Jim Schembri

Feb 22, 2012

Schembri: your gay comedy needs straight people to be funny

Fairfax reviewer Jim Schembri has

Pure Poison IconFairfax reviewer Jim Schembri has a bit of a problem with a TV show with only gay and lesbian characters:

The problem – well, one of the many problems – with this painfully strained stab at a hip, savvy sitcom is that it is way, way, way too gay… To put it bluntly, Outland is a show badly in need of a straight man – both figuratively and literally.

Wait, what? Did Schembri just declare that, whilst I doubt very much he’s ever reviewed a show featuring exclusively straight characters by declaring that it’s “badly in need of a gay man”, comedy requires at least one heterosexual person to work? He did, didn’t he?

Schembri explains his demand in terms of “contrast”:

One of the keys to any good sitcom is the comedy of contrast, wherein humour feeds off the conflicts and differences between the characters.
To pluck five examples completely at random: in Will & Grace a neurotic straight woman lives life with her long-time gay best friend; Love Thy Neighbour had a white racist living next door to a black couple; All in the Family had a rabid right winger with a liberal son-in-law; Family Ties saw hippie parents whose son is a money-loving yuppie; The Big Bang Theory has a quarter of nerds whose insular lives is invaded by a hot blonde.
The list is endless and wildly diverse – from Diff’rent Strokes to Fawlty Towers to Frasier to Seinfeld to Everybody Loves Raymond to Hot in Cleveland. It’s a pot-stirring sitcom principle that has proved its worth over the decades, and should have done so again here.

Apart from Will & Grace, none of those comedies had a single gay person in the main cast (if ever on the show). They were 100% heterosexual. And yet Jim doesn’t feel they were badly in need of someone with a different sexuality in order to create contrast and comic conflict. He recognises that straight people can have amusing differences with each other; why does he think gay people can’t? Do all gay people look the same to Jim?

It sure looks like it:

As it is, Outland is too gay-centric. With all the characters batting for the same team, the comic pot is too calm; there is simply not enough conflict to generate enough fizz or energy, not enough grist for the characters to bounce off or respond to.

That’s not because they’re homosexual, Jim, it’s because they’re not particularly well-developed characters.

Schembri is dimly grasping at a real problem with the program – that it just doesn’t seem to have much depth to it, and a bunch of predictable and obvious gags playing on easy stereotypes about gay people doesn’t exactly make for a sophisticated comedy. Those parts of Outland that I’ve seen didn’t have witty wordplay, or clever jokes, particularly original scenarios. (If anyone did actually laugh out loud during it, I’d love to know at what.) The first episode was largely indistinguishable from any sitcom where the main character is embarrassed about something and trying to hide it. Its best gag – about people who try to seem knowledgeable about sci-fi by joking about the absurdity of Daleks taking over the universe whilst not being able to climb stairs WHICH THEY’VE BEEN ABLE TO DO SINCE 1988 – was repeated several times; the other jokes seemed to rely on little more than shock value. (Something about “fisting” and a “prolapse”, if I recall correctly.) The second one looked like it might explore the comic potential of unhelpful friends insisting on sitting in on a domestic argument, but they just didn’t do very much with it.

So I agree that the program needs more wit, better writing, something… it’s just incredibly offensive for someone writing in a mainstream newspaper in 2012 to demand that they should add more heterosexual people as a way of achieving that.

Still, Mr Richards – there’s a comic straight character for a future show. The heterosexual privileged male reviewer who thinks there’s no conflict or drama between gay people because, so far as he knows, they’re pretty much indistinguishable from each other. Man, the fun you could have with him.

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20 thoughts on “Schembri: your gay comedy needs straight people to be funny

  1. Phen

    Get a television Andrew – they’re bloody good for keeping up with dalek-related developments…..

  2. steelesaunders

    Outland’s John Richards responds to the review on this week’s episode of my I Love Green Guide Letters podcast. Have a listen…

    (a language warning BTW)

    Itunes : http://t.co/HMccpiEx

    Feed : http://www.ilovegreenguideletters.com/podcast.xml

  3. Holden Back

    John reidy, you know, the more I read your post at no 12, the more I like th eidea of Michelle Grattan writing about this.

  4. LJG..............

    Speaking of Daleks, are they male, female or transgender? If Davros made an appearance would that satisfy Mr Schembri’s need for a straight character? He surely qualifies as differently abled..

  5. kate

    I’m so ashamed. Until last week I thought Daleks couldn’t climb stairs, because I haven’t watched Dr Who since the early 80s. My 11 year old daughter had to explain to me that they can fly.

  6. JimDocker

    I saw Dr Who recently and a dalek was flying !!!! Hardly slept since !

  7. Andrew McIntosh

    Fortunately I don’t have a television, but I can state quite categorically that what this “Outland” show needs is more Daleks. Every show on television needs more Daleks.

  8. John Reidy

    sorry I posted to the wrong thread, but you probably noticed that…

  9. John Reidy

    I do hope that Michelle Grattan (et al) will be writing about this tomorrow, do you think they will ?
    [my apologies to Sammy, I couldn’t resist getting in first]
    Having said that, yes the ALP has been low in the polls for a long time, and polling is a key trigger for a leadership challenge – and one would have happened before the next election is due (as Keane says), however I still think this has been beaten up by the media (I don’t call them journalists), and so the ALP just decided to play along.
    Julia has been an effective leader of a minority government, in a tough situation, but her political judgement has been lacking, from the previous election through to now.

