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◌  Dizzy stuff

24 January 2009

Richard Marsland’s death means Get This, the prematurely cancelled radio show he co-hosted, will never be back. For fans who’d kept up hope over the year since it was axed, it’s been six weeks of bittersweet posts and articles about Rich and the show. The eulogies are more literate and moving than you might expect for a program with so much to say about people getting hurt in the genitals, and they’ve reminded me how much I liked it and how hard it is to say why. If you’ve made fun of me for laughing at my iPod while falling asleep and I shrugged and said it’s this podcast I like for some reason, this is a sketch of an explanation.

Get This was an Australian radio comedy in 358 one- and two-hour episodes from early 2006 to late 2007. It was live, with banter, prerecorded sketches, niche celebrity interviews, and call-ins. The lead host was Tony Martin, an established comedian. Ed Kavalee was a twenty-something improv actor who’d convinced Martin to do a show with him. When it became clear that he’d lied about knowing how to panel (work the controls on air), they were assigned a button-pusher; from three months in this was Richard Marsland, a self-effacing comedy writer who rose steadily to co-hosting.

The show’s purview was broad and its style discursive. Some call-in topics: What animal would you steal from the zoo (and how)? What makes a great mini-golf hole? What would you do all the time if you could? What’ve you found? Who’s your favorite sailor? Some recurring themes were movie trivia, food (especially cancelled candies), testicular mishaps, funny comedians, nicknames for Rich, formulaic comedy, serious literature, the names of Sheffield Shield cricketers, media circuses, Wikipedia vandalism, political hypocrisy, early-morning television, and free fun.

When you grieve, you’re sad and you want to be sad. And when a close friend dies, many of your most happy memories become just that depressing. And when your remaining best friends were much closer to the dead one, you’re pretty much stuck. This was me in late 2006. But there was a token in exchange: by making me hard to please and eager for novelty, fate had given me a few months of good taste in comedy. I watched a lot of YouTube waiting for something to make me laugh, and when it did, it was really funny.

I remembered a podcast I’d mildly liked early in the summer. Its format was nothing special in this decade: three white male comics riff on pop culture. Especially in temporary snobbery, I didn’t see the need for another take on this. But there was something there. The first hook was its foreignness – trying to work out a joke with the punchline Julia Gillard, or hurting myself laughing when they made fun of New Zealand accents barely distinguishable from their own. This got less funny as I learned the references and slang, but then I was hooked on the show itself.

Get This was accidentally drama. The humor was very good – flecked with brilliance – but it was interstitial to a story about three guys making a radio comedy. In fact, a lot of the humor depended on the drama. There are whole sketches that wouldn’t have worked at all if we hadn’t known the hosts as friends. It wasn’t just in-jokes and catchphrases taken from callers, the schtick that any series accretes; it was a whole little culture, like real non–on-air personalities make together. I decline to use the words chemistry and voice figuratively, but this is where they would go. Get This had an ethos.

Humor has something to do with being taken into confidence. Jokes have insides and outsides. It’s not that they’re all cruel (unless you’re a Freudian), but when you laugh you’re apart from the subject and close to the teller. A good joke forces a cognitive reach to the punchline; it sends you on a hunt for exformation. The weirder that exformation is, the better the laugh. Observational comedy, say, works by digging up the implicit in social life: Ever notice how …. Cult comedy doesn’t have a subject – it has the style of almost overreaching, of pulling in exformation that’s maybe too weird. Think of the range of reference in MST3K, which is like The Cantos as told by sarcastic robots. Get This was a cult comedy, not because of the kind of audience it attracted, but because it produced things like I ain’t no Houellebecq girlGwen Stefani v. contemporary French literature. It was a hysterical realist radio show.

And so the main subject of Get This was Get This. The curtain was always up. They argued about sound effects, planned the next break, and discussed radio production without glossing the jargon. We were not transported. It had the kind of freshness and honesty that its peers (even Ed’s later show, The Wrong Way Home) were trying and failing to produce by hiding the set changes to give the impression that we were magically eavesdropping on some friends in a living room. Some of the classic segments were catastrophes (most famously Donkey Courtroom – Suspend your disbelief … now!) interleaved with Tony’s commentary on what was going wrong. Unlike most live shows, it felt live.

Its unpredictability brought in another theme: tension with management. I would have suspected this was a put-on, a blokey device, if they had been allowed to stay. The boss was hinted to be unhappy at various times because they went on too long, because they changed subjects too much, because they made fun of the marketing department, because they didn’t mention the sponsor enough, because their interview questions were too obscure, because they wanted to play unconventional music by guests, and especially when they conscientiously informed the audience that they had agreed not to mention Barry, the DJ monkey who chose the playlists.

Considering their remarks about the music, it’s strange they weren’t fired sooner. When Nickelback was on a lot, Ed did an exposé and it left off. When Toto’s shocking Africa was badly overused, they started playing its opening every time the phrase in toto or the continent came up (and Tony eventually had to forbid Ed to use the phrase sonic action trigger). Later, they were saddled with a particularly exasperating Hinder track on high rotation, so they introduced the Hinder Alarm, a splork warning the listener to tune out for four minutes.

This is falling apart into a catalog or ode. I guess we’re discovering that I still don’t know why I liked it or how to explain it.

Trust me, it was good.