ABC Comedy: it’s banter that rules the roost

Remember the good old days of scripted comedy, sitcoms and sketch shows? Nowadays, it's all just banter, quizzes and talking heads at the ABC.
ABC Spicks and Specks

Spicks and Specks is one of the great success stories of Australian television. Currently celebrating its twentieth year on television – or it would be, if not for that seven-year gap from 2011-2018 (and we won’t even mention the ill-fated reboot) – it’s helped change the face of comedy on the national broadcaster. When it first aired in 2005, comedy quiz shows were just one part of a smorgasbord of hilarity: now they’re the only game (show) in town.

ABC comedy is all quiz shows and talky-talk panels

In 2024, the ABC’s comedy line-up is dominated by banter. It’s all quiz shows, talk shows and panel shows. Aside from Spicks and Specks, there’s Hard Quiz running almost all year around (there’s even Hard Quiz Kids now). Gruen’s been making fun of ads for well over a decade now; The Weekly with Charlie Pickering advertises itself as satire, but the interviews (comedy or not) are increasingly the centre of the show.

Gruen Abc Iview
Wil Anderson and Gruen keep on keeping on. Image: ABC.

Later this year, we’re getting a local version of New Zealand hit Guy Mongomery’s Guy Mont Spelling Bee, while Shaun Micallef’s long-awaited return to the ABC was recently revealed to be a talk show titled Eve of Destruction. So if your idea of comedy is people hitting buzzers or sitting behind a desk having a chat, it’s a pretty good year.

On the other hand, remember sitcoms?

Remember the good old days?

When Spicks and Specks began, new episodes of Kath and Kim were still airing on the ABC (it wouldn’t move to Seven for its final season until 2007). Kath and Kim was a massive hit for the ABC: season three averaged 1.8 million viewers an episode. Two years later, Chris Lilley’s mockumentary Summer Heights High would pull in 1.2 million viewers a week, the same year that Kath and Kim topped two million viewers over on Seven. Almost two decades later Spicks and Specks is still going strong, and Australian sitcoms are about as dead as Chris Lilley’s career.

‘Look at moi ploise!’ Kath and Kim‘s early seasons (2002-2005 ) were a heyday for ABC Comedy. Image AAP.

Across the whole of 2024, the ABC is putting to air three short-run series that could technically qualify as sitcoms. Earlier this year, the (excellent) White Fever was basically a thinly disguised memoir where the comedy was more about using out-there concepts to explore character. It’s the kind of thing we often see on stage, which is no surprise as creator and star Ra Chapman has a background in theatre.

Read: White Fever, ABC review: more than ‘maybe I need to bang Asian dudes’

Currently airing on Sundays, away from the ABC’s traditional Wednesday night comedy block, Austin is a UK co-production about a #cancelled children’s book author that often feels uninspired on the comedy front, especially drawn out over eight episodes. And then there’s the upcoming third season of Fisk, which is really the only one recognisable as an old-fashioned sitcom. It’s also, if its past episodes are any guide, the only one of the trio that will be solidly funny.

Read: Fisk Season 2 review: Australia’s funniest comedy in years

Whenever anyone notices the demise of the Australian sitcom, it’s traditional to cite ‘changing tastes’ as the reason for the genre’s vanishing act. Audiences, we’re told, no longer want to watch funny people doing amusing things. At best, they want dramedies; series filmed and scripted like a drama with the occasional joke thrown in. With local production struggling due to budget cuts, the idea of a series focused solely on being funny is just too risky – especially when, even at the best of times, a lot of Australian sitcoms struggled to achieve even that modest goal.

But it’s the change in tastes behind the scenes that has had a bigger impact on the kinds of comedy that make it to our screens. A recent restructure at the ABC saw the merger of scripted drama and comedy under the heading of ‘Scripted’ (which is part of ‘Content; the only other division at the ABC is ‘News’). If scripted comedy was struggling before, no longer having its own department doesn’t seem like much of a vote of confidence in its future.

To underline comedy’s diminished status, on his arrival last year, current Head of Content Chris Oliver-Taylor reportedly axed a number of then-upcoming scripted comedy projects. They included comedy documentary series Mysterious Mysteries from comedians Alexei Toliopoulos and Cameron James, and a previously agreed-to second season of one of the ABCs few new sitcoms in recent years, Aunty Donna’s Coffee Café.

(The other new ABC sitcom in 2023 was a reboot of 80s classic Mother & Son. A second season of it is yet to be announced, though reportedly it’s still a possibility.)

Ironically, the ABC does have a program to encourage new sitcom concepts: Fresh Blood, which showcased ten three-part pilots earlier this year. Described as ‘a ground-breaking ABC and Screen Australia initiative that seeks to uncover the next generation of Australian comedy talent’, it’s a little thin on details regarding the path forward for the talent after it’s been uncovered. Especially considering out of the three sitcoms the ABC is airing this year, you couldn’t really claim any of them are employing ‘the next generation of comedy talent’.

The Aunty Donna example

A better example of what actually does happen to new comedy talent is comedy trio Aunty Donna. They entered Fresh Blood back in 2015, went on to have a very successful career outside of the ABC based on viral clips, podcasts and live performances, and had their own series on Netflix. After all that, the ABC finally decided to give them a show – which, as you may recall from two paragraphs ago, was then axed after one season.

Abc Comedy Aunty Donna.
Aunty Donna. Image: ABC.

Meanwhile, old warhorses like Gruen, Spicks and Specks and The Weekly keep on plugging away. As they aren’t considered ‘scripted’ (they’re panel chat that’s filmed in front of an audience), they’re not competing with prestige drama and high-rating mysteries for the tiny commissioning budget the ABC has for scripted series. At a time of dwindling audiences, the fact they have baked-on fans seems to be enough to keep them going indefinitely. Even being axed can’t stop them, as Spicks and Specks has shown.

Outside of those shows, the ABC is airing a total of ten hours of scripted comedy for the year. You wonder why they bother – though as two out of three of those series are closer to ‘lightweight drama’ than comedy, maybe they’re not. Still, it could always be worse. At least scripted comedy is still a nominal category for the broadcaster. When was the last time the ABC put a sketch comedy show to air?

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.