Been there, talked about that
Journalist Samantha Lane, media personality Yumi Stynes and comedian Dave Thornton.
ON PAPER, it doesn't seem like much. A bunch of talking heads conjecturing, reminiscing, musing and pontificating about life interspersed with old footage from the ABC archives.
Yet an intriguing cast of agony uncles, followed soon after by agony aunts, helped create one of the freshest and funniest new series of 2012. A new eight-part series, The Agony of Life, combines a cast of aunts and uncles and begins on February 6.
It's a satisfying development for Adam Zwar, the former journalist who, along with partner Amanda Brotchie, is the brains behind the series. The original season of Agony Uncles was filmed in 2010 and sat in limbo before it aired in 2012.
The Agony of Life's cast includes comedian Lawrence Mooney.
Zwar, whose production resume´ includes the hit series Wilfred and Lowdown, came up with the Agony idea when Foxtel's Comedy Channel ran a competition encouraging creative types to submit a three-minute pilot video. The winner of the competition would receive $25,000 to film more of their idea.
He coaxed game show host Rob Elliott, comedian Des Dowling and cricketer Damien Fleming to join him in a raw version of Uncles. They lost the prize. Zwar pitched it to the ABC; they did not think it was particularly funny.
Zwar was adamant the idea of men dispensing life advice with a comedic undertone - kind of Grumpy Old Men, less the grumpiness - had legs. He waited two years for the ''stench'' of the Comedy Channel pilot to dissipate and made another pilot, this time with two comedians: Lawrence Mooney and Sam Pang. The ABC liked what it saw.
Series creator Adam Zwar: 'The girls are confessing; the guys are on stage.'
Today, the hirsute Zwar is in the inner-city offices of his production company, editing the fifth episode of Agony of Life. The 41-year-old left journalism in his early 30s. However, in producing Agony, Zwar is clearly using his skills as a trained hack. At the start of each season, he develops episode topics. Every personality interviewed for the show is subjected to a two-hour-plus grilling. Each interrogation is transcribed before Zwar cuts and pastes all of the relevant text for each episode into another document and begins sourcing footage.
''We then cull it down, write a script and hone in further on the topic,'' he says. His production partners will assess what is not working.
''It's quick, intense and all-consuming,'' Zwar says. ''It's the hardest I've ever worked. I edit all day and then am up until 2am going through material making sure there's nothing missed. You have to be brutal. You become obsessed by it.''
As much as Agony is a pet project for Zwar, the cast featured last season - a mixture of writers, comedians, actors and journeymen - benefited enormously. Semi-obscure actor Leah Vandenberg, for one, was a revelation.
Lawrence Mooney was also an inspired selection. When he sat down to film his interview, Mooney looked intently at Zwar and said, ''I'm going to carve this up''. It was then, Zwar says, he knew the show would work.
For his part, Mooney was taken aback by the impact Agony Uncles has had on his career.
''Its reach blew me away,'' Mooney says. ''I have never had such a high degree of recognition for anything I've been involved in. For the first time my live audience and the viewing public were on the same page.''
Midway through filming Uncles, the ABC requested if Zwar could produce an Agony Aunts. Filming that series four months later, Zwar was startled by the differing approach taken by the aunts.
''They played a different game,'' he says. ''They think more about relationships than men do. The guys were charming, funny and shocking. The girls take it very seriously.''
The aunts attempt to sincerely answer the question at hand. The uncles instead match the question to an anecdote.
''The girls are confessing; the guys are on stage,'' Zwar says, ''which is wonderful.''
Journalist Samantha Lane, impressive in the first season, says her father, the broadcaster Tim, cannot watch Agony, as the show's subject matters are uncomfortably personal. Lane has similar stories to Mooney in terms of the show's reach. ''People would tell me quietly that they really like me in the show,'' she says. ''It was a strange sensation, because I knew it meant they'd seen and heard me talk about things that I don't usually talk about in my usual working life.''
Lane says she was interested in doing the show after it was pitched to her directly by Zwar.
''Adam struck me as an interesting person and somebody who was making things outside the box,'' she says. ''My sense was he was making something with integrity and not trashy.''
The decision to this year combine the aunts and uncles into one series follows the lead of the Finnish broadcaster to whom Zwar has sold the series. The Agony of Life then is loosely based on the Seven Stages of Life. The final episode looks towards death and whether the aunts and uncles retain a belief system.
''Waleed Aly is always copping a hard time on radio for being a believer,'' Zwar says. ''He is asked how somebody as intelligent and rational as him believes in the afterlife.''
One episode features Yumi Stynes talking of her explosive time on The Circle in 2012. ''People talking about things they haven't spoken about publicly before gets the newsman in me going.''
There are several tweaks to the cast this year. Several actors were working overseas, for instance. The ABC, sensing the mainstream potential of the show, requested more television performers than writers and directors. While there are still plenty of laughs, the tone of the season is somewhat sober.
''It was interesting because [in 2012] I was able to laugh at my ineptitude in regards to women, relationships and emotional maturity,'' Mooney says. ''But when you start talking about family and history and childhood you get into deep water very quickly. There's all this Freudian stuff swirling around, I'm telling my story, tears are welling in my eyes and my inner comedian is screaming, 'This better be funny when you get to the end, dickhead'.''
Lane, in particular, is candid in discussing the circumstances around losing her mother.
''She and that experience remain very much a part of my life and who I am,'' she says. ''I have no reason to ever refer to that in talking or writing about sport but in terms of the way that I see life, losing mum is the biggest thing that has happened to me.''
For season three, Zwar says he would like to move into the social aspect of life: etiquette, manners, weddings, life's big events.
As for Lowdown, his scripted comedy series about a tabloid newspaper, Zwar says US and British companies are interested in buying the format. The ABC is yet to confirm a third season. Still, you get the sense Agony is where Zwar's heart now lies.
''Agony brings it all together for me,'' he says.
The Agony of Life airs on Wednesday at 9pm on ABC1.