Kath & Kim: articles

Not so desperate housewives

FIVE years ago, as they worked on early episodes of Kath & Kim, Gina Riley and Jane Turner hoped their suburban sitcom would attract a cult following. "That was the most we'd hoped for," Riley says.

It seems Riley (Kim) and Turner (Kath) underestimated the mass appeal of their domestic "mockumentary" almost as much as the Fountain Lakes hornbags overrate their sex appeal.

Kath & Kim, which went to air in May 2002, was Australia's top-rating TV comedy (during seasons two and three) in 2003 and 2004. It is the ABC's highest rating comedy ever, its most popular episodes drawing more than two million viewers. (Seachange remains the national broadcaster's most successful drama.)

Kath & Kim has twice won the Logie for most outstanding comedy. Series one screened on BBC2 in Britain this year and, along with blue-chip American shows The Simpsons and Curb Your Enthusiasm, it is a finalist in next month's British Comedy Awards in the best international comedy category.

The foxy ladies with the overtight afro (Kath) and the undersized bumsters (Kim) will also present an award at the event, which will be televised to an expected 14 million viewers.

Riley and Turner say they have yet to decide whether to do a fourth series. But tomorrow the Kath & Kim juggernaut moves into fresh territory when the telemovie Da Kath & Kim Code airs on the ABC.

In it, Kath, her spoiled daughter Kim, their "hunkospunk" husbands and Kim's second-best friend, Sharon (Magda Szubanski), explore their dark underbellies, thanks to a deliciously hideous innovation called Tan in a Can.

In a further sign that the show has arrived, the telemovie features big-name celebrities Barry Humphries and Michael Buble in smallish roles. (Earlier episodes featured cameos by Kylie Minogue and Geoffrey Rush.)

Yet if former ABC management had had its way, the eponymous heroines Kim Craig (nee Day) and Kath Day-Knight would never have seen the light of day. It's well known that in 2001 some ABC executives got cold feet and wanted to ditch the sitcom days before it was due to start pre-production.

In media interviews, Riley and Turner, who are the producers, writers and stars of the show, have been diplomatic about how the national broadcaster tried to abandon Kath & Kim before viewers had a chance to see it.

Yet on this late spring morning, the unassuming duo sit in an ABC boardroom and talk openly about their show's near-death experience. What it was like to have ABC staffers shouting about how awful their scripts were; to hear one executive claim a year's worth of work was still "subject to commissioning"; to have to engage lawyers to fight their case?

It really came to lawyers at 50 paces? "Yeah," says Riley with a laugh that suggests incredulity rather than mirth. She says she, Turner and their lawyers went into battle at a conference table much like the one we're sitting around today at the ABC's dowdy Melbourne offices in suburban Elsternwick.

Turner explains: "We'd been talking virtually daily and writing the show for a year and they [the ABC] rang up three days before pre-production and said: 'I'm sorry, we're not going ahead with Kath & Kim.'

"It's not what the ABC wants to do," echoes Riley, cracking up. (Like their larger-than-life, small-screen personas, Riley and Turner often talk over each other without seeming to realise it.)

Turner continues: "We're going 'Whaaa?' We're putting the final touches on the last draft and just started casting, and we go, 'Well, we're sorry, we bloody are, we're not going to go away.'

"They just freaked out. People just don't like putting their arses on the line sometimes." She pauses for effect: "I think they're pleased now."

For Riley, "it was a horrible time". "All I wanted to do was lie there and put the doona over my head. It was an awful, awful, awful time," she says.

"Of course you have your own fears about whether it's really funny. We did know it was funny but when people are telling you how bad the scripts are - we had people yelling at us telling us how bad the scripts were - you just sort of have to hang tough.

"If we'd been 10 years younger, we'd have walked away, I reckon."

It has been reported that one ABC executive declared: "No one wants to watch a mother and daughter screaming at each other for half an hour."

