Kath & Kim: articles

Suburban legends

Last year, Australian viewers fell in love with Kath & Kim's Affectionate send-up of suburbia. As a new series begins, Michael Idato traces the evolution of these popular comic creations.

There is an old rule in situation comedy: nobody learns and nobody grows. It is reassuring, then, to find that as the new series of Kath & Kim opens, Kath is as obsessed with her sexual urges as before her disastrous connubials and Kim still has, to borrow a line, her trotters in the trough.

We're standing in the middle of Smorgy's, a rustic-theme family restaurant a 50-minute drive from central Melbourne. It is late in production—there are just a handful of shooting days left—but the scene in question is scene one, episode one.

"Give it a bone, Mum, it's New Year's Eve," fires Kim (Gina Riley), celebrating the New Year with her second-best friend Sharon (Madga Szubanski), her mother Kath (Jane Turner) and Kath's husband Kel (Glenn Robbins). "I would give it a bone, Kim, but you already ate it," Kath fires back.

The comedic stoush between mother and daughter continues with excruciating precision, quickly laying the ground for the second series of the ABC's hit comedy. As the first episode begins, Kim and estranged husband Brett (Peter Rowsthorn) are no longer on speaking terms and Kath's month-old marriage to Kel is happy but still unconsummated. "Here's to you, Kel, and to my sexual urge," Kath toasts. "May it return with gusto before too long."

Watching Kath and Kim in action is almost surreal, heightened by the tendency of cast members to speak in character even when they're not shooting. The line between reality and fantasy in suburban Fountain Lakes is hazily drawn.

The scripts are so packed with jokes it's easy to miss just how clever they are. Kath & Kim says as much about marriage and motherhood as it does about the minutiae of suburban life.

"I want monogamy," Kim tells her mother, delivering one of the show's countless malapropisms as they discuss the options for a proposed kitchen renovation. "Oh, no, Kim, that's old-fashioned," Kath admonishes. "You just want a veneer of monogamy."

Turner and Riley made their first mark on Australian TV screens during Fast Forward, the sketch comedy series produced by Steve Vizard and Andrew Knight's company, Artist Services, between 1989 and '92. In one sketch, Turner played a suburban mother giving a speech at her daughter's 21st birthday. In that performance lay the first seed of what would become Kath & Kim.

"That was the beginning of Kath, absolutely," Turner says. It was not until 1994's Big Girl's Blouse, however, that the characters of Kath and Kim really emerged. That sketch series—a collaboration between Turner, Riley and Szubanski—contained an eight-part sketch titled Kim's Wedding.

"I had the idea of doing a sketch on a hens' night," Riley explains, "and Jane and I started mucking around in my kitchen. She started talking like Kath and I fell into a sort of Kim and they were born."

The original eight sketches dealt with Kim's engagement to Craig (played by Turner on the one occasion he appeared), from announcement to shower tea, hens' night and the big day itself. The character of Sharon also appeared, although she was married. "That quickly didn't work," laughs Szubanski. "It seemed like a funny idea at the time."

In terms of ratings, Big Girl's Blouse was not a success, crushed by the juggernaut of Nine's E.R. in the same Thursday, 8.30pm timeslot Kath & Kim now occupies. Nevertheless, some key phrases, including "Look at moiye" and "noice, different, unusual" made their debut in the pop-culture vernacular.

Big Girl's Blouse lasted just one season but Kath and Kim, it seemed, would not die. "Of all the sketches we'd done this was always the one we knew had legs because they were so easy to write for and we really knew the characters," Riley says.

The characters had a second outing in Kim's Baby, from 1998's Something Stupid, which took another beating in the ratings. After this, sketch comedies went off the radar at the commercial networks and Riley, Turner and Szubanski went their separate ways in pursuit of other work.

In 2001, Riley and Turner dusted off the idea and set about turning it into a sitcom. Craig became Brett, they kept the marriage but not the baby, and Kath—still married to Kim's father in the original sketch—was now single, allowing Kel, the local purveyor of fine meats, to court her.

At best, Riley and Turner hoped for a cult hit. "We thought it would be something like Big Girl's Blouse and Something Stupid; we never thought it would rate and become as big as it was," Turner says. "We knew we would be proud of it but we didn't think the public would take to it the way they did."

Szubanski found the show's success difficult to measure. "It's not like some penny drops or something," she says. "It was the same with Fast Forward and Babe. You get it, and you know that people love it, but it's not an event itself. All you can gauge it by is how it connects to you, and that part of you that is part of the culture we are in, and it hits me where I live. It makes me laugh and that, ultimately, is the only gauge you have."

It also hit Australian audiences where they lived. The first series of Kath & Kim was an unqualified hit for the ABC, attracting an impressive 1.6 million viewers for the final episodes. It was the first feather in the cap of new head of drama Robyn Kershaw and it became something of a standard bearer for the battle-scarred national broadcaster.

The show was not without its detractors, however. Some felt the characters were patronising. Radio talkback was abuzz on the issue and for a moment—just a moment—Kath & Kim looked as though it might divide the nation.

"I think it's patronising to people in the suburbs to suggest that they're not worthy of being sent up or they're too vulnerable to be sent up," Turner argues. "They're strong enough to take it; they love it. I go shopping and people say, 'God, there's a Kath who comes in the shop all the time.' It's not a socio-economic thing, it's a sensibility."

Szubanski says the humour, and consequently the discomfort for some, stems from the fact suburbia is so deeply rooted in the Australian psyche. The concern over Kath & Kim, she says, is a kind of cultural cringe.

"People who criticise it, I think, completely misread it and don't get the point," she says. "It's not about being unkind; if anything it's a self-examination of Australians and people hate that. People say, 'Why do we have to do suburbia?' But we're a suburban country.

"Suburbia is something that all Australians carry around. And we all have an ambivalent feeling towards it—an affection and a kind of horror. The whole purpose of comedy is to live in the uncomfortable area."

The proof, perhaps, comes in the form of Prue and Trude, a pair of affluent Toorak types who holiday in Noosa (emphasis on the "oo") and work part-time in a chic homewares shop at Kath and Kim's favourite shopping mall, Fountaingate. (And, yes, there really is a Fountaingate.) They greet their customers with eye-rolling disdain, over-enunciate and rhyme to the point of irritation (the exchange that rhymed jojoba, sober and October is their best), but they prove, Turner believes, that no matter how rich you think you are, you're still suburban.

"I don't think the working class exists; I think it's just a different kind of suburbia," she says. "There are poorer people and richer people but just because you're rich it doesn't mean you have taste."

The mini-fandom Prue and Trude have generated speaks for itself, and Turner won't rule out developing a project for them down the track. "They are characters we would love to explore," she says. "We'd love to do something more with them; I just adore them."

First, however, there is a second series of Kath & Kim to get through and, assuming viewer interest does not dim (not likely, if DVD sales of the first series are anything to go by), possibly even a third.

"I honestly can't think of anything I would rather do than this—writing the material, performing the material—I can't imagine a job that would be more fun," Turner says.

"At the same time, there are times when I would like to do something different."

"We're very aware of the lifespan," Szubanski says. "Every show, like life, has a lifespan and you can't fight that. I would be quite content to do this for the rest of my life but I don't think it's going to happen that way. There would be too much lighting required," she laughs.

"You have to keep your wits about you and know when it's over so you can bow out gracefully. If you overstay your welcome, well, bad luck, people will let you know soon enough."

By Michael Idato
September 15, 2003
Sydney Morning Herlad