TV

If The ABC Can’t Support ‘Tonightly’, What Is It Even Offering Australian Comedy?

We talked to some of Australia's biggest comedians about the decision to axe 'Tonightly'.

This week marks the last ever episode of the short-lived and sometimes controversial Tonightly With Tom Ballard, after the ABC announced that it won’t be renewing the show because it’s “time for a fresh start”.

It remains to be seen exactly what can be fresher than Tonightly, which first aired in December 2017 — this little baby show was discarded after being given less than a year to prove its worth. Whether or not you loved or hated the show, it’s hard to argue with the fact that most unscripted comedy gets a little longer to come into its own.

But it’s not alone — in the past year, the ABC has cancelled the consumer-affairs comedy show The Checkout. It seems like the ABC is putting its money and resources behind older, more established shows, foreign imports, and re-runs. Instead of fresh, daily current affairs-based comedy, the ABC’s new digital comedy channel, which launched around the same time as Tonightly, will now be your destination for re-runs of Spicks and Specks.

There are a couple of reasons that Tonightly may have raised the ire of the ABC on its own. In March this year, it generated outrage after it dared to imply that an Australian Conservatives candidate might be a cunt, although the segment was ultimately found not to be in breach of ABC standards. Then in June, an allegation of indecent assault was made against host Tom Ballard. Ballard has strongly denied the claim.

But the show isn’t cancelled in isolation — Australia seems to be a weirdly toxic ground for comedy at the moment, and it’s not entirely clear why.

It Takes Time To Invest In Comedy

“The toughest thing about a new comedy show is that it takes time to find its voice. The first season of Parks and Recreation is hard work, and I love the US version of The Office but start watching at season 2,” says Australian comedy’s biggest name, Wil Anderson, who you’d recognise from the ABC’s much-loved, long-running Gruen franchise.

Not every sketch hit the mark on Tonightly, but it would be pretty astounding if it did. You only need to look at the industry that’s grown around critical analysis of Saturday Night Live in the US to see that making this type of comedy is hard work. In its 44-year run, SNL has had experienced varying levels of acclaim and derision. Every joke that doesn’t land is raked over the coals, every sketch that succeeds is grudgingly celebrated, but there’s no denying that it’s a cultural phenomenon.

It took a while for Tonightly to start making waves, but sketches are now getting huge audience response online, and gathering all sorts of considered/angry/sad responses from fans and critics alike. Less than a year in, it feels like Tonightly is really starting to hit its stride.

“The irony of Tonightly is that since they knew they weren’t coming back, that ‘fuck it let’s try anything’ approach has actually helped them find their voice,” Anderson told Junkee.

“And their voice is worth hearing and supporting and debating and sometimes being offended by. That is exactly the sort of comedy the ABC should be making. It’s not too late to change their minds. Axing the show was actually the best thing they could have done for it creatively — claim it as a work of programming genius that lit the creative fuse and got eyes on what they were making — but now [that the ABC] sees what it has become they, should renew it. In fact maybe they should just axe and renew it every three months for the next 10 years just to keep them making the sort of essentially provocative satire they are now producing.”

Investing in comedy isn’t about simply shovelling some money and resources into it — it’s about giving it time to grow, which Tonightly deserved.

It’s All About The $$$

While time is nice, money drives most of the decisions in TV. Duh.

“Local TV’s entire business model is under attack,” says Chas Licciardello from The Chaser. He has a pretty good idea of what kind of financial stresses an Australian comedy faces.

“You have, on one hand, ever-dwindling advertising revenue and tighter stretched public broadcasting budgets leading to growing pressures on TV show budgets. And on the other hand you have local shows directly competing with the very best the world has to offer on exponentially higher budgets through streaming services and multi-channels.”

Basically, Australian TV as a whole isn’t in a wonderfully strong position.

“Reality, sports or drama shows have the advantage of appealing to just about anyone. Comedy’s not like that — different demographics, and political persuasions all have different senses of humour and different reference sets. This means comedy is almost always an inherently narrowcasting entertainment form. What this all adds up to is comedy is riskier than ever for TV stations to produce.”

