More Stairways Confirmed

Shaun beside the River GangaShaun’s documentary “Stairway to Heaven: Gods, Gurus and the Ganges”, which aired on SBS last year before Christmas (and was repeated again last week – watch it online) is to become a series.

Artemis (the producers of the series) and SBS have secured funding for another three “Stairway to Heaven” specials, where Shaun will continue on his “quest for the meaning of life, as he immerses himself in the lives of people whose strong beliefs lead them to take extreme measures.”

No word yet on which religions he will immerse in, but we expect the specials will be shot later this year to air in 2016.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as Shaun indicated to David Dale of SMH late last year:

The Tribal Mind: Many viewers will be surprised to see you in this, because they’d assume you’re a sceptic, from the way you mock the politicians in Mad As Hell.

Shaun Micallef: It’s something I’m really interested in, which is people’s unquestioning commitment to faith. There are people who have that, and I don’t have that, and I find it a very enviable thing. The premise of what we hope will be a series was to just go off and immerse myself in these communities – seminaries, monasteries, wide open spaces in India – and meet these people and just see what it is that makes them so certain, to go in with an open mind, to not be cynical or even sceptical, to be genuinely curious and just observe.

The difficult thing for me was getting rid of the feeling that I needed to make jokes all the time. If there was going to be any humour there, I should let it occur naturally. It’s got nothing to do with comedy, it’s about life.

TM: I understand you thought about being a priest when you were a teenager. Are you still a Catholic?

SM: Yes, we still celebrate the feast days, we’ve brought our children up in the Catholic Church. If it’s all up to me, I’m in big trouble. There’s got to be some grand architect.

TM: Did the experience of making Stairway To Heaven transform you?

SM: Maybe it didn’t change me, but it gently moved me to look in a different direction. If I’d sorted it all out in one documentary, there wouldn’t be any reason to do another one. I haven’t quite got the answer to the meaning of life yet, but it’s not a bad objective for a TV series.

TM: So if it becomes a series, we can follow your trajectory …

SM: Until I’m a pure beam of energy.

Stephen Hall, man of many talents

Stephen holding his Brainest Quiz Master award

Not only has he acted on stage, performed in a one-man Indiana Jones show, been a quiz show champion and devised an app, Stephen Hall has both written and acted in Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hall. He gave me some of his time to chat, and here’s the result:

Me: The last time we spoke, you were a writer on the show (the first series). What was it like transitioning to an acting role?

Stephen: Great! I’d done a few little appearances in the first couple of series, and I was writing, but I didn’t get much stuff through. It was deemed I was better utilised in the cast, and I couldn’t be happier, it’s been fantastic. I’ve been performing longer than I’ve been writing in general, it’s much more fun. It’s much easier in terms of – with writing, as they say, just stare at a blank page and open a vein – you come in and do it, and it’s different and fun every week, and hopefully you do a performance that’s worthy of these brilliant scripts that keep showing up every week.

You’ve got a few recurring characters now, and one that’s made a bit of splash in the media. Is it better to bring out a character repeatedly, or do you enjoy the one-off roles?

Mad As Hell S4E5 Darius HorshamWith Darius Horsham, which is based on an homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger – let’s not deny it – it’s great to come back and do new things with the character and see what other buttons we can push, and people have responded well to it. Even Mathias Cormann has responded well to it, evidently – he quoted the character, although some media would lead you to believe he quoted Schwarzenegger from a Republican Party convention 10 years ago. My money is on him quoting Mad As Hell, which quoted Schwarzenegger from 10 years ago, which in turn quoted a Schwarzenegger  sketch on Saturday Night Live. It’s got a quite a long history. I’m just happy whatever comes my way, and if a character has been well received enough they think it’s worth revisiting, that’s a great compliment. Then again, new ones come along I think “I hope I can make this worthy of being a re-occurring character”. I can’t tell you [when I’m doing a character for the first time] whether it was received well, because I have no perception of how the audience is reacting, because I’m concentrating so hard – I’ll watch it [when it airs] and see it for the first time, which will be interesting.

There’s a lot of content in the lines, you almost need to watch each episode twice to get every second “beat”.

