Comedy’s ‘old fart’ pays it forward with fresh comic talent

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Helping Chas Licciardello answer viewer questions ranging from the trivial (Should tomato sauce be kept in the fridge?) to the serious (What would a truly representative Australian parliament look like?) on the ABC’s new investigative sketch show WTFAQ are some fresh faces.

Along with Lawrence Leung, The Feed’s Alex Lee and Reputation Rehab’s Kirsten Drysdale, are emerging comics Lou Wall (recipient of the 2023 Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Moosehead award) and, co-hosting the first episode, Cameron James.

The cast of WTFAQ (from left) Lou Wall, Lawrence Leung, Alex Lee, Chass Licciardello, Cameron James and (sitting) Kirsten Drysdale.

“It’s huge for me,” says James, whose writing credits include Gruen, We Interrupt this Broadcast and Win the Week.

“I was quite happy being a stand-up comedian and getting to write on a bunch of different shows. I always had a fantasy that maybe I’d get to be in something one day, but I never really let myself believe it.

“So I was surprised when Chas asked me to be a part of it, and I’m stoked. I took it as a challenge to compete with him to do the craziest things on the show.”

Licciardello, a self-described “old fart” of the industry, feels ethically bound to give new talent a go.

“I had a leg up from Andrew Denton, so I’m paying it forward,” says the Chaser and Planet America presenter.

“And there aren’t a lot of new shows that provide opportunities. All these comedians have done the legwork. Leaving aside the experience, Cam has what it takes. I’ve been following him for the best part of 10 years … His podcast [Special Features with Alexei Toliopoulos] comes from the same ilk as this show.

“Even if everything he said was fictional, you would still listen to it because he’s funny. That, to me, is the ideal scenario: when you’re not compromising on information, but you’re also funny.”

Little did Licciardello realise when production on WTFAQ (pronounced What the Fack?) started in Sydney, that he and James had appeared on television together before. In 2007, James was an extra in an “open house inspection pool party” sketch in the second season of The Chaser’s War on Everything.

“My friends and I tried our hardest to be on television, doing backflips into the pool and all that kind of stuff,” says James. “I told Chas that by about week three of production that the first time I was ever on TV was in a sketch that he made. He went, oh god! That one that was one of our worst ones!”

WTFAQ is Licciardello’s response to a realisation he had while sorting questions sent in to the ABC’s consumer awareness series The Checkout, on which he was script editor, that there was growing distrust in the community.

“I found it sad that people, and especially over the last few years, have a lot of suspicion,” says Licciardello. “There’s a lot of division and cynicism about other people’s motives. I thought it would be nice to make a show that’s not about politics. Our motivation’s not to preach.

“We don’t have some agenda. We just want to get to the bottom of stuff, and if people trust us to do that, we could be a genuinely useful public service while still at the same time being a fun show. And that’s what the ABC’s meant to do.”

In addition to the performances by established and emerging comedians, some amusing moments on WTFAQ are courtesy of the experts brought on to explain dilemmas such as, “Can I lift a car to save my baby?” (weightlifter Josh Patacca), and “Does feeling cold make you more likely to catch a cold?” (Dr Norman Swan). Not all those approached agreed to take part.

“You’d be amazed how many people happen to be aware of my past,” says Licciardello, laughing. “A few were a bit nervous about what we were doing, but I’m glad to say that I don’t think there was a single expert that regretted it, so that was nice.”

WTFAQ screens at 9pm on Wednesday, August 30, on the ABC.

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