Can anybody not like Tom Gleeson? Is that even possible? When I discovered early media access was available to watch episodes of the third season of Hard Quiz, I lunged towards my computer like a creature from an Ed Wood movie. It took me a moment to ask myself what on earth I was doing, getting so excited about a game show. Only one other program in this genre has ever solicited this sort response from me. That’s Would I Lie To You?, which at its best is one of the funniest programs on TV – though it is more like improv theatre.
Gleeson finessed his ‘hard’ schtick in the ‘Hard Talk’ segments in The Weekly With Charlie Pickering, identified by audience and ABC producers alike as that show’s one great asset. In these ‘interviews’ Gleeson sat down with a range of B grade celebrities and politicians, asking insulting and rather hilarious questions.
Following Steve Price’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, Gleeson asked the shock jock: “You ate some disgusting things in the jungle. Was it worse than the disgusting shit that you feed to your listeners on 2GB?” He asked Kevin Rudd: “In public you say sentences a computer would be ashamed of. Is that because you’re focusing really hard on not swearing?” And Sophie Monk: “You started out as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. She died when she was 36, and you’re 37. Is that why your career died a year ago?”
In these chats, Gleeson punched up (sometimes way up, i.e. former Prime Ministers) in win-win scenarios. The comedian flexed his acerbic, zinger-delivering wit, and the interviewees appeared gracious and good-natured for having agreed to the shellacking. In Hard Quiz, Gleeson puts the kiddy gloves on for some nerd-bashing. The participants return fire – which, given the host’s sharpness and ability at repartee, always feels like these sods has brought a knife to a gunfight.
Tom Gleeson’s type of shtick is rare here. Rarer, still, to be performed without the protective shield of an alter ego.
Australian television viewers love preposterous characters who take the mickey out of themselves, or ridicule a certain kind of person. If the characters are arrogant the jokes themselves can point inwards, typically highlighting foolishness and/or hubris and/or decorum-destroying behaviour. Think Mike Moore, the selfish and dim-witted TV host. Or Norman Gunston, the blunderbuss reporter. Or Dame Edna, the outrageous socialite.
The smug prick, not so much. Gleeson’s type of shtick is rare here. Rarer, still, to be performed without the protective shield of an alter ego. It is more common in America, where Tall Poppy Syndrome is less of a thing. Comedians like Rodney Dangerfield, or even Jerry Seinfeld, are celebrated for being self-centered jerks. The beauty of Gleeson’s ‘hard’ performances is that he still, somehow, seems like a nice bloke, without shying away from the core objective: that he must behave like an asshole.
In the era of Donald Trump and ‘fake news’, a hundred million think pieces have been published attempting to relate the perverse goings-on in the Oval Office to wider cultural relevance. A new film or TV show becomes the ‘perfect social commentary for our time,’ or ‘the perfect encapsulation of human civilisation right now’, etcetera etcetera.
Forgive me for throwing another onto the pile, but…Hard Quiz is a rather fitting show for this era of so-called fake news. For a time when the very concept of knowledge seems not to be held in high regard (certainly not from the leader of the free world). The idea that somebody can become an expert at something is mocked by Gleeson. Instead of respecting the accumulation of knowledge, he jibes participants for spending so much time alone: reading, watching, studying.
Come to think of it, Would I Lie To You? – returning to my favourite game show – is an even better fit for the Trump era. About how, in entertainment, there is, from a certain perspective, no need to distinguish fact from fiction, and sometimes no desire to either. If Gleeson joins the panel one day, I’ll be in game show heaven.
Series 3 of Hard Quiz begins Wednesday, February 21 at 8pm on ABC TV