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.