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The Future of Australian Comedy - Who's Laughing

With Adam Zwar (Wilfred/,Lowdown), Tim Ferguson (D*A*A*S, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush), Neil Peplow (Waking Ned Devine, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel) and Ross Grayson-Bell (Fight Club / AFTRS Head of Screenwriting) and writer/directors Clayton Jacobson (Kenny) and Stuart MacDonald (Summer Heights High/Angry Boys)
MIFF Festival Club at the Forum, Friday 29th July 2011


Honestly, they need to work out if they want the festival club to be a bar and place to host corporate events or a place to host sessions such as these as it is can't be both as this session clearly proves. I would have paid to see this discussion in another venue if I was able to hear it properly and the audience still would not be quiet after Tim Ferguson asked them to be quiet and one of the audience members did so also.

Despite this, it was still an interesting discussion when I could actually hear it. There were women comedy writers and producers invited for the discussion, but all the ones they asked were busy working on current projects.

Of particular interest were Adam Zwar's recent reworking of Wilfred for the US market and how Stuart MacDonald persuaded the US network to pick up Summer Heights High.

Adam Zwar mentioned the different in the writing process for TV comedy produced in the USA, where episodes are workshopped with a team of writers in a process that left him feeling like there was something wrong with him at times as everyone was very aggressive and it was hard to get a word in.

Neil Peplow also mentioned the process as with the English being so polite, they felt obliged to laugh at all the jokes even if they weren't funny. The topic then changed to how English-produced TV comedies only go for a couple of seasons due to them only having one or two writers and they get tired (the original Office), where the current US version of the office has gone for seven seasons and recently replaced Steve Carell as the lead. Due to the way the process works with syndication, the writers are trained to write jokes the same way the original writers do and can step in when needed to continue the story.

Stuart MacDonald was having difficulty convincing a US agent to pick up Summer Heights High as they hadn't watched many of the episodes, he did so by mentioning that it ended with a musical (around the time of High School Musical) and that convinced them.

The discussion on Kenny was interesting as it has been a few years since it came out and there still hasn't really been a comedy to match up to it. Clayton Jacobson talked about the oral tradition of storytelling he taped into with a lot of the stories coming from his father and other family members and how he didn't write anything down for a year and just kept telling and stories to refine them before he wrote a script. This was because he thought computers accept everything you give them and don't filter it, if you tell it to someone else the way they react to a story will change how you tell it and when they retell it later they will change things themselves.

Another interesting discussion regarding Kenny was that the majority of the effort regarding the film was spent in the marketing, with the director researching marketing methods for several months and even going as far to record custom DVDs with the main character to send to the cinema managers so they would become spokespeople for the movie once it started to get more people interested in it. Clayton also talked about the importance of "talking up" the movie to make it sound bigger than it was, with Kenny being a family affair and shot on a small camera, he instructed Shane Jacobson to do in interviews in character as Kenny (he did have to be persuaded), and to just say they had a big crew and stuck "some big lens" in his face, calling them "the pooperazi".

A question for the audience concerning Kenny was how the jokes related to the story, Clayton Jacobson replied that there wasn't a joke in the movie for its own sake, they all had to relate to the story. They did have all the obvious poo jokes in there, but they got them out of the way in the first fifteen minutes so they could go onto something more in-depth for the story.

I had not heard about the movie having to be cut by fifteen minutes for the US market due to the main characters "non-defined" religious stance. If it had to be done to sell it for the market it was worth it I guess. The director was not too sure about the subtitles, but they included them any way.

There was some discussion on the differences between comedy for the movies and for TV. The main difference is the development time needed. In Australia it can take up to five years to get a movie up while a TV series are developed in a two year cycle, so you end up getting sick of the jokes after a while. Adam Zwar commented that writing for television with his writing partner, he got to leave the script for a few months and then come back to it with fresh eyes, which helped the development of the project.

There was also a question of how jokes would translate for the overseas market, in particular the local references. The reply was that local audiences are used to putting up with UK/US references and audiences usually go with it and enjoy the work.

Tim Ferguson talked about teaching comedy for three days to a group of Korean film and TV producers through an interpreter and they still laughed at all the jokes.

Neil Peplow also told the story of the screening of Shooting Fish in Prague he attended where there was not enough money for subtitles, so the screening had to have a live translation by a local comic and people still laughed at the jokes, although a bit too much as they also laughed at things that were not meant to be funny.

Also briefly mentioned was that if you want to make movies, start with making shorts and just borrow the equipment you need and get something together. The internet has helped a great deal in getting things out there, even if a lot of the comments are negative when you post something on a public forum.

It was a good session and I will look out for work from these people in the future.

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