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Hamish and Andy in the 'hood

The comedic duo are keeping it real on the streets of Brooklyn, writes Michael Idato from NYC.

The comedic duo are keeping it real on the streets of Brooklyn, writes Michael Idato from NYC.

HAMISH Blake and Andy Lee, recruited from radio to front a tonight show on the Nine Network with a reported $15 million price tag attached, have a simple strategy for making successful television: they're planning to be themselves.

''If you are forcing a conceit, you only have as long as you can continue to force that conceit to keep it up,'' Blake says. ''So, through sheer laziness, we decided to play the characters we were both born to play.''

Titled Hamish & Andy's Gap Year, the series will be broadcast from a new studio in the New York borough of Brooklyn. It's a vast space, with a plastics factory in the basement and a community garden on the rooftop.

Though precise details about the show are scant, producer and the pair's long-time collaborator, Ryan Shelton, wants to keep it focused on reality, the key element, he says, in Hamish and Andy's on-screen humour.

''Everything is real, they really do go out and hide cameras and film those things,'' Shelton says. ''We never fake things, it's important that we keep it real because if it's real, their reactions will be real and we think that viewers can smell things when they're fake.''

Behind the partnership of Blake and Lee is a quartet: Blake, Lee, Shelton and Tim Bartley, the partners in the production company Radio Karate. Blake, Shelton and Bartley went to school together, while Lee met them later at university.

After a community TV sketch comedy show, Blake and Lee were recruited in 2004 by the Seven Network to host The Hamish and Andy Show. It didn't last, largely, Lee says, because it altered their reality.

''They said we had to appear older so they put us in suits,'' Lee says. ''Hame and I found those things that were put on, they're hard to keep up because we're not good liars. It's an interesting lesson to learn. And I don't necessarily know what makes a success but I do know the one sure-fire way to make it a failure would be to go down that path.''

In 2005 they embarked on a collaboration with Rove McManus's production company Roving Enterprises, from which sprang the news satire Real Stories and the first of a series of specials for Channel Ten.

Though they were jarred by the Seven experience, the pair say they enjoyed the opportunity. ''We left there scarred a little bit, that's what happens when you jump on TV and you really don't know what you're doing,'' Blake says. ''We've always said the network were great to us, and they were. They gave us a chance.''

But in its aftermath, Blake says, ''there was a bit of regrouping and a dawning that maybe we should just do things that are right for us, rather than doing things we are told are the things we should be doing''.

This year, with a successful radio career on the Austereo network to their credit, they are tackling their return to television with more caution and a noticeably larger scale.

''I always thought we were new to TV but then you suddenly look back at Channel Seven and you realise that was eight years ago,'' Blake says.

Though the exact format of the show is still somewhat nebulous - it will feature elements of a variety/tonight show and some of the pair's trademark on-the-road reporting, particularly from some of the more colourful backwaters of the US - they both agreed it's a format that works for them.

''We were offered a tonight show, a game show in a studio and none of that felt right,'' Blake says. ''We waited until we had an idea that [we] genuinely felt was the next step and that's what's so great about being here, this feels like the next step.''

Their meeting with Channel Nine, they say, ended with the pair confident Nine was well placed to give them the scope to be themselves. ''The impressive thing with Channel Nine is that they gave us back our own philosophy, which was we should do a show that is our show, without knowing what the show was,'' Blake says.

One of the sticking points in the pair's negotiation with Nine was the question of ''creative control''. It's a phrase which has, historically, only been remembered for those who abused it, such as Mick Molloy, whose self-titled show in 1999 crashed and burned.

''Because we're fans of the industry, it's funny to be inside that bubble and, having watched Mick's show as a kid, I was like, why did they stop this?'' Blake says. ''And when you grow up, you hear stories that he had creative control and you're not meant to have that. Then you find yourself in the same position and you go, well, how much of every time we tell ourselves it's different for us, was Mick telling himself the same thing before it happened to him?''

Lee says there is a clear line of communication between all the stakeholders, even though they have the final say.

