Wednesday Night Fever’s premiere was slipshod, witless, and dated
Saturday Night Fever gave us disco, the men's flared jumpsuit, and John Travolta's career. Wednesday Night Fever gave us more of Amanda Bishop's Julia Gillard impersonation, a cardigan with the words "RAT F-CKER" knitted into the back of it, and the unshakeable sensation that somebody's going to get fired this morning.
Byron: So I think we can agree that Wednesday Night Fever tanked, right?
Laurence: It’s pretty terrible. To be fair — and this might prove to be generous — but it’s worth consideration that they rewrote at least some of it after the leadership spill last week.
Byron: It seems to me it has the problem every recent Australian attempt at sketch comedy has: there’s a difference between People Who Are Funny and People Who Can Write Sketch Comedy. They’ve hired the former, not the latter. And the foundation of good sketch comedy, aside from some rudimentary improv skills, has to be acting, no? Kate McKinnon can act. Kristen Wiig can act. Amanda Bishop just does voices.
Laurence: Yeah, it felt incredibly dated. And I think you get to the heart of it when you say they didn’t hire sketch writers; the “jokes” were essentially just reciting the dumb things everyone on the internet already wore out over the past three years. And Twitter basically functions as a political joke machine these days and will likely beat any topical sketch show to the punch most of the time. But after all of this time, why on earth would anyone assume that Kevin Rudd’s blandly nerdy “lingo” is still funny if no spin is put on it at all? A wig and a silly vocal impression does not a joke make.
Byron: Yeah, the whole thing was about as edgy as a Richard Marx cassingle. And the impressions. My god, the impressions.
Laurence: I can picture the writers’ room. “Oh god, who else can we use in Downton Abbott? Julie Bishop? What can we spin into a joke about Julie Bishop? Shit. Oh, how about that she’s Ray fucking Charles all of a sudden? That makes a ton of sense.”
Byron: I remember hearing Marg Downey talk about the process they’d go through on Fast Forward, taking home tapes of the person they were “doing”. There was no research here. The Kim Kardashian and the Ruby Rose were nothing like the real deal. And career Gillard impersonator Amanda Bishop as Julie Bishop managed to be even more terrifying than the real deal, but not for any of the right reasons. If they hadn’t telegraphed it, would you have even known who she was supposed to be?
Laurence: You know, I actually thought the Ruby Rose impression was one of the highlights. So make of that what you will.
Byron: Look, I think Ruby Rose is about as compelling as a half-eaten Le Snak, but if you’re going to do her, surprise us. Ruby Rose as a vacuous puppet is just holding a mirror up to reality. And what a weird choice, having the same actor play both Rudd and Abbott. And having a man play Margie Abbott in lieu of writing any actual jokes for her?
Laurence: How about playing up the angle that Margie Abbott is clearly a Stockholm Syndrome-affected prisoner in the Abbott House of Wax? Maybe that’s just TOO FAR for a show that dares knit ‘RAT FUCKER’ into a cardigan for the Prime Minister.
It almost feels as though the original concept for this show was, “Let’s get that lady who can sorta do a Julia Gillard impression and a guy who can sorta do a Tony Abbott impression, and turn it into a half-hour pre-taped studio audience sketch show. This is a great idea. We can have a terrible bikie house band for no reason, and someone else can play Kyle Sandilands with cooked chickens on his hands! Everything about this works.”
Honestly, this just makes me pine for Mad as Hell to come back, or for Shaun Micallef to do one of his silly runs onto the set, devour Sammy J, and start doing The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) like it never ended just to show them how it’s done.
Byron: The writing is maybe some of the worst currently on TV, too. How is “Oh well, shit happens” a punchline? And closing the show with “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables — is it 1989? I mean, if it were we would’ve had Gina Riley doing it, and the lyrics might’ve been in the general vicinity of funny. It’s like the writers didn’t do any of the work. Let’s just have them say a bunch of stuff that’s vaguely true, with no consideration or analysis. No subversive angle, no flipping anything on its head. Next week they’ll be doing “Vegetarians! Aren’t they weird!” bits.
The whole thing plays like a cutaway in something Jane Turner and Gina Riley wrote. Thirty seconds of this on a TV in the background of another sketch might actually be hilarious. But meta isn’t something the writers room here seems to have even a basic grasp on.
Laurence: But see, I think this is the problem with how satire, particularly the political, is typically approached in this country. The reason Mad as Hell worked so well is because Micallef sent everything rocketing into absurdity. Australian politics is so plagued by a kind of banal mendacity these days that simply regurgitating it is never going to work.
The reason Crikey‘s own First Dog on the Moon is so terrific is because it has the ability to reframe any given issue or incident in a way that actually gives a fresh perspective. The reason The Daily Show and The Colbert Report work so well is because US politics is conducive to the smarmy commentator/exaggerated pundit personae each respectively utilise.
Wednesday Night Fever, though, is the satire equivalent of uncooked rice: it tastes bad, has little nutritional value, and there’s an urban myth that it makes birds explode.
Byron: Why do you think we keep getting this same confused attempt at a sketch show over and over again? Is it just the prevailing television culture that favours everyone but the writers? Because surely the right writers could make something of the format.
Laurence: I can only assume so; there have to be writers capable of sketch comedy in this country, but hiring them when they can’t perform would be extra money, wouldn’t it? So why bother if the performers can supposedly do a passable job, is what I assume the logic behind it is.
Byron: Tina Fey talks about story being the enemy of sketch comedy, but it seems to me that the best sketch contains story within its characters. Nobody on SNL — with the exception of Ben Affleck, maybe — ever read the cue cards and hoped they’d do all the work for them. You have to bring your acting chops to the table, or you’re as blank as Melissa Doyle without an autocue.
