“No Blackface” And Other Good Tips For Aussie Satire, From Mark Humphries And Evan Williams

"SBS keep pushing us to do it, but we refuse to budge."

Mark Humphries

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Comedy has taken a hit around the world in the current political climate. We need a laugh more than ever, but comedians are struggling to gain ground in the face of a news cycle too insane (and exhausting) to parody. It’s hard to write gags when they’re already in serious news headlines.

A suit at a major network will probably cite ratings as the reason why satirical comedy has drifted away from mainstream television. Most primetime slots are given to reality TV shows or panel-style shows; it’s easier (and cheaper) to sit people around a table than to staff and produce a scripted show.

Clarke and Dawe maintained their prominence, but with the sad passing of John Clarke, their time came to an abrupt end. Our attempts at replicating US late-night comedy with Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell and Charlie Pickering’s The Weekly gained plenty of cult fans but are highly derivative and did nothing significant to make them a lasting institution.

The ABC continue their crush on The Chaser, giving them various shows over the years, but they peaked with their APEC prank in 2007 and we’ve been stuck with their spinoffs and passion projects ever since. Even sketch comedy has been mostly absent with the exception of the excellent Black Comedy and The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting.

Comedy and political satire in Australia has been sustained in pockets. You’re more likely to discover someone doing better gags on Twitter or on satirical news websites than flicking through channels or browsing a streaming library. But two people are the forefront of a new age of satire in Australia: Mark Humphries and Evan Williams. In the tradition of great comedy duos, welcome to the age of Humphries and Williams.

The duo’s work can be seen on The Feed on SBS VICELAND and they’ve become a dominant force in the Australian comedy scene with their witty sketches that tap into the 24-hour news cycle perfectly. Humphries and Williams have become The Feed’s secret weapon. These guys are the real deal and someone at SBS was clever enough to give them their own show, Privatise Now: The Feed End of Year Special.

The special will be full of all new material from Humphries and Williams and one can only hope this leads to something bigger on the network. We spoke with Humphries and Williams about their new show, writing comedy in the current political climate and how they deal with fanboys like Mark Latham.

Junkee: How did you two meet?

Mark Humphires: We met in 2012 on ABC2’s The Roast and quickly realised we shared a passion for making mildly amusing two-minute videos.

Walk us through your writing process and how you land on an idea?

MH: We get in at 7:45am and try to have a story chosen by 8:30am. By that time, we also hope to have an angle or concept for how we’ll do it because it has to be an idea which can sustain itself for two-three minutes. There have been a handful of times where the idea has not come as naturally as we’d hoped, and we’ve had to change the concept or even the topic itself quite late in the writing process. In an ideal world, we could just say “Damn, Daniel!” and that would be enough.

Evan Williams: Really, we’re lucky if we get more than three hours of proper writing time on a sketch, and I think that shows.

Do you find it challenging to write as news stories evolve during the day?

MH: We tend to avoid any stories where we know there’ll be an announcement late in the day that could change the story. We do try to make sure the idea is strong enough that it won’t be impacted by new developments.

How do you guys manage to flip sketches so quickly, and of a high standard?

MH: Fear, mainly.

EW: One of the main reasons we manage it is that The Feed has an incredible production team. We’ve worked particularly closely with shooter-editor, Chloe Angelo, and there have been a number of times where the show is already on air — I can look over and see Jan [Fran] and Marc [Fennell] presenting — and she’s still making final edit tweaks to a sketch, cool as a cucumber.

We generally only have two hours or so to shoot with just one camera and a few lights, so it really is superhuman what the shooter-editors do. They make our writing look far more professional than it has any right to.

As satirists, how do you navigate the current political climate where so many successful comedians have floundered?

EW: I feel we’ve tried to stay away from too much anger. You don’t really need to rant to people that “the world is fucked” anymore. How can you not know that the world is fucked at this point? So we’ve probably ventured more into absurd, surreal territory with comedy, which I find can be less exhausting than ranting, and just generally, more fun to write.

Do you guys have any rules you stick to?

