Comedy Editor Hugh Hutchison caught up with Tom Ballard ahead of his show, Tonightly, tonight at 9pm.
Hugh: So Tonightly has a pretty broad mix of sketch comedy, talk show style monologue, and a little bit of serious current event work, how do you find that tonal balance between being comedy and addressing real issues in an earnest way.
Tom: Oh wow, we’ve been doing that for a little while now! Every now-and-again my moral high horse gets the better of me, and I take the opportunity to say some stuff. So around same-sex-marriage, which is obviously pretty important to me, around Australia day, Invasion Day, some Me Too every now and then. I did a show about refugee policy, a couple of years ago. There were bits of it where I was getting pretty earnest and turning on the waterworks, but for the most part if the jokes aren’t good enough, it doesn’t really matter how good the points we’re making are, we’re not doing our job. So, yeah, it’s always a tricky balance, it’s always something we’re thinking about a lot, but hopefully we’re settling into the correct tone.
The show comes out four days a week, Monday through Thursdays, with a, ‘best of,’ show on Friday. What’s the process behind churning out enough jokes for 30 minutes, four nights a week?
I don’t know! If you can tell us how to do that that’d be great! It’s pretty nuts, we plan ahead a lot, we’ve got guests booked ahead of time, stuff we’ve got in the can, we book in stand-ups… it’s all that other stuff, the general structure of the show. But we (the writers and the reporters) come in at 9am, and we figure out what we want to talk about, and then we have to go away and write it up, for that night. It is every day [laughs].
I bet you’re very grateful for that best of at the end of the week.
Oh mamma. Yes. I mean, obviously Friday’s very much a catch up day. Sometimes we do some filming on Friday, but mostly it’s just catching up, catching our breath and following up on some of those longer form ideas we’re working on. But yes, the pace is bananas.
So the sketch stuff that appears in Tonightly, which I’ve seen has really circulated, like the uh, Don Burke sexual harassment skit which I think appeared in the opening episode, does that tend to be worked on well in advance?
I mean some stuff is very much of the day; some sketches are a very specific reaction to something we’ve heard about. But more and more we’re starting to think about issues that are perennially in the news, with the #MeToo movement, with Barnaby Joyce, the Don Burke story was breaking just as we started on air, we were really happy with how that turned out, we had to make a few changes but it was pretty awesome to have that play in our first episode. So it’s a mix of a story that’s very clearly of the day, and then there’s a few more sketches and packages that are more about general ideas that are coming out of the news or are in the zeitgeist at the moment. Some of that stuff we know we can plan ahead, like with the Oscars and leading up to that ceremony, all these celebrities giving important speeches and making the world a better place, so we thought we can have some fun with that.
What do you think (or hope) will give Tonightly the staying power on Australian TV? What will keep people tuning in four nights a week?
We’ve done some pretty… we’ve done some really dumb things on our show, and I love that, and I celebrate that, and the freedom to do that is a real joy. But you know, we’ve had the leader of the opposition on; we’ve had Gillian Triggs, and uh Jordan Peterson’s going to be on next week, I mean I love interviews because I don’t stress about them being funny. If they happen to be funny, that’s great, but generally speaking we just want to be interesting, and we’ve done 20 minutes of jokes every night, so we can sort of relax a little bit more around the interview, and talk to interesting people. If there are natural funny moments from that, that’s fantastic.
I think the fact that a show like this has not been on air for a very very long time is helpful, and ‘cause we’re all pretty young and fresh, and I love shows like The Weekly and Mad as Hell, but people know Charlie Pickering and Shaun Micallef pretty well. I think people are getting some joy out of meeting me and Greg and Bridie and Greta, and us fucking shit up a little bit and surprising them by being a bit cheeky, I’m hoping that’s what people enjoy in the show, and we can stick around for a while.
ABC2 had a big rebranding to become a dedicated comedy channel, which happened at the end of last year, and from memory Tonightly was one of the flagship shows to launch that rebrand. How much do you think the success of original ABC comedy programming like Get Krak!n and Black Comedy has contributed to the ABC taking this big step to promote Australian television comedy?
Well, I think it’s the other way round: ABC COMEDY made sense because the comedies on the ABC were so good, and the ABC had such a great ‘comedy brand’ – I hate that word – they realised that what ABC2 was, they kept coming back to the big hits on that channel, whether it was repeats of ABC comedy, repeats of Broad City or the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Or Louis Theroux, I find him very funny a lot of the time. So it just sort of made sense I think, when they were looking for how to rebrand some things, to go with comedy, and it’s awesome because it gives all that really strong comedy a home. Obviously our show exists, which I’m a big fan of, but all the comedy next gen stuff, a whole bunch of young comics doing their own specials and having them aired on TV, and be replayed on the channel a lot, being on ABC iview, means a whole bunch of people are being introduced to the next generation of Australian stand-ups which is awesome. Then the original series from people like Nakkiah Lui and Neel Kolhaktar, all that crew that have come through. All these really cool things that the ABC have been working on to grow Australian comedy and new comedy voices, now have a central place to go to. And they can bloody flog ‘em. And they’ve bought a bunch of really cool comedies from around the world, just out of the UK.
As a young comic, it’s just the coolest thing that you could ask for, that the ABC actually dedicates an entire channel to repeats of main-channel comedy hits, and Spicks and Specks repeats, but also absolutely commissioning new stuff that’s really exciting.
If you were trying to convince the entire demographic of West Australian uni students to watch your show, every Monday through Thursday, with one clip, what would it be?
Oh shit. Um oh my god. I mean if it’s not too arrogant, I really loved chatting to Jimmy Carr, that interview went really well for us online. And I loved doing that interview because it was a very bold thing to do, Jimmy and I roasted each other through the course of the interview, and we did not hold back, it was very brutal, and I just do not think you would be able to see those jokes being told anywhere else on Australian television.
What can we expect from Tonightly for this week?
Monday we’ll be chatting to Henry Rollins. Lauv and Vera Blue, they’re the musical guests that’ll be dropping by. And uh, hilarious comedy! The South Australian State election will be happening, so there’ll be lots of jokes about that. And what’s a thing that’s happening in WA at the moment? The Perth City Council’s corrupt! Just a lot of stuff about mining and swans.
Finally, how do you feel about the fact that half of your Wikipedia page is about your 2007 VCE results? Very good mark by the way, well done!
Oh my god. Why can’t anyone fix that? Is the thing about the cats still in there? Yeah look, wasn’t a bad result. My brother got 99.9, which was really annoying. But ideally my page would be more about how hilarious I am.
Tonightly with Tom Ballard airs Monday to Thursday 9 PM on ABC COMEDY. An archive of the show can be found on ABC iview. His ATAR was 99.80.
Hugh Hutchison | @ugh_hutch
When not writing for Pelican, Hugh can be found in his shed selling testosterone supplements.