Funny Business & Melody Rules

Another afternoon in the Film Archive – here’s the catalogue if you’re interested in seeing what they have available. I know I’ll be going back to watch some good stuff that hasn’t been commercially released.

Funny Business (1988)

I was out of the country when this was first screened, so I must’ve seen it in repeats. Remember when NZ comedy was so good that people wanted to see it again? It’s sketch comedy, but very very fast. There’s no waiting around for laughs that aren’t there. It features rotary dial phones, milk deliveries, monolingual signs, monochrome newspapers, Alison Wall and other period pieces. Whatever happened to Alison Wall?

The best bits are the songs, which are minor classics, including ‘Norman the Mormon’, ‘I Bought a Lounge Suite’ and ‘New Zealand Song’. Although most of the parts are acted by the four male stars, there’s many good parts for women, notably Wall and (surprise, surprise) Lucy Lawless, which is why this show turns up on Xena websites. It’s a very white show, and unfortunately the actors who grin the most have terrible teeth, but it’s still extremely funny. In a nod to Python, there are brief animation sequences by Chris Knox, but they don’t link anything, or indeed make any sense whatsoever. Which is not a bad thing.

Melody Rules (1993-94)

Okay, people complain a lot that New Zealanders can’t do TV comedy, and that instead of condemning shows on the basis of their first episode we should wait for the characters to develop and give it a chance – despite the fact that after the first episode of Fawlty Towers and Black Books we knew what made the characters tick, and you could give Welcome to Paradise as many series as they demanded and it would still be surprisingly, fascinatingly terrible.

Anyway… when people argue that we can’t do TV comedy, Melody Rules is often used as an example. The first NZ series to be made to a strict sitcom formula (as opposed to Roger Hall’s formula, which I believe runs along the lines of middle class + middle age = comedy gold + bums on seats at Circa) it was pretty much a production line affair, with a small cast, tiny set and massive episode run. At least forty. Thankfully the Film Archive only preserves four of them, and choosing which four must’ve been a terribly hard decision, if only because they’d have to watch them all again.

It lives up to its reputation. It’s terrible. Belinda Todd was great on Nightline. Jodie Rimmer was great in In My Father’s Den and okay on The Strip. In a less enlightened society they would’ve been stoned in the street after appearing in this. The cast rarely leaves the lounge set, which you can tell from their movements is uncomfortably small with a hollow floor. It has a laugh track. Much of the humour is intended to derive from gratuitous insults. Much of the acting consists of raised eyebrows and gurning. If you did that in front of a baboon, it would probably interpret it as a signal to attack. Unfortunately there were no baboons in the studio audience*.

The characters are stereotypes. One of them even has a catchphrase: “Are you decent?”, used whenever he barges uninvited into the house. It’s mawkish. Lessons are learnt. Belinda Todd, ginger sex goddess of the ’90s that she was, cannot act for toffee. When someone says something that is supposed to be funny, the audience laughs. Then the character does a fake little chuckle. Then the audience laughs at them chuckling. It’s like a perpetual motion device powered by suckage.

If we’re told that there’s a crowd outside, we can hear them, but we can’t see them. There are girlfriends we never see and relatives we only hear on the phone. The Mighty Boosh only used a few sets, but it managed to expand their world without ever going outside by using their friends for crowd scenes. This cast have no friends, and are trapped together in the lounge. There is no outside world. Samuel Beckett would’ve loved it. Todd noticeably loses weight during the series – she starts out normal, and ends up TV thin. Her sexpot best friend flashes a lot of flesh. That’s a good point. The beginning and end of camera cuts sometimes jerk violently. I could go on, but the fact that it was funded for at least forty episodes becomes depressing if you think about it.

The only way it makes sense is if you look at it as being made by a small number of survivors trapped in a nuclear bunker, desperate to produce something that reminds them of simpler times in the outside world before it was vaporised. The seven least disfigured survivors desperately improvise with a handful of props, while horribly mutated camera operators loll back and forth in front of a cackling audience who respond to bright colours. And that, thankfully, is all I have to say about Melody Rules.

*If they used an audience, that is. The laughter on M*A*S*H was entirely artificial, and apparently there are VHS tapes available without the laugh track, which means the actors leave unnatural pauses after each line. Of course, the laughter on Welcome to Paradise was also artificial. The Geneva Convention has strict laws against cruel and unusual punishment.

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