The Rise of Spo-Co

“Just a day later [Australia’s first Olympic gold medalist Edwin] Flack tried for a treble, in the marathon even though he had never run a race more than 10 miles… He was in second place behind Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux… for much of the race. After 32 kilometres, the Frenchman dropped out and Flack was left in the lead. But with just three kilometres to go, Flack suddenly collapsed. He was so delirious that, when a Greek spectator tried to help him, Flack punched him to the ground. Flack was removed from the course and tended to by Prince Nicholas.” Source: Wikipedia (Worth a read. Flack was one of Berwick’s finest exports and should be a mandatory addition to Australian history curriculum).

As far back as the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, sport has enjoyed a sense of the absurd.

Even as our athletic past-times have morphed into the slick, advertising-fuelled industry of today, comedy has remained a constant sideshow of our obsession with sport. In recent years, commensurate with the increasing commercialisation of sport, many are now earning a living from the lighter side of sport. And it’s not just sport itself, but the athlete’s off-field lives, training, press conferences, drafts, award ceremonies…

Where we once chuckled at the spectacle of a 150km/h delivery to the nuts, the release of Plugger the Pig as the Saints v Swans battled it out in 1993 and – the greatest of them all – US gymnast Rick Disnick ploughing head-first into a pommel horse at speed, we now have hours of air-time and thousands of column inches dedicated to the sports industry. It’s naturally led to the creation of the sports-comedy genre, or spo-co.

On the face of it, a greater variety of entertainment, catering to the highly fragmented audiences of the digital age is not such a bad thing, but spo-co is littered with some horrendous examples of ham-fisted concepts. Not all spo-co appeals to the lowest common denominator; there are many fine examples such as Olympic Games parody The Games and Roy and HG’s various incarnations.

The Good

The Games

A brilliantly written, cast and acted parody, in the mould of Working Dog’s more recent piss-takes, which screened on ABC in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. As the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games’ ‘head of administration and logistics’ – and the show’s creator and writer – the inimitable satirist John Clarke’s performance was staggeringly deadpan.

When in real life, IOC vice-president Kevan Gosper was criticised for the very dodgy decision to appoint his daughter to be the first Australian to carry the Olympic flame, you couldn’t help but think that this was the work of Clarke’s pen.

Roy and HGThis Sporting Life on Triple J, Festival of the Boot, Club Buggery, The Dream (amongst others)

Roy and HG achieved a rare feat in comedy by being liked by the mainstream and maintaining a cult following. Many highlights, but a personal favourite was their commentary for the 2000 Olympics, especially the gymnastics. Owned Spo-co in the 1990s but have pursued individual projects in recent years – and our funny bones have been the poorer for it.

The 12th Man

A dicey call – I listened to Birmingham’s ‘best of’ a couple of Christmases ago and was very underwhelmed by material that only a decade or so before had me in stitches – but there’s no denying the effect Billy had on (mostly) Australian men across living rooms every silly season or so in the 1990s.

It transformed the way I listened to the Channel 9 commentary team. I will forever be convinced that Bill and Tony shared a mutual hatred, Chappelli’s a half-wit and Richie simply tolerated a bunch of buffoonish workmates. And who could forget Birmingham’s recording as Darrel Eastlake calling the aforementioned Disnick’s unfortunate meeting with the gym apparatus.

The Okay

The Back Page

I haven’t watched a lot of this, but this program hosted by Tony Squires and Kelli Underwood (formerly fronted by Mike Gibson and Billy Birmingham) on Foxtel has some good moments, most of which are attributable to the decent mix of regulars such as Adam Spencer, Julian Schiller and Ryan Fitzgerald.

Worth watching when there’s nothing else on.

Santo, Sam and Ed’s World Cup Fever

Fever, screened to coincide with the 2010 Football World Cup, was a long overdue nod to the popularity of soccer in Australia. While Santo could be a bit grating, Sam and Ed had an off-beat sense of humour that gave this low-budget program a modest but loyal audience.

The World Cup version later spawned into the more generic offering, Santo, Sam and Ed’s Sports Fever, but it never quite reached the same heights or engendered the affection, in much the same way that soccer fails to capture the imagination of the Aussie masses in the years between cups.

The AFL Footy Show (the early years)

The initial years of The Footy Show were ground-breaking for the Australian TV landscape. TFS was a ratings bonanza for Channel 9, and still remains a profitable program for the network. As the brainchild of sports journo-cum-industry heavy Eddie McGuire, TFS was essential viewing for footy heads across AFL states in the 90s and early noughties, and many of the ‘scoops’ and ‘antics’ were fodder for the water cooler heading into the weekend.

Spawned an NRL version, which has achieved similar success in the league states.