  10. sottile6

    I love the scifi jokes and maybe not enough people get them. Maybe you have to have known some scifi geeks as well. They are just like these people and that’s why it’s funny. The characters’ sexual orientation only adds to the humour when it is relevant which is only some of the time. People should relax. It’s a sitcom. I have laughed out loud many times at this show.

  11. icer

    I really like the show. I can remember Bill Cosby getting a bit shirty with an interviewer who insisted that the Cosby Show needed more white people ‘for balance’. Cosby likened it to a form of racism that it was somehow his obligation to address the dynamic.

  12. Jeremy Sear

    I agree about the tea scene, that was quite good.

  13. keri james

    I’ve only seen ep 2, but I quite liked it. The fact that Christine Anu’s character gets dumped because she’s a “pushy bitch” when she’d been assuming it’s because she was in a wheelchair, the coffee scene and the part where Christine goes from horribly ashamed of her fat, black, wheelchair porn photo to defiantly embracing the exposure were all great moments. I think it’s definitely got potential, and I think the fact that none of the good moments came from the premise of the show – gay sci fi nerds – means the writers may be willing to let go of that for the sake of good character development and good comedy.

    From that episode – and time is going to have to tell, we’re only on ep 2 – if the Gay Sci-Fi bit is just the vehicle for good performances and good comedy, then it’s going to end up being a good watch. If, as I fear, it’s going to be the focus, then it’s going to fall.

    Same as every other comedy, really.

  14. msmith

    Did I laugh out loud? Yes, once. At Christine Anu’s little ‘do you want tea or coffee’ tiff with her ex. I think it says something that something that simple, when it’s done right, ends up being funnier than all the strained jokes about gayness and sci-fi. Christine Anu’s character has come across best, at least so far, because she seems at least a little like a real person, not just an actor playing an outrageous caricature. She’s indigenous, lesbian, and in a wheelchair, but that’s obvious and taken for granted. The men meanwhile, are required to constantly remind us just how gay they are, and how funny it is that they’re obsessed with and/or embarrassed about sci-fi.
    The show isn’t completely terrible, just trying too hard with it’s two topics of choice, when it’d be better if they could be pushed a little more into the background.
    I’m gay & love sci-fi, so it’s just a tad disappointing to have a show like this and not be able to relate to a single one of the guys, or find their quirks endearing or relatable. Even the guy who seems designed to be the ordinary drab one, turns out to be very unreal – in Ep1, nothing about his fling with the hot guy he’s met on a date rang true or made you laugh or made you care. Just a plot device for jokes that weren’t that great. And in a way Schembri is right. If even the ordinary guy isn’t a little real, then the humour from the other more exaggerated men ends up being just noise.
    But Christine trying to be civil to her ex by offering a cup of tea or coffee, and failing – that’s a good chuckle.

  15. Stevo the Working Twistie

    The “contrast” was summed up in Ep1 – Gay people who are also Sci Fi Geeks. That premise alone has solid comedic potential. Then there are the contrasts between the different archetypes of gay: Bear vs Twink vs Leather Guy etc. Believe me, if you are gay or have a wide circle of gay friends as I do, this stuff is funny. How can a black, disabled lesbian NOT be funny???

  16. phyllis stein

    So, I just watched the first 2 episodes. Not a great start, as per most series, but they hit their straps in the 2nd. The exposition was not “gay” dependent and the story arc was not gay centric. The “gayness” was almost as incidental as the “Italian-ness” of the Barone family. In some ways it was a version of Friends, with slightly less potential for the incestuous inter-group f*cking that made that show more than a little creepy. Some good zingers, and no less credible a premise than Big Bang. I give it 3.5 stars.

  17. Lifesajoke

    oops typo – His not He’s, obviously

  18. Lifesajoke


    I actually agree with schembri in that sitcoms IMO need contrasts to be succesfull… now with the proviso of never having never seen the show, he may have a point (re needing a straight person for contrast) if (and thats a Big if) the whole premise of this particular situation comedy (i.e. the situation) is Gay people, Gayness (is that a word?), being Gay etc.

    If that is the situation/premise then isn’t the only real “contrast” that can be potrayed strait people, straitness, being strait?

    If however the premise/or situation is not that they are Gay but something else (again I’ve never seen the show) and their homosexuality is just incidental to the ‘situation’ then I agree he’s article is flawed.


  19. Alan Davies

    I expect comedy does require constrast as Schembri contends, but his error of logic is to assume that can only come by also having a straight character or two, as if gays are all peas in a pod.

    I don’t agree though that Outland lacks contrast. I think it’s easily got the necessary tension, contrast, etc. Nor do I agree it needs more wit, better writing, more depth, etc. Apart from the odd creaky bit I expect with any brand new show, I think it’s hilarious. My wife and I laughed out loud numerous times, both episodes. While so much else is going to shit on the ABC (I still can’t get over Australia Talks being dumped on 621!) this is a delight.

  20. Holden Back

    Honestly, the problem is not the lack of a gay character it’s reviewer who thinks they know that the show is something other than a six-part sitcom trying establish the equivalent of stock characters FFS.

    It’s not frickin’ Hedda Gabler.

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