In hindsight, nobody should have been surprised. Ben Elton’s show Live from Planet Earth, the series that was supposed to herald the Nine Network’s new eminence as Australia’s ‘home of comedy’, was cancelled after three episodes, joining the roll-call of famous failures from Taurus Rising to Yasmin’s Getting Married as a symbol of Australian television disaster. Reviews had been scathing. As one might expect, Twitter was especially vitriolic, with comments ranging from wittily insulting to just plain nasty. ‘I just wonder what it would have been like the first night of Hamlet if Twitter had been around,’ snapped Elton, somewhat ill-advisedly, in an interview. ‘Five minutes in: “Bored already, lighten up you Danish swine!”’ Sadly, the mainstream media was also dismissive. The show was ‘dead on arrival’, to quote some of the tweets. (See what they did there? The ‘live’ show was ‘dead’? Who needs television comedy when you have Twitter?)
Bad reviews don’t cancel a show. It was equally bad ratings that killed Live from Planet Earth. In the end, the impetus was provided by a true disaster. After the show dropped to 189,000 viewers, it was cancelled. This was hardly fair. The show had been delayed by coverage of the Christchurch earthquake. By the time it was finally broadcast that night, its usual viewers had switched off not out of disdain, but because they needed to get some sleep. Twitter was abuzz with gloating armchair critics, dancing on the show’s grave (even a few who boasted that they hadn’t wasted any time actually watching it).
Comedy is a personal thing. To this viewer, Live from Planet Earth had shown a distinct improvement over its second and third episodes. The show’s brief and unfortunate story is a good example of why television comedy so often fails in Australia. Put simply, the networks don’t get it.
That’s fine. It’s not their job. Leave comedy to professional comedy-makers. The trouble is, these insanely talented writers, performers and directors will confess that they too are never sure of what makes an audience laugh. Even Elton has been reminded of that (and strangely, he seemed surprised).
A group of Australian comedy writers discussed it recently at the National Screenwriters Conference, just a week after Elton’s show began its short life. When a serious drama series is struggling, the networks will do all they can to save it: invent a shocking storyline, kill someone off, add new characters in the right demographic. When comedy struggles, they wisely keep their hands off it… and perhaps less wisely, they cancel it very quickly. There’s a long list of notoriously short-lived comedies: Late for School, The Comedy Sale, Dog’s Head Bay, The Hamish & Andy Show, The Big News, The Mick Molloy Show. TV critics often mention such efforts disparagingly, like in-jokes for television professionals and connoisseurs.
In truth, most shows need time to find their feet. Ever see the first episode of Fast Forward, or even Monty Python’s Flying Circus? They were barely more watchable than the first episode of Live from Planet Earth.
As any random viewing of unscreened pilots would attest, most first episodes are below par. One of the few Australian comedy shows that actually went downhill after episode one was another Nine effort, Micallef Tonight (2003). The mercurial Shaun Micallef, given a tonight show, cheerfully proceeded to deconstruct the format. It was truly inspired, until someone noticed. Micallef was then forced to be a regular talk show host. The show lasted three months. Lesson: the networks just don’t get it.
Happily, the comedy chat show Rove survived its initial poor ratings to win a devoted following (and three Gold Logies for host Rove McManus). The same was true of all-conquering US sitcoms Cheers and Seinfeld, which took more than a year to find their audiences. How many would-be favourites ended before their time? The Chat Room was cancelled after just three episodes in 2003, due to ‘disappointing ratings’. Two years later, Let Loose Live was allowed only two episodes. These shows might well have turned out to be duds, but we’ll never know.
All these failures supported the theory that Australians can’t do comedy. Despite the success of the Melbourne International Film Festival (one of the world’s most popular festivals dedicated to live comedy, both local and international), it has been suggested that Aussies are too relaxed and fortunate to have a naturally comic sensibility like the Jews or the Irish. They don’t suffer like other nations. An English friend once suggested to me that Australia’s weather was too good. If the days were colder… well, look at all the successful Canadian-born comics.
But good news: Australians suffer as well! We haven’t had as many successful comedy shows as the US, but then they can afford to spend millions each year on pilots that never see the light of day. ‘We have a far better strike rate than in America,’ says writer Philip Dalkin, who has worked on sitcoms both here and in Los Angeles.
But back to Live from Planet Earth. To Nine’s programmers, expectations might have been unnaturally high. After all, it was written by and starred Elton, a comedy legend. But he had been out of practice, and most great comics do not remain cutting-edge forever. (That’s why everyone from Garry McDonald to Robin Williams has taken up serious acting, and Michael Palin has been an affable television travel guide for much longer than he was ever a subversive comedian.) Elton still had his moments, but he had lost the manic brilliance that defined his early routines. It’s easier to be edgy as a struggling left-wing comedian in Thatcher’s Britain than as a contented writer and family man in modern-day Fremantle. It’s hard to rail against a society that has given you so much success.
Sure, it could have been an immediate hit. Elton has done this before, with great success. But this time, it needed tweaking. Really, nobody should have been surprised.