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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - The Ham­ster Wheel, Curb Your En­thu­si­asm,

least we have an emer­gency cab­i­net of pre­filmed sketches.’’ They em­ploy many re­searchers, all of them with a com­edy back­ground, and a big com­po­nent is what they call ‘‘ re­search-based com­edy’’, though Tay­lor and Hansen, who col­lab­o­rate on the clever mu­si­cal sketches, pre­fer work­ing live.

‘‘ No one knows what works, what ideas re­ally trans­late to the screen,’’ Hansen muses. ‘‘ The first Ham­ster was our most niche of shows with a very spe­cific fo­cus and it, some­how, rated well,’’ Tay­lor con­tin­ues. ‘‘ We had come from a show called The War on Ev­ery­thing, which by its name was a show about ev­ery­thing, and off the back of the British phone-hack­ing scan­dal we de­cided to have a look at the me­dia, though that kind of com­men­tary had al­ways been there.’’

I ask them how the Chasers work, what sort of struc­ture they have and how their pro­duc­tion process op­er­ates, some­thing that, from a dis­tance, has al­ways fas­ci­nated me. There is, in­evitably, much mirth in the re­ply. It emerges that they are owned by a com­pany called Gi­ant Dwarf (which also pro­duces The Un­be­liev­able Truth), their nick­name for An­drew Den­ton, who for a time was their pro­ducer and re­ally was re­spon­si­ble for their start.

A bunch of univer­sity funny guys, they started pub­lish­ing a satir­i­cal news­pa­per, The Chaser, in 1999, which gave them their first big me­dia con­tro­versy when in 2003 they printed prime min­is­ter John Howard’s home phone num­ber on the front page dur­ing a time of protest against the Iraq war.

‘‘ Howard ig­nores the peo­ple. So call him at home on (02) 9922 6189,’’ they wrote. The re­lease of the num­ber came af­ter Howard’s dis­mis­sive re­sponse to a half-mil­lion pro­test­ers march­ing for peace. It would not be the last time the Fed­eral Po­lice turned up at the Chaser’s head­quar­ters.

The un­ruly young satirists at­tracted the at­ten­tion of Den­ton — it’s easy to for­get just what a big star he was at the start of the mil­len­nium — who moved be­hind the cam­era to work as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and script ed­i­tor on The Elec­tion Chaser, the four-part satir­i­cal se­ries for ABC TV cov­er­ing the 2001 fed­eral elec­tion. More se­ries fol­lowed, along with ra­dio and live per­for­mance, Den­ton even­tu­ally stand­ing aside for Morrow as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for The Chaser’s War on Ev­ery­thing.

They mostly make their own shows but be­fore The Un­be­liev­able Truth they re­cently branched out to pro­duced Lawrence Le­ung’s Un­be­liev­able in their in­car­na­tion as Un­be­liev­able Pro­duc­tions, with Morrow again as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. It was a se­ries fol­low­ing the bearded, slightly odd young comic, filled with tricks of the mind, per­cep­tual observations and per­plex­ing ques­tions about psy­cho­log­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion.

‘‘ Lawrence was a creeper; it sneaked up on you as a show,’’ Tay­lor says. ‘‘ Our job re­ally was to just use what small clout we might have with the ABC to get Lawrence through the door.’’ The two of them give the im­pres­sion that their role in the group is ‘‘ sit­ting in on a cou­ple of brain­storms’’, as Hansen puts it, ‘‘ chip­ping in with a few ideas’’, while mainly Morrow does the hard yakka.

‘‘ This is our 11th year,’’ Tay­lor says sud­denly. ‘‘ Lucky no one has no­ticed it’s been that long,’’ Hansen in­ter­rupts. ‘‘ Ev­ery­one here still thinks we are young and fresh.’’ Tay­lor slowly goes on to sug­gest that as a group they are more chilled out than they were, more com­fort­able with the medium.