''We have creative control, meaning what we want to put on the show or [how we] approach the show is the way it will end up but we don't have a creative fortress [in] which no one can come and find out what's happening. With the radio show, and with Nine, we want their feedback.''

For Nine, launching Hamish & Andy's Gap Year is an opportunity to reverse some of the misfortunes of the past few years, a position buoyed by the near MasterChef-level ratings achieved by a confident revamp of The Block, which has added vibrancy to Nine's schedule.

And based on Hamish and Andy's past form, it has a serious shot at working. Most of their television work in recent years has cleared the 1 million viewer watermark comfortably and their last program was watched by an extraordinary 1.74 million viewers nationally.

Still, radio personalities often have a difficult time adjusting to traditional ''tonight show'' formats. Doug Mulray's tonight show venture for Seven struggled, as did Andrew Denton's self-titled commercial talk show in 1994. Another talk show, The Chat Room, which was comprised entirely of radio personalities, was cancelled after only two weeks.

''There are some lessons to be learned and our biggest fear is complacency in that arena,'' Blake says. ''You look at what's happened before, try and learn those lessons, don't take anything for granted and hope you don't become the next lesson. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees.''

Lee qualifies the issue by pointing out - correctly - that they were on television before they launched their commercial radio careers, even though people frequently say they're going from radio to TV.

''Actually, we were already there,'' Lee says. ''We went the other way round.

''The big lesson for us is, we know you cannot do radio on television. That is probably the biggest mistake people have made in the past.

''The way we approach television, while the content is still where we like to play comedically or where we find the most fun, we structure the way we might tell that story differently to radio.''

Balancing the two media has been a delicate manoeuvre. Their radio show was put on ice so they could develop the television series but they have kept a toe in radio by broadcasting a weekly radio show from New York.

''When you have an idea you go for whatever medium it is meant for,'' Blake says. ''For what Andy and I were doing, radio was the perfect outlet for that. And for a trip like this, it feels like a television show would tell this adventure the best.''

''Going into a television series,'' Lee adds, ''we knew we couldn't do full-time radio and a television series. Many people we've seen do it ended up looking tired on both and that's not where we'd like the show to be.''

Keeping the weekly show is not vanity, Blake says.

''But it is for selfish reasons. We missed it. We love that show and it's so much a part of our life, it's been our life for five years, so we decided we had enough time in the week to still do the Friday show.''

With the launch of the TV show then barely weeks away, the studio in Brooklyn is slowly taking form. When asked why they chose Brooklyn over Manhattan, they answer in unison: ''It's cheap.'' But their position in Brooklyn, adjacent to the Hudson River, gives them a rare gift, a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline.

''We did look at many places but the core of what we have always done in the past is to keep it as real as possible,'' Lee says.

''And suddenly we don't have to worry about camera angles, or about bumping the set in and out. This place has a farm on the roof, the strangest doorway two metres off the ground, a rodent problem, a plastics factory underneath and it's missing windows and you go ? 'This is awesome'.''

The pair are champing at the bit to get started. ''It's been a long enough run-up,'' Lee says.

Shelton says there are nerves. ''We've filmed so much already and we've planned a lot of stuff but then we've also left some pieces of the show up to chance. If we can keep that reality true and keep the show in a structure that allows us to do that, that will work,'' he says.

Hamish & Andy's Gap Year airs tonight at 8.30pm on Channel Nine.

Michael Idato travelled to New York courtesy of the Nine Network.

Did you know?

? Hamish and Andy's first television program was a sketch-comedy show, Radio Karate, for the Melbourne community station Channel 31 in 2003.

? Radio Karate is also the name of their production company, which is a partnership including Blake, Lee, Ryan Shelton and Tim Bartley.

? Hamish & Andy's American Caravan of Courage aired on Ten in 2009 and was watched by 1.3 million viewers. Hamish & Andy's Caravan of Courage: Great Britain and Ireland aired on Ten in 2010 and was watched by 1.75 million viewers.

? Art imitated life in 2008 when the pair were asked to play radio hosts on the Channel Ten soap Neighbours. They did not play themselves but rather Erinsborough's favourite radio duo, Fred and Big Tommo.


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