A Very Loving Taxonomy Of ABC’s ‘The Late Show’
It was the tacit embracing of fuck-ups that made the show great.
The Late Show was only on TV between 1992 and ’93, but it made a huge impact on me. In tandem with Twin Peaks, which was showing at the same time, I think it really solidified my 16-year-old understanding of the world; it set the bar for the culture I consumed and hoped to create myself.
Now, everyone loves Twin Peaks, with good reason, and you might be questioning my putting The Late Show on an equally high pedestal. But both shows held a sort of magic; something transcendent that elevated them above anything else I had seen before. And the fact The Late Show was made in Melbourne, which was only a six hour drive away from the little country town where I lived, made it all the more potent and incredible.
For the uninitiated, The Late Show was a sketch comedy show, performed by the members of the Melbourne University-spawned comedy group the D-Generation, the ones who didn’t go to the occasionally brilliant but generally mediocre Fast Forward. It felt like the ABC just gave these guys a studio, a basic crew and a few cameras, and then left them alone to do what they liked. The cast members were: Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, Tony Martin, Mick Molloy, Rob Sitch and Jason Stephens, and Judith Lucy for the second season. They had a great group dynamic and they all brought out different aspects of each other’s characters, but some of them were funnier than others.
Mick was the bad boy of the group, and although he behaved like the dumb bullies at my school, he seemed to be involved in all of my favourite bits. Mick was undoubtedly a natural clown, and a perfect foil to the more cerebral humour of, say, Tony Martin or Rob Sitch. He had an amazing dynamic with Judith Lucy, who was a similarly natural clown, but much angrier and infinitely smarter. I always wondered if those two had a thing going – there were definitely sparks there.
The eminently likeable Santo was also implicit in many of the best moments in the show. He was, of course, one half of Graham and the Colonel with Rob – the ‘no-holds-barred, no beg your pardons’ sports commentator duo that closed off every episode. These guys told a lot of crap sports jokes and spent the whole time throwing sheets of paper over their shoulders while trying to keep a straight face, which was the point of the whole bit (and possibly the whole show). “Dufflecoat Supreme” is still the best name for a racehorse I’ve ever heard. My friend Sam once found a dufflecoat by the brand Supreme in an op-shop and bought it as a tribute, even if it was three sizes too big for him. He gave it to me, and I appreciated the gesture.
Come to think of it, most of my favourite parts of The Late Show were based around Rob Sitch trying to keep a straight face. His impressions of various famous people were the saving grace of Tommy G’s opening news segment. I often think back to his impression of Bill Clinton, in which he answered questions at a press conference via saxophone. That was an okay gag in itself, but the magic occurred when the sax kept ‘playing’ after he had removed the instrument from his mouth. Santo, Jason, Jane and the audience dissolved into laughter, while Rob stared into the bell of the sax with an amused look on his face, before declaring, “Well, I’m gonna hang on to this one.”
It was this tacit embracing of fuck-ups that made the show great. Of course, it wasn’t a new concept – that’s what makes live comedy electrifying – but it was the first time I’d experienced it, beyond my mum’s Peter Cook and Dudley Moore records, in an Australian accent, talking about stuff I understood.
Aside from Rob, my favourite cast member was Tony Martin. I’d go so far as to say that Tony is a comic genius. He didn’t stuff up as much as Rob, because his bits were just too good; but he had a looseness and hyper self-awareness that made him very quick on his feet. Added to that was a simmering, impatient anger underpinning everything he did, cloaked in an affable friendliness that I could really relate to.
A great example of this, and one of my favourite Late Show segments of all time, is when Tony and Mick hit the streets (with Santo behind the camera) to visit shops with zany names. There are too many highlights to list, but Tony’s genius comes through in his interview with the good-natured Amanda at Stacks of Slax. “Why don’t you call the shop Racks of Slax?” he asks. “Or maybe Stacks of Slacks on Racks? Or maybe Racks of Dacks in Stacks, possibly?” Amanda just stands looking thoughtful, nodding. “Sounding a bit like a Dr Seuss story really, isn’t it?”
There were plenty of other amazing segments like this. How about the Olden Days, or its second season equivalent Bargearse, wherein old TV shows (Rush and Bluey, respectively) were cut up and overdubbed to create new narratives? The Olden Days was geared around the adventures of Governor Frontbottom, a namby-pamby boss of a goldfield, and had me in hysterics at nearly every turn. Bargearse was basically one long, hilarious fart joke.
I also loved the one-off bits in which the entire cast got in on the act, like the dinner party sketch. Once again, Rob steals the show with his over-acting, but it’s also a chance to see how the whole cast works together.
The magic of The Late Show felt real and accessible; it wasn’t something only Americans could conjure up with millions of dollars, unfamiliar cultural signposts and dancing dwarves (not taking anything away from Twin Peaks – I still have nightmares about the woods). It was contained in short, chaotic sketches put together by a group of mates in Melbourne, in which things often went wrong.
I laughed at The Late Show in the same way I laughed with my brother and sister, or my best friend; and it made me feel like culture was something I could be a part of, rather than merely observe. Rewatching it today still fills me with excitement, glee, and inspiration.
Max Olijnyk is a writer and editor who also takes photos and makes clothes. He used to live in Melbourne but he recently moved to Wellington, New Zealand. He writes for all sorts of publications about all sorts of things, but his favourite subjects are skateboarding and his son Fred. You can follow him at @maxolijnyk.