There’s a new brand of Australiana making a splash on the international scene. And this time, there’s no crocodiles in sight.
Australian sketch comedy group Aunty Donna have recently released their six-part series, “Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun” in concert with Netflix. Their first true foray into an American market, the show marks a major step up for the group that got its start on YouTube back in 2011. Full of zany, irreverent humour, high-energy absurdist sketches and obscure references to Australian popular culture, the show proves that this generation’s comedy has global appeal.
New fans of the show might assume that the trio of Mark Bonanno, Zachary Ruane and Broden Kelly were three housemates who went mad in lockdown together and made a show about it. In truth, the various members of Aunty Donna in front of and behind the camera have been collaborating since 2011. The group was formed after its main members met at acting school in Ballarat. While they aren’t making the most serious content imaginable, their acting chops are undeniable.
“Not Every Idea Should Be A Sketch”
There’s a terrific chemistry among the boys of Aunty Donna. While recurring characters are frequent, their personas across sketches remain pretty much consistent. Broden’s typically the straight guy, Zach’s generally the eccentric one, and Mark is a little ball of manic energy. Their comedy is weird, high energy and absurd, flitting freely between opaque references to Australian popular culture, repeating the same joke over and over until it loses all meaning, and upending their viewers’ expectations. Formally in their filmed content or spontaneously in their more free-form podcasts and social media livestreams, their improvisational skills and manic senses of humour are omnipresent in everything they do.
Their content covers a wide range of topics, but generally they stick to what they’re familiar with. There are sketches satirising niche Australian pop culture references. There’s content about Australian High Schools. There are gags about Melbourne’s pretentious café culture. There’s even sketches about Mark’s Italian heritage. Unlike other comedians like Chris Lilley, however, this isn’t an act of punching down, and despite being very silly is still quite tasteful. Their particular sense of humour is also fully on display in some of their cruder sketches, such as Mark’s repeated references to semen. Throughout their work is a prevailing sense of warmth and good humour, which is definitely in part responsible for their supportive, endlessly committed fanbase.
Unable to find a slot on conventional TV networks, the group have made their careers on YouTube, where they have released a tremendous amount of excellent material. Their “Rumpus Room” and “Haven’t You Done Well” series garnered initial success, leading to their appearances at a number of live comedy events in Melbourne, Sydney and internationally.
A lot of this early work was a great indicator of the kinds of humour we could expect to see from them going forward. This is especially on display in this video that satirises the awkward, cringey experience of Year 9 Sex Ed.
It was with their more structured series like “1999” that they truly hit their stride. Set in a fictional office in the corporate world of the Y2K era, Mark, Broden and Zach parodied everything from corporate espionage, to cocaine use in the boardroom, to having a ‘cheeky tea break’.
Later series followed this hugely successful formula. “Ripper Aussie Summer” used the Australian backyard as a springboard for a wide range of gags. “Glennridge Secondary College” took the references to another level. Anyone who went to high school in Australia will be painfully familiar with the phrase “it’s your lunchtime”:
The Glennridge series was also important for cementing the group as part of Australian comedy’s big leagues, with cameos from heavyweights like Shaun Micallef and Tony Martin. Satirising the high school landscape, the focus is more on clever jokes and observational comedy than social commentary.
The group also dipped into the music world with The Album, released in 2018. Comic compositions still leaned into their sketch comedy roots, mixing genres and subject matter, but always maintaining the same feeling.
2020’s pandemic saw the group unable to collaborate or meet as freely, as the intense Melbourne lockdown rendered them unable to film. Translating their podcast recordings to an online format made for a strange, yet captivating watch:
And Don’t Forget Pizza…
Most strange of all their collaborations is their ongoing obsession with Dominos Pizza, ultimately culminating in a trip to their HQ in Brisbane to meet the CEO, Don Meij. The full documentary of this encounter can be found here:
And literally as this article was being written, they announced the following cross-promotional deal with the very same pizza empire:
From YouTube to Netflix
Big Ol’ House of Fun sees them translate their years of skill into a longer, more structured episodic format. And while they were conscious of the huge new audience Netflix would bring them, their loyalty to their diehard fanbase meant that this was by no means just an introductory piece. Set in a geographically confused sharehouse, each episode uses a basic theme as a jumping off point to go a little crazy.
The show isn’t without its teething pains. They were given great creative freedom with how the production was made, but there are still a few intrusions from their American friends. The most awkward example of this is the painfully indulgent “Egg Helms” sequence.
While this may be a matter of opinion, the attempt to blend Aunty Donna’s style with a bit that would be more at home in Helms’ stomping ground “The Office” is by far the low point of the series.
No Need to Worry
Despite this, Big Ol’ House of Fun is still classic Aunty Donna. There’s a great mix of new content, adaptations of live sketches, and reskins of existing material from their YouTube series. While most of it is behind the Netflix paywall, this sketch (featuring The Boys lead Antony Starr) is an excellent sample:
It’s in some of these sketches that you become aware of the high level of production, too. The original soundtrack composed by Tom Armstrong perfectly captures the mood. Each sketch features a song, ranging in strangeness from “Everything’s a Drum” to the strange, dark “Tiny Man”, the tale of a little man that lives in their electrical socket. This soundtrack isn’t just a foreground piece, however. It’s present throughout the series, adding tension, comic relief or (more often than not) something in the middle.
Of a similarly high quality is the writing and direction of Sam Lingham and Max Miller. Having worked together with the on-screen talent for many years, the camerawork and visual style are perfectly suited to the zany aesthetic of Aunty Donna. This is best showcased in the “Clothes” sequence, which features some very memorable (and NSFW) mime acting by Mark.
If you’ve never caught any of their material before, it’s a great place to start. And if you prefer their older content, good news: there’s nine years of great content freely available on YouTube.
Getting Comfy in the Fun House
The only way is up for Aunty Donna, but they’re not the type to rest on their laurels. This Netflix deal has brought in huge international exposure for the Melbournian goofballs. The only question is what zany project they’ll be working on next.
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