Safety-goggle-wearing contestants race to answer questions before a balloon bursts. The host tickles the ivories on an imaginary piano. A gagged actor guides a blindfolded musical theatre star carrying two cups of tea to a door so he can identify the name on it by licking the letters. Things gradually, elegantly, fall apart. It is the return of the panel show that brought apostrophes to a whole new audience, Talkin' 'Bout Your Generation.
TBYG – or TAYG if you detest contractions – had a successful run previously on Channel Ten, from 2009-2012, when it carved out a niche in cheerful anarchy quite unlike Australian television's usual modus operandi. Its comeback is taking place on Nine, with a new set, logo and cast – apart from the host, Mr Shaun Micallef, TV's most suave absurdist. Since his first foray as generation-wrangler, Micallef has become the titan of topical comedy, making ABC's Mad As Hell the show everyone else is running to keep up with. So why, at this juncture, return to the quizmaster's chair?
Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation: Robyn Butler, Andy Lee, Shaun Micallef and Laurence Boxhall.
Lee and Butler are veterans of the comedy scene, but for Boxhall, best-known for his role in Ronny Chieng: International Student, TBYG is a new frontier. "I've never been myself on anything before, so trying to strip back any form of character and get used to not being fed lines is a very different world."
Obviously Boxhall is not just "himself": he is the official representative of his generation on the show, and as such expresses a hope that he will help shatter stereotypes of the youth as "whiny boring people … as opposed to people who are dissatisfied with the system and would like cheaper housing." It's unlikely Boxhall will ever be seen as a stereotypical millennial, with his slightly posh accent and self-professed love of Sinatra, and it's probably his unconventional persona – articulate, intellectual in a tweedily bemused fashion – that won him a job that on more traditional panel shows would've gone to one of Australia's familiar roster of stand-ups for hire.
Left-field casting fits with the TBYG brand: to be as unexpected as possible. Indeed the return itself might be said to be congruent with this aim.
The show's conceit is a competition between generations to see which is "the best generation of all-time", but the inclusion of games with titles such as Which Generation Is Best At Cleaning A Tractor and Human Unicorn Frappe indicates the true premise is more akin to controlled comedic chaos – and if the "controlled" bit occasionally falls by the wayside, so much the better. The atmosphere on set is loose verging on riotous, with the standard witty banter of professional funny people gathered together for the purpose of trading zingers mingling with sight gags, surreal tangents and the constant mischief-making of Micallef who plays the hosting role as a man determined to continually disrupt his own show. Whether it's interrupting himself with fictional phone calls, slipping in and out of random impressions, or sneaking clips from his 1990s James Bond spoof Roger Explosion into the quiz, the master of ceremonies seems to be enjoying himself immensely.
Gen X team captain Robyn Butler participates in a blindfolded challenge.
The indulgence in his idiosyncratic comic impulses will be familiar to fans of Mad As Hell, where his personality is expressed in obscure pop culture references. The difference with TBYG is he's allowed free reign as an improviser, a part of his performing arsenal he's enjoying the chance to exercise. "My time in radio and my time on Thank God You're Here has allowed me to trust myself more … I'm not going to call myself an improviser, but the abandon that you can allow yourself, you've got momentum and it's racing along, it's exhilarating."
The key to Micallef as panel show host is that he's deconstructing and sending up the job, just as the show itself breaks apart the concept of panel shows. When he speaks of influences, he refers to British comedy legends Reeves and Mortimer, and there is a lot of that duo's wild and woolly celebrity quiz Shooting Stars in TBYG: the disregard for conventions, the deliberate twisting of form, and the streak of bizarre running through the humour. All of this has, of course, been a hallmark of Micallef's work from the start: another reference point mentioned is Jimeoin, the sketch show he worked on in the '90s which, in turn, provided much inspiration for his own Micallef Program.
Suave: Shaun Micallef.
The comedic analysis aside, it should be remembered that TBYG does still include an element of inter-generational competition, one to which the three team captains take varying approaches.
Lee proclaims himself the most representative of his own generation, expounding in scholarly fashion on Crocs, dial-up, and cordless phones. Boxhall, although representing the youngest generation, "knows more about Micallef's era than Micallef", according to Lee, while Butler professes to have very little general knowledge, due to the "database in my brain" having been filled up with "shows and babies". By contrast, she claims, young people "have so much more space on the hard drive" to amass the kind of useless information that quiz shows require.
Luckily, once on set it becomes clear that while the odd memory of 1980s sitcoms might come in handy, knowledge is just one of the skill sets required to succeed, along with, say, a knack for silly voices or an ability to withstand being covered in foreign substances with equanimity.
What unites generations X, Y and Z – and the Boomers, now represented by Micallef himself – is delight at being a part of the rebooted TBYG. Two quotes seem to sum up the experience of being on the show: Butler's "it's just pure joy" and Lee's "I didn't expect to be blindfolded so much". If those sentiments combined can be well-communicated to the viewer, the generation game may reign once more.
WHAT: 'Talkin' 'Bout Your Generation
WHEN: Monday, 7.30pm on Nine
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