Kath & Kim: articles

Idiot box hits close to home

THEY are whingeing, vulgar, dysfunctional and desperately unfashionable.

Yet Kath and Kim, the lead characters in Gina Riley and Jane Turner's ABC TV comedy, have succeeded where others have failed.

Unlike Australian sitcoms Comedy Sale, Sit Down, Shut Up, Bob Morrison, Newlyweds, Flat Chat and others best forgotten, Kath & Kim has found an audience and its own niche.

The eight-part series even surpassed ABC's The Games to become the public broadcaster's most successful Australian-produced comedy series of recent times.

That title was secured when Kath & Kim's final episode, which saw Kath Day marry Kel Knight in the wedding style forgot, drew 1.6 million viewers nationally.

Kath & Kim's popularity grew slowly in southeast Queensland, beginning with just 133,168 viewers for the first episode. But the audience climbed slowly each week. Its last four episodes each drew more than 186,000 viewers.

The ABC is having talks with Riley and Turner about a second series and other projects, although it is too early to say whether Kath & Kim will return to our screens.

Like the hit 1996 film The Castle, the series won a broader audience than anticipated while simultaneously garnering criticism for what some perceived as a condescending view of Australian suburban life.

"I worry that sometimes we rely too much on humour that is disparaging of ordinary Australians," one comedy producer says of Kath & Kim.

The mother, Kath, and her daughter Kim, loafing in their suburban "townhome", are characters we laugh at, rather than with, some argue. Kim's exposed G-string or Kath's frightful perm are "funny because they're true", as Homer Simpson would say.

ABC TV executive producer Robyn Kershaw describes the two main characters as "monstrously identifiable" Australians.

But would any Australian readily acknowledge they were Kath or Kim, and how authentic can the characters be if everybody believes Kath and Kim represent somebody else?

Rob Johnson, co-author of Boom-Boom! A Century of Australian Comedy, argues that Kath & Kim "fits into the way Australian comedy has been going for the last century".

"If you were to be judgmental in any way, you'd have to say it's classic comedy," he says.

By classic, Johnson means tried and true. Class-based comedy has been a staple of our cultural milieu for decades, as it is has been in Britain.

After World War I, Nat Phillips and Roy Rene, as the much-loved Stiffy and Mo, used both larrikin slang and stupidity as their comic conceits. Similarly, Steele Rudd's Dad and Dave were not known for their large intellectual capacities.

The appeal of dim-witted characters could be considered a dispiriting aspect of the Australian psyche. Yet stupidity is the basis for much comedy. A golden rule in comedy writing is that characters should not learn from their mistakes.

It was a tenet Geoffrey Atherden used in what is widely regarded as the one truly great Australian sitcom, Mother and Son. Ruth Cracknell's Maggie Beare flew on gusts of misapprehension, forgetfulness and twisted logic.

And Kath and Kim are stupid, though harmless. Where the series shows questionable taste is in its more grotesque moments. For instance, Glenn Robbins, who has one of the best smiles on Australian television, is made to play a charmless twit.

Again, it fits a peculiarly Australian tradition of "comedy grotesque" that at its best included Barry Humphries' Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage or Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom and at its worst, Stephan Elliott's film Welcome To Woop Woop.

Kath & Kim patronises many things— as disparate as fitness fads, glossy magazines or the quest for romance—that sustain so many Australians.

The show's premise began as a regular sketch in the comedy series Big Girl's Blouse, starring Riley, Turner and Magda Szubanski, in 1994.

The delay in getting the characters into their own series was attributed to internal chaos at the ABC rather than any question of taste.

It is difficult not to contrast Kath & Kim with another sitcom coming to the ABC, Dossa and Joe. Made by Granada Productions and the inspiration of Peter Herbert and Caroline Aherne, Dossa and Joe follows the joys and tribulations of a retired suburban couple played by Michael Caton and Anne Charleston.

The series features moments when the camera merely revels in four Aussie blokes laughing at a simple joke.

"They're in love with the small things in life," says Herbert of his characters.

"There's a lot of celebration in that; we think it's a very good portrait of the working man."

Yet the inspiration behind it was Aherne, an Englishwoman who co-wrote, directed and produced the series in a 12-month working holiday here.

Her previous creation, the British comedy The Royle Family, was a huge success in England, where Dossa and Joe is screening to solid reviews.

"One of the things we wanted to portray was loving portraits of people, and Caroline has a wonderful eye for complex characters and speech patterns," Herbert says.

Herbert and Aherne used their parents as inspiration.

Caton's Joe is not far removed from Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle. Darryl was dumb but had a rat cunning that beat the system. Consequently, The Castle's defence was that it could not be patronising if its characters, the Kerrigans, were winners.

It is yet to be seen if Dossa and Joe will be as successful for the ABC as its female-driven predecessor. But the history of Australian comedy suggests the new series may be too intelligent for its own good.

By Michael Bodey and Jennifer Dudley
July 17, 2002
The Courier Mail