We Chatted To Charlie Pickering About ‘The Weekly’, Political Comedy And Humour In The Age Of Twitter

Comedy news in Australia is about to get a boost.

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No discussion of comedy in Australia would be complete without someone lamenting our lack of a Daily Show: a program that would speak on behalf of the nation, hold our politicians to account, and lampoon the media that doesn’t join in their efforts. It’s debatable whether we need one given all the great comedy happening in Australia, and whether we’d ever be able to mimic what’s happening in the US – but from 22 April we’re getting arguably the closest thing we’ve seen with The Weekly, ABC’s new take on the format hosted by Charlie Pickering.

Learning From The Masters

Satirical news shows aren’t exactly a rarity these says – The Daily Show is an institution in the US, with Jon Stewart being the best paid host of any late night show, and having spawned new projects like The Colbert Report, The Nightly Show, and former correspondent John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. Any Australian take would no doubt be influenced by these shows, and The Weekly will be similar in more than just its name. For starters, their choice of host – a former lawyer, successful standup, and former host of a not-quite-news show.

“I’m very excited by the fact that I’m not going to in any way be a serious newsreader,” Pickering says. “At The Project I could feel myself becoming Ron Burgundy, so this is just all out comedy.” Anchorman jokes aside, Pickering has assembled a comedy news team of some of the best in the business, with Tom Gleeson and Kitty Flanagan lined up as correspondents for the show, and international correspondents in London, New York and Johannesburg to be announced shortly. He’ll also have a “big shiny desk” for the show’s interview segments.

Like Stewart, Colbert and Oliver before him, all celebrated for managing to inform their viewers on top of entertaining them, Pickering knows the role he hopes to play. “The term that we have is ‘fuck me’ moments. We want to have those moments where you learn something you didn’t know before and you say to yourself, ‘wow, fuck me, I didn’t know that.’ We’ve got twenty episodes, it might take us a bunch before we get to that, but we’re really going to try.”

“It’s safe to say we are big fans of shows like The Daily Show, and Colbert, but we’re new to this game and they are the best in the world, so we’re not for a second going to say we’re anywhere near what those guys do,” Pickering says.

Not to say that they aren’t great sources of inspiration. “In the last ten or fifteen years, to see what Jon Stewart has done, and Colbert, it just shows that there is a way to do satire and comedy about the news without being preachy, without taking yourself too seriously, and without thinking you’re smarter than anyone. And that’s us here, we don’t think we’re better than anyone, we don’t think we’re smarter than anyone, we can smell bullshit and we can spot an idiot, so we are going to have fun with that.”

The Perks Of The Weekly Being Weekly

When I mention the similarities between The Weekly’s tagline – “the news you need, a few days after you need it” – and Last Week Tonight, Pickering is quick to distinguish himself from the legend that is John Oliver. “His research-driven monologues are pretty incredible. And I don’t think we’re setting ourselves up as fighters against injustice at that level. The similarity is that like John, we don’t have to participate in the 24 hour news cycle.”

Rather than reactionary comedy, Pickering says they’ll be able to focus on what the most important story of the week was – and make better jokes about it. “It gives you a chance, ignoring the daily cut and thrust of politics, to say, well, what are the issues behind the politics? Maybe, with a bit of time to think, you can find more comedy in understanding what’s really going on, rather than just which politician said which stupid thing today.”

While The Weekly will be the first of its kind in some regards, and certainly the closest to the format popularised in the US, it’s definitely not the only show making fun of news in Australia. For starters, there’s Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell. “With Shaun it’s hard to find the word to say how good you think he is. So what I’d say is, I think he’s the best comedian in the country.”

There’s also The Roast, which has found a new home at The Guardian. “I think The Roast get away with being angrier than I could, and I mean that as an absolute compliment. In particular, they do an incredible job with very, very limited financial resources, and they stick to exactly what the point is they want to make and exactly the joke they want to make. I think they just do an incredible job.”

Trevor Noah And The High Stakes Of Comedy On Twitter

Joining these established shows, and also taking on Micallef’s timeslot, Pickering is no stranger to the pressure that comes with taking on the genre. The same pressure that Trevor Noah, recently announced replacement host for The Daily Show, is no doubt feeling, especially after coming under fire for a series of arguably offensive jokes he tweeted previously.

A fan of Noah both as a stand-up comedian and choice to replace Stewart, Pickering says he wouldn’t have published those kind of jokes of Twitter. But that doesn’t affect his potential to do the job. “Look at any comedian’s Twitter feed, you’re going to find some bad jokes.”

“I think he rightfully has been criticised for those jokes, but he is still an outstanding comedian and it doesn’t mean he is not fit to sit in that chair. If Twitter had been around when Jon Stewart was starting out as a comedian, he would have made some pretty bad jokes as well. The fact is, even as I say this I think, god, what is on my Twitter feed.”

The first episode of The Weekly hasn’t been filmed yet, but Pickering seems pretty clear on what their goals are. “Comedy has a way of viewing everything on an angle that makes it not so scary,” he says. “And never underestimate the power of ridicule to keep the powerful under control. If someone in a position of power, whether it’s a politician or a very wealthy businessman or a sports star, if they’re just one step away from the entire country laughing at them, then they tend to behave themselves a little better… It actually means I think, to some degree, that power stays with, you know, the people.”

The Weekly premieres on ABC1 at 8:30pm on Wednesday April 22.

Maddie James is a former intern at Junkee. She studies media and law at UNSW, and in her spare time annoys friends and family by making too many puns. She’d be pleased to tweet you at@itsmaddiejames.