Greta Harrison is a Melbourne creative who has been writing and producing comedy that could be described as part of a new wave of independent Australian comedy for community TV and web-based content. Picture Skew asked Greta to walk us through some of her burgeoning career experiences to date.
Finding comedy in the everyday: taller-than-average men and a pro-baller/private eye.
I’m a screenwriter/producer and I write and make comedy, genre, children’s TV and general idiocy as part of Touched by an Angle Grinder (TBAAG) with Matthew C. Vaughan.
I’ve produced comedy for both TV and the stage. I’m a producer of Lost Dog (http://www.lostdogtv.com.au), an online and community TV program showcasing the work of emerging alternative comedians and comedy program makers from here and overseas.
I’ve also worked as a producer on the 2012 Comedy Festival and Melbourne Fringe shows for multi-award-winning comedy family Lessons with Luis.
Last year TBAAG launched two comedy web series, which were also screened as part of Lost Dog on Channel 31 in Melbourne.
Dick Dribble is a mini-sitcom about a failed basketballer turned private investigator who solves basketball-related crimes in suburban Melbourne. This is something Matthew and I initially developed as a short film, and then a feature concept as part of a Screen Australia comedy writers’ lab we were invited to participate in. We soon realised that it was a concept well-suited to the five minute web series format – as each episode could feature a self contained case that Dick goes on to “solve” using his increasingly flawed logic.
Dick Dribble has been a featured series on US-based web channel Blip a number of times. It has also just been accepted into the Los Angeles Web Series Festival, which is pretty exciting. Our previous series, The Peep Jeep screened at the LA Webfest last year.
Our other recent series, Totally Talls, is a comedy lifestyle program for slightly taller than average men, hosted by a mildly disturbed woman called Trish, played by me. This was a concept born out of procrastination. We were working on another series, and we had the idea of the transmission being briefly interrupted by an inane community TV talk show for tall people. We started to find we were having more fun writing the Talls show, rather than the project we were supposed to be working on.
Last year we also wrote the web series Event Zero for the guys at Distracted Media, who won the Movie Extra Webfest with the concept. It deals with the terrifying aftermath of a mysterious derailment at Circular Quay. It was a huge departure from our comedy work, and a whole lot of fun to write.
Weeding out the journalist and other stories
My background is actually in print journalism in my home state, Tasmania. When I was starting out, just an earnest kid at the copy desk, I remember a senior journalist asking me why I was there. I said “because I want to write… I like telling stories.” She laughed and told me they’d soon beat that out of me. After finishing my cadetship and moving into political reporting, I learned that the frenetic pace of a newsroom didn’t exactly leave a great deal of space for creativity.
I quit my job to live in London for a few years, like every 20-something Australian ever. I began to focus more on screenwriting – in particular, comedy writing. I took a film and comedy course at the University of London and then when I returned to Australia, I studied the Screenwriting course at RMIT.
I’ve been drawn to comedy since I was tiny. I remember wearing out my home-taped copy of The Young Ones and writing a meticulously-researched school project on Blackadder. While other kids were out getting sunlight and making friends, I was imagining what it would be like to sit in a writers’ room with Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer.
These days I would describe myself as an independent writer/producer. I’ve had some background writing for grown-up telly, from Good News Week, to a new Australian/Canadian animated kids show currently in production, which Matthew and I have been writing for. While based in the UK, I also wrote some sketches for a late night sketch show on ITV. When I moved back to Melbourne I wrote for another Australian commercial TV sketch show, which was not particularly adored by critics (or by much of the general public).
Matthew and I soon realised that taking the independent route was the best option for us in order to make the sort of comedy we were passionate about.
Wearing different hats (and shorts with sausages on them)
Production is the direction I have been heading in over the last few years or so. It happened as a matter of necessity. My Lost Dog co-producers and I could see that there were so many people making interesting alternative comedy both online and on the live circuit in Australia. However this wasn’t really translating to television.
We strongly felt that there was a local audience for riskier, more surreal or darker edged comedy: the sorts of people who enjoy Tim and Eric, Chris Morris, Charlie Brooker, Julia Davis, Vic and Bob or Mr Show. However Australian networks (even SBS and ABC) won’t go near this sort of thing, and as such it’s down to us to make our own opportunities and find our audiences online. This is what drove us to develop the show. It has been a valuable experience and as a result we have formed a solid community of comedy content makers who each have a very unique vision.
Performance is another area that my practice has morphed into by way of necessity. I’ve never had ambitions to be a performer. But there came a point with some of the work Matthew and I have done that we’ve needed to be the actors. For instance, it’s much easier to humiliate yourself than it is to ask a professional actor to wander Sydney Road wearing tiny shorts with sausages sewn onto them. And yes, the deer-in-headlights awkwardness I bring to Trish, the host from Totally Talls, is completely intentional and definitely part of her character.
Similarly, over recent years Matthew has developed his strengths as an editor, and I have been building my (very rudimentary) skills in animation.
Developing these capacities in different aspects of production and performance has been helpful in making our practice self-sufficient. When you’re creating something by yourself, on a shoestring, you really need to know how to do everything.
When TBAAG started out, we prided ourselves on a trademark “shonkiness” to our productions. Family members were employed in our work to be mouthpieces for our ideas. We were placing twisted subject matter within a “family pantomime” framework.
Some of our work still does retain a handmade feel, but as the years have gone on, we have become more interested in exploring different production values to suit the projects we’re working on. Also our practical skills are improving ever so slightly, so hopefully that helps matters.
Australian TV comedy – a gaping black hole or a cubby hole to fill with comedy treats?
I used to be quite jaded about the state of comedy on TV in Australia, and frustrated that projects that would see the light of day felt neutered. They just didn’t feel strange, interesting or funny enough for my tastes. Of course I arrogantly assumed that I could do so much better.
Striking out on our own as comedy producers, Matthew and I soon discovered that making great, professionally realised content and developing a unique voice in comedy is incredibly hard work. You don’t always hit the mark. For producers working on mainstream TV this struggle would be compounded by the many stakeholders in your project, the networks’ aversion to risk, budgetary pressures and the need to make the audience numbers to justify your existence. That means not scaring off the fans of QI. That people are still out there trying to make unique content in the face of this is admirable.
These days I’m less preoccupied with what’s wrong with Australian comedy on screen. I’m more excited by what it could be. The online space is opening up fantastic opportunities for comedy content creators. That said, TBAAG is still devising strategies for how on earth to make even a modest living out of this caper.
This year I’m looking forward to moving back into writing feature screenplays. I’ve had a few projects in early stages over the past couple of years that I’m keen to get back to.
I’m also hoping to spend more time writing and creating in proportion to the time I spend producing. I think it’s so important that more independent producers emerge to help new comedy talent find an audience. Yet the administrative aspects of being a producer have eaten into my creative time over the last year. I need to find that balance again.
TBAAG is also planning a new web series during 2013, and hopefully some other short form comedy content. We hope to keep polluting your screens with unrelenting strangeness.