedy, which involves laughing AT characters, but they will not work in situation comedy, which relies on a direct identification between the audience and the people on the screen. In terms of the classical sitcom structure you cannot create a sitcom about an Australia AWC character because the minute that character expresses any frustration or dissatisfaction with the Australian way of life they immediately exclude themselves from membership of the AWC.

The Australian cultural commandments: thou shalt not whinge, thou shalt not try to be better than others and thou shalt not carry on like an idiot, militate against sitcom as we know it. Australians are therefore happy to watch British and American characters keeping up appearances or talking to their neighbours over the back fence about their parenting problems, but these are things which Australians are not allowed to do. Since sitcom is a comic elaboration of the human condition, sitcoms work best with characters from cultures who can and do elaborate on their circumstances. It becomes extremely difficult to create a sitcom about characters who are not allowed to, or cannot, elaborate on their condition; characters who are verbally, emotionally and intellectually minimalist.

It may be that situation comedies only arise in societies which are in transition or decline. In social terms comedy is both a diagnostic and therapeutic process. Comedians are often the first people to point out the problems, while at the same time helping the audience deal with the implications arising from those problems. Barry Humphries was probably the first person to identify the staggering conformity in suburban decor and lifestyle which, now, for us characterises the Fifties and Sixties; that astounding sameness in furnishings, clothes and attitudes of which we were only dimly aware before Edna Everage made it all public.

Hancock, in the Fifties, epitomised the traditional Englishman trying to keep up appearances in a world rapidly becoming Americanised, Europeanised, unionised, and nationalised. Archie Bunker represented the equivalent struggle of the middle-aged American to adjust to the post-Woodstock, post-Watergate, post-Saturday Evening Post America.

The lack of sitcoms in Australia is partly due to the fact that Australia has yet to undergo a transition or decline of sufficient impact to make the vast number question whether this is the greatest country in the world. Until such a change happens Australian sitcom writers will have to continue to look for their material to the upwardly mobile middle class who are forever neurotic and who, thank goodness, are always with us.

 

* Note: At the end of its season "Seinfeld" was costing NBC around $5 million per episode.

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