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Tuesday, February 8, 2011


(Channel Nine, Tuesday night, 9:30pm)

The first ten minutes of Ben Elton: Live from Planet Earth must have contained at least 2000 words, two comedy monologues and three character sketches. Between Elton’s fast-paced stand-up delivery and the sheer velocity of the first two sketches, it was like walking into comedy machine-gun fire.

(If I was a harsher critic, I would follow that sentence with ‘but more painful’. But I won’t.)
Ben Elton has been a great comedy writer, a very good stand up comedian and at times a brilliant novelist who has written some of my favourite books. I’m not sure he’s any of those things any more, but he’s still more than qualified to run a show along these lines – which is why it’s a shame that it doesn’t hit the mark.

The show’s main issue is not the talent involved, which is mostly great – but the format. The premier live comedy sketch show in the world, Saturday Night Live, usually operates at a 50% or lower comedy strike rate, and that show has produced some of the greatest comedy writers and performers in the world. Furthermore, even SNL pads out its running time with musical performances and pre-recorded material. Live from Planet Earth throws its young cast into a sterile environment counter-intuitive for comedy success and expects them to nail it. The fact they do a half-decent job is credit to their talents.

As for the writing, Elton made a joke during the opening of the show about how strange it was that the more juvenile the humour, the more ‘mature’ you had to be to get it. I assumed it was just a joke, but two segments later it felt like an apology. The humour never gets much above fart-joke level.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this scattershot, scatological approach – some of the sketches are bound to die, but some are bound to work – and it’s just a matter of ending on the right side of that ledger. Most of the early sketches are kept mercifully short – though the flipside of that is any that really work aren’t given time to breathe. Fortunately most of them are just wig-and-funny-voice humour, so no breathing required.

I hadn’t laughed out loud, though, until the third break when Genevieve Morris turned up as celebrity interviewer Elaine Front, and her chat with game-for-anything Ruby Rose was genuinely funny and made even funnier by the fact that Ruby Rose was such a charming guest – probably the most charming she’s ever been. The mini-sitcom that followed, Girl Flat, that was almost amusing enough to warrant an entire segment – almost.

Elton himself opened okay and mainly stuck to the sidelines as the show went along. He kicked off with at least four scatological jokes in about three minutes. No wait, I wrote that and then he made another one. They weren’t bad scatological jokes, but they were just scatological jokes. He was much better once he left the current affairs humour alone, which came off more as an angry political monologue. That’s fine, but maybe save it for episode two.

The performers are universally talented though some haven’t quite struck the balance between performing for the television cameras and performing for just the studio audience. Early sketches felt like they were trying way too hard but that should improve as the show goes along. The standout at this stage is Veronica Milsom*, who debuted two good characters and a great Lady Gaga interpretation.

(*Full disclosure – I went to university with Veronica. But she is the legitimate standout.)

I also need to mention Paul McCarthy. McCarthy has appeared in pretty much every Australian sketch comedy show I can remember in the last ten years (Totally Full Frontal, Comedy Inc and Double Take are a few examples.) He’s a talented, experienced member of the cast here and accordingly appeared in exactly one sketch. That sketch didn’t even feature his primary comedic talent – impersonations. It just seemed like a huge waste. Why is he there if he’s not going to be used?

One more thing - I noticed a trend early on and started a tally of how many of the sketches involved mentioning a vagina. We were four out of four early on. Plus a few mentions during Elton’s stand-up. By the end of the show we had an eighty per cent vagina-joke-per-sketch strike rate. A couple of the jokes were funny but by the end of the show it was just fatiguing.

Overall, I think the format of Live From Planet Earth is counter-intuitive to comedy success. Accordingly, the show veers from amusing to cringe worthy – and the highs aren’t high enough yet to justify the lows. I’ll keep watching because I like the talent – but improvement is desperately needed.

Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments!

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