By GREG DIXON
It seems reports of the death of local sketch comedy have been greatly exaggerated. Just when it appeared time to start ringing around cemeteries to find out exactly where the carcass had been buried, there comes news that it's about to make a reappearance.
And you might be excused for doing a double take when it does return, Lazarus-like, to our screens on TV One tomorrow night. That's because this latest incarnation of Sketch-comedius Zealandus comes togged up in a prosthetic mask.
Called Facelift and produced by Wellington's Gibson Group, the series is a sort of bizarre mix of traditional sketch comedy and the talking, rubber puppets used in Public Eye, an old local political comedy based on Britain's Spitting Image.
"If Public Eye was son of Spitting Image, Facelift is a cousin of both," says producer Chris Ellis.
"We wanted to evolve the whole Public Eye concept, which was those great big rubbery puppets they had back in the 80s, and see if we could achieve caricatures that had real human eyes and which could move around in a real environment.
"The puppets, of course, couldn't do any of those things and had ping-pong-ball eyes. Although they were kind of engaging to look at, after a while it was sort of unsatisfying. You couldn't really buy into their world. Eyes are really important for reading expressions."
Pulling off the transition from puppet caricatures to human caricatures has been a hugely complex and ambitious task for the seven-part, half-hour show.
Having cast the actors for voice and performance skills, moulds were taken of their heads and prosthetic masks then sculptured by a local model-making company over that base to create 23 characters (so far), from Don Brash to Paul Holmes.
However, the key to caricature is the caricaturist, and Ellis has drafted in one of the country's best: Trace Hodgson.
The Nelson cartoonist, who should be revered for his work in the Listener during the 80s and for once casting Richard Prebble as a snarling bulldog, was perfect because he has such a nasty sense of humour.
"He's got a good, solid vicious streak in him," Ellis says, "I love him.
Hodgson, who worked on Public Eye (interesting factoid: Weta's Richard Taylor made the puppet heads), was more than happy to be involved: there's been a dearth of such fare for too long.
"Our satire is certainly getting better. But it's sort of moving in different directions. People like Newsboy and Havoc have their own angle on satire. But we've been lacking a bit on political satire, targeting politicians. We haven't seen it on TV for a while. We need to do more — and I feel that's my specialty and I'm keen to have a go at anybody at any time really."
Between them, Ellis and Hodgson have turned familiar faces into something like walking, talking cartoons. With little back stories created for each, Hodgson provided front and side view cartoons for them and the sculptors went to work.
So Rodney Hide is a mole ferreting for bits of paper and hoarding tidbits on other people, Kim Hill wears feathers and has talons. Helen Clark is extremely domineering and horsey — not too far from her normal persona, Ellis says.
"She's into tramping and going on weird holidays, climbing things — the north face of Don Brash without oxygen."
Of course, the heart of comedy is the script. And Ellis — using an internet ad — has cast a wide net to gather 25 writers from a range of backgrounds. One is doing a doctoral thesis, another is an ex-Shortland Street scriptwriter who has gone bush on the West Coast.
The scripts are written on spec — 25 or so will be selected for each show — and will be done at the last minute: the Sunday before going to air. The programme will be shot in a single day.
"It's a bit of a white-knuckle ride but if you're going to get stories on to TV that are reasonably topical then you don't have any other option."
There's no option on the defamation lawyers either, who, along with the network, will see the scripts twice and view a final rough cut of the show. Under those circumstances, how brave will Facelift be?
"I would want [the lawyers] to be bumping stuff occasionally because if they don't, it means we're not pushing the envelope. You do get some leeway for attempting genuine satire.
"Of course, it always makes producers nervous when lawyers say 'we think you're on pretty solid ground'. Hopefully we'll be pushing the envelope, but we're going to be sensible about it."
By GREG DIXON