Turner responds: "We'd produced shows before for Channel 7, so we weren't, like, total nonces. The ABC knew exactly what it was going to be like because we gave them virtually a pilot."

Riley adds: "The injustice of it - that they knew exactly what they were getting and then they pulled the plug - it was very hard to deal with that anger. What we did was, we just kept on writing. We couldn't stop. It was like we were on a fast train." Given how they were allegedly treated, why are they still with the national broadcaster? "We had bit of a watertight deal memo!" cackles Riley.

"THE girls", as the ABC publicist calls them, explain that it has largely been "smooth sailing" since Russell Balding became ABC managing director in 2002.

In retrospect, they see the attempt to can Kath & Kim as a legacy of the tumultuous Jonathan Shier era. (Shier had a notoriously unhappy reign as ABC managing director for 18 months until late 2001.)

"I think it was that whole atmosphere of fear during that Jonathan Shier time," Turner says. "People didn't want to lose their jobs; didn't want to do anything that was going to rock the boat or give anybody a reason to sack them. It was awful."

Turner and Riley say that many of the people who stood in their way have since moved on. When the ABC finally agreed to broadcast the show in 2002, Riley recalls that "we said we wouldn't work with the head of comedy [Geoff Portmann] because he didn't get the show and didn't like it".

Portmann is now an associate professor of film and television studies at Queensland's University of Technology. He says he had nothing to do with the attempt to axe the show. Indeed, he says he commissioned it because he thought Turner and Riley were "a very successful team".

Portmann, a former director of the Garry McDonald-Ruth Cracknell comedy classic Mother and Son, tells Review that he and his colleagues were "very supportive of them [Turner and Riley]".

When asked whether he didn't like Kath & Kim, he says: "I think that would be a very wrong interpretation of it." He adds that there's "not much point in going over that old ground".

So now the comedy queens are treated like royalty at the network? "Now we give royalties to the network," quips Turner, whose slightly brittle manner is softened by her lightning-fast wit.

As Kath & Kim vaulted from cult comedy to ratings phenomenon, the commercial networks started circling and making lucrative offers.

But the ABC's middle-aged foxymorons (they're both 44) have not been seduced. Not yet, anyway. Turner says: "We just don't see there's anything to gain." "For the moment," adds Riley, pointedly.

KATH & Kim's "almost feature", Da Kath & Kim Code, picks up where the third series left off. In that series, which has just been repeated on the ABC, we learned Kath was reading the "Incy Wincy abridged version" of Dan Brown's blockbuster The Da Vinci Code. As the telemovie opens, Kath and her husband Kel, a metrosexual and purveyor of fine meats, have just returned from a Da Vinci Code tour overseas. Kath's interest in another man sparks a marital crisis, while Brett and Kim have serious "iss-yews" after he gets a promotion and she becomes Fountain Lakes's power trophy wife.

Turner and Riley give little else away. Asked about the characters' various crises, Turner puts on her clipped Kath voice and says:

"It's passages."

"Back passages!" proclaims Riley, who is as expansively warm as Kim is icy.

They won't say what role Humphries will play; whether he will appear as himself or as Dame Edna Everage, a kind of cross-dressing surrogate mother to Kath and Kim. "He's a complete mentor and idol," Riley says. "Kath & Kim probably wouldn't be what it is without what Barry Humphries did in the '50s and '60s."

Certainly, Kath & Kim's stamping ground - the lower middle class, aspirational suburbs - has much in common with Dame Edna's Moonee Ponds. Like Edna, Kath and Kim exploit the vivid detail of suburban life, enlarging it to the point of grotesquerie.

Then there is all that innuendo. Kath & Kim is rated PG, despite the sometimes blue wordplay. "It's so tame," Turner says mischievously. "The stuff about people getting up your goat."

The other special guest, Buble, will play himself. How did the Canadian crooner become involved? "He met Gina at the Logies [earlier this year] and was all over her like a rash," Turner says.