But Tonightly was specifically designed to appeal to one of those narrow demographics: the youth market. Any TV executive will tell you that young people simply don’t watch linear TV these days. However, on social media — where young people live — the show was growing in popularity. Its ratings don’t need to be wonderful for it to have an impact. If ratings were the only goal, then why shunt the program onto the new ABC Comedy channel, which many Australians don’t even know exists?

Since the show’s cancelling, one sketch about the Liberal leadership, titled ‘Do Your Fucking Job’  racked up a whopping 5.6m views on Facebook, 433,000 on Twitter and 81,338 on YouTube. Those are impressive numbers. Another sketch, about new PM Scott Morrison’s religion, landed on the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. Sure, they’re not numbers on a ratings spreadsheet, but they are signs that Tonightly was doing exactly what it should do — engaging young people in news and current affairs, and starting a conversation.

If You Want Comedy Shows, There Needs To Be Comedy Shows, Alright?

Ben Jenkins is a writer and performer you’d recognise from The Checkout and Tonightly, so obviously he’s had a bit of a year.

“I’ve been involved in two ABC comedy shows this year, cancelled for, to me at least, entirely opaque reasons. I think that lack of certainty is going to fuck up a lot of promising careers. You like Micallef and Working Dog and Chaser stuff? Cool. One of the reasons they were able to get good at what they do was the amount of free rein and support they received early on,” he told Junkee. “That’s why they’re reliable now, because they were supported when they were working out how to do what they wanted to do.”

Cancelling one or two shows has a ripple effect beyond simply denying us of some good chuckles in the moment — it means that the entire TV comedy ecosystem becomes stunted.

“I worry that very few people are getting that same grounding today,” Jenkins said. “Tonightly is such a good example of this. It wasn’t perfect out of the gate, but nothing is. More than that, though, it was a machine to take good people and make them great. Not just presenters, by the way. Writers, producers, directors, everyone. But that takes time. It takes time and patience and courage from management, when they know there is zero risk in just running old Spicks and Specks eps instead.”

Comedians Are Like Plants Or Something

Tonightly also provided a platform for some of Australia’s best and brightest young comedians, and it provided jobs, which are a rare commodity in Australian comedy.

One of the new voices that Tonightly helped foster was Clare Cavanagh, who worked on the show as a writer and performer.

“Working at Tonightly is the best training you can have as a young comedian because it’s so fast-paced and teaches you how to make comedy television. It was a job I could realistically aspire to work at because its nature means they’re always looking for new voices,” she told Junkee. “There’s no other show that exists like it: a daily news comedy show means you learn how to write and produce a broad range of comedy in a short period of time.”

Chas Licciardello agrees with this sentiment. You only need to look at the number of Australian comedy writers who were given their break on various Chaser shows to understand how this ecosystem works in Australia.

“A perennial problem for Australian comedy is that with the small market, it affords local comedians very few opportunities to hone their skills while making a living. And the opportunities that aren’t on major TV shows are even slimmer pickings,” he told us.

“In America there are a million minor TV shows and comedy outlets they can perform in/write for. In Britain they have a vibrant stand-up and radio comedy scene. But in Australia it’s a very short road from being discovered as someone who has potential to being placed in a make-or-break position on national TV. Usually that journey doesn’t allow enough time for a young comedian to become a hardened professional, so they require management to show a lot of patience with them while they learn on the job.

“The Chaser were protected by Andrew Denton early on, he gave us plenty of time and attention. Unfortunately Andrew Denton can’t raise every young comedy writer/performer in Australia. And I just don’t think that TV management of today has the kind of patience they once had — probably because they themselves are under extraordinary pressure.”

But that’s why ABC Comedy should be the perfect home for a show like Tonightly. The national broadcaster doesn’t have the commercial pressures of Seven, Nine or Ten. Its role is to fill the gaps left by commercial players who have to look after their bottom lines. The ABC should be the place to foster talented young writers, performers and artists, and turn them into the next generation of Andersons, Micallefs or Kennedys. The ABC exists to drive the kinds of conversations that can’t be had in commercial media, and that’s exactly what Tonightly did.

If Tonightly can’t succeed at ABC Comedy, you have to ask, what’s the point?


The ABC declined to comment for this story.

Patrick Lenton is an author and staff writer at Junkee. He tweets regretfully at @patricklenton.