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Reality Comedy

TV curator Kate Matthews looks at the postmodern blending that has created a genre mashup loosely referred to as ‘reality comedy’ in Australian television.

The term ‘mockumentary’ was coined by director Rob Reiner to describe his documentary spoof This is Spinal Tap (1984). Mockumentary and other forms of ‘reality comedy’ have been some of our most popular locally-produced television. Shows like Frontline (1994–97), The Games (1998, 2000), Summer Heights High (2007) and Kath and Kim (2002–current) dropped the traditional laugh track and the live variety show feel that dominated the first 30 or so years of Australian TV comedy. Instead, they took their stylistic cues from documentary to produce a style that has also enjoyed success in the US with The Larry Sanders Show (1992–98) and the UK with The Office (2001–03).

Reality TV emerged as a genre with shows like Big Brother (2001–08, Australia) in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But before the term existed audiences were enjoying shows such as Sylvania Waters (1992) that used a fly-on the-wall technique purporting to show the people as though the camera was not there, literally as a fly on the wall might see them. With their ability to expose human foibles of ordinary people, when documentaries become mockumentaries, they lend themselves well to comedy’s traditional role as social commentator.

Babakiueria (1986) may have been Australia’s first mockumentary for television, a one-off half hour written by Geoffery Atherden, who also wrote the classic sitcom Mother and Son (1984–93). In Babakiueria, black colonisers of a country very similar to Australia but called Babakiueria make a ‘documentary’ about the habits of a white indigenous group. By reversing the usual roles of anthropological observer and subject, coloniser and colonised, it revealed the hypocrisies and racial stereotypes of a dominant culture.

Babakiueria (1986) was ahead of its time. The use of mockumentary and other types of ‘reality comedy’ picked up momentum in the 1990s with Working Dog’s Frontline (1994–97). It’s a satirical comedy-drama with a fly-on-the-wall style that applies to the performances as well as the camera and lighting styles, giving the impression of a behind-the-scenes look at the unsavoury world of tabloid television journalism. More recently, Working Dog produced The Hollowmen (2008), also a fly-on-the-wall style comedy, this time about political public relations.

The mockumentary The Games (1998, 2000) also takes us ‘behind-the-scenes’, this time of a real event: the 2000 Sydney Olympics (see The Games – Series 1 Episode 8, Rural and Environment, 1998). Mockumentary is the ideal tool for its deadpan satirical take on bureaucracy and media hype. Stars John Clarke and Bryan Dawe were also regulars on real current affairs program The 7.30 Report (1986–current) with a brilliant series of short, topical sketches done in a similar ‘reality comedy’ style.

Some of the earliest examples of Australian reality TV, Sylvania Waters (1992) and Weddings (1996), were among the inspirations for Kath and Kim (2002–current), which revels in the comedy to be found in the minor details of its suburban milieu. But while it borrows stylistic elements of documentary like hand-held camerawork, real locations and voice-overs, Kath and Kim stops short of giving the characters the awareness they are being filmed. Gina Riley, Jane Turner and Magda Szubanski originally developed their characters Kim, Kath and Sharon for sketch shows, and with the larger-than-life quality of classic sketch comedy, Kath and Kim has been called a fly-on-the-wall sitcom, a genre mashup of the more traditional, script-driven situation comedy and the reality TV-mockumentary style.

Like Kath and Kim, Chris Lilley’s mockumentary series Summer Heights High (2007) and We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year (2005) revel in seemingly trivial (but funny) details. But whereas the characters in Kath and Kim are not aware of the camera, Lilley’s characters are closer to the mockumentary style by being aware of the camera’s presence. We Can Be Heroes (2005) follows six ‘ordinary Australians’ in their bid to become Australian of the Year. These characters address the camera directly about their lives and aspirations, even play up to the camera at times, consequently revealing their foibles to the camera in true ‘reality TV’ documentary style. His follow-up series, Summer Heights High (2007), which uses similar techniques, is both highly absurd and yet one of the most perceptive representations of Australian school life on screen.

That Lilley’s shows pretend to be ‘documentaries’ at all is made even more absurd by the fact that Lilley plays all the main characters, crossing boundaries of age, gender and race. At the same time, the documentary realism in the filming style and the convincing performances of Lilley and his co-stars make it unnervingly believable. Here, mockumentary can enable a kind of double entendre that replaces the direct rapport of vaudeville comedians with the audience. Lilley’s characters are aware they are on film and he mines their self-consciousness, vanity and pretence in this situation, exposing the distance between his characters’ self-representation and their real intentions.