Before the Game

Channel 10 made a fairly good fist of replicating TFS’s success with this show; its more ‘sensitive’, progressive approach to spo-co providing a stark contrast to its blokey Channel 9 counterpart.

At its peak, it was an entertaining lead-in to Saturday night footy, unearthing (to a mass audience) some fairly serviceable talent in Andy Maher, Lehmo and Samantha Lane, alongside better known comics in Mick Malloy and Dave Hughes. Before the Game rode heavily on the coat-tails of Channel 10’s brief flirtation with AFL broadcasting, and, not surprisingly, died a swift death when Channel 7 regained the footy rights in 2012.

The crap

The AFL Footy Show – recent years.

Yes, it’s become a bit of a sport to look down one’s nose at this inexplicably resilient bit of Thursday night programming, but it’s for pretty good reason. TFS is now almost unwatchable. I’m all for Sam smashing a pie in Ox’s face, but that was ten years ago, and little progress has been made in the interim to lift the comedy bar on behalf of it’s rusted-on audience.

Has endured its controversies, mostly at the hands of Sam Newman’s black-facing, mannequin-molesting and midget-lampooning antics, but keeps drawing a profitable audience. Remains to be seen whether Garry Lyon’s voluntarily stepping down from hosting duties will impact viewer numbers.

Live and kicking

Put this in the so-bad-I-can’t-stop-watching basket.

You could understand Channel 7 for trying to match arch-rival Channel 9’s success, but from the minute Jason Dunstall, Doug Hawkins and Craig Hutchison graced the set, failure was inevitable. The show aired in 1998 and was cancelled a year later, and Ch 7 hasn’t been game enough to have another crack since.

I suspect Piggy and Hawk rued the day they defected from TFS. Dunstall’s since popped up to host the mediocre After the Bounce alongside Danny Frawley, Alistair Lynch and Andrew Gaze, but Dougie’s since faded from the screen.

About Nic McGay

West Coast fanatic living in enemy territory.


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Pretty fair summary Nic, although I’m not sure that I’d agree with Andy Maher being anything close to serviceable on TV. I’d have Santo, Sam and Ed a bit higher.

    The original Spo-Co may have been the ABC’s Live and Sweaty.

    Also, Tim Webster on Sports Tonight (what, that wasn’t a comedy?)

  2. kath presdee says

    Roy and HG owned rugby league state of origin commentary. The three games are the biggest TV broadcasts of the year (apart from the Grand Final) and I don’t know how many houses would have the sound turned down and the radio turned up when it was on. The coverage has been all the poorer without them.

  3. Broad agreement with above and with Swish, though reckon HG and Roy were sad parodies of their old selves by 2000. Live and Sweaty a good call. Moose and Swine were terrific.
    Branching out to radio, the Coodabeens were good value up until Tony Leonard and, especially, Simon Whelan left. A bit like watching superules now…past it.

  4. Nic McGay says

    Swish/Crio, will have to look up Live and Sweaty. Speaking of Webster’s unintentional humour, I weighed up including The Cricket Show. Kath – yep, the SoG calls were always a far better option than Rabs, Sterlo and Fatty.

  5. Dave Brown says

    Also didn’t mind Tony Squires’s ‘The Fat’ on ABC. One of Roy & HG’s finest moments was their commentary of a Wimbledon final (possibly 1995) where Becker lost. As he covered his head in a towel during a break between sets, Roy & HG excitedly (and rather inappropriately) live called a Luftwaffe raid over SW19. Also big fan of Live & Sweaty.

    Dave ‘skull of rust’ Brown

  6. Ken Fargher says

    What about the best sports comedian Al Parkes. Wierd but brilliant. On 3RRR with Dave O’Neil and Vic Plume. Bring him back.

  7. Great stuff Nic. Expect nothing less of an Eagles man. Here’s a few more suggestions.
    Early John Clarke – “Farnarkeling” from the Gilles Report. Has anyone heard from Dave Sorenson? Last I heard he was coach of the Chinese Women’s Olympic Farnarkeling squad.

    And here’s Ronny Barker doing Richie Benaud to Ronnie Corbett’s John Arlott. With a Henry Blofeld/Brian Johnson “old chap” in the middle. “The collapse of the side” always has me in stitches.

  8. Live and Sweaty was excellent, like most things Andrew Denton has ever been involved with. I don’t think there’s been anything quite like it before or since.

    Nice links PB. John Clarke is a Trans Tasman treasure.

  9. Port Adelaide in the 2007 decider as funny as any.

    Gee, that was cheap. Oh, well.

  10. Andre Denton and/or John Clarke sure fire winners.
    Back in the 80s Punter To Punter was a beauty on the radio. Amazing that there hasn’t been more attempts at a comedic racing show on TV with notable exception of the Two Richies (Callander and Freedman)

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