Entertainment TV Saving Aus comedy

Saving Aus comedy

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If the ABC needed evidence of how many fresh-faced Australian comedians are bursting for a TV gig, it received it last year.

Having put out the call for “the next generation of comedy talent” – funny folk who could not only act, but write sketches – the network was overwhelmed by more than 600 applicants, including dozens from New Zealand.

That number was whittled down to 13, with the fruits of the group’s labour – four-part sketch series This is Littleton – to be seen from today on ABC2.

This is Littleton is a significant production for the Australian comedy landscape. There’s no longer a Rove Live to give five minutes of valuable exposure to an emerging stand-up, while the commercial networks’ 2014 schedules indicate fewer Australian comedies are commissioned than perhaps ever before. Hell, even SlideShow has been cancelled, robbing dozens of local comics of the chance to make audiences laugh while slipping over.

Just as importantly, it marks a welcome return to homegrown sketch comedy, a genre sadly neglected in recent years.

The 1980s and 1990s were a golden period for Australian sketch comedy, where the likes of Magda Szubanski, Eric Bana and Shaun Micallef started acclaimed careers in The Comedy Company, Fast Forward and Full Frontal. The Working Dog team – and friends – produced years of solid gold, first in The D-Generation (1986-1989) and then in The Late Show (1992-1993). Over on Channel Seven, Jane Turner and Gina Riley created Kath and Kim for Fast Forward and went on to take Fountain Lakes’ foxiest ladies to four series and a film.

Somewhere, somehow, Australian sketch comedy lost its way.

The last decade produced the likes of SkitHOUSE, Big Bite and The Wedge. While the latter two helped launch the careers of Chris Lilley and Rebel Wilson, respectively, none lasted more than two seasons.

Each had its highlights – Tom Gleeson’s Australian Fast Bowler from SkitHOUSE won the comedian a new stand-up audience, while Chris Lilley’s Big Bite character Extreme Darren retains a big YouTube following – but all three were marred by unmemorable characters and an overabundance of TV parodies and celebrity impersonations.

Last year’s razor-sharp The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting was a high point in what otherwise has been a disappointing 10 years.

Refreshingly, This is Littleton has more in common with Little Britain or Portlandia than its noughties counterparts. The series centres on the fictional Littleton City Council, and features a cavalcade of overlapping characters (each cast member plays at least two roles). From the pompous mayor to the highly sexualised tai chi instructor, the narcissistic receptionist and the planning officer who doubles as a DJ during working hours, Littleton’s inhabitants are bold, brash and frequently politically incorrect.

The gags are hit and miss – thankfully more of the former – but by and large, it’s an impressive, ambitious venture from a group of predominately fresh faces. Triple J breakfast co-host Matt Okine and Ronny Chieng (Problems, It’s a Date) have the highest profiles, but most would be unknown to all but the most hardcore stand-up comedy watchers.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that the Australian comedy circuit needs Littleton to succeed – not only for the show’s cast members but for the hundreds of capable comedians that missed out on the opportunity and would jump at another chance.

After all, one of This is Littleton’s cast members could be the next Lilley or Rebel – bound for international success, co-productions with HBO and collaborations with Conan O’Brien. But without the creative control and national profile a series like this affords them, we’ll never get to know.

This is Littleton premieres at 9:30pm on Thursday, February 20 on ABC2.

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