StarsStarsStarsStarsStars

The Weekly with Charlie Pickering: bring on the AI chatbots

Is The Weekly a show made by and for people who don’t really care about or follow the news? It seems that way.

With the demise of Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering became the ABC’s longest running news-based comedy. With the demise of Sammy J’s sketches at 6.55pm on Thursdays, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering became the ABC’s only regular news-based comedy. Now that it stands alone, is The Weekly with Charlie Pickering up to the task? That depends on what you think it’s on air to do.

Since its debut in 2015, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering has slowly but steadily shed on-air talent. Initially featuring Tom Gleeson and Kitty Flanagan as regulars, with rapper and comedy writer Briggs often making an appearance in promotional materials (less often on the show itself) and Judith Lucy and Luke McGregor as regulars in later series, these days it’s largely just Pickering behind a desk.

Presumably retitling it The Weekly is Charlie Pickering would cost too much; it’s a show running off the smell of an oily rag as it is, based largely on news clips and archival footage with the occasional guest commentator chiming in. It’s not like the ABC has updated the official description, which says ‘Charlie Pickering and a team of Australia’s best and freshest comedians watch all the news, so you don’t have to’. What team?

Come to that, what news? This is a show with a segment titled ‘Celebrity Beefs’ that was just rehashing a fortnight-old interview Samuel Johnson gave breakfast television complaining about Molly Meldrum’s antics. There’s also a regular segment where Margaret Pomeranz recaps reality television – that’s the joke, that a retired film reviewer is reviewing trashy television. Presumably Lee Lin Chin was busy.

Topical? Hmmm

One of the big problems facing topical humour these days is that the internet hasn’t just sped up the news cycle, it’s enabled thousands of people to pitch topical jokes almost instantly. By the time The Weekly – we can drop the whole ‘with Charlie Pickering’ bit – gets around to talking about Cardinal Pell’s funeral, or that tiny radioactive tic-tac lost in Western Australia, days have passed and all the obvious jokes have been done.

The only options left are to be so funny in such an unexpected fashion that people tune in to find out what your take is going to be – the Mad as Hell approach – or to make the obvious jokes and target an audience that doesn’t use the internet and seemingly doesn’t watch any news programming outside of your show. As the main reason people watch the ABC is for the news (seriously, check the nightly ratings), you might think that would rule out the second approach … but only if you haven’t watched The Weekly.

Been there, done that

Usually this kind of show would air late night, with an edgy host willing to take risks (and get the attention that comes with that), pushing their own idiosyncratic take on the news. This isn’t that. Just about everything The Weekly does has been done better elsewhere so often it’s almost a cliché, and that’s even before you start asking if Charlie Pickering wants to be Australia’s Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Noah Trevor or late-period Graham Kennedy.

That’s not to say The Weekly couldn’t deliver some serious satire if it wanted to. Usually the strength of such a generic format is that it fades into the background: everyone knows how it works, so they can focus on the jokes instead. Unfortunately, jokes are not The Weekly’s strong point, unless you’re a fan of watching a days-old news clip while Charlie Pickering describes what you’re seeing in a sarcastic voice.

It’s the guest commentators that usually supply what teeth the show has, like Rhys Nicholson this week pointing out that Australia’s drug laws are heavily racially biased, with black people far more likely to end up in jail over even minor offences. ‘The truth is, if you’re white, you might not even realise weed is illegal,’ he said. ‘It’s pretty hard to die in custody if you’re not in custody.’

But those moments are few and far between. Otherwise it’s mostly limp, pointless material like ‘cancelling’ the Prime Minister for the way he ate an ice-cream in public. The opening sketch, in which Pickering, having spent his holidays in a news-free booze coma, needed a Rocky-style training montage in current events to bring him up to speed for his job, felt inadvertently revealing.

The Weekly is a show made by and for people who don’t really care about or follow the news – that’s just a bunch of things that happen to other people. Hey, here’s some 50-year-old footage of people in a pub, there’s got to be a joke in there somewhere.

Over the holiday break The Chaser grabbed a few headlines by announcing their website would (eventually) be going behind a paywall to prevent it becoming fodder for ChatGPT and other generative AI chatbots. Their concern is that these programs, which can generate legible slabs of text based on a few prompts, are threatening the future of (human-generated) Australian satire.

After watching The Weekly, the real question is: what future?

The Weekly airs on the ABC Wednesdays at 8.30pm, and is available on iView.

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.