Cooking up newsworthy comedy

Alex Lee explains what it takes to make speedy satire for TV’s The Roast.Illustration by Christopher Downes.

Only two months into my new job and already I’ve co-hosted a breakfast show, crash-landed a jet into the studio, rifled through Kate Middleton’s garbage and said the F-word on television. I’ve filed reports from on board the Sea Shepherd, from under a sea of submissions to George Brandis and from inside Joe Hockey’s brain. In news, landing a gig as a television reporter takes years of hard work, commitment and the willingness to work regional. In comedy, the only thing I needed to get into the field was a green screen.

I’d been a cog in the engine room of live, rolling news at ABC News 24 for three years when I was contacted by the team at The Roast. As a social media producer working on the #NX program, it was only fitting that I got the gig through Twitter, when the producer Andy Nehl asked me to come in and meet the guys. A couple of weeks later and I’d moved from Ultimo to a converted garage in Ultimo, from making the news to making it up.

The Roast is a remarkable experiment in television. Squirrelled away at 7.30pm, it’s produced by a small group of writers and it’s produced by a small group of writers and performers who are given nearly complete creative freedom by ABC2 (the weird Uncle to ABC1’s Aunty), bar some input from justifiably spooked legal teams who see the litigious spectre of conservative commentators lurking behind every joke. With most of the team under 30, they’re the youngest writers’ room on Australian TV, and it’s perhaps the only program to operate with a showrunner – 28-year-old Nich Richardson.

We also make 10 minutes of original content every day, from scratch. At 7am we sit down with nothing but a blank Google document, a triple-shot coffee and the day’s newspapers. By 10.30am we have a draft script done, and filming starts at the same time as the rewrites begin. It’s always a scramble to finalise the script moments before it gets shot. Luckily for me, my experience in live TV news meant that working in a state of near-constant panic was my modus operandi.

It seemed like an insane way to structure your work day to me, but in an age when audiences consume news as ravenously as they spit out jokes on Twitter, where opinion pieces sprout up almost as soon as the news article is published, no comedy show can afford to be left behind. The rapid spread of news on social media has a way of making you feel like you’re always a bit behind – like trying to relate to a savvy teenager. Are you still talking about Ricky Muir’s interview? That was so five hours ago.

With only two main stories to choose each day after the headlines segment, we have to constantly ask not only “Is this newsworthy?” but also “Is there an original argument to be made here?” Sometimes it can look like a big storm is brewing when in fact it will blow over once everyone has had their go of making a joke about it on Twitter, and moved on to making puns about something else.

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On some mornings, Clive Palmer could be riding a T Rex around in his undies outside the window, and I’d struggle to raise a smile

Leaving the newsroom to work on a satirical news show, I’d braced myself for a shock to the system. After life as a shift worker, the early starts were nothing new, but the writing process was new territory for me. I’d done comedy for years outside work, but nothing seems very funny before the sun is properly up. On some mornings, Clive Palmer could be riding a T Rex around in his undies outside the window, and I’d struggle to raise a smile. But despite the obvious changes, many things were in fact very similar.

Like my previous colleagues, my new ones had a fondness for swearing, an encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian political triviaand the pitch-black sense of humour that only comes from overexposure to news and underexposure to sunlight. They also applied far more journalistic rigour to their writing than I thought they would have to.

Still, when you’re spending your day slamming politicians for saying things that are ill-founded, hypocritical or just plain wrong, you want to be sure you’re not guilty of the same crime. Couple this with the fact that you need to be able to explain Victorian state politics, Medicare co-payments or world debt before you can poke fun at them. So I found myself actually needing a much deeper understanding of many issues in the news than I had before.

There are other newsroom skills that have seen me through the transition. Sitting in the control room at News 24 watching my 12th press conference for the day, I had to listen out for the lines that would be newsworthy from the moment they escaped a politician’s mouth. This is so often the first spark in what can be a roaring fire of debate and controversy upon which satire feeds. Perhaps surprisingly, the humble pun was far more welcome in the newsroom than it was in the writers’ room. I maintain that it has its place in both arenas.

The pun is a cheap gag, but it’s also sweet and satisfying, like a red frog at a swimming carnival.

I’m relatively new to both worlds, but in satire as in journalism, I have learned the importance of a nose for hypocrisy and an eye for inconsistency, to be sceptical but not cynical and to look to the past to understand the present. You have to be willing to boldly state your opinion but be open to interrogating your own beliefs. More than anything, I now understand the ecosystem between news and satire. While the writers will get into heated debate over whether Geoff Shaw is best represented by Gollum or The Ring, or whether or not the cartoon character of Mike Walrussy should have blood on his tusks, it’s clear that there can be no good satire without good journalism – and I’ll always be grateful for that, no matter what side I find myself on.

Alex Lee is a writer, performer and journalist currently working on ABC2’s The Roast. The Roast airs at 7.30pm on ABC2

Christopher Downes is an illustrator and cartoonist;