Comedy has been a staple of the Australian television schedule since regular broadcasting began in Sydney in 1956. However, in this early period, comedy programs were imported. Take That (HSV7, 1957), a 15-minute sit-com broadcast live in Melbourne, was the exception.
If Australian viewers wanted homegrown comedy, they could tune into the many locally produced variety programs that interspersed musical numbers with comedy skits. A number of seasoned stage performers, such as Buster Fiddess, Syd Heylen, Dawn Lake and George Wallace Junior, became an integral part of television culture.
The program that made the biggest splash in terms of comedy entertainment was In Melbourne Tonight (IMT, GTV9, 1957–70) with Graham Kennedy. IMT was well known for its skits, but audiences most enjoyed Kennedy’s improvisational style, in particular the way he would ‘rubbish’ the products he was advertising. IMT was broadcast live in Melbourne, and by 1960 was screened in various formats around Australia.
By the mid-1960s, Australian television production had begun to diversify. ATN7 Sydney launched the satirical revue-style program The Mavis Bramston Show (1964–68), featuring Carol Raye, Gordon Chater and Barry Creyton. Partly inspired by Britain’s That Was the Week That Was and drawing on the comedy revues ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼at Sydney’s Phillip Street Theatre, Bramston became a hugely popular national program in 1965. Bramston stood out for its risqué humour. More sketch comedy than biting political satire, Bramston produced some memorable characters, including the eponymous Mavis and Ocker, Ron Fraser’s heavy-drinking yobbo.
Gordon Chater, one of Bramston’s original team, became the star of ATN7’s next successful comedy project, the sit-com My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours? (1966–68). A couple of years earlier, GTV9 had tested the waters with the moderately successful Barley Charlie (1964), but the success of McGooley was resounding, thanks to the long-term commitment of writer and creator Ralph Peterson and the on-screen chemistry of the cast. The comic premise, based on the incompatibility of the elderly Dominic McGooley (Chater) and his aspirational son in-law, Wally Stiller (John Meillon), had clear similarities to the British sitcom Steptoe and Son. However, the comedy was played out in a distinctively Australian accent. The ABC tested the waters with Nice’n Juicy (1966), a sit-com about two citrus growers.
By the 1970s, there was no doubt that locally produced television comedy could find an audience. In 1972, the ABC launched a bold experiment in comedy with The Aunty Jack Show (1972–73), featuring Grahame Bond and Rory O’Donoghue. Aunty Jack’s humour, which lurched between the satirical and the absurd, was articulated in a distinctively Australian vernacular and had a particular appeal for younger viewers, a number of whom tuned to the ABC for the first time to watch this iconoclastic program. As well as the memorable Aunty Jack, played by Bond, The Aunty Jack Show also produced the character Norman Gunston (played by Garry McDonald), a gormless loser from Wollongong who would go on to host the spoof variety show The Norman Gunston Show (ABC, 1975–76; Seven Network, 1978–79, 1993) and become the only fictional character to win a Gold Logie. In a series of interviews with celebrities from overseas, Gunston used his cringing, sycophantic persona to undermine the hierarchy of fame.
The Aunty Jack Show and The Norman Gunston Show demonstrated on the ABC that Australian audiences were keen for television comedy that was identifiably Australian. The Paul Hogan Show (Seven Network, 1973–77; Nine Network, 1978–84) provided even more resounding evidence that 1970s nationalism had infiltrated the landscape of prime-time television. Hogan’s on-screen persona, ‘Hoges’, was a reinterpretation of the ocker character satirised on The Mavis Bramston Show as a symbol of anti-authoritarian defiance and nationalist affirmation. The Paul Hogan Show was a sketch comedy show featuring characters such as Leo Wanker, a bungling stuntman, and Super Dag, a super hero wearing a towelling hat and wielding an esky. Producer John Cornell played Hoges’ dim-witted friend Strop.
The Seven Network ultimately lost Hogan to Nine, but had further sketch comedy success with The Naked Vicar Show (1977–78), created by comedy writing team Gary Reilly and Tony Sattler and earlier heard on radio. Naked Vicar bore a resemblance to The Mavis Bramston Show, including the introductory segment where the regular team of two men and a woman would perch on stools and read parodic news items from notes. However, Naked Vicar star Noeline Brown has commented that the show eschewed the risqué adult appeal of Bramston in favour of a more sustained silliness.
This silliness produced a series of sketches featuring the character Ted Bullpit, whose obsession with his Holden Kingswood car and resistance to change inspired the spin-off sitcom Kingswood Country (Seven Network, 1979– 84), also written by Reilly and Sattler. With similarities to the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, Kingswood Country gave the bigoted lead character a licence to offend, and audiences could choose to laugh at Ted’s ignorance or enjoy his comic transgressions. The broadness of this style of comedy contrasted with Gary Reilly’s next project for the Seven Network, the much milder sit-com Hey Dad ...! (1984–94). The ABC struck gold in the 1980s with Geoffrey Atherden’s Mother and Son (1985–94). At the end of the 1980s, the team that created a huge hit with the stage show Wogs out of Work went on to make the sit-com Acropolis Now (Seven Network, 1989–92), the first comedy program on Australian television to feature writers and actors from predominantly non-English speaking backgrounds.
