Forty seconds – that's all it took for the twitterverse to cast its judgment on Here Come the Habibs. And it wasn't pretty.
"Well doesn't Here Come the Habibs look f---ing awful," the first poster wrote on December 23.
Trailer: Here come the Habibs
Trailer: The Wild Life
Trailer: Hell or High Water
Trailer: Doctor Strange
Trailer: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Trailer: The Red Pill
Trailer: Here come the Habibs
It's a second migration for the Habib family, first it was Lebanon to Australia, now the western suburbs to Vaucluse.
Soon after, a classic Twitter stacks-on was unfolding, as posters rushed to condemn. "Looks like utter tripe"; "words fail me"; "you cannot be serious"; "will be lucky to last three episodes"; "television at its best, from 1974"; "trying to take casual racism to a new low"; "could quite possibly take the cake for the worst show ever to air on Australian TV".
They weren't judging the actual show, of course, merely the 40-second promo Nine had put to air some six weeks before its debut.
"Any show that comes out, there's a lot of keyboard warriors who are going to have a go at it," notes Rob Shehadie, the Lebanese-Australian comedian who co-created the six-part comedy series with Turkish-Australian Tahir Bilgic.
"There's some people out there calling it racism, saying this show is taking us back to the dark ages. On another network there's a show about a Chinese family that's being praised for being beautiful for multiculturalism [The Family Law, on SBS]. Is it only SBS and the ABC that can have wog shows? Why can't a commercial network do it?"
It's a fair question, but a complicated one.
Here Come the Habibs is a double rarity – the first original sitcom commissioned by a commercial free-to-air network in this country in 15 years (the last was Jean Kittson's Flat Chat in 2001; Seven's 2007 season of Kath & Kim came after three seasons on the ABC), and the first "ethnic" comedy on mainstream TV since Acropolis Now wound up in 1992.
So the question really isn't why can't a commercial network do it, but what took them so long?
"I think commercial networks in Australia are risk-averse when it comes to comedy," says Phil Lloyd, head writer and one of the producers of Here Come the Habibs. "They've been burnt a couple of times, they haven't found formats that suit. It's expensive for them and if it doesn't rate, well it's just too hard."
Lloyd is best known as a co-writer and star of Review With Myles Barlow, The Moodys, and The Elegant Gentleman's Guide to Knife Fighting, all on the ABC (he also played Julia Gillard's partner Tim Mathieson in At Home With Julia). He is based in LA now, where an American version of The Moodys is in development and two Americanised seasons of Myles Barlow have gone to air on the Comedy Channel.
He has some serious comedy runs on the board, but he acknowledges there's a certain anxiety that comes from being part of Nine's first dip of the toe in the sitcom pool for such a long time.
Is it only SBS and the ABC that can have wog shows? Why can't a commercial network do it?Rob Shehadie
"Fifteen years – no pressure," he jokes. "Actually, it's super exciting to have this opportunity. I think it was the concept they went for as much as the fact it was a comedy."
Here Come the Habibs is about a Lebanese family who move from Sydney's west to a waterfront mansion in Vaucluse after winning the lottery. But it's also about the snooty neighbours, Olivia (Helen Dallimore) and Jack (Darren Gilshenan) O'Neil, who are put out because they wanted to buy the property (it used to be theirs until, Olivia says, "my senile grandfather subdivided it").
Yes, ethnic stereotypes abound, but the show is about old money versus new money as much as it is about race. And despite all the noise about vilifying Muslims, there's no mention of religion (though the Habibs are, apparently, Christian).
"It was meant to be as much about having a laugh at the way the wealthier half live," Lloyd says. "The Habibs have come from no money, suddenly they have lots of money and they have access to that world. Hopefully people are able to get as many laughs out of the O'Neils as they are out of the Habibs."
Shehadie and Bilgic came up with the idea for the show about four years ago. "Originally, both families were getting along, and the comedy was from the Habibs being a fish-out-of-water family," says Shehadie. "As it went along we went a little edgier, we wanted to see the O'Neils trying to get rid of the Habibs. It gives it a bit more comedy in the tension between the two families."
As for the issue of racism, Lloyd insists: "We tried not to think of it in that way too much. We wanted to tell stories that perhaps you wouldn't see in another show. We didn't go, 'What can we say about race relations or race?' but we thought it would be funny to lampoon attitudes and prejudices."
This is tricky territory, of course. Arguably, Love Thy Neighbour – the benchmark for comedies that are both about racism and perceived to be utterly racist – set out in the 1970s to skewer its white chauvinist Eddie Booth (Jack Smethurst) as a small-minded bigot. But his constant litany of put-downs of West Indian neighbour Bill (Rudolph Walker) gained its own vicious momentum and turned him into a kind of cult idiot-savant. Ditto Ted Bullpitt (Ross Higgins) in Kingswood Country in the 1980s.
More recently, the Australian web series How to Talk Australians seemed unsure who was the butt of its central joke – the Indian students at the English language school, or the Australians whose culture they were clumsily trying to navigate, in an echo of They're a Weird Mob from the 1960s.
Clearly, dealing in ethnic types is a fraught business, but Lloyd hopes having two of the most experienced comedians on the circuit on the team lends a certain veracity – or at least a degree of licence – to the project.
"It was interesting, in the writing process Rob would suggest something to me, a middle-class white guy, and I might cringe a bit, and go, 'Oh that's a bit stereotyped'. And Rob would laugh and say, 'Yeah, but it's true. I know a guy like that, who walks like that and talks like that'," he says. "It was about finding the happy medium of using that stuff and hopefully coming at it in a fresh way."
For Shehadie, a veteran of Paul Fenech's Pizza on SBS (a show utterly unafraid of ethnic stereotyping and aimed squarely at a second-generation immigrant audience), Here Come the Habibs is a golden opportunity not only to be funny but also to normalise ethnicity for mainstream (ie white, Anglo) Australia.
"Hopefully this will open a lot of doors for multicultural actors," he says. "They usually audition to play a criminal or a bad boy. I'd love to play a doctor one day rather than someone who's being chased by cops."
WHAT Here Come the Habibs
WHEN Nine, Tuesday, February 9, 8.30pm