Last week saw the series finale of Dirty Laundry Live. The show has introduced the ABC2 audience to outstanding new talent, made celebrity gossip worthy of Auntie’s attention and given Lawrence Mooney the hosting opportunity he richly deserves.
But what makes it truly remarkable is that it is live.
Unless I am mistaken, all other shows in the genre are pre-recorded. Spicks and Specks, Good News Week, Talking ‘Bout Your Generation, QI, Would I Lie to You? – all of them are pre-taped, edited within an inch of their life and boosted by a sound mix and a laugh track.
This means that the hosts and guests on these shows have the luxury of comfortably delivering whatever jokes they want for as long as they want, worrying little about their success or failure, knowing the whole thing will be cleaned up later. It also means that the network’s lawyers can decide after something is said whether or not it exposes them to liability.
All of this conspires to create safety. Nobody can really get themself into any trouble, nobody ever has to cut anyone off mid-sentence because “we’re out of time”, and nobody ever has to wonder if the joke they just made has cost them their house in a defamation suit.
It also means that conversations miraculously go for exactly as long as they should, the contestants astonishingly remember all the answers just at the last second, and it means that everyone appears in the best possible light regardless of what actually happened in the studio.
So what does being live mean? It means you’re walking the high wire without a safety net. If a joke doesn’t work, the viewer at home knows about it. It means that if something controversial or offensive is said, there is no taking it back. Given that Dirty Laundry Live deals in scandalous gossip about real people, I’m sure this live-ness has caused the ABC lawyers to squirm on more than a few occasions.
For the onscreen performer, being live involves decisions. Thousands of them. About both what to say and what not to say. About what is good for the individual in the moment and what is good for the show as a whole. Essentially the live TV host is producing and editing the show as they host it, all the time smiling for the camera.
But above all being live means danger. And it is this danger that has made the show such compelling viewing.
Lawrence Mooney, a veteran of the Melbourne stand-up comedy circuit, has always been a dangerous performer. Yes, he has a warmth and generosity that makes him a perfect guest in your living room, but he has also never let go of his inner ‘naughty little boy’, desperate to get himself into trouble just to see how he gets out if it.
One of the show’s producers confided in me that while their team of writers prepares a selection of one-liners for their host, he seldom gets to more than away one or two per show. He chooses to work of the top of his head, reacting genuinely to the conversation taking place and creating comedy out of thin air.
This has created its fair share of controversy during season one. Dropping a C-Bomb to label Nigella Lawson’s physically abusive husband after their marital dysfunction was splashed across the world’s tabloids is the example that comes to mind. It was exactly the kind of story the show was built to discuss and exactly the kind of dangerous, talkable moment ABC2 should be creating.
The response was predictable. Callers rang talkback to complain about a segment they hadn’t watched the night before and a discussion about whether or not the C-word has a place in television.
What was not predictable was the conduct of the host. Unlike other similar ‘controversies’, Lawrence made no contrite apology or a mitigating explanation that it was taken out of context or not intended in the way it was received. Mooney’s decision was deliberate and considered and he stood by it in the cold light of day.
This is the mark of a mature performer: comfortable in who they are, unencumbered by fear and above all real.
There are now more entertainment options in the world that any human being can get their head around. But the jeopardy of live TV, with its inevitable perils and pitfalls, in the hands of a host like Mooney, means it will always be the place that anything can happen and, hopefully, always will.
In the interests of full disclosure, Lawrence Mooney is a colleague friend of the author. He’s also a great house-guest and great company on a long drive to a regional standup gig.