Yes, and some of the lines go on for half-a-page, and that’s part of the joke, that they are so complicated, which can make them very difficult to learn, but it’s always a challenge. You don’t get heaps of time, because you get the scripts on the Friday, Sunday or Monday for the Tuesday recording – it’s a challenge, keeps you on your toes.

I think you and Francis are neck-and-neck on impersonations of Shaun and his characters. Is that something you enjoy, does it just come to you or is it delivered to you (as lines) as a great opportunity?

Mad As Hell S4E1 Tony the AFP OfficerYeah, it’s great. Shaun came up with this AFP officer character Tony, who is a slightly overly enthusiastic fan of Shaun’s, and quote him back to himself in various characters Shaun’s performed over the years, and it’s great fun to be able to do those impressions. One of the great things about the show is it does layer-upon-layer of jokes about itself and of itself. Every type of joke is a good joke, and that’s one of them. I think Shaun enjoys me doing impressions of his characters in the show.

Shaun said that the first time he worked with you was on The Micallef Program, and you played a police officer who arrested the old guy who skipped the draft years ago.

I played one of them, I think there was two of us. I’ve played a few policemen over the years. In Welcher and Welcher I was also a security guard when Shaun had to empty his pockets as he entered the family law court. But, that would have been the first time I guess. Shaun was in the cast and writing on Full Frontal in 96/97, and I was starting out as a writer then. I hadn’t performed with him then, but he did kindly appear on our Channel 31 show way-back-when as a guest, Under Melbourne Tonight, that might have been the first time on camera together. But in The Micallef Program, it was a surprise arrest of a guy from dodging the draft 40 years ago, and we just chased him off the set!

You also have a claim to fame as a quiz show champion – you’ve been involved in so many things!

If you want all the details, you can go to It’s something I’ve been doing for over a year. [The win] was 2005, and that came after originally going on Sale of the Century in 1994, losing and not getting anything, back in 1999, losing and not getting anything at all, then when it was rebooted as Temptation in 2005, I thought “I’ll get it right this time” and I did. It was the culmination of a long persistent, stubborn journey. That was amazing, and it was life changing.

I think I’ve seen the ending of the last episode, and it was nerve wracking, even if you know what happens.

Spoiler alert.

You win. And I love the concept of the app you’ve got, Step-By-Step Story, but I can’t download it because I don’t have an iPhone.

Down the track we’ll be doing an Android app if demand allows for it. It’s a two player game where you write a story, one paragraph at a time. It was a new thing I wanted to do, found out how to do it, hired the people to code it last year. We’re persisting with that, going to keep on tweaking that, as Indy would say: “I’m making it up as I go.” The response so far has been very good. It’s for anyone who dares to believe that writing can be fun, and you can do it collaboratively with someone over long distances.

Collaborative creative writing would be more fun than doing it by yourself, because if you ever get stuck – staring at a blank page – the other person can pick the spark up.

Or you can drop your co-author in it, by killing all the characters – then over to you.

Maybe that explains Game of Thrones. Thanks for talking with us Stephen!

Mad as Hell returns!

Into the Bin!We’re off and running into the fifth season of Mad as Hell, and already a few nods to the Micallef fans, with a “High Horse” routine sneaking itself into the News from Countries Other Than Australia, with Freedom bars and Coco Pops both going “Into the Bin!”

You may have also spotted his Tyrell Corp Blade Runner chair at the back of the set, which originally appeared in Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation.

We’ve got another nine episodes for this year, 8:30pm Wednesdays on ABC. Catch up on iView or it’s repeated Sunday nights.

Edit: It also made the Top 10 ratings for the night, albeit with similar figures as last year. Also, the Herald Sun had a write up of how the first episode came together, including sketches that were cut (and why).

It’s Gary McCaffrie!

Gary McCaffrie off camera in Shaun's interview with Tony MartinIf you don’t know Gary, he’s the yin to Shaun’s writing yang… or something. It was he who got Shaun into the Full Frontal writers room, eventually taking hold of the show before creating The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) together, and the two have been collaborators ever since. Gary’s not a spotlight kind of person, but I was lucky enough to meet him and he agreed to answer some questions.

Me: I would describe you and Shaun as a partnership, working together on nearly every one of Shaun’s projects.

Gary: Not every one, there’s exceptions. But we’ve worked on a lot of comedy together, because we have a really similar sensibility. In our comedy Venn diagram, the intersecting bits are quite big.

The same comedy loves and influences?

Some of them, not all. Shaun’s more of student of comedy, and he likes a lot of really old comics and a lot of the physical comics from the silent era and the post-silent era. I’m not much of student of that material, I basically start with The Goon Show. We share similar ones, but he’s got a much broader base of comedy influences.

You’ve written for many Australian comedy shows. Is it different writing with Shaun than with others?

We don’t really sit together and write. Even on The Micallef P(r)ogram(me), we would only write about a third of that sitting together at the computer. We both tend to like being on our own and writing something from start to finish. On this show [Mad As Hell], we don’t write together at all, and because of the nature, there’s so much material required each week, it’s more efficient to divide your time individually.

So is the process writing something and seeing if the other one laughs at it?

It is a bit, but our sensibilities are similar. I know how he’s going to deliver the material. Sometimes he’ll tweak it a bit to help his delivery, I just know I’m in safe hands when I write for him. As a writer and not a hands-on producer, that is invaluable. When you’re a writer on Fast Forward or Full Frontal, you have no control, and you just hope that what comes out closely resembles what you originally wrote. With Shaun, he’s got a firm guiding hand over this show, you’re in safe hands.

Is there any comedy program you wish you’d written for? Or any you’ve enjoyed the most?

The Norman Gunston show was very influential on me. I think I recognised the comedy of failure was especially funny. There’s any number of shows I’d like to have written on, but rather than wish I’d written something, I think if I see something of really high quality, it inspires me to write something new and different myself, and push myself in my writing. I think in sketch terms anything you watch when you’re 15-16, like Not The 9 O’Clock News or The Two Ronnies, are going to have a big influence and certainly did on me.

Do you ever hold onto unused sketch ideas? Something that might not work at the time, but maybe want to bring back later?

Always. Nothing’s ever wasted, a mantra we both hold dear I think. Something that’s written but doesn’t quite work, there will be something salvageable in it. I think we both have a massive amount of material [in a bottom desk drawer] that will be mined at some stage, maybe for a line or a character. Nothing goes to waste.

Famously you didn’t want David McGhan to return to The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) as Dr Miracle. Are there things you still disagree about with Shaun?

That got blown a little out [of proportion], as if I hated David McGhan.

Were you tired of him maybe?

Yes, that’s right. Dr Miracle was presented as a bit of a fait-accompli on that show. Shaun had written these massive pieces and I said “these are a bit long for the show”, and he said “they’ll be alright.” And next thing I knew, they’d built the sets. Absolutely, there are pieces that I say “I’m not so sure about this”, and he takes that into account. He wants my opinion on something, but he has to take a broader view and goes to the edits and sees that we need something different for a change of pace [in the show] – I’m not taking that into account when I’m giving my feedback. I don’t get involved in the editing on this show. But we certainly have areas where we differ in taste, like two people will do. But like the Venn diagram I mentioned earlier, there’s a big area of intersection, and even in the areas where we might not agree, we know why we don’t agree and can almost predict it, and therefore accept it.

Thanks Gary, we’re glad that most the time you do!

Mad As Hell, back February 11th

It’s official – Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell is confirmed to return for its fifth season on Wednesday February 11th on ABC. This time, it’s shifted back half and hour, to 8:30pm.

The team really hit their stride last year, so expect more comedy gold, although Veronica has moved to a full time role on Triple J, so there may be a new cast member.

This will be the only season for 2015, with Shaun working on “The Ex-PM” later in the year. We’re yet to see what the future will hold after that.

Danger, Danger!

Since it first premiered in 2012, Danger 5 has become a bit of a cult classic – a 60’s style spy series anachronistically set during World War II, with a team of agents from across the globe working together to stop the Nazis and kill Hitler. The show is a pastiche of dubbed Japanese adventure dramas, such as Monkey, and spy series, such as Thunderbirds (with a dash of Get Smart). You can watch the prequel episode on YouTube.

