I dont know whether youve noticed, but theres a bit of an obsession with crime thats built up the last few years. I put it down to the Underbelly effect. The writhing naked bodies and the brazen offhand, almost pedestrian depiction of violent and murderous crime, has been mighty popular and its got plenty of company on the small screen. Theres a plethora of reality-TV cop, Customs and criminal gang shows in orbit around Underbelly trying to grab some spillover ratings. Its like everyones getting in on the act. The present dispute between the Hells Angels and Comancheros seems to fit quite neatly in the mix. As thought the necessary groundwork is being set for a future installment. Underbelly 5: Hell on Wheels
Into this crime drenched media landscape comes Andrew Fraser former highflying criminal lawyer, cocaine abuser and maximum security prisoner, with his Comedy Festival panel show Highly Sus.
Its a unique idea. A panel of experts, with an understanding of the ways of the criminal world, must hear the confession of a balaklava clad baddie; ask probing questions, and judge if the story being told is legitimate or is highly sus. The audience then get their turn to proffer their opinion before the truth is revealed.
It is a very difficult format to pull off successfully I venture, and it starts with a few handicaps. Neither Mr. Fraser as host of the show, nor his panel members are professional entertainers. They dont have the slick glib patter that makes panel based comedy shows like Spicks and Specks or Good News Week flow seamlessly, and nor do they have the benefit of pre-recording and a professional editing team to slice out the dud bits and wrap it up into a polished easily digestible package.
As a result Highly Sus has quite a number of awkward moments. For a start there are great slabs of dead air time as they say in radio land, as we wait for the players to move around the stage. Then theres the panel buzzers with their joke sound effects, which although somewhat humorous the first time, tend to pale a bit after the fifteenth. And theres the panel members themselves. On Saturday the expert panel included crime journo, Andrew Rule of Underbelly fame, a hard bitten former cop from the armed robbery division, and a large, voluble and opinionated criminal lawyer.
These three seemed a bit constrained. They might well be experienced at performing in their professional capacity, and Im sure with a few grogs under their belts, in the right setting amongst work mates and other insiders, theyd hold the floor with their stories, but in public no surprise – they were a bit guarded. After all no ex-copper is going to publically spill the beans on what went on behind closed doors in Russell St. when the police are having a little chat to persons of interest.
The real show though is the balaclava clad defendants and the stories they tell. Some defendants are who they claim to be and others are not, and its these stories told by these anonymous hooded men, and written presumably by Mr. Fraser himself that are the most humorous and intriguing part of the show. I presume Mr. Fraser has plundered what must be a huge repertoire of crime anecdotes gathered from his many years of defending the meanest of hombres, and chatting with them in the prison yard. These yarns are sometimes improbable but also quite believable.
After the confession the defendants face their cross-examination at the hands of the panel, who attempt to pick holes in the story. Again, the panel members, not being professional entertainers, tended to make this a display of their own hard-bitten cynicism rather than drawing out the entertainment value of the moment. Also this is where the skill of the defendants themselves is tested because the fakes among them must convincingly portray a lifetime spent on the wrong side of the tracks. This takes really good acting skills, and I think on the whole these baddies were up to the job.
This show is rough around the edges, and is clearly not to everyones taste (as evidenced by some in-flight departures), but – I dont know – call me perverse, I enjoyed it. I didnt mind the fumbles they added colour. I liked the stories they were funny and they depicted of a world that most of us are not exposed to, and I liked the challenge of trying to pick the legit defendant from the highly sus.
One potential fatal flaw with this whole idea is the practical necessity of keeping secrets in the criminal underworld. Real criminals are unlikely to feel inclined to divulge the true extent of their crimes to an audience of comedy festival goers and so the real defendants must either disclose only those stories where they has served their time or they must tell stories where they were an innocent observer. This might tend to make the fake stories more fantastic than the real ones, and hence make picking them easier. The way to solve this I suppose is with good scripts and a large supply of reformed crooks ready to have their shot at the limelight.
This show certainly needs work but the content is fascinating; and the format, if put on the telly and edited into a slick half-hour, with some more thought put into the scripts and the way the panel members interact could compete well against todays reality crime tosh. Who knows it might even prick the bubble of the Underbelly phenomenon. Then again – thinking about Anna Hutchinsons norks maybe not.