Kath & Kim: articles


From left: Brett (Peter Rowsthorn), Kel (Glenn Robbins), Kim (Gina Riley), Kath (Jane Turner) and Sharon (Madga Szubanski).

Have comedy, will travel

The inside story on how Seven snatched Kath & Kim from all the other contenders. By Debi Enker.

The Queensland resort holiday proved the deal breaker. Jane Turner and Gina Riley, the creators, writers, producers and stars of Kath & Kim, had long wanted to take their characters away from their familiar base in Lagoon Court.

A Sunshine State getaway was the preferred option: a sunny destination of buffet breakfasts, poolside tanning and, of course, a spot of shopping.

This holiday, and several other cost and priority-related iSS-yews, are central to the move, after three seasons and a telemovie, of one of the most successful TV comedies in Australia's history from its home at the ABC to the Seven Network.

In some ways, it's a happy tale of a couple of talented women creating something special, gaining the power to auction it off to the highest bidder and triumphing over the machinations of the TV industry. But it's also another sad story of our national broadcaster losing something valuable: of the ABC introducing a popular and distinctive program only to see it lured away to greener commercial pastures.

In an office at Seven's shiny Docklands base, Riley says, "It was time to leave the ABC; we felt that very strongly. They just don't have the money to do our show and also do a whole lot of other little interesting shows. That's the reality of it. Whilst we would have loved to stay there if they could have grown with us, that wasn't the case. So we feel absolutely fine about leaving."

And, adds Turner, "They totally understood. It's not like the old ABC, everything is so different now, with the funding cuts. They don't hang on to their shows and they don't have the perception that an ABC show will always be an ABC show. They understand that shows grow and move away and outgrow the ABC. They've got such limited budgets they have to put them into developing other shows. So they were fine about it."

Riley says that the return to Seven feels "quite natural". There are production people at the network who worked with the women in the late-1980s, when they got their TV start on the sketch comedy, Fast Forward.

"We've never been ABC types," adds Turner. "We've always been commercial people working for the ABC."

The decision to move Kath & Kim to a commercial network enabled Riley, Turner and their co-executive producer, Riley's husband Rick McKenna, to do the season-launching "Holiday" episode in the style that they imagined.

"We couldn't have possibly afforded to do that at the ABC," says Riley.

Not that Kath, Kim and co had never travelled before: they had - sort of. There was the almost-honeymoon for Kath (Turner) and Kel (Glenn Robbins) following their accident-packed wedding at the end of season one.

But that Bali sojourn - which involved Kim (Riley), her hapless hubby Brett (Peter Rowsthorn) and her second-best friend Sharon (Magda Szubanski) - happened off-screen and was evident only through some shopping bags and Sharon's unfortunately monkey-bitten face.

Then there was the time in season two when Kath and Kel made it as far as the airport and had a foine toime before their off-screen mystery flight to Kyabram, shopping at the terminal and surreptitiously partaking in the hospitality of the club lounge.

The fact that trips happened off-screen was indicative of the limitations of life at Aunty. There was the cost of taking a cast and crew anywhere but there were other issues. As a result of its charter restrictions regarding advertising, the ABC was unable to offer the necessary "contra" to the parties involved, the sweetener that can reduce costs and entice companies to offer their services free or substantially discounted.

A program screened on the national broadcaster cannot include images of airline logos on aeroplane tails, or feature lingering shots of signs identifying particular holiday resorts as payback for the special treatment.

At the ABC, the issue of advertising had long been contentious for Kath & Kim as the charter restrictions collided directly with the basic inclinations of the comedy's title characters. At the heart of the mother and daughter duo is their avid consumerism: they love to shop, they love to talk about shopping, brand names fall from their lips faster than sale prices on Boxing Day. Sharon's idea of a big night involves Footy Franks and Tia Maria. It's part of what defines and locates the characters.

But before Kath and Kim became a couple of the best-loved characters in Australian television history, there were debates at the ABC about the use of brand names in dialogue. Could they refer to low-fat Fruche? Or Tiny Teddies? Did this constitute advertising?

In the show's first season, the art department busied itself producing a range of labels for the numerous products in Kath's kitchen. They might have looked like familiar pantry items but they were subtly different: Jabbah French Alps coffee powder, Glad Rap, tins of CPS diced tomatoes and ESP baked beans. When the show was shooting in shopping malls, the cameramen laboured to avoid shop signs.

This, of course, would never be an issue at a commercial network. Far from being a problem, it would constitute an opportunity, a chance for the sales department to approach an advertiser with the news their product was mentioned in a hit show.

RILEY and Turner had spent most of 2006 writing the eight-part fourth season. They wanted to shoot early in 2007 and they wanted to start with the holiday episode. While the ABC couldn't accommodate, the commercial networks were ready to welcome them with open cheque books and promises of promotion at levels Aunty could only dream about.

As Riley Turner Productions honoured its obligation to give the ABC a first look at the proposal for the new series and negotiate a price, Seven and Ten were vying to become the new home for the foxy ladies from Fountain Lakes and Nine was also showing interest.

In a move unusual for local television that speaks volumes about the value of the empire that Kath & Kim have built, the producers had decided to fund the production themselves and then secure a network sale. This ultimately entailed what appears to be a reasonably amicable departure from the ABC, where issues such as producer fees had also proved a sticking point in negotiations. As the series entered its pre-production phase, Seven emerged as the successful bidder - thanks, in part, to the extensive marketing strategy it promised.