"In a professional - unfortunately - way," adds Riley with a grin. "We'd both had a few wines and he said he'd love to be in the show."

It turned out Buble was touring when they were filming. Turner says: "He is perfect for their demographic, Kath's especially. We went to his concert and there were a lot of Kaths."

WHO, exactly, makes up the Kath & Kim demographic? Are most viewers laughing with the suburban try-hards or at them? This question intrigued RMIT University education lecturer Julie Faulkner after she undertook a small, comparative survey involving American and Australian university students. The surveyed Australians felt Kath & Kim undercut the idealised view of suburbia found in soaps such as Neighbours. But the Americans, Faulkner says, "were uncomfortable with the class-related humour in Kath & Kim and questioned Australians' ability to laugh at the characters".

Faulkner agrees Kath & Kim has become "a cultural phenomenon" that mines that "sense of appalled recognition" as it sends up the daily rituals we take for granted. She thinks Turner and Riley belong to a comic trajectory that includes Humphries and the documentary Sylvania Waters.

"They are biting and cruel and very, very accurate, and I think they work very much in that tradition," she says. Nevertheless, she thinks there is an element of smugness about the show; a sense of "the elites laughing at the wannabes".

Turner shoots back: "People are always gonna say that. Also, people jump to conclusions without having seen it. They think it's women screaming at each other, it's people wearing moccasins and it's people taking the piss out of working-class people... But they're [the characters] not working class, they're not poor, they're not disadvantaged."

Mostly, Riley says, she and Turner want to make people laugh: "We don't go for the meaning first."

Perhaps Kath & Kim's extraordinary popularity lies in its overriding ambivalence: it celebrates the Fountain Lakes characters even as it ridicules their relentless consumerism and ignorance.

Kath and Kim's malapropisms ("effluent"; "I'm gropable"; "Sass and Bidet jeans") are legendary.

On the other hand, these hick homemakers are

good at getting what they want and have husbands who adore them. "They're doormats," jokes Turner of the male characters who live contentedly in the heroines' shadows.

Turner and Riley admit some of their humour is cruel. "Yeah," Turner says after some reflection, "you can't be sentimental."

"I think the world is cruel," Riley says. "Most of the weight gibes are aimed at me rather than Sharon. It's got to have that edge to it."

It's true Kim's bulges and fashion atrocities are filmed in drastic close-up. But it's also true that many of the gags involving Sharon stem from Szubanski's character being fat and desperately lonely. And it goes without saying that no middle-class man would be caught dead in Kel's zip-up vinyl shoes.

DESPITE its intensely Australian accents and idiom ("ploise", "noice", "moie"), Kath & Kim has been sold to nine countries, including Britain, the US and Finland. Turner and Riley's alter egos are now mascots ("exporting makes you effluent") for the Australian Trade Commission.

Riley thinks "it's the family relationship that they get, that's universal. And the Australianness of it is really our point of difference."

As a unit, the two women are extraordinarily tight. They seem genuinely sisterly, revelling in each other's jokes, and they always write their scripts together. Turner has three children and Riley has one. When they are writing, they work within school hours.

Earlier this year, they suggested there might not be a fourth series. So will the telemovie be the swan song? "We hope not!" Turner says. "We still think there might be legs in the old girls yet. At the end of the year we are so stuffed we never actually talk about what we are going to do; it's sort of an unspoken rule."

Riley and Turner agree there is a parallel between the ABC's initial coolness towards their show and the way most US networks spurned that other resolutely domestic drama, Desperate Housewives. Says Riley: "I think there's that thing that if a show is not set in a hospital or a police station filled with very important men [it's considered] risky every time."

Given their show was almost aborted in 2001, they are chuffed that it now has an international following. "You get, like, the nomination for the British Comedy Awards and you're up against The Simpsons and it's like, maybe we are all right," Turner says.

By Rosemary Neill
November 26, 2005
The Weekend Australian