Wednesday, 4 May 2011


There’s a formula to writing good comedy. Jokes don’t just happen out of thin air. They have to be carefully constructed, with elaborate preparation. John Cleese had it down pat. A German guest coming to the hotel?  Get Basil goose-stepping around the place with one arm in the air and two fingers under his nose as he struggles in vain not to “mention the war.” A visit by the health inspector? Make sure you’ve gone to the trouble of setting up the missing rodent.  In other words, take what is commonplace to everyday people, and then subtly structure a chain of events so that your lead character is forced to behave in ways that defy all logic and common sense. Throw in a couple of silly sight gags and oddball cameos and you’re away. Guaranteed laughs.

Julia Gillard is shaping up to be one of our finest comedy writers.

How perfect was the ironic humour she provided us with the other night on the telly? I have to admire the skill with which she contrived to be our first ever staunchly unmarried, virulently anti-monarchist, truly socialist Prime Minister who has to go to – wait for it - a royal wedding! A good laugh all round. I couldn’t help thinking that if Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn - the writing duo behind “Yes Minister” – were in the congregation, they would have tipped their tophats in respect.

And speaking of hats, full marks to Julia’s wardrobe team for just the right degree of comic flair.  As every sit-com writer knows, visual humour works best when you’ve got the audience asking “is this for real?”

But of course the true sign of a great comedy writer is that the gags just keep on coming. Thick and fast. Commit to spending squillions on a broadband network when the whole world’s going wireless. Funny! Design a Carbon Tax to make everyone alter their behavior but then compensate everyone so nobody has to alter their behavior. Brilliant! Or what about this for a laugh? Get the Ugly Union Dude (always a staple of classic sit-coms) to overthrow your predecessor and install you in the top job; but at the moment of theatrical climax when you need him to sell your Carbon Tax, he decides to stab you in the back if it costs just “one single job.” One single job? That’s hilarious. In the most comprehensive restructuring of the economy ever undertaken? Too funny. Talk about a pithy, needle-sharp piece of dialogue writing that in three simple words skewers the whole, mad enterprise. I was green with envy.

In any comic scenario, it’s always good to set up an “earnest buffoon”, because that way you can throw in a cheap laugh whenever you feel the audience getting bored. I say “earnest”, because the comedy is much sharper when a character who is clearly there as a joke takes themselves desperately seriously. Climate Change Commissioner would have tumbled easily off the keyboard. Classic pompous, self-important sit-com stereotype. But it is the deftness with which this character’s comic potential has been thoroughly exploited that is truly inspiring. Firstly, we establish that he earns a shitload of money to do – well, the audience never finds out what he actually does do because that’s all part of the gag. What on earth can he do, when you think about it? Then, enhance the joke in as preposterous a manner as you can think of. For example, get him to accidentally admit that even if everybody stopped all carbon emissions forthwith, it wouldn’t have any effect on the planet for over a thousand years. That should get a giggle. Next, reveal that your Climate Change Commissioner has a deal on the side to promote a product that is one of the main offenders in generating excessive energy consumption. Perfect. John Cleese would be proud. But as a writer you have to be careful – don’t over do it. BHP would be funny, but too predictable. What about an electronics manufacturer? Giant flat screen TV’s and all that? Awesome. Love it! So while the taxpayer is forking out for the Commissioner to clean up the environment, he’s busy lining his pockets thanks to Panasonic. Delicious.

But it’s always irresistible when you’re on a roll with a funny character to go one step too far and milk the gag. Tim Flannery as a “champion” who is going to sell us the merits of the NBN was, for me, not up to their usual high standard of comic writing. Somehow it’s so ridiculous I couldn’t suspend the necessary disbelief.

Unless, of course, Julia’s cunningly preparing us for the next scene. Remember, the best jokes require an elaborate set-up. So my guess is that she’ll soon have to ditch the Carbon Tax gag because the audience isn’t laughing any more, and instead she’ll have to find something else to save the planet with. At which point barmy Tim strides forward to inform us that the NBN is a must-have and worth every penny not because it will mean you can download more porn on it but because if you use your optical fibre exclusively with your new Panasonic TV it will… (long pause for comic effect)… solve Climate Change! And he’ll say it with a straight face. That would be awesome. The audience will be on the floor.

Another weapon in the comedy writer’s armoury is, of course, the evil villain. Best if you make him gay, and that he looks and sounds like Lurch in the Addams Family, and threatens doom and gloom in every utterance. That way the audience will know what they’re dealing with. No harm in spelling it out either. In fact, here is some of Julia’s irony- dripping, satirical scriptwriting at its absolute finest. I have to quote it in full because it is simply so damn funny.

“The Greens will never embrace Labor's delight at sharing the values of everyday Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love of family and nation.”

So why on earth are you in bed with them, Julia? Pure comic genius. She is, of course, referring to the characters upon whom she must now rely for her entire episode in The Lodge to be a smash comedy hit. In my opinion she can’t fail. Spot the elaborate set-up. The deliberate clash of un-reconcilable goals and incompatible motivations. The contrivance of events and situations destined to deliver, like the very best sit-coms, a spectacularly disastrous climax.

The tears are rolling down my cheeks already.

copyright Rowan Dean 2011

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