Working Dog productions has maintained a consistent high quality output for thirty years.
We first met the team as The D-Generation on TV in 1986, but since then they have effortlessly moved through sketch, mockumentary, improv, satire, and documentary shows. This year, in addition to a popular game show, Have You Been Paying Attention, they will move into the animated sphere with the adventure comedy cartoon Pacific Heat. The results promise to bark and bite just as we’d expect from Tom, Santo, Jane and Rob.
Until then, let’s trace backwards along the troupe’s oeuvre in the name of appreciation and respect as we raise a glass to celebrate their champagne comedy.
A pretty impressive troupe if we ever saw one.
The team first came to attention through the influential sketch comedy show The D-Generation, which ran for two seasons and a litany of specials, along with a highly popular breakfast show on Triple M that lasted from 1986 to 1992.
Apart from the core foursome who would later make up Working Dog, the D-Genertion also boasted a young Jane Turner of future Kath and Kim fame, Michael Veitch and Marg Downey later synonymous with Fast Forward, and Tony Martin and Mick Molloy who would later launch the long-running radio show Martin Molloy.
And of course, the multi-talented Magda(lene) Szubanki.
The Late Show: sketch comedy we’re still yet to rival
Sure, Fast Forward and Full Frontal are packed with classic moments, but this is a more concentrated effort that shed its undergraduate bent and produced some of the most hilarious television moments Australia has seen.
This daring cold open showed what it means to become an Australian:
The core of what would eventually become Working Dog, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy and Tom Gleisner were joined by Jason Stephens, Tony Martin, Mick Molloy, and later, Judith Lucy (the remaining four other D-Genners heading over to Fast Forward). Each week The Late Show delivered a combination of live and pre-recorded bits that became immediate Aussie TV classics. And it only ran for two years.
From the classic ‘How to host a dinner party’, to the unending song ‘What’s all that about’, the absurd spoof of It’s Academic, Charlie the Wonderdog , Tony Martin’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Rob Sitch’s Yasser Arafat and Desmond Tutu.
Got another few hours? No? Okay, that’s enough links for now.
Working Dog refines focus, main players
Moving on from The Late show, new troupe member Jane Kennedy joined D-Gen vets Tom, Santo and Rob, and the four enlisted the expertise of Michael Hirsch in order to form the still-going-strong Working Dog Productions, where they first created…
A masterpiece (no, I didn’t mean to type mantelpiece)
From left: Marty (Tiriel Mora), Brooke (Jane Kennedy), Brian (Bruno Lawrence), and Mike Moore (Rob Sitch).
When someone calls something ahead of its time, they better be talking about the invention of a doctored deLorean, or that time your mate arrived at your house too early. Or an undeniably brilliant satire like Working Dog’s Frontline.
Set behind the scenes of an A Current Affair-type show around the time when Ray Martin and Stan Grant hosted the…let’s say…'more entertaining' news. Shot low budget and fly-on-the-wall, this was a masterful example of single-camera sitcom writing, before the explosion of the genre.
While the form of the show feels overly familiar today, at the time the only other show in the same vein was The Larry Sanders Show, but Working Dog have never cited it as an influence.
Whether you can trace a direct line from Frontline to shows like The Office and Parks and Rec, or heck, even Sorkin’s Sports Night, is fanciful, but fans can relax into the fact that Working Dog were among the first to adopt this televisual tone. That it remains just as relevant today as it did in the 90s is no mean feat.
Time to have some fun
Not that Working Dog didn't seem to be having fun, but while working on the meticulously researched Frontline, the gang got together, enlisted Tim Ferguson to replace Rob Sitch due to time constraints, and created a riotous throwback to 70’s Disco-influenced cop shows like The Mod Squad.
The 7-episode Funky Squad debuted in 1995.
It only lasted for a season, but a season is all it needed to tickle each and every rib whether you saw it as an elongated sketch or a fully fledged series. Everyone involved was clearly having a ball.
Continuing to ride the frothy wave, the original foursome took a break to produce a feature film that many foreigners see as synonymous with our culture: The Castle. It became an instant classic to different Aussies for different reasons.
Time to sit back and chat
After all that, it was time for some downtime. Tom and Rob filmed a season of them, well, just fishing. And then the gang came together to sit behind a table in a live studio and just chew the fat, one-upping each other with one-liners and amusing anecdotes, usually in the presence of a guest. The Panel was hugely successful, running for six years.
Thank god overseas companies option Television formulas
Sketch show, check. Satire with pathos, check. 70’s throwback, check. Random scenes of fishing, check. The View before The View? Oh, you know it’s a check.
Naturally the next step was an improvisational game show. Devised by the Frontline four, Thank God You’re Here is what happens when you take a single drama game to its most extravagant end. A series of sets are on stage, the performers are given a situation, and each time a new unknowing contestant enters they’re told “Thank God you’re here!”
From then on they have to suss out what’s happening in the scene and keep it going.
It’s a bit like the high-school drama game ‘Space Jump’, except TGYH became a franchise – its format selling to the UK and US.
Returning to their roots
Retaining an air of Frontline but pushing their comedy a little towards In The Thick of It, Working Dog moved out of the newsroom and into the political sphere, wielding a satirical wand, first onto the farcical governmental organization named the ‘Central Policy Unit’ in The Hollowmen, and into the newly created ‘Nation Building Authority’ in Utopia.
Both shows demonstrate an increasing maturity in the writing, not needing to go big every episode. With Utopia (or as it's known in the US, Dreamland), sometimes the most satisfying moments are the smallest, and it’s a treat seeing Sitch, famous for such an iconic role as Mike Moore, playing the straight man.
That’s right, Working Dog have produced a cartoon. Made for Netflix called ‘Pacific Heat’, there has been a lot of discussion online that Pacific Heat’s aesthetic’s strongly resembles that of Archer. It's not the first time that Working Dog have produced series that is similar to international shows, but each of their shows have always felt unique and distinctive. Santo ''Snatto Ghauro" Cilauro has sought to quell the flames, suggesting the upcoming show is more Scooby Doo than Archer.
We’ll leave you in the exact fashion The Late Show would have left you, with Mick Molloy booking a popular musical act. Enjoy Joan Jett's rendition of ‘I love rock and roll’: