From a small satirical newspaper funded by mum and dad investors (that is, their mums and dads) to a national brand poking fun at anyone and everyone, The Chaser team have proved punching above your weight in business is simply a matter of hitting the punch lines. Now, corporate lawyer turned funny man Julian Morrow charts the rise (and many falls) of The Chaser as he talks to Peter Switzer on SWITZER on Sky News Business Channel.
The Chaser started when a bunch of friends – school and university – started a satirical newspaper in 1999.
“We started off with a plan to try eight editions of the newspaper and we had mum and dad investors – that was, our mums and our dads – and we were committed that if after eight editions it wasn’t going anywhere, we’d shut it down.”
After the eight editions, says Morrow, their analysis showed it wasn’t going anywhere and the entourage decided to shut it down
“But we’re very poor at admin and it took us about five and a half years to actually shut it down.”
By then, they’d developed quite the following.
“Probably a few thousand subscribers. [But] we told everyone it was 20,000.”
Of course, says Switzer, that’s the magazine game.
“Yes, exactly. But I suppose we were lucky enough to attract the attention of some people in the industry who thought that the content was pretty good even though the presentation was a bit shabby. And one of those was Andrew Denton.”
Denton then went on to champion the brand, securing them a spot on ABC television covering the 2001 election.
“We actually pitched it to Channel 10,” recalls Morrow. “Channel 10 could have had the Chaser from day one but they passed on it in their infinite good judgement.”
(Interestingly, the boys have been courted many a time by network television – “We went and had a meeting, got a free feed, that was what we’re after,” says Morrow of an initial invitation to pitch to Channel Nine.)
So why did Auntie pick up what the commercial networks had rejected?
“I think the ABC was very keen to get Andrew back on air and they were willing to humour his pretensions as a producer by giving us some sort of little forgettable show.”
That forgettable little show was four episodes of The Election Chaser, and opened the door to the land of opportunity.
Back then, the boys’ faces were not posted on Wanted posters of political tearooms around the nation, giving them more liberties to turn up to press conferences disguised as “some random journos” and wreak havoc.
“I used to be a corporate lawyer so I had a few suits left in the wardrobe and I always used them to get the gigs trying to look like I was legit. And it worked quite well early on. It became a bit harder in later years when people kind of recognised us.”
The Chaser’s War on Everything – despite its high ratings – is not the only time the comedy troupe has scored a ratings coup.
“CNNNN was pretty successful and we had a couple of shows that we boasted to everyone rated over a million … we never told them that it was just because we were on after Kath and Kim.”
Smart spin offs
The War, though, certainly heralded a new era. In 2006, they shot 26 episodes, which was more than they’d shot for the previous six years.
“That put us on the map a bit more and it built up more of loyal following and that certainly flowed onto things like DVD sales, and the like.”
While working for the national broadcaster might not bring in commercial-calibre pay checks, The Chaser team managed to stay above the bread line thanks to merchandise and provisional sales.
“We’ve done quite a bit of merchandising,” says Morrow. “That’s one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed the fact that we started as a newspaper. We have, effectively, developed a brand that we own on the public broadcaster, which is great.”
The boys funded the stage show with DVD and merchandise revenue.
“That was something that was entirely owned by us … we’ve ripped off the tax payer in so many ways.”
And more recently, The Chaser are back with ABC’s The Hamster Wheel, after branching into cable television with a director’s cut style commentary, The War on Everything.
“We just bang on about ourselves and tell all sorts of flagrant lies about the way it was made.”
Comedians, says Switzer, are allowed to do anything.
“That’s right,” says Morrow, “we’re not bound by the truth.”
Or ethics, Switzer adds.
“Ethics is just an opportunity for a rort as far as we’re concerned.”
Morrow admits to running the business side of the show, but denies he is a business brain.
“The situation was that I wasn’t really cutting it in terms of creative merit so I had to move into management – you know how it is.”
Paul Keating, says Switzer, has a slightly similar story.
“True,” says Morrow. “Because I had done a bit of work as a lawyer, I was certainly keen to be negotiating the deals. So I’ve taken day-to-day carriage of the business aspects of it and that’s why a lot of the revenue that’s been generated from The Chaser has never entered our books at all and is now sitting in my personal account in the Cayman Islands.
“As far as The Chaser goes, it’s been a complete flop, the whole thing.”
The last laugh
Switzer asks – are they in danger of breaking up? Or do that subscribe to the legendary Working Dog model?
Morrow says The Chaser crew grew up on Working Dog productions, and, to date, the Working Dog team have “been very generous” with advice about the importance of retaining creative control.
“I suppose in the early days of The Chaser we were a bit shy about comparison, we thought it was probably a bit too egotistical to make the comparison. Now we’ve just got massive egos and we welcome it.”
Still, there is a certain extent of reverence – a characteristic many would think The Chaser team are devoid of – for the Working Dog team.
“They’ve been really good at being able to shift from team projects to a smattering of individual projects and then everyone coming back together for big projects. That’s something that I do aspire to, for all of us, because I think that if you could manage that balance, you have better prospects of longevity.”
Still, Morrow says it hasn’t always been a crowd pleaser, and there have been tough times.
“Some of the tougher moments in the personal relationships of The Chaser – and I want to clarify that we all hate each other … and have [done so] from the beginning – some of the tenser moments are probably in those middle years, when it wasn’t really clear whether we’d all be able to keep working in television or in entertainment.
“We actually found the last few years of the War on Everything quite a kind of cohesive experience – sometimes it’s the world versus The Chaser and that puts you all in the same bunker together.”
While Working Dog took their product global to great success, Morrow isn’t interested in conquering the world despite their initial success on the international circuit.
“I’ve always been a great believer, in terms of the creative industries, in the idea of the creative leading the business. So what I’m interested in is continuing to create good, interesting, original, all craftily plagiarised products.”
In this sense, Morrow says the secret is they play to their strengths (which, ironically, is highlighting others' weaknesses).
By keeping their eyes on the main game and focusing on what they do well, Morrow says, a good business – if not a business model – has simply stemmed from this.
“Whether it’s international or not, I’m not so fussed. I just would like us to be creating good shows that either entertain or appall people.”