‘‘ We were univer­sity grad­u­ates com­ing from a stu­dent news­pa­per and knew noth­ing about TV, but thought we knew ev­ery­thing,’’ he says, over Hansen’s sonorous in­ter­rup­tions. ‘‘ Now we’ve been around the block a cou­ple of times and we trust each other more.’’ He says they rarely write to­gether but gen­er­ally work in­di­vid­u­ally, meet­ing once a week to read the ac­cu­mu­lated work. All jump in to cri­tique each other’s con­tri­bu­tions. There is an email group too, into which all the sketches and ideas are de­posited for eval­u­a­tion. ‘‘ We think of it as the metaphor­i­cal judge,’’ says Hansen, ‘‘ ideas pre­sented to the court for pre­sen­ta­tion.’’

Un­like most com­edy writ­ers’ rooms, such as those that op­er­ate be­hind The Late Show with David Let­ter­man or Jon Ste­wart’s The Daily Show, there is no head writer, or pro­duc­tion hi­er­ar­chy. ‘‘ We’ve al­ways had a more demo­cratic ap­proach; no one per­son, just a show of hands,’’ Tay­lor says.

‘‘ That is prob­a­bly why the shows are so scat­ter­brained and suf­fer from mul­ti­ple per­son­al­ity dis­or­der,’’ Hansen adds.

Tay­lor dis­agrees slightly. ‘‘ We’re more the­mat­i­cally fo­cused these days; ev­ery mem­ber of the team brings a dif­fer­ent sense of hu­mour to the group, so noth­ing is uni­form.’’ He sug­gests — and he’s right — that it’s un­likely that a viewer will like ev­ery minute of a Chaser show. Some of us are drawn to the pointy satire; oth­ers to the silly ab­sur­dism, ‘‘ the piss-fart­ing around stuff’’ as Tay­lor calls it. ‘‘ At least you don’t have to wait too long be­tween sketches for some­thing to strike your fancy,’’ Hansen says, find­ing the open­ing when Tay­lor pauses. ‘‘ I used to ob­ject to things all the time be­fore,’’ he con­tin­ues. ‘‘ Now I ac­cept that some things are just not funny to me but make oth­ers laugh.’’

Tay­lor sug­gests the group will only ever do seg­ment-based shows so those in­di­vid­ual senses of hu­mour can be rep­re­sented in sketches. ‘‘ We al­ways talk about do­ing nar­ra­tive com­edy but I just don’t think the whole team could ever agree on a sense of hu­mour to guide some­thing like that.’’ They sud­denly re­alise it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary they have sur­vived as a group. ‘‘ There’s no Fleet­wood Mac go­ing on at all, no one f . . king each other’s wives, or threat­en­ing murder,’’ Tay­lor says.

‘‘ Maybe it’s be­cause suc­cess took so long,’’ Hansen says. TALK­ING to Tay­lor and Hansen re­minded me I’ve been en­joy­ably churn­ing through a recorded cache of Larry David’s Curb Your En­thu­si­asm. Like most comics the Chasers are students of other jesters. They spoke of Curb Your En­thu­si­asm with awed won­der. ‘‘ Why does Larry put him­self through such dread­ful­ness ev­ery sea­son; I’m glad he does though,’’ Hansen said. Of Louie C.K.’s Louie, a kind of bas­tard child of David’s, Tay­lor said: ‘‘ It’s hys­ter­i­cal, even though there are no real laughs; each episode’s like a Bergman film.’’

With Curb Your En­thu­si­asm it’s also re­ally hard to know if you’re watch­ing a drama, a com­edy or a bit­terly funny essay in hu­man fail­ings. But in David’s case he has you squeal­ing with laugh­ter un­til you’re help­less.

David’s co-writ­ers like to say Curb Your En­thu­si­asm is like a com­edy hor­ror movie: ‘‘ Don’t go in there! Don’t say that! Don’t do that!’’ There’s a kind of trans­gres­sional feel­ing about it, so hard are bound­aries nudged. It’s of­ten hys­ter­i­cally funny but you feel you re­ally can’t watch any more at times; it’s just too bru­tally hon­est, the voyeurism lac­er­at­ing.

It’s on at an un­godly hour but this week Larry, dat­ing a wheel­chair-bound woman mostly out of guilt, re­alises he gets to take ad­van­tage of the perks so­ci­ety af­fords her, es­pe­cially the great park­ing. The sex scenes are hys­ter­i­cal, scar­ily over the top and un­miss­able.

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