When Charlie Pickering quit The Project a decade ago he had no immediate TV gig lined up.
There were conversations with most other networks (some offering lucrative deals) but it was ABC’s then-Head of Entertainment Jon Casimir who won him over with a plan for 20 episodes of an untried show in the prized Wednesday 8:30 slot.
“Jon had made some of my favourite shows over the years with people I really respected… Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, Gruen with Will. I felt that he clearly had an understanding of how to make good TV shows that would work at the ABC. He also was very encouraging as far as giving me and my team control over what we did, and really giving us a chance to come up with the show that we wanted to do,” he tells TV Tonight.
“It was too hard to say no to that level of creative freedom and creative support from the ABC. Also I think it has to be said that the best comedy programmes have been made at the ABC as long as I’ve been alive -I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone saying that …there’s a few other incredible examples that are almost all made by Working Dog. But they learned how to make TV at the ABC as well!”
Poaching pals Kitty Flanagan and Tom Gleeson proved to be killer moves, with both having had exposure through 10 shows including The Project.
“I’d been doing stand up with them for years. Kitty had put me up in London when I didn’t have a place to stay. Tom had me live in his attic for a few months once when I didn’t have a place. I was very close to them and felt that they deserved a bigger platform,” he explains.
“I understood that my job with them was always just to get everything out of the way, if that makes sense. So with my producer hat on, it was just to clear the way and get the most direct line between them and the audience as possible. That’s really what we tried to do from the word go. I think that’s why the chemistry of the three of us worked really well.
“When I was finding my feet in a new environment, hosting the show, they kept the show really strong, even when I was still figuring things out.”
Pickering’s mix of comedy and editorial fired for ABC, even if some viewers initially accused him of mirroring US hosts such as Jon Stewart and John Oliver.
“I was more than comfortable with anyone saying we were like The Daily Show,” he reveals.
“Pretty early, we learned that we had to make our own show, which was right for an Australian audience, and I guess, worked to my strengths and used the great talent that we had to work. Heading into Season 10, this might be the year that I get it right!”
Gleeson and Flanagan have since found their own success in ABC hits Hard Quiz and comedy journalism or joke-alism, respectively, sometimes -it has to be said- drawing higher ratings than The Weekly itself.
“I’m more than comfortable with that. I don’t take it personally… the only caveat I’d say is, I feel like a 8:30 Wednesday, whilst it’s the greatest piece of TV real estate there is if you’re a comedian, it can be a bit of a bloodbath against a few reality formats and State of Origin!”
Replacing audience favourites, like Flanagan and Gleeson, was always a challenge, but over a decade the show has welcomed Judith Lucy, Adam Briggs, Luke McGregor, Zoë Coombs Marr and Rhys Nicholson while there are regular appearances by Margaret Pomeranz and Roy & HG.
“They lend me some credibility. I just feel incredibly lucky. I just sit there and laugh like a drain at Roy & HG whenever they’re on. In my opinion, you’d probably put them on par with Clark & Dawe as the funniest thing this country’s ever produced,” he maintains.
“I’ve chosen to work with incredibly funny people, who are happy and comfortable to talk about the world and not just themselves. That’s probably the defining factor. We are a show about the world, about the news and what’s on TV. With a lot of comedians, the material is very much about themselves and their personal experience.”
As he heads into a 10th season in 2024, Pickering has nominated several moments as personal highlights, in no particular order:
- Psychic medium John Edward interviewed on Hard Chat.
“I think Tom said to him, so do you see people all around you all the time? And he said, ‘Yes.’ And Tom says, ‘Like, even when you masturbate?’ It’s like John had never contemplated it before and it was very, very funny.”
- Charlie Pickering visits Sam Neill in NZ.
“Sam Neill was our first ever guest on the show. He agreed to come on a show he’d never seen before. We had never met before the show and he could not have been more lovely…. A few seasons later, we went to his vineyard in New Zealand and we filmed a sketch with him like a mockumentary. I was going to interview him and he had completely forgotten that I was coming and thought I was Rove.”
- Kitty Flanagan’s Rule for Life
“Kitty did a segment promoting a book that didn’t exist. She wrote all these Rules for Life and filmed this funny sketch talking about them…. Within a week, we started getting phone calls from bookshops, because people had been coming in asking for the book. We told Kitty, and she said, ‘Yeah, I keep getting emails asking where the book is?’ And so she wrote the book, and it was a best-seller!”
“Interviewing Harrison Ford, was a highlight. …He was doing a junket in back to back interviews but he gave us an extra 10 minutes. About halfway through, I realised that he has an incredible sense of humour, that doesn’t show a lot in interviews. I started taking some risks with him and he played along. In the end, we were swearing at each other comedically and laughing our arses off.”
- Cal Wilson’s Don’t Rape Song
“There was a song that was the creation of the tragically departed Carl Wilson who worked as a writer. It came from a conversation that she and I had -and this is some heavy content- that so much of the public messaging around rape and sexual assault is telling women to be careful, and not telling men to not rape. We wrote a song about it, and she wrote it, produced it. We got Angie Hart, Miranda Tapsell Geraldine Quinn singing like a Motown trio. We had dancers, it was a massive production number. I just remember the absolute pride we had in the green room after the show that we’d actually made it and it worked. It was a thing worth doing but it was also funny and looked fantastic. I think about Cal a lot. She was wonderful professionally, but also personally with me, and no doubt everyone she ever met.”
- Media boos Adam Goodes
“Tom Gleeson was explaining the difference between boos (directed at AFL’s Adam Goodes) and whether it was a racist boo or a boo that was critical of football. A week later the Goodes story was still going off. I felt that there was an absolute tide of the entire media running one way. We had a chance to find clips, and line up an argument that there was this one way traffic that was completely misreporting what was going on.
“But rather than just talk about football, we used that to talk about high rates of Indigenous incarceration.
“It’s always been my feeling, and the feeling of the team that makes the show, that our top job is to make jokes. To be the funniest show we can possibly be. But at the same time, if everyone’s looking and laughing, that is always an opportunity to say something that they might remember, or say something that just might count in how someone understands something.”
Pickering also nominates one more highlight…
“To work with the team that I’ve gotten to work with for 10 years…and the people who come along, live in the studio, it’s just been, the honour of a lifetime. I’m not hanging up the boots anytime soon, unless someone makes me obviously. But looking back at 10 years, it’s just been been an absolute privilege.
“For everyone to give me that much support personally has been incredible.”
The Weekly Season 10 begins 8:30pm Wednesday on ABC.