The ultimate in champagne comedy

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Lee Zachariah revisits ABC sketch comedy series The Late Show, the program that launched careers and a host of Aussie catch phrases.

There’s a special understanding amongst those familiar (perhaps overly familiar) with the D-Generation’s 1992 sketch comedy show The Late Show. A reference to a base joke being ‘champagne comedy’, or claiming your lovemaking skills to be ‘like a tiger’, or a wistful recollection of the Bermagui Bronze is the Australian comedy fan’s Masonic handshake. It was one thing The Late Show had in common with Monty Python’s Flying Circus: there was no self-conscious attempt to create a marketable catchphrase. It was the fans that elevated ‘It’s a dead parrot’ into cultural ubiquity, not the Pythons themselves. And so, we Late Show fanatics quietly scorn our associates who fall into obvious Borat impressions, as we are simultaneously drawn to those who mention a weekend trip to Pissweak World.

The cast of The Late Show

The Late Show was, despite its stock title, a true original. It redefined undergraduate humour for a generation, mixing broad physical stunts with the sort of cultural, political and sporting references that would delight most of David Williamson’s characters. What made the show work was its apparent disinterest in following a sketch show formula. The mix of on-screen personalities, themselves the sole credited writers, was different enough to ensure variety, but similar enough for the show to have a cohesive voice. Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, Tony Martin, Mick Molloy, Rob Sitch and Jason Stephens were a rough but personable group who made a show that felt like a giant in-joke you were in on.

Series two saw the introduction of Judith Lucy netting a 100 per cent increase in the show’s female cast. Lucy’s inclusion felt so immediately right, that we suddenly and retroactively felt her absence in the previous series. The show was now properly complete, not just because it finally had what would later be considered its traditional line-up, but because they all knew what they were doing at this point. They’d established a house style, and could push it even further than they had in year one. It was the rare comedy show that went from strength to strength.

Looking back now, it’s rightfully low-fi. Comedy is supposed to be a bit of a mess, and so the mix of incompatible shooting styles actually works in the show’s favour. (The only particularly jarring element is watching the future director of Any Questions For Ben? making fun of the band Things of Stone and Wood for a song that basically just listed Melbourne clichés. Presented without comment.)

Although two seasons of some of the best comedy Australian television has ever seen may seem slight – even slighter when you examine the ratio of broadcast minutes to home video release minutes – there was a creeping inevitability to the eventual disbandment. The obvious broader interests of the cast meant that the limiting structure of The Late Show could never contain them for long. There was all of the Australian media to conquer, after all.

In terms of cultural impact, there’s little doubt that – the subsequent careers of its cast aside – The Late Show actually ranked below the other programmes of this late ’80s/early ’90s sketch comedy boon: The Comedy Company, Fast Forward and Full Frontal. And in part, that’s what made it so special. When those shows faltered, it was often because they were fatally attempting to second-guess their audience. When The Late Show faltered, when a premise or punchline clunked achingly to the floor, it was clear that it had still been done for the right reasons. The cast was still out to amuse themselves, to tell jokes they believed in. But those of us who exchange knowing looks when someone speaks of Boonie in unnecessarily worshipful tones, or reach the highest Desman Tutu-esque pitches when uttering the words ‘what we need’, we will know better.


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