Thank God You're Here: articles

Shane Bourne

A perfect bluff

The Panel team's new show may be the next global phenomenon, writes Lucy Beaumont.

IF EVERYTHING goes wrong, if the best laid plans fall apart, then Thank God You're Here could just be Working Dog's biggest success to date.

The new show, from the Melbourne team behind The Late Show, Frontline, The Castle and The Panel, works best when its players teeter on a knife's edge between uproariously funny and pathetic failure.

The premise is simple. Take one performer, dress them in costume and have them walk through a door to a scene without any idea of who they are meant to play—just that their role will be critical.

It's about the bluff, says Working Dog's Rob Sitch, though in less polite terms.

"There is something really funny about a good bullshit artist," he says. "It's when you watch a friend deal with somebody he clearly went to school with and was best friends with, and he can't remember their name. Half the funny stories we tell are when we've been caught out and had to bluff."

Such is the fine line between Thank God You're Here and theatresports or shows such as Whose Line is it Anyway?

"It's in the broad category of improv," says Sitch. "But improv is too open. You can get out of trouble by saying, 'Oh well, I'm a Martian' and start singing opera'."

With an ensemble cast to keep them in check, that's not an option for the four "contestants" on the show—a semi-regular roster of talents such as Fifi Box, Frank Woodley, Shaun Micallef, Pete Rowsthorn and Angus Sampson. Panel members Santo Cilauro and Glenn Robbins have also appeared in episodes filmed so far.

Host Shane Bourne notes that the show taps into what makes some of Australian television's classic moments—the much replayed Graham Kennedy-Bert Newton shenanigans, for example—so funny.

"Watching one of the scenarios the other day, it had the feel of the old vaudeville knock-about sketches," Bourne says.

"Some of them were abominable. But occasionally something would go wrong and that was when it really took off. You don't get that any more. In television, we've become too good at the production side."

In the new show, Tom Gleisner is the judge. He critiques each player and, after they've bluffed through a scene each and a group challenge, decides who takes home the night's trophy. The best contenders have natural ability, says Sitch. They could be actors, comedians or football players—though there are no plans for celebrity specials.

Silly outfits help, particularly those relating to religion, space travel or history. "When you get dressed up, it's amazing how often everyone starts improvising and role playing," says Sitch. "You get a head start, because you know the body language."

A 300-strong audience (in the Nunawading studio where Rove Live is filmed) adds to the show's energy. But what would happen if a performer got stumped and froze up?

"I don't know," admits Sitch. "I think the fact that is hanging like a sword of Damocles is why it's so terrifying.

If we ever solved that problem then self-confidence might creep in. I think an audience can smell when it's not true, when someone tells a joke and they're pretending they just made it up."

The show will include highlights of "warm-up" role plays by the four guests and backstage footage of them getting into costume. Both will help mix up the pace. However, there is the question of whether the energy of the live experience will survive the editing process.

"There was a time when we thought, 'Bugger it, let's do it live'," says Sitch. The logistics of production got in the way. "I think our aim is to at some point do it live. Take away the safety net."

When it comes to guessing how the television audience will respond, Sitch again has a caution-to-the-wind take that's a lot like the show's premise. "The good thing is that I don't know," he says. "So much television is dragged in formats from elsewhere. I think when you have a red-hot go at something different, it's its own reward."

There could be other rewards. Television giant Fremantle Media, producers of hits such as The Apprentice, Neighbours, The Bill and the Idol franchise—have picked up worldwide format rights for the show. Easily adaptable to different countries and cultures, it could be Idol's comedy equivalent.

"It's a magic formula," says Bourne. "I think it's good that it's family entertainment but not dumbed down or broadened out. It's got an edge. I can't think of the last thing that had that."

Thank God You're Here premieres on Ten on Wednesday April 5 at 7.30pm

By Lucy Beaumont
March 30, 2006
The Age