The Hollowmen: articles

Fast, cheap and in control

Produce a high-quality, low-budget sitcom about Canberra in less than four weeks? Not a problem for the well-drilled Working Dog team. Melinda Houston analyses the methods of our local TV-hit factory.

They're getting the band back together. After a decade of side-projects, time out and experimentation, Working Dog — Australia's best-loved comedy ensemble — has re-formed. And, boy, are we excited.

The mob some refer to as a cult are about to launch their first scripted satire since Frontline (1994-97), and the anticipation resembles that for a Rolling Stones tour. And like Mick and the boys, Rob Sitch, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, Michael Hirsh and Santo Cilauro have never actually broken up. It's just that they decide when, where and how they perform. And their enthusiastic public is happy to take whatever they dish up. Because this fab five have a near-impeccable track record when it comes to delivering laughs. Most recently, the crew have been enjoying success with Ten's Thank God You're Here but, with the exception of host Tom Gleisner, have operated strictly behind the scenes. What has audiences — and the ABC — excited is the return to what many consider the apex of Working Dog's oeuvre: fully scripted sharp-edged contemporary satire.

The Hollowmen is built around a federal government think-tank, the Central Policy Unit, which is charged with developing a "long-term policy vision". Which is to say, anticipating exactly what shit is about to hit the media fan, rather than reacting to what has already done so. It promises precisely what Frontline groupies have been longing for: bone-dry, low-key comedy with a lively eye for detail and a finely tuned sense of what makes people laugh.

An unquenchable enthusiasm for working in front of live audiences must help with the latter. And Tom Gleisner has said they take the label "control freaks" as a compliment. Much of their success can be attributed to precisely that element of absolute management: Working Dog are famous for totally owning — actually and metaphorically — all their work. And nothing kills the funny quite as quickly as comedy-by-committee (especially if that committee is partly composed of anxious television executives).

But control alone isn't a recipe for success. There are plenty of creative types who benefit enormously from a firm editorial hand (and who produce their worst work once they've become successful enough to steer the ship entirely by themselves).

These blokes (and woman) also distinguish themselves from just about every other comedy outfit in the universe by being a meticulously run business. Michael Hirsh can tell you the capital-city ratings breakdown of Border Security, not because he cares or because it matters, just because it's the kind of stuff he knows. Their attention to detail is infamous. They have a big-business-CEO's understanding of precisely when it's appropriate to spend time and money. And when it's not.

July 6, 2008
The Age