Thank God You're Here: articles

Throwing a laugh line

Thank God You're Here is all about seeing performers swim not sink, writes Debi Enker.

THE front half of a VK Commodore sits just inside the entrance to the old print workshop down a Prahran side street. The truncated body is painted black with lurid yellow flames licking up over the bonnet. Elsewhere in the expansive space that writer, producer and performer Rob Sitch affectionately calls "our playground" is a wall-sized map of the world, a TV movie-show set and a slightly grubby white canvas construction that will represent a base camp at Mount Everest. There are also traces of a Parisian brasserie, a Victorian-era English gentlemen's club and a cable TV music program.

Signs have been mocked up for the Woodside old people's home: it needs to have just the right font, in appropriate size and colours.

These are some of the props that will feature in the lovingly designed sets for the hit comedy show Thank God You're Here, which returned last night for its second season. Its first outing this year introduced an original concept and established one of the year's break-out successes. TGYH went from a standing start with an untested format to a top-rating show within weeks. By the time it ended its 10-episode run, it was number three on the national top 20 with more than 1.8 million viewers.

The show is the latest creation of the Working Dog team of Sitch, Tom Gleisner, Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy and executive producer Michael Hirsh. They met in the 1980s and, in an unusual show-biz story, stayed together, stayed friends and built a successful company that has been innovative, profitable and prolific.

Working Dog operates very much on its own terms and the company has made its mark in radio, television (The Late Show, Frontline, The Panel), film (The Castle, The Dish) and publishing (the travel-guide spoofs Molvania and Phaic Tan).

TGYH developed in the organic fashion typical of a Working Dog project. What starts as a stray thought grows into a chat, then progresses to a meeting to nut out a few ideas, which might then result in some more structured thoughts making it to a whiteboard. If there's still enthusiasm for the idea, and a belief that it has legs, budgets and logistics are worked out.

"We don't like throwing things up against a wall to see what sticks," says Cilauro. "With this, we did everything in baby steps. We did a pre-pilot, we did a pilot, then we did the show, and we fixed up a lot of it in the first few weeks. We realised after 10 shows that it is a solid idea, that it can grow."

The concept is simultaneously simple and ambitious. Each week, four guest performers are separately propelled through doors into unfolding scenarios. After being greeted with the sometimes urgent, sometimes relieved line of "Thank God you're here", they have to quickly get a handle on who they are, what situation they've been thrust into and how they're going to proceed. They might be a renowned surgeon poised to perform a ground-breaking operation, or a property developer trying to persuade a hostile community of the value of an inappropriate development. They might be called upon to flog weird exercise equipment on morning television. Hopefully they won't melt into a puddle of mute panic and hopefully they'll be funny. It's a dizzying high-wire act with a small safety net and only the brave, the fast and the funny need apply.

TGYH might feel like a deliriously shambolic exercise but, as is the case with so much on TV, appearances are deceptive. Ironically, for a show that relies on improvisation and the quick-thinking comic skills of the guests, it's highly scripted. "You never know what's going to happen, so you have to have four or five different possibilities," says Cilauro. "We work hard on our scripts in the hope that the performer never dies. Our biggest fear for this show, bigger than it not working, is that a performer walks away feeling humiliated. We would be horrified.

"It is a hard gig and we want to ensure that if things go badly, there are enough funny things in the script. It won't save it, but it will help a bit. We work hard to make the scenarios inventive and to set up a support system.

"This is not a show about people dying: it's a show about people staying afloat and celebrating the fact that they're keeping their heads above water. I don't want to see that person drown. We've seen enough TV that is about humiliation. Or maybe we haven't seen enough, but it's not really our cup of tea."

TGYH represents something of a rare beast: a show that gives family viewing a good name. With a 7.30pm timeslot, it needs to tickle viewers aged six to 60, and the early indications are that it has. It also marks the creation of a local format that can be marketed internationally. It has already sold to half a dozen countries and the first foreign version will be in Dutch.

In addition, the show provides opportunities for a range of established and emerging local talents, from Shaun Micallef, Angus Sampson and Hamish Blake to Fifi Box, Bianca Dye and Josh Lawson. "Initially, we didn't know who the competitors should be," Cilauro recalls. "The more we did the show, the more we realised it's a talent show, it's an entertainment show. We were glad that we didn't go down the celebrity angle first up, because I think people would rather see an unknown person doing something very funny than a well-known person out of their comfort zone."

Well-known or not, a guest has to be game to take the plunge. Requests for guests usually come with the question "Are you up for it?" Sometimes, the answer is no.

Having appeared in the first series, Cilauro also knows that the experience can be terrifying, although, he notes, getting that first laugh is pure riding-a-wave type exhilaration.

"I was terrified and there's that terrible feeling afterwards of 'Oh, I could've done this, I should've said that, what an idiot'. You whip yourself, so you can imagine people who are perfectionists, like Tony Martin or Frank Woodley, after a show: they're sitting around like this (he mimes a look of dejection)."

Cilauro says that Working Dog is still working out some of the intricacies of this new baby.

"It's a very slow burn. We're still learning about its DNA. We love the concept but we're still working out the way to execute it.

"It's like we've got the Rubik's cube and every time we think 'We've solved it!', we've twisted it around and now the orange and the red are wrong and we've stuffed it up. So we've got to keep tinkering with it. It's kind of solid, but there's still a bit more to go."

Thank God You're Here screens Wednesdays at 7.30pm on Channel Ten.

By Debi Enker
September 7, 2006
The Age