Shaun was a big fan of the first series calling it “the funniest thing I’d seen in 10 years on TV”, even writing to the creators to express his enjoyment. So when series 2 was commissioned, the team jumped at the opportunity to get Shaun involved. This time, it’s the 80’s, and Hitler is back for vengeance. Shaun will play dual roles as a school teacher and a bald-headed Nazi, and will appear in more than one episode.

Season 2 of Danger 5 starts on SBS2 on January 4th at 9:30pm.

Just one Mad as Hell series in 2015

As previously hinted here, and reported by TV Tonight recently, Mad as Hell is only returning for the one series next year. Although budget cuts have been touted as a reason, the most likely explanation is that Shaun will be working on his other big project for the ABC: “The Ex-PM”. So it’s not all bad news!

This is not unprecedented though: in 2013, Shaun took most of the second half of the year off after two seasons of Mad As and one of Mr & Mrs Murder, giving himself time to finish his book “The President’s Desk”.

On the topic of The Ex-PM, TV Tonight spoke to Rick Kalowski, Head of Comedy at the ABC, about the show:

“It’s a great concept and the quality of the idea has really come along in the development process. The scripts are so funny. I think you’ll see a more humanistic side to Shaun’s comedy. It’s not just about a person struggling with relevance deprivation syndrome –which in and of itself is funny at a very high stakes level,” he explains.

“But there’s something about what happens to men when they get to the end of their careers, running around like whirling dervishes, convincing themselves they are doing it for their families or countries. They get to the end of their careers and they are faced with the question: Was it all worth it? Or to put it even more painfully: Have I Led a Worthwhile Life? I think the show has the potential to open up the way people see Shaun as a comedian.”

Stairway to Heaven this Sunday

Shaun with his Guru

As if Santa had set his clock forward, a Micallef-sized gift has come early. Shaun Micallef’s Stairway to Heaven was originally announced by SBS to air next year, but luckily for us, it will actually air this Sunday 7:30pm!

After his experience on Who Do You Think You Are, he was invited to travel to India and immerse himself in the Hindu world of Gods, Gurus and the Ganges. He’ll travel away from the crowds and the polluted Ganges, to meet a Guru who encourages him to challenge his beliefs, confront his fears, strip back his ego and examine the ‘Self’. Eventually Shaun will find himself heading deep into the Himalayas, towards the ultimate source of the Ganges and maybe the source of life.

This is sure to be more than just another “comedian discovers spirituality” story, with a good dose of the Shaun deprecating style to make it unmissable.


Top 11 Moments from Mad As Hell Series 4

As Shaun previously spoke to us about, series four of Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell continued to move from a “news show” to more of a editorial or commentary on the week’s news. Along with the expert characters and sketch-show snippets, it was a brilliant season, and rated very well for the ABC.

Here are the top 11 moments from this season, as un-democratically not voted by you:

Mad As Hell S4E4 Fiesty11. The Feisty Award
After Emma Alberichi had a particularly difficult interview on Lateline with someone who wouldn’t denounce terrorism, she was complimented by Tony Abbott as being “feisty”. Shaun wanted to help reclaim the word for all women, so it couldn’t be seen as sexist, and dedicated The Feisty Award – “for excellence in a man’s recognition of a sassy lady who says something he agrees with.” Shaun was the inaugural (and only) winner in Episode 4, for retweeting a tweet from Sarah Hanson-Young about how much she enjoyed the show.

Mad As Hell S4E8 Dolly10. Dolly Norman, Jacqui Lambie’s advisor
With Jacqui Lambie making plenty of headlines with her political stances and dispute with and eventual exit from Palmer United, her “chief advisor” Dolly Norman (Roz) (first in Ep3) was on hand to… explain… Jacqui’s stance on many issues. It was certainly grass-roots advice Dolly was giving, with a lunch lady vibe to go with it. (Video)

Mad As Hell S4E2 Dating Scam9. Shaun scamming a dating site victim (Ep 2)
With the ACCC noting that online dating websites were becoming a hotbed of scammers, Shaun interviewed Pauline O’Grady (Emily) who was herself a victim, sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to a scammer. We soon got another side to Shaun’s character, as he took the opportunity to gain Pauline’s trust and exploit her kindness for his own financial gain. It was very cleverly written, as we were slowly taken down the garden path to where “Shaun’s” mind was at.