The distance travelled from early television to Lilley’s shows is starkly illustrated in this clip from Australia’s first topical comedy series, The Mavis Bramston Show (1964–68). While Lilley’s clever comedies draw inspiration from mockumentary and reality TV, the sketch and variety shows that dominated TV comedy for its first 30 or so years show television’s beginning as a studio-based medium and its roots in theatre. Boasting stage sets, bright lights and larger-than-life performances that reach beyond the camera to a laughing live audience, it plays up the live quality that was so exciting in TV’s early days and set it apart from cinema. TV also needed material in these early days and the theatre offered ready content. Sketch comedy harks back to vaudeville and revues, with their multiple short acts and interplay between performers and crowd (see Athol Tier as Napoleon, c1931).

The Mavis Bramston Show (1964–68) drew its inspiration as well as its performers from the popular Phillip Street Theatre comedy revues in Sydney. It is part sketch, part variety show and the first local program with news-based satire as a central focus. It is an early example of a now-classic TV comedy style, with a studio audience, artificial-looking sets and the camera as a theatrical fourth wall. While its presentation evokes the stage, sending up other TV genres is also a key part of its repertoire. The comic common ground it finds with its audience is the week’s news and the other shows they are watching, such as game shows and ads.

The live studio audience was such an established element of early TV comedy that when shows started to drop the live studio audience most replaced it with a laugh track. Brett Mills in The Television Genre Book (2008) notes how the idea of a live audience is visible in traditional sitcom’s ‘fourth wall’ – where actors tend to face out towards the audience as in theatre, for instance arranging themselves along one side of a table when sharing a meal. Sketch show performers often go even further and address the audience directly. Like canned laughter, this style remains in many shows where no audience is actually present.

Classic sketch shows such as The Naked Vicar Show (1977–78) dominated Australian comedy in the decades following Mavis Bramston. In the 1980s and early ’90s, a Melbourne-based boom in live comedy saw TV gain a crop of new talent schooled in revues, cabaret and stand-up. The Gillies Report (1984–85) is a landmark topical sketch show from this era. Lampooning politics, news and current affairs it showcases larger-than-life but spot-on caricatures of politicians of the day by Max Gillies and also features John Clarke. Timely satire of the news at hand and a responsive studio audience are essential ingredients.

Like Mavis Bramston, The Gillies Report mimics TV news within a traditional comedy format. The more recent CNNNN (2002) is an example of a news send-up that forgoes this style to fully adopt the form of the media it mimics (see CNNNN: Chaser Non-stop News Network – Lunchgate). Just as mockumentaries present themselves as real documentaries, the Chaser team’s CNNNN purports to be a real 24-hour tabloid news channel. It satirises the way tabloid news shows are constructed as much as it targets actual news and events.

While shows like CNNNN and fly-on-the-wall sitcoms suggest a development in TV comedy, the old-school TV style is also alive and well. A crop of recent shows pick up the topical, news-based baton and transfer it to chat and quiz show formats, presented in studios in front of live audiences. They include The Glass House (2001–06), Good News Week (1996–2000, 2008–current) and The 7 pm Project (2009–current). The Chaser’s most recent outing, The Chaser’s War on Everything (2006–09), also delivers topical, news-inspired satire via a traditional revue format, complete with studio audience. This is mixed with the team’s signature location-based pranks and interventions at press conferences. They became news fodder themselves over notorious stunts like their infiltration of the APEC summit (see The Chaser’s War on Everything – APEC Episodes, 2007).

The Chaser team owe something to Garry McDonald’s ‘little Aussie bleeder’ Norman Gunston from the 1970s. As Gunston, McDonald hijacked yet another TV format: the chat show and celebrity interview. Although a fictional character himself, Gunston interviewed real guests on his show, as well as joining the media fray at press conferences with the likes of Warren Beatty, Frank Zappa and, in 1975, the freshly deposed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. McDonald, as Gunston, was a pioneer of the comic-persona-in-real-situations premise, along with Barry Humphries’s Dame Edna Everage. Later adopters of this form on TV include Andrew Denton and John Safran and, internationally, on both TV and film, Sacha Baron Cohen of Ali G and Borat fame.