The network proudly announced that the comedy team was back where it belonged. Riley and Turner had returned to where they'd started on TV, to the network where they had also made Big Girl's Blouse (1994) and Something Stupid (1998). After all, Kath and Kim had first appeared in a skit on Big Girl's Blouse, busily planning Kim's wedding.

But how times change. At last week's Melbourne media launch for the new season, Seven's imposing Docklands HQ was bathed in pink light. Network logos were fashioned from baby cheeses, emu garden ornaments dotted the boardroom, Fruche and Ferrero Rocher chocolates were served, and smiling pictures of the foxy ladies in their typically tasteless clothing were festooned all over the building. Yes, Riley and Turner might have been back where they started but they'd returned with a lot more clout and accompanied by a lot more fanfare.

The ABC marketing budget was almost nonexistent - though some noticed money was available for particularly favoured shows - Seven, however, has plastered posters heralding next Sunday night's premiere of Kath & Kim all over the city. A national promotional tour is scheduled: in the past, Riley and Turner had gone only as far as Sydney to promote the show and covered the other states with phone interviews.

Although it's true that Riley, Turner, Szubanski and some of their co-stars and guest stars got their start on Seven, it's also true that Seven back then didn't really know what to do with the women.

The network erratically programmed the shows that they wrote and starred in, and promoted them half-heartedly. Their departure from Seven was not exactly marked by warm hearts and happy memories.

So when they created their new comedy baby, they took it to the ABC and Aunty accepted - although the new creation was almost killed off in its infancy. It was only the 11th-hour intervention of the incoming head of television, Sandra Levy, and her newly appointed head of drama, Robyn Kershaw, that saved it.

So, as much as it is a heartening local TV success story, Kath & Kim is equally a story of survival, of a comedy team managing to thrive in spite of the efforts of executives at two networks.

Now the women face a new challenge: can their characters triumph again? Can they win the hearts of the Australian public as they have before? Will people around the country again be saying "Look at moi", giggling about muffin tops and fidoobeddas, and queuing to buy DVDs?

IF HISTORY and the warmth with which these characters have been embraced in the past is any guide, the signs are good. Kath & Kim's 2002 opening season delivered a peak of 1.6 million viewers. That record was broken the following year when the baby shower finale of the second season attracted an audience of 2.15 million.

More than two million tuned in for the opening of season three and its finale drew 1.87 million. The 2005 telemovie, Da Kath & Kim Code, averaged 2.1 million. In a period when one million viewers can be regarded as healthy for free-to-air television, these are not numbers to be dismissed lightly.

Significantly, the average audience has increased with each new series, indicating that viewers haven't tired of the adventures of the foxy morons. Seven is no doubt hopeful that with the added marketing clout the upward trend will continue. The franchise is the highest-rating comedy in the history of the ABC and its DVD sales have placed it among the top 10 of ABC-licensed videos.

Heartening though history may be, Riley and Turner have returned to their beloved characters and must keep their comedy fresh as they do it all again: more domestic disputes, more language-mangling, more barbed observations of middle-class life in the 'burbs. At the media launch, McKenna explained that the challenge now was "to make it enjoyable for the audience and not wear out your welcome".

Riley and Turner echo that concern: "How do you keep a happy relationship funny and interesting?" asks Riley, referring to the union of manic housewife Kath and her hubby, a proud purveyor of fine meats. "It's quite hard to do. Getting together is easy, the wedding, all that sort of stuff writes itself. But having them do interesting things when they're happy together is much harder. Brett and Kim are easier in a way. There's conflict there, so you've got something to write but you don't want to repeat yourself there either."

Turner observes that, "You have to make a virtue of the fact that Kath and Kel are boring. You have to make that the funny thing, the fact that Kel is boring and Kath is clutching every day for a new TAFE course just to stop her from going insane". (This season: Indonesian classes).

Riley says that the best writing days are those "when you discover something that's so right for the character that you've never done before. That is a great day. You think, 'Oh my God, they can do this!" This season's discovery is real estate, which will become a major preoccupation for the happy couple.

Another discovery, at least on the basis of the episode available for previewing - for this team guards upcoming storylines with a vigilance that would impress those entrusted with our national security - is that this will be the season of Brett's discontent. He suggests a romantic getaway with his wife with the clear but unstated desire of rekindling what appears to be a non-existent sex life and briefly escaping his in-laws. Only to find that they will be coming along for the ride: "We can all be alone together!" declares Kath.

As for the rest of season four, it appears that we can look forward to more of the same: Sharon's crestfallen face at the back door, Kath's barbed cracks about her daughter's weight, Kim's breathtaking self-absorption.

Kath will still sneak a ciggie and try to hide the smell by smoking it while wearing a rubber glove. Sharon will maintain her passion for sport. Fashion victim Kim will sulk. There will be guest stars (Matt Lucas, Shane Warne). And there will be the customary attention to life's little milestones, the excitement and feverish planning associated with weddings, births and, in this case, birthdays.

The future might hold a live show for Kath & Kim, more seasons on TV, maybe a movie. But for now, Riley, Turner and their comic creations are back where they began - only this time as network superstars. Additional reporting by Paul Kalina

By Debi Enker
August 9, 2007
The Age