You know, sometimes we find ourselves racked with self-doubt. Surely it can’t be the case we’re completely right about everything, especially when we pick up on telly programmes that don’t get broadcast in the UK, and we get all overexcited about how good they are so we look clever for even knowing about them. After all, we’ve spent a huge amount of time banging on about NEWStopia and the work of Shaun Micallef in general, but what if that’s just our subconscious desperately trying to compensate for the way we were so roundly mocked for telling everyone about this great new comedian we’d discovered in 2007 called Bill Hicks. What if NEWStopia actually isn’t that good? We might just have to re-watch the entire first series in order to check. So, until we do that, here’s a picture of some music.
Clocking up an impressive three series and thirty episodes in just over eighteen months, despite being armed with a moderate budget and intimate writing team (only three writers worked on all thirty episodes, though others contributed to varying degrees), NEWStopia was a tremendous combination of fast-paced satire, intricate wordplay, inventive sketches and superb parody, all under the umbrella of a pretend news show.
Normally, comedy programmes having anything to do with news would usually go in one of two directions – a Daily Show-y nose-thumbing of genuine events, or a Day Today-ish meander through invented stories. NEWStopia combined the two approaches. So, while one episode might kick off with a Not The Nine O’Clock Newsesque montage of news clips taken out of context (er, which is the third approach), and then a monologue on the then-current 2007 Australian Election (“Well, 72 hours from now the victor will make his victory speech, and the vanquished will make his vanquishedy speech…”) and a wordplay-soaked report on the political situation in Pakistan (“Bhuto – the ‘H’ is silent, but she is not…”), it could be followed by the completely invented tale of the inept incumbent of a safe Liberal stronghold seat, or a murderous supervillain cricketer. It can even spend time deconstructing proper news coverage (a bit like Newswipe does now, if you’re looking for a handy referential hook to hang your brain on), such as examining the use of panning shots starting from an object deemed apt for the person being reported on. And that’s a fourth thing.
There are even nods to Chaser-type stunts, such as where the team subvert conventional thinking that if a politician doesn’t know how much a loaf of bread is they’re out of touch with public opinion, by visiting shopkeepers and pressing them on their knowledge of the costs of running a national government. The team are however undone when a newsagent correctly points out that the annual cost of supporting the Australian industry productivity centres is 351.8 million Australian dollars.
Within the confines of the show, a number of characters are allowed to develop. Shaun Micallef’s principal role is of avuncular anchor Shaun Micallef (pronounced differently, with more emphasis on the final syllable), but he also takes the roles of reporters like Pilger Heston, a crack investigative reporter suspicious that monkeys are trying to wrest control of the world from humans, or Paralysie De Martin, a loud Englishman fond of cramming tortuous wordplay into his European correspondent reports, or even John Gielgud. The other players get a look in too, playing reporters such as the magnificently named Washington correspondent Wanda Knee-Babcock, Fiona Koopop (NEWStopia’s fashion reporter, often sent to places like warzones when no-one else is available), or Harmonica Thirsty (NEWStopia’s sports geisha, preceded by 17th Century French Fabulist Jean De Le Fontaine).
The reporters spoke to a mixed bag of newsworthy characters, largely played by the same band of supporting players, with the most notable being performed by Micallef himself, especially when it affords him an excuse to use his top-notch mimicry skills – sometimes as an actual person (John Lennon, the Dalai Lama, Billy Connolly), sometimes just borrowing their voice (Abraham Zapruder taking the tones of Woody Allen to wish he’d had a second take on his most famous work, The Pope borrowing the sinister vocal chords of Doctor Strangelove). It’s all done remarkably well, and helps lend weight to our pet theory that the very best impressionists on television aren’t the people working as impressionists (see also: Rob Brydon, Peter Serafinowicz, Steve Coogan).
We should probably make clear that we aren’t actually trying to get Shaun Micallef to sleep with us before adding yet another point about how great he is, but his little physical tics even manage to squeeze extra giggles from the moments when nothing is really happening, be it eagerly lapping at the tip of his pen as the camera pans out in a cut to commercial, narrowing his eyes at a bothersome off-screen voice as the screen fades, or just pulling a silly face while muttering something incomprehensible before immediately returning to deadpan mode. There are also nice little fourth-wall breaking exchanges that deal with the productions of such a show (“…and 6% said victory could be declared when US deaths become less regular. Shaun.” “Yes?” “Nothing, it’s just a rhetorical device to motivate cutting back to you.”)
NEWStopia also makes the most of each half-hour episode by sneaking spoof adverts and trailers onto the end of each genuine commercial break, taking in spots for Fanta (“Thank you, Hitler!”), made-up SBS shows like Tyrants And Their Pets, or the most disturbing Colgate advert you’ll see in your life. This proved to be a great way for the writing team to flex their creative muscles, with some of the more memorable moments from the entire series managing to not really be a part of it.
(Does that previous sentence make sense? We aren’t sure.)
One of our favourite things about Newstopia was the way it'd be happy to surprise the audience, no matter how hard it'd be to pull off. The best example of this would be the final episode, where a technical problem knocked the regularly scheduled episode of the show off-air, leading (SPOILERS!) to SBS replacing it with an alternative programme - a full-length episode of pretend Russian police drama Inspektor Herring, a show previously shown in the jokey fake SBS trailers throughout the series' run. Herring itself was a parody of German series Inspector Rex, broadcast with subtitles on SBS, and the spoof kept in with that, with all spoken lines being in faux-Russian (with the occasional genuine Russian word thrown in, so that it might seem genuine to non-Ruskaphones. A bit like The Kevin Bishop Show did with jokes).
All in all, utterly wonderful stuff. It seems that the programme may well have continued for a fourth series, only for the surprise success of Shaun Micallef’s primetime panel show Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation on the Ten network to keep him too busy to do much else. In a way, we don’t mind, with the programme having clocked up thirty brilliant episodes – the last of which having ended with a special Death Dance from the host – maybe it really is better that the NEWStopia team leave us all wanting more. Hey, it’s what we’re planning to do with this list – it’s going to finish when we reach number four.
“NEWStopia is filmed in front of a live studio audience. Clearly, they hated it.”
WATCH IT NOW ON: Your own computer having illegally downloaded it from somewhere, as it’s unlikely it’ll ever get a full release on DVD, what with the show being packed with other-broadcaster footage that would be near impossible to clear for a commercial release. While it seems the programme is currently being repeated on SBS for those lucky enough to live in the part of the world where that is, Despite our efforts, it seems unlikely that the programme will be seen in full in the UK, though we suspect there might well ‘best of’ compilations shoved onto shiny disc and BBC Four if we all close our eyes and use up all our birthday wishes.