There is a fine line between the oft-churlishly used tag ‘wacky’ and its more chin-stroking second cousin, ‘surreal’. Sometimes the line is so thin as to be barely perceptible. The former has a desperate air of trying too hard, (“Look at me, I’ve got sausage shorts! I’m mad, me!”) whereas the latter might do pretty much the same thing whilst making knowing reference to ancient philosophers (“I’m Nietzsche wearing sausage shorts, how nihilistic!”). There is a happy medium though: ‘absurdist’.
American / Australian Sketch troupe ‘Aunty Donna’ have been performing since 2012 and consists of writers/performers Mark Bonanno, Broden Kelly, and Zachary Ruane. Whilst Big Ol’ House of Fun is their first Netflix series, the group have been doing live performances every year and have produced a clutch of series for YouTube. Opening bit ‘Everything’s A Drum’ immediately gives you a flavour of what to expect.
Each episode starts with a song of sorts and ‘Everything’s A Drum’ is fairly self-explanatory. A joyous musical number accompanies each guy beating household items rhythmically and happily declaring that it is indeed a drum, until without warning a saucepan makes no noise. Suddenly the sketch swerves into screams of despair and protestations about secret pacts, before things snap back to where they were (albeit with increasingly manic and destructive energy).
The biggest problem that faces most sketch shows is that in the struggle to produce a high volume of material the temptation is there to take a basically funny idea and then just repeatedly drive it into the ground well past the point of any lingering amusement. Where Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun shines is that even within what can loosely be called a ‘sketch’ there are frequent side gags, forays into barely related territory, or just several competing elements all piling up at once.
Even bits like Zach getting a call from Ellen DeGeneres (actually Broden) and receiving over-hyped gifts quickly veers into a bizarre sequence of events involving Zach becoming a drug mule, a murderer, and an all-powerful god creature.
There are strong The Young Ones vibes radiating from the Aunty Donna’s style. Not so much in the ‘two fingers to society’ punk-like ethos of that groundbreaking 80s British show, but certainly in the manner that any conversation can swiftly be derailed by talking appliances or sudden surreal character appearances. Interviews for a new housemate after a talking dishwasher (voiced by Kristen Schaal no less) is booted out is a good excuse for lots of daft applicants (with ‘Cow-Doy’ a recurring favourite) but simultaneously a great visual gag whereby Zach manifests as poor wi-fi signal is likely where those 80s boys would have gone if they were making the show today.
A few sketches feel more forced than others, even with the ability to pivot to other ideas mid-section. A Family Fortunes / Feud section where each contestant is very wrong with very specific answers gets bogged down in enjoying the silliness of the wordplay rather than hitting any zingers. Plus the hyper exaggerated performances of the Aunty Donna boys can be a double-edged sword. It rescues some sketches due to sheer manic energy but there are moments where you might want to hit pause and take a deep breath before diving back in.
Sketch shows always have an unlimited possibility to provide a stream of unexpected laughs yet they are so frequently disappointing. I’m pleased to say that Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun hits the ‘absurdist’ angle just right so that even if a gag doesn’t grab you there will be a slew of others bursting at the seams like a dresser crammed with all the odd stuff round the house you don’t know what to do with. Just remember: everything’s a drum.
Words by Mike Record