Melbourne’s cavernous soundstages at Docklands Studios can simultaneously house productions for multiple TV shows or feature films, but last September it wasn’t hard to distinguish which soundstage hosted the hit American network drama La Brea and which one was at home Aunty Donna’s Coffee Cafethe sitcom that brings the Melbourne sketch comedy pundits to the ABC.
In the corridors of the latter, a parade of extras could be divided into three groups: nerds, sportsbros and vampires. Apparently they were needed for a musical number that was part of the sixth and final installment in the series. On one hand, guest star Miranda Tapsell was dressed in Chanel pink and heels. And when word politely arrived that Mark Bonanno, one of the three cast members who make up Aunt Donna’s public face, would be delayed for a few minutes, it was for a reasonably unexpected reason.
“He’s covered in blood,” was the explanation. “We had to blow up a hamster.”
A sitcom is the most institutional of all television comedies. The half-hour structure dates back to the 1950s and even today has policies that are almost codified. If that seems an unlikely destination for Aunty Donna – cast members Bonanno, Zachary Ruane and Broden Kelly, co-writer Sam Lingham, director Max Miller and composer Thomas Zahariou – after a career built on absurd sketches and brain-bending leaps of imagination, rest assured that contradiction was exactly what attracted the group.
“When we first started working on the idea of a sitcom, we were all very excited because we’d never done anything like this before,” says Bonanno. “Of course, because we’ve never done anything like this before, it could get really bad.”
Still clutching a couple of tissues but mostly free of fake hamster blood from the props department, the lanky comic sparkplug laughs heartily at the thought of failure. Raised from early incarnations around the performing arts programs at the University of Ballarat, Aunty Donna made a name for herself with a chaotic comedy circuit style that won festival awards and quickly grew to a massive YouTube following. Their material is wacky, often brilliantly wacky, but behind the scenes they thoughtfully discuss each creative leap.
“We’re getting to a point now where we’re like, ‘What do we think of a sitcom?’ Hopefully, “what’s our take on a feature film?” That’s what we’re working towards because I don’t just want to do sketch comedy,” says Bonanno. “Everything has to come to an end at some point, and we’ve been doing that for a decade. In the remaining time we want to explore different mediums.”
The international breakthrough of the group was Aunty Donna’s big old fun house, a sketch comedy series for Netflix that came out in November 2020 and was a perfect distillation of its ridiculous concepts and ridiculously complete commitment to a bit. Most creators would be disappointed that they didn’t get the green light for a second season, but in Aunt Donna’s case, they believe they dodged a bullet.
“While it would have been nice for everyone to see that, we’ve been drawing creatively for 10 years. Even in the first season there was old stuff, new stuff, old stuff with a fresh coat of paint. I don’t really know how a second season would have gone,” says Bonanno. “This show really grew out of the question, ‘Can we do something exciting and different?’ When we spoke to ABC about it and they learned it had a sitcom element to it, they asked if we could call that.”
On paper, Aunty Donna’s Coffee Cafe is a workplace comedy. Mark, Zach and Broden are just three friends trying to make their small business a success. Each episode revolves around the coffee cafe set, and the show has regulars who offer a whimsical presence, albeit one prone to light-hearted, off-kilter commentary. There are schemes to attract more clients, a blind date gone awry, and audience representation in the form of unimpressed new hire Stephanie (Gaby Seow). On the other hand, there are also landmarked wasps, a crazy five-dollar bill conspiracy, and demonic possession.
“The reason I keep thinking we can do it is The Mighty Boosh. It’s a sitcom structure and it’s absolutely insane going wild,” says Bonanno. “Our main concern is that while absurdity is great, if it doesn’t have anything relatable to start with, it can just get too weird. Now this show is getting too weird, but it’s always grounded. It goes back to three friends who run a coffee shop.”
If there’s any doubt about the execution of this creative balancing act, it doesn’t show on the set. Max Miller calmly prepares a two-camera shoot while Sam Lingham, fresh off the role of one of the nerds, sits happily by. “We’re ending on a positive note,” he says of the series before moving on to Kelly’s longtime partner, who came out of makeup covered in a strange substance for a gag that’s on the inclusion list.
“We worked with Max when the crew was just him with a camera on his shoulder,” says Zachary Ruane. “We may be in Docklands with a crew of 50, but in a way it’s still just us and Max. We have good people doing a great job, but when push comes to shove, I know I will.” can play and that Max gets it.”
One of the things Aunt Donna discussed before the shoot coffee cafe, and each Sunday prior to a week of production, was how the sitcom structure would match their performance style. If the obvious answer was to quell her eruptive energy, the instinctive response was to go the other way.
“As a writer, I really wanted the accessibility that a narrative adds, the continuity that it offers to an audience, and it’s tempting to think that way as an actor, to think of continuity,” says Ruane. “We want to fight against this and become more intense. There is actually a basis on which we can play out.”
The last time Aunt Donna did a show for ABC was eight years when they filmed a pilot for the national network’s Fresh Blood initiative in the Fitzroy apartment that Bonanno and Miller shared. Halfway through their unauthorized shoot, they were arrested by their landlord and then evicted while the ABC turned down the pilot. Now they propose a gag in which Richard Roxburgh plays a version of his beloved lawyer rakeand took it off while the actor appeared on set, ready to change into his familiar robes.
“Everyone just said yes: the ABC, the makers of rake, then Richard, then he was available,” says Bonanno. “It was a learning process, but it was fun. The smaller the box you work in, the more creative you have to be.”
Aunty Donna’s Coffee Cafe is on the ABC, Wednesday 9:30 p.m.
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https://www.smh.com.au/culture/tv-and-radio/we-had-to-blow-up-a-hamster-inside-aunty-donna-s-bonkers-abc-comedy-20230403-p5cxp0.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture Aunty Donna’s Coffee Cafe is breaking new ground for the ABC