Laurence: This is why I’m confused as to why the show is 100% impressions, because you just end up with people forcing out shit impressions because apparently that’s the format to which they have to hew. All of this cast has been good before, but they were good as characters they’d developed. I mean, it’s easy to forget that Kath & Kim started out as Big Girl’s Blouse characters, or that Chris Lilley’s Mr G. started as a character on The Big Bite, of all places. Why these poor people aren’t being allowed to work towards a goal like that is beyond me.
Byron: There was that one weird original character in the middle of the show, the hippie-cum-new ager-cum-entitled parent woman. And that was probably the weakest sketch of all.
Laurence: Perhaps, but at the same time, that was the only point at which the show felt like it had a voice. It may have flopped, but that happens on any sketch show. If they worked harder on that kind of thing rather than trying to skewer C-grade Australian celebrities with all the effectiveness of a pool noodle they might end up with something funny.
Byron: I thought bits of the Clive Palmer sketch were somewhere in the vicinity of funny — having him speak like some cross between Jennifer Hawkins and a baritone toddler nearly worked. But saddling it with that atrocious Quentin Tarantino thing was like handing a depressed person a Nicholas Sparks novel.
Laurence: Yeah, the actor’s cadence as Clive Palmer almost made me crack a smile, which is damning with faint praise for sure. The terrible, exaggerated fat suit and shrugging fat jokes didn’t help much, though. Every time the Tarantino character came on screen my mind immediately went to the episode of Itchy & Scratchy he guest-directed on The Simpsons. And that joke was from the ’90s.
Essentially, the whole show felt like a series of horrible “parody” Twitter accounts constantly replying to each other.
Byron: Rick Kalowski — who created the show — was trotting out a weird line in interviews before they even went into production: “Defamation lawyers contemplating a first class ski trip to Aspen should book with confidence. This is your year.” Which just makes me think the call is coming from inside the house. If you’ve got someone at the helm who thinks this sort of parody should be mean and libellous, you’re damned from the start. And Greg Quail, the EP, said this: “We’re … searching for performers willing to join the witness protection program right after the first episode goes to air.” He got it right, I guess.
Laurence: I find it bizarre that they wanted it to be brash and offensive — it was neither, or at least, not in the way they desired. Like, is Tony Abbott really going to watch that and command Margie to carry his phone in her mouth over to him on her hands and knees so he can call his lawyers? I doubt it.
I mean, if you’re going for the Mrs. Brown’s Boys audience of people with severe head injuries and the elderly, then this’d probably work fine. In fact, I can see this show being a hit on Channel 7. But ABC viewers — and perhaps this is utopian of me — should and do expect more than this.
Byron: It’s a shame. Something this crappy can’t be a conversation starter. It’s going to disappear into the same never-to-be-mentioned-again suckhole that Let Loose Live, The Ronnie Johns Half Hour and The Wedge all drained into.
Laurence: Hey, at least it’s not Ben Elton Live From Planet Earth, which is essentially the nadir of the format (and a show to which Wednesday Night Fever bears more than a passing similarity, which will not work in its favour).
But that basically amounts to, “At least it’s not looping footage of puppies being drowned.”
Byron: Because you just know Ben Elton has that on his iPhone.
Do you think it’ll make it to a second week? I can’t imagine Mark Scott watched that and felt particularly pleased. Though I guess this is the same network that gave us At Home With Julia, which was basically the televisual equivalent of a persistent urinary tract infection.
Laurence: The ABC has a much lower ceiling for Wednesday night ratings these days. Adam Hills still does well despite his smug, hypocritical badmouthing of Joan Rivers, which should basically have seen him excommunicated from comedy forever.
But it’s a show that gets taped weekly so if it underperforms I can’t imagine it’ll stick around. While we do get At Home With Julia, it’s also a network that can produce Summer Heights High, Please Like Me, twentysomething, Mad as Hell, and so on. It’s about putting the right people behind the wheel (and perhaps ceasing to ghettoise youth comedic voices on ABC2). Hell, I’d take Joe Hildebrand’s new show over this.
Byron: Actually I thought this was in the same league as twentysomething. Television by writers who don’t understand television. Or humour. Or how to prevent your lead characters from reading as irredeemable assholes.
Laurence: Well, I’m not a huge fan, but I feel like it’s at least trying to achieve something rather than flop around like a fish on a pier.
Byron: Throw it back.
Laurence: Well, as Wednesday Night Fever cast member Genevieve Morris said, “People can be so savage on social media even though they’ve never made a comedy show in their life, they’re still the savagest judge of all.” YOU DO BETTER, BYRON.
Byron: If only effort equated to quality. Sure, it’s hard. Lots of dedicated people poured their hearts and souls into this. And into twentysomething. But some people shouldn’t have been hired to do it in the first place.
Laurence: Or at least hired to do something that suited them, rather than the blinkered expectations of the audience. A comedy audience should bend to the performance and be in the performers’ control, not the other way around. It’s a base assumption that I or anyone else would ever want to watch someone do a Shane Warne impression on a fake game show called “Publicity Whores”. I’d rather be subjected to a whole season of Packed to the Rafters via the Ludovico technique (which might actually happen now that Rebecca Gibney is on the loose).
But you know, I’m still going to watch this again next week out of sheer morbid curiosity.
Byron: I think we all are.
ABC1’s Wednesday Night Fever airs on Wednesday nights at 9:30pm. But then again, so does Nine’s Embarrassing Bodies.