Where mockumentary pretends to be a real documentary, the likes of Gunston, Safran, Denton and The Chaser team represent another kind of engagement with reality: comic intervention in the real world. In the The Money or The Gun (1989–93), Denton hosts a talk-variety show that tackles real social issues like gun laws and heroin addiction, interviewing real people (see The Money or the Gun – Heroin, 1989). Denton’s glib, slightly naïve comic persona allows him unusual frankness and bluntness in his interviews: he comes across as an innocent big mouth who’ll say the things others would be embarrassed about. In this way he steps into a classic comic role whose ancestors go right back to Elizabethan theatre’s court jesters and ‘fools’. Such comics use their craft for acute social observation – but it’s in their interest not to be taken too seriously, as it is comedy that gives them the licence to comment so boldly in the first place.

Like Denton, John Safran plays himself as comic persona in television series including John Safran’s Music Jamboree (2002), John Safran vs. God (2004) and John Safran’s Race Relations (2009). Combining comedy with documentary, he presents real information alongside comic pranks and ‘experiments’ such as ‘road testing’ the world’s religions. Safran’s comedy, like that of Denton and Gunston before him, is about discomfort and embarrassment. He targets social sensitivities, prejudices, taboos and hypocrisy, without sparing himself. Lawrence Leung’s Chaser-produced series Lawrence Leung’s Choose Your Own Adventure (2009) is a more recent addition to the comic-documentary genre, of a more heartwarming bent.

These comics make the real world play the 'straight man’ to their creations – characters that sometimes seem almost real, so subtle is the exaggeration of their flawed personas. Reality sitcoms (Kath and Kim) work in a similar way – inserting fictional characters into the real world, while mockumentary is different again to these two styles.

There are now so many blends of, and variations to, the ‘reality comedy’ genre offering a broad set of tools for comedians to perform comedy’s ancient function of fearlessly commenting on the world, real or otherwise.


  • Contemporary Sitcom (Comedy Vérité) (2008)
    Mills, Brett
    In The Television Genre Book (2nd Ed.), Edited by Glen Creeber, Tony Miller, John Tulloch

Titles in this collection

Babakiueria 1986

A mockumentary surveying the culture and customs of the white native people of the land of ‘Babakiueria’, from the perspective of the country’s black colonisers.

The Chaser’s War on Everything – APEC Episodes 2007

The Chaser’s APEC episodes underscore the power of the unexpected in this type of comedy and the legal juggling act involved in bringing it to air on a weekly basis.

The Chaser’s War on Everything – Series 1 Episode 1 2006

This is the first episode of the satirical variety program, containing comic pranks, commentary and send-ups responding to topical issues and more general subjects.

CNNNN: Chaser Non-stop News Network – Lunchgate 2002

Finely tuned satire that gives sensationalist reportage a caning.

The Games – Series 1 Episode 8, Rural and Environment 1998

In mockumentary style, The Games charts the progress of the fictitious Logistics and Liaison Division of SOCOG in the run-up to the Sydney Olympics.

The Gillies Report – Series 1, Episode 4 1984

Max Gillies’ ability to capture the mannerisms of our politicians and Patrick Cook’s searingly funny scripts are this program’s great strengths.

The Gunston Tapes 1975

Garry McDonald plays Norman Gunston, an egotistical but inept talk-show host. His rich and famous interview subjects often didn’t know the show was a parody.

Kath and Kim – Money 2002

Kath’s 'look at moi’ is the show’s most famous catchphrase and the vernacular of the 'foxy ladies’ has become a recognisable fixture in popular culture.

The Mavis Bramston Show – Series 1 Episode 1 1964

A weekly variety show featuring topical satire, sketches and songs.

The Mavis Bramston Show – Series 2 Episode 1 1965

Although Mavis Bramston’s topical satire is no longer current, it is still sharp.

The Money or the Gun – Heroin 1989

Denton defends comedy as a means of being serious as he tackles the topic of heroin.

Summer Heights High – Episode 5 2007

Summer Heights High walks an interesting tightrope between observation and comedy, often seeming quite real and quite ridiculous at the same time.

We Can Be Heroes – Episode 3 2005

Chris Lilley’s mockumentary follows five very different nominees for the Australian of the Year award in the lead-up to the event.