Enduring agony

On paper, it doesn't seem like much. A bunch of talking heads musing and pontificating about life, interspersed with old footage from the ABC archives.

Yet the intriguing Agony Uncles, followed soon after by Agony Aunts, were two of the freshest and funniest new series of 2012. And now a new eight-part series combining the two, The Agony of Life, airs on February 6.

It's a satisfying development for Adam Zwar, the former journalist and brains behind the series.

The original season of Agony Uncles was filmed back in 2010 but sat in limbo before it aired last year.

Zwar, whose work includes the hit series Wilfred and Lowdown, came up with the Agony idea when Foxtel's Comedy Channel ran a competition encouraging creative types to submit a three-minute pilot video. The winner would receive $25,000 to film more of their idea.

He coaxed gameshow host Rob Elliott, comedian Des Dowling and cricketer Damien Fleming to join him in a raw version of Uncles. They lost the prize. However, Zwar pitched it to the ABC, who did not find it particularly funny.

Zwar was adamant the idea of men dispensing life advice with a comedic undertone - kind of Grumpy Old Men, minus the grumpiness - had legs. He waited two years for the stench of the Comedy Channel pilot to dissipate and made another, this time with comedians Lawrence Mooney and Sam Pang. The ABC liked it.

Today, Zwar is in the Melbourne offices of his production company, editing the fifth episode of The Agony of Life .

The 41-year-old left journalism in his early 30s but in producing Agony, Zwar is utilising his skills as a trained hack. Zwar develops episode topics at the start of each season. Every personality interviewed for the show is subjected to a two-hour-plus grilling.

Each interrogation is transcribed before Zwar cuts and pastes the relevant text for each episode and begins sourcing footage.

''We then cull it down, write a script and hone in further on the topic,'' he says. His production partners assess what is not working.

''It's quick, intense and all-consuming. It's the hardest I've ever worked. I edit all day and then am up until 2am going through material making sure there's nothing missed. You have to be brutal. You become obsessed by it.''

As much as Agony is a pet project for Zwar, the mixed cast featured last season benefited enormously.

Lawrence Mooney was taken aback by the impact Agony Uncles has had on his career.

''Its reach blew me away,'' he says. ''People came out to see my live show based on Uncles; that was massive for me.''

Midway through filming Uncles, the ABC asked Zwar to produce Agony Aunts. Filming the series four months later, Zwar was startled by the differing approach of the aunts. ''They played a different game,'' he says. ''The guys were charming, funny and shocking. The girls take it very seriously.''

The aunts attempt to sincerely answer the question while the uncles match it to an anecdote.

''The girls are confessing, the guys are on stage,'' Zwar says. ''Which is wonderful. It took a lot for the girls to get there. But they had thought deeply about it.''

The decision to this year combine Aunts and Uncles into one series follows the lead of the Finnish broadcaster to whom Zwar has sold the series.

The Agony of Life is loosely based on the seven stages of life. The final episode looks towards death and whether the aunts and uncles retain a belief system.

''Waleed Aly is always copping a hard time on radio for being a believer,'' Zwar says. ''He is asked how could somebody as intelligent and rational as him … believe in the after-life?''

Further, one features Yumi Stynes talking about her explosive comments on The Circle last year (when she denigrated an Australian Victoria Cross winner).

Several tweaks have been made to the cast this year. A number of actors were working overseas and the ABC, sensing the mainstream potential of the show, requested more television performers than writers and directors.

While there are still plenty of laughs, the tone of the season is somewhat sober.

''It was interesting because [last year] I was able to laugh at my ineptitude in regards to women, relationships and emotional maturity,'' Mooney says. ''But when you start talking about family and history and childhood you get into deep water very quickly. There's all this Freudian stuff swirling around, I'm telling my story, tears are welling in my eyes and my inner comedian is screaming 'this better be funny when you get to the end, dickhead '.''

Fairfax journalist Samantha Lane, who was impressive in the first season, is candid in discussing the circumstances around the death of her mother.

''She and that experience remain very much a part of my life and who I am,'' Lane says. ''I have no reason to ever refer to that in talking or writing about sport, but in terms of the way that I see life, losing mum is the biggest thing that has happened to me.''

For season three, Zwar says he would like to move into the social aspect of life.

As for Lowdown, his scripted comedy series about a tabloid newspaper, Zwar says several US and British companies are interested in buying the format. However, the ABC is yet to confirm a third season.

Still, you get the sense Agony is where Zwar's heart now lies.

''Agony brings it all together for me,'' he says.

The Agony of Life, ABC1, Wednesday, 9pm

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