With much fanfare, The 7pm Project finally arrived last night, the latest in a series of news-based comedy shows that have been popping up on Australian screens in the last few years. Purporting to be “…not a satirical newscast in the style of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, but a TV show joining in the conversations going on in living rooms around the country”, it seeks to engage younger viewers who have grown up with a 24/7 news cycle and short attention span. News-based comedy seems an ideal template for the Twitter generation, but it’s also a tricky art to nail in a country where our TV comedy tradition is more firmly based in sketch than news or satire.

The shift toward news comedy hybrids in Australia has given us shows such as The Chaser’s War on Everything, the revamped Good News Week and Newstopia.

Ian Simmons, the head writer for Good News Week (both incarnations) tells Crikey there’s a good reason for this shift towards the topical.

“For a start, it’s relatively cheap to make. Your source materials are newspapers and unlike a sketch or sitcom, you don’t have to pay for expensive wardrobe, sets and locations. You just need the right five people in front so you can watch them find out things.”

As a rule, Australians seem to prefer relatable faces messing about with the news to hard-hitting satire. It’s a strange paradox that we judge Americans as backward in their sense of irony when it is they who currently lead the field in satirical, topical comedy with shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Simmons believes it’s a numbers thing.

“America has 280 odd million people and 50 states. There is an enormous amount of people generating news and an enormous amount of things to talk about. Here, there’s only just enough news, weirdness and stupidity for about an hour a week.”

It’s also a cultural thing. Australian TV comedy is deeply steeped in sketch and character-based acts. From Barry McKenzie to Norman Gunston, Dame Edna to Kath and Kim, our characters are the best-known parts of our comedic tradition. Even the two men who have continued to hold the flag for satire for decades, John Clarke and Brian Dawe, do so in the guise of characters in either sketch or sitcom form. It seems to be what Australians are most comfortable watching. And when Australians are uncomfortable, you can be sure that you’ll hear about it.

When The Chaser team was roundly castigated for their “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation” sketch it revealed another reason why satire rarely makes the grade in Australia.

“There’s almost a part of people that wants to be outraged,” says Simmons. “That sketch was two minutes in half an hour. People being outraged the next day, sure, but it went on for weeks.”

Simmons believes it’s partially attributable to our uncertain times.

“So much is out of our control — the war in Afghanistan, the GFC, Swine flu, they all affect us in different ways. This is a way for people to claw back some control in their lives, to express their anger and their outrage and to make them feel good about themselves.”

Which leads us back to the numbers thing — because of our relatively small population, vocal and indignant wowsers receive a greater share of voice than they would in countries like the US, where they can turn over and watch something else.

But the good news is that we can laugh about the news again. Post-September 11 there was a dearth of news comedy that lasted until not long ago — roughly around the time K-Rudd dispensed with the J-Ho. Twitter and social networking sites mean people are more personally engaged in the news cycle and can connect not just with the stories but with people involved in stories as they happen, which should put paid to the notion that Gen Y was always going to be zoned out in front of the Play Station ignoring the world.

News comedy in Australia might not be The Daily Show we wish it were, but if we can dispense with the wowserism and give it some backbone, we may see some decent satire yet.

*Disclaimer — I have worked as a writer for Good News Week and am a satirical stand-up comedian.