EW: No blackface.

MH: Indeed. SBS keep pushing us to do it, but we refuse to budge. There are lots of things we just instinctively avoid. Like puns.

“Ferry McFerryFace is a fucking disgrace. It might as well be named after a quote from Anchorman.”

EW: And staying away from phrases that are currently in the zeitgeist: “[insert thing here] is the worst”, “all of the feels”, “throwing shade”. If it’s a joke I can hear someone saying offhandedly at a party, I feel like I don’t deserve to be a paid writer if I’m going to write that.

MH: This is why Ferry McFerryFace is a fucking disgrace. It might as well be named after a quote from Anchorman.

Social media has been a huge part of your success, how much does it influence your writing process?

EW: Not at all. For example, I’ve always thought black bars on the top and bottom of videos with huge white text explaining the premise of sketches is just aesthetically pleasing. It’s an artistic choice, not one we occasionally make because it helps with social media engagement.

MH: We’re conscious of it, but generally we try to do what makes us laugh. We think the taxpayer would rather we focused on making two people laugh than a broader section of the public. It might influence the duration of a sketch, though. For instance, we did a piece about Twitter last week, so we made sure the sketch was under 2:20 in length because that’s the limit for auto-play videos on Twitter. This is a boring detail which should not appear in the interview.

You’re both part of a comeback in good quality Australian satire but it has been pushed to the fringes of the entertainment industry over the past decade or so, why do you think that happened?

EW: Satire TV shows are expensive to make. You need lots of writers, lots of performers, lots of shooting locations and graphics. Why would industry bosses decide to make a satire show when you can stick a few celebrities around a desk saying vaguely funny things and call that a TV show?

Do you ever feel a responsibility to pick a topic because something needs to be made fun of?

EW: Occasionally you feel a sense of duty, but we always remember that we are not SBS World News. We are not responsible for bringing important stories to the public’s attention; we’re only responsible for trying to make them laugh.

MH: And a lot of the time we don’t even do that.

Is there a sketch that blew you away with the way people reacted?

MH: Our CNN sketch. It ended up being translated into multiple languages for various news outlets overseas, and got retweeted by some big names like Mark Hamill. Sadly Hamill has remained silent on our sendup of iconic Australian giraffe puppet Happy Healthy Harold.

Has there been a sketch that blew back on you guys?

MH: The only person whose opinion we value is Mark Latham’s. And by that measure, every sketch has been a failure.

Who are the comedians/shows/satirists that inspired you?

MH: I’ve always enjoyed the bluntness of Norm Macdonald, so his ‘Weekend Update’ segments [on Saturday Night Live] from the ‘90s were an early influence. Since I was in high school, Shaun Micallef has obviously been the standout in Australian TV comedy and if nothing else, his influence can be seen in the way I part my hair.

EW: I remember hiring the [The Chaser’s] CNNNN DVD from Civic Video during high school. I never watched it, but I still count it as an influence. To this day, when I’m writing, I often think of it sitting there on the coffee table. (Seriously though, watching that definitely triggered something for me.)

During uni, The Colbert Report and The Onion were always my two favourites, and probably made me stupid enough to try and do this for a living. But I find Mark and I often end up talking more about The Simpsons or Alan Partridge or Maria Bamford or Waiting for Guffman than we do other satire shows.

What can people expect from the comedy special?

MH: It’s part year in review, part sketch show, all ego trip.

EW: Seriously though, I think this contains some of the funniest stuff we’ve ever written. We’ve also got some fun cameos from Ray Martin and Andrew Gaze — names really popular with SBS VICELAND’s hip youth audience.

MH: One of the things I’m most excited about is the appearance of our old Roast colleague Clarke Richards (recently seen on Utopia and True Story with Hamish and Andy). He plays a retired footballer with a chequered past, and I ruined most of the takes laughing at his performance.

EW: There will also be two ad breaks. Stay tuned for those.

Privatise Now: The Feed End of Year Special airs 7.30pm this Thursday on SBS VICELAND.

Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.