8. Media Sasquatch
Shaun tried to use “Media Watch” as his segment name to talk about the death of community TV (Ep 1) and Fairfax regional papers (Ep 7), but Paul Barry was having none of it. It makes no sense, but it’s absurd enough to be perfect.

Mad As Hell S4E2 OurABC7. Our/Their ABC
Only a few months before the season began, the ABC updated their idents to the theme of “#ourABC”, often with graphics of a person doing something they love, labelled as being “their ABC”. Could the Mad team help themselves? Thankfully not.
Henrietta and Walter’s ABC (Ep 2) – a retired couple sitting in their comfy chairs, reading
Colin and Angie’s (Ep 3) – two youths stealing a television
Kaylie’s (Ep 4) – throwing up after a big night out
Adam’s (Ep 6) – stranded and injured rock climbing, à la 127 Hours
Ali’s (Ep 9) – heavy metal band performing

Mad As Hell S4E8 Two Ronnies6. Two Ronnies
Amongst all of the brilliant monologues and interviews, Mad As Hell still has the time for a few single story word-play jokes. As a full stop to these punch lines, long time Micallef fans got a treat starting in Episode 6 – a cut away of Shaun and Francis as “The Two Ronnies”, originally from The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) (and before that, real people with many punch lines in the same vein), was brought out of the archive, achieving exactly the same purpose as it had done in that show.

Mad As Hell S4E8 Caspar Jonquil5. A Day in the life of Caspar Jonquil
Caspar (Tosh) has been popping up on Mad As Hell for a while, long the voice of the AM radio talkback callers. He finally got his own biopic in the final episode, and we got a insight into his life – spying on his neighbour Spakfilla Vole, frequenting the business of Chloris Webbler and Gwen Cribbage, and having neighbourhood watch shoot-outs with Larry and Evagnie Sideburns – all favourite characters who have been part of the show since the beginning. (Video)

Mad As Hell S4E8 Hair Whispering4. Shaun’s Hair Whispering
One of the strangest phenomena to surface recently, “whispering videos” are used by a select group of people to ease tension by watching people perform quiet, repetitive tasks such as hair brushing. The head of light entertainment used the method to also inform Shaun of the show’s reduced budget for next year, and Shaun tried it himself.

Mad As Hell S4E1 Tony the AFP Officer3. AFP Officer Tony
The series included a number of nods to the recent increase in national security, with the opening titles being prefixed with the terror threat indicator. To aid with the security at the ABC, Tony from the AFP (Stephen Hall) kept an eye on proceedings, initially fan-boying with Shaun over his previous roles (Milo, Fabio, Poida?).
He then prevented Shaun from talking to his Hypothetical panel of people with head coverings (in the interest of national security) (Ep 3) (Video), cut the string of a Yo-yo champion, in case she “garotted” Shaun (Ep 7), and tasered more than four people (including Shaun as Christopher Walken). (Video)

Mad As Hell S4E5 Darius Horsham2. Darius Horsham
First appearing last season, Darius had a staring role all season, as Mathias Cormann’s spokesperson (and impersonator) as a number of economic reforms were pushed through. His line “don’t be an economic girly man”, taken from Arnie himself, was picked up by Mathias in an interview, putting Mad As Hell at the centre of the very zeitgeist they were satirising. (Video)

Mad As Hell S4E8 Zinger!1. Bill Shorten’s Zingers
Shaun first noted the “burn” of Bill’s pithy press conference one-liners in the second episode, but as the season progressed, and Bill kept dishing them out, Shaun treated each with the finger guns they deserved. By the last episode, even Bill was defending “Shaun Mick-alifs” right to air “Bill’s Zingers”, again completing the referential circle. (Bill later made up for mis-pronouncing Shaun’s name by purposely doing so as “Shane Mcaulif”, like in The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) and throughout his career.) (Video)

A shout out to the War Is Hell segment, which was worth the expensive graphics to see Shaun lip-sync along with Edwin Starr’s song each week, once with dancing okra.