The 1980s was a good decade for television comedy, with an explosion of sketch comedy that continued into the 1990s. If the success of a sketch comedy show can be measured by the memorable characters and catchphrases it produces, then shows like Australia You’re Standing In It (the Dodgy Brothers, and Tim and Debbie), The Comedy Company (Kylie Mole and Con the Fruiterer) and Fast Forward (Pixie Anne Wheatley) undoubtedly made their mark. However, arguably the most memorable comedy characters are those created by Max Gillies in his satirical caricatures of prominent public figures such as Bob Hawke and Kerry Packer in The Gillies Report (ABC, 1984–85) and The Gillies Republic (ABC, 1986). The ABC’s The Big Gig (1989–91) picked up on the excitement of live comedy performance, giving television audiences a taste of the burgeoning live comedy scene and providing exposure to a new generation of talented Australian comedians.
Many of the people involved in this period of sketch comedy have gone on to cement their television comedy credentials. Notably, Working Dog Productions, which debuted with the sketch show The D-Generation (ABC, 1986–87), was ￼responsible for programs such as the celebrated Frontline (ABC, 1994–97), satirising the tabloid world of current affairs television; the parodic outback adventure series Russell Coight’s All Aussie Adventures (ABC, 2001–02); and the improvisational comedy show Thank God You’re Here (Ten Network, 2006–07; Seven Network, 2009). Gina Riley and Jane Turner transformed a regular sketch from their show Big Girl’s Blouse (Seven Network, 1994–95) into the hit sitcom Kath and Kim (ABC, 2002–04; Seven Network, 2007). As well as their enormous ratings success, sales overseas and the production of an American version, the impact of Kath and Kim can be traced in the way that their colourful suburban idiolect has infiltrated Australian life.
Australian television comedy has historically been aimed at a particular idea of mainstream Australian culture, and has used this idea to police difference. However, the 21st century has brought a different understanding of the rules and subject matter of Australian television comedy. The shambolic and irreverent SBS comedy Pizza (2000–07) broke through television’s love of comic boundaries by using a ‘carpet bomber’ approach. The documentaries John Safran vs God (SBS, 2004) and John Safran’s Race Relations (ABC, 2009) operate according to a similar principle. Launched on SBS in 2013, Legally Brown is a sketch comedy show exploring the experience of Muslims in Australian society.
Chris Lilley’s ABC series We Can Be Heroes (2005), Summer Heights High (2007) and Angry Boys (2011), as well as Summer Heights High Ja’mie: Private School Girl (2013) and Jonah from Tonga (2014) explore cultural difference through a combination of caricature and mockumentary. Lilley’s satirical portrayals of a variety of characters, both male and female and from different ethnic and social backgrounds, challenge audiences to think about the function of stereotypes in Australian society. With characters such as Perth housewife Pat Mullins (We Can Be Heroes) and schoolboy bully Jonah Takalua (Summer Heights High, Jonah from Tonga), Lilley moves beyond caricature to reveal the humanity of his subjects.
Lilley’s work functions as social satire, and has divided audiences and produced controversy. In fact, while the blandness of Hey Dad ...! and the universality of Mother and Son gave these shows longevity and international sales, the shows that could be said to define Australian television comedy culture are those that operate more dangerously at the boundary between the acceptable and the unacceptable. This has defined the work of The Chaser team since they first began ambushing politicians in The Election Chaser (ABC, 2001). Most famously, in 2007 when making The Chaser’s War on Everything (ABC, 2006–09), the team breached the enormously expensive security cordon surrounding the APEC Summit. Subsequently, in 2009, a skit aired as part of the third series of The Chaser’s War created a different kind of sensation, as many viewers perceived the parodic ‘Make a Realistic Wish’ to have crossed the line. The subject of comic transgression re-emerged in 2011 with At Home with Julia, a four-part comedy series that imagined the private lives of Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her partner, Tim Mathieson.
Comedy’s cultural specificity has been a challenge to funding television comedy production in Australia as, historically, overseas sales could not be relied on. However, within the global economy, the television industry has become increasingly transnational. As well as foreign sales of programs such as Kath and Kim, We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, the expanding reach of Australian television comedy can be traced through the sale of scripts, concepts and formats (such as Mother and Son, Kath and Kim, Thank God You’re Here and Wilfred). Indeed, the format of At Home with Julia was auctioned in Cannes not long after the program aired in Australia.
REFs: S. Bye, F. Collins and S. Turnbull, ‘Comic Interventions: Aunty Jack, Norman Gunston and ABC- TV’, Australian Cultural History, 26 (2007); J. McCallum, ‘Cringe and Strut: Comedy and National Identity in Post-War Australia’, in S. Wragg (ed.), Because I Tell a Joke or Two (1998); S. Turnbull, ‘Mapping the Vast Suburban Tundra: Australian Comedy from Dame Edna to Kath and Kim’, International Jnl of Cultural Studies, 11(1) (2008).