Stephen Hall is one of the writers on Mad As Hell, not to mention a number of Shaun’s other shows, an actor, and really nice guy. Last year, he gave me some of his time in the hallways of the ABC for a chat.
Before we began, Stephen indulged me in a “nerd-off” on the topic of James Bond – he being one half of the team behind Bond-A-Rama. We came to agreement that “The Man with the Golden Gun” had one of the worst theme songs. When that was done, the questions began!
Me: I was going to ask if the writers ever get to say any lines, as previously you’ve appeared twice [in Mad As Hell], but tonight’s episode (Episode 9) that was proved wrong!
He was carrying a lot of toilet paper around.
It got more and more (in the shot pieces) – was that me?
No, I think that was Lionel.
The people in Glenhuntly Road (where the vox pops are shot) must think there’s some strange characters around.
We got looks, and people stood around. I’d be more worried if there weren’t looks – it’s not New York, it’s Elsternwick ladies and gentlement. I didn’t know what voice to do, because I didn’t think he was ever going speak. Shaun said make it counter to what we think it’s going to be. So I made it after Noel Coward or Lionel Barrymore. Named after Lionel Barrymore actually.
So they named him before the voice?
He was always called Lionel. He always had a caftan. Always had a WW1 flying helmet. That was Shaun writing that for me to do – as a mark of respect.
How does the writing process work? There’s five of you…?
Yes, there’s Shaun, Gary Mcaffrie, Michael Ward, Tony Moclair and me. Gary and Michael are on five days a week, Tony and I are on three days a week. Tony, Gary, Michael and I share an office, and we sit at our computers and write. We read the news everyday, and watch the news everyday and try to think of funny stuff that’s happening, in the various formats of sketches for the show. We email them to Shaun, print it out and put it in the script box at the same time, and he has the final say on them.
You were involved in [the writing of] TAYG as well, and Newstopia too?
Yes. Gary and Michael have written with Shaun a lot longer than I have; Gary and Shaun have known each other since they were teenagers.
[Gary] was the foot in the door [to the industry] for Shaun I believe.
I first met Shaun in 1996 on Full Frontal, where Wardy and I both started in Melbourne professional comedy writing. Wardy had been in Canberra before that, doing breakfast radio. Canberra’s 92.3 Kook and the Bambino in the Morning – I just made that up.
It sounds like something it would be. How is writing for TAYG different to Mad As Hell? Were you involved in the questions, or monologues?
It’s a different beast. There was [writing for] intros and outros, and bits where we had other people coming in and fanciful conversations with Hello Kitty. And the end game envelope delivery, ideas for those. We alternated – Wardy would write the script one week, and I the next and send it through to Shaun. As on this, he was the final arbitor. The content of the games was largely dictated by the producers of the show, and if we had ideas we could slot them in, but everyones ideas were listened to. It was a group beast. Our brief was to write the gags for Shaun, within the structure of the show. Trying to say the same thing different ways, hundreds of times.
Do you find the process of writing for TAYG different to Mad As Hell?
It’s the same people, which is really nice, and a lot of the production team are the same. It’s very different content, it’s much more challenging as it changes every day, and there are days when we look through the newpaper and say “for goodness sake, can’t something usable happen in the world.” And, it’s difficult to make jokes about death and destruction, so we shy away from those things. [If they're] absurd, pompous and basic wankery – there’s always a good time. Tony Abbott’s hair net tour is a case in point.
Other people would be familiar with you in your acting, such as in The King or on stage as well, and you do a lot of writing. Do you have a preference?
I’ve had a lot more work writing than acting, acting is tougher, and as I have a certain look which people don’t always think of me [for roles]. With writing, it doesn’t matter as much. Things lead to other things, as much of you do something and do an OK job, and people think for you for the next thing and they contact you.
But acting not so much, in my experience there’s no such thing as a big break. You think “this will lead to other things”, but it hasn’t happened so much. For me, and my particular “journey”, I’ve had a lot more work writing than acting. But having said that, acting’s much more fun. Ideally it’s great to do stuff you’ve written, which is why Bond-o-rama is fantastic, because Wardy and I wrote it together, we gave me the really plum roles. How else am I going to get cast as Sean Connery?
Thanks for your time Stephen – we look forward to seeing your appearances during Season 2.