“Our job is always to try to make it better”: Wil Anderson on season 13 of Gruen


• “If we try something and it doesn’t work, we’re very happy to get rid of it.”

In the last 12 months we’ve seen the Tokyo Olympic Games, a census (that didn’t break down this time), and a whole new set of lockdowns around the country. There have been a lot of events to keep advertisers busy, and where there are advertisers there is ABC’s Gruen.

As Gruen dives into its 13th season, Mediaweek spoke to host Wil Anderson about the show’s time on air and broadcasting through a global pandemic.

Russel Howcroft, Wil Anderson, and Todd Sampson

As with any show that has spent more than a decade on Aussie screens, the question is raised of what has kept Gruen’s audience engaged for so long.

“It’s not really for me to answer that question,” says Anderson. “I don’t know, and I would never pretend to know. Anyone in the world of entertainment who tells you that they know what audiences want, or why audiences like something, is trying to sell you something. Who knows why people like something, and who knows if all the people who like something like it for the same reasons? I bet they don’t. I bet you could find 100 Gruen fans and ask them all why they’ve stuck with the show, and there will be a whole bunch of different reasons.”

Moving Forward

“Our job is always to try to make it better, that’s the one thing that I know that we are always aspiring to do with the show,” says Anderson.

“We’ve always been idea first, not format first. If we try something and it doesn’t work, we’re very happy to get rid of it. Sometimes we’ve tried something and it has worked but it still doesn’t suit where we’re going, so we get rid of it. We’re always just trying to keep developing that idea.”

The last 13 years have seen some major changes in the way advertisers get their products in front of our eyeballs, and Gruen has been there to document it all.

“In the first few seasons of the show we were just talking about TV ads. Then YouTube and things like that came along, suddenly we’re seeing things online, and now we live in a world where algorithms mean we view ads that are perfectly targeted to our wants, needs, and desires. 

“The way we’re sold to and how integral advertising and marketing are to every conversation we have has become more wedded into the everyday fabric of our lives. We were lucky in a way that the story we had to tell and the questions we had to ask became more relevant as the lifespan of the show was going on, not the opposite.”

Broadcasting through Covid

In 2020, shows had to navigate a whole new set of challenges to get to air. For shows like Gruen, the adjustments involved more than just empty seats where the audience used to be.

“Last year it felt like a very hard time to be particularly critical in our traditional overly cynical way,” said Anderson.

“Without the audience, the show becomes a little bit more like an advertising version of Q&A – there’s a lot of advertising people talking about advertising. That combined with the fact that it was a hard time for the industry and everyone in the world last year, and it was hard to be as cynical as you need to be for the show to be at its absolute best.”

Going into the 2021 season, Gruen still doesn’t have a studio audience (or Russel Howcroft in the studio for the foreseeable future), but it does have a year of pandemic experience under its belt.

“I feel like now we’ve had time to find our feet a little bit more and the prevailing thought going into the season is that it’ll probably be a little sharper. We’ll probably try to do what we did with Question Everything and have a small studio audience. We had the crew and the people who work on the show, so it was only about 15 people – they sat around on tables. It’s enough that you’ll remember that you’re not just advertising people talking to each other, you’re talking to an audience.”

Behind the scenes, the loss in cast and crew will be felt just as harshly.

“Really we did work with half our roster available to us last year and it looks like the same going into this year. It’s fine because we have so many good people who are Sydney-based that you fill every slot. But some of our absolute favourites over the years just won’t have been on the show for two or three years because we can’t get them across the border to come and do the show. Fingers crossed for 2022 that we can be back to some sort of normal.”

Question Everything

Gruen isn’t the only one of Anderson’s shows going to air this year, with Question Everything recently wrapping up its first season.

When I conceived it, it was very much going to be a coming out party,” he said. “We’d have a big studio audience back, we’d have all these comedians from all over the country, we’d get to hang out together and have some fun and make something really funny together. Then of course, lockdown happens. So instead of the big studio audience we had cast and crew, and instead of comedians from all over Australia, we had comedians from certain Sydney LGAs.”

Question Everything

Question Everything hosts, Anderson and Jan Fran

Even though the original idea for Question Everything had been bouncing around since 2016, that was only half the story.

“The misinformation aspect of it had been in my head since 2016. The format was something that I thought of later, with the idea that I wanted to give this opportunity to newer emerging comedians. That was what I wanted to do, and then the two combined together.”

Gruen airs 8:30pm Wednesdays from October 13 on ABC and ABC iview 

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