Shaun Micallef is such a funny, pleasant and gracious person – on his fiftieth birthday, and after finishing the filming of the penultimate episode of Mad As Hell, Shaun Micallef gave me some of his time to answer my (and your) barrage of strange questions.
Me: I wanted to start out to wish you a happy birthday – a few people in the audience knew it was your fiftieth.
It got mentioned in Who Do You Think You Are that you were coming up to that.
We did that about a year ago, in August (last year).
Do you have any plans on how you will celebrate your birthday? Obviously you’re working on Mad As Hell at the moment, but maybe anything on the weekend?
No, it’s not really something that if I even if I had the time I would actually set aside, I’m not a party person anyway. So, for me it’s just spending a bit of time with the kids, which we did, we saw the Three Stooges film on the weekend. And my wife and I will go and see Barry Humphries tomorrow, so we’ll celebrate it going and seeing things… being amused by other people.
Was The Three Stooges any good?
It was alright – it was fine.
It worries me a bit.
You can’t be snobby about the Three Stooges, it’s not like they ever had high art. It’s sort of a low rent approach to the jokes, the Farrelly’s didn’t high tech it. It doesn’t look like a Jim Carrey film, it looks like a Three Stooges film. It looks like 3, Three Stooges shorts tacked together, so there’s a certain ramshackle, shit quality about it, but it works.
It’s like maybe if someone did the 60’s Batman again (which got mentioned during the recording) today…
It might be a bit too self aware, that’s the trouble with irony. There’s no irony in this film, which is good.
Mad As Hell, how has it been working back to the ABC? The last time was of course Welcher and Welcher.
It was too. A very different show, although Welcher and Welcher was originally designed to be in front of a live audience, that’s why the sets look so cross-arched, they look very theatrical. It was my first time writing a sitcom, I didn’t write it properly. It was so complicated, there was no way it could have been shot in front of an audience. So we shot it like… I don’t know what it was like. It fell between the stools I think, it wasn’t quite farce, it wasn’t quite drama, and it wasn’t quite a sitcom. And because we didn’t have an audience, it played faster, so we often finished 3 minutes down on time. So I’d be off writing another scene, or if I couldn’t think of one, Francis and I would muck around, which we did a couple of times.
Is that how you ended up with the bin scenes and things like that?
Oh that was planned, but things like singing George Formby songs and Francis attacking me with a Frankenstein mask on, just a few bizzare endings were… and one show we book ended with as a memory because we were 5 minutes down.
So it was missing the pacing of the audience laughs?
Well it was too fast, because it wasn’t riding the audience response and relaxing – it was quite fast. But anyway, I must admit I haven’t watched it since it went to air, it’s been many years now. I’ll look at it again one day, I’ll learn how to do a sitcom and have another crack at it.
The title Mad As Hell, was that a spur of the moment thing when you began talking with the ABC, or was it something you’d planned to do?
It was originally called Newsnight, which oddly enough is the title of the show on Channel Ten. They’ve decided to use Newsnight, which is an old English show hosted by Jeremy Paxman. And the ABC said it’s a bit too straight, so Gary came up with Mad As Hell, which we thought was funny… Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, so we suggested that, they liked it and we went with it. Originally it was just going to be called Mad As Hell, and Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell in the press materials, but it seems to have become… as much as I would prefer my name not to be part of the title… Myf Warhurst’s Nice, Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey… you put the comedians name up front – that’s the franchise.
Were you always keen to get the Newstopia writing team back together? I know you worked with a number of them on TAYG, but was that always something you wanted to bring back?
I had always wanted to do a bit more with Newstopia, I always thought that it had been cut short of where it was going to go. Indeed the next step of Newstopia was going to be a live audience, and opened up. But we couldn’t do it because of TAYG. I suppose we brought that approach of having a live audience, and… not softening the material, but making it a little more accessible. And one of the major differences between this and what we had in mind for Newstopia is that the material is a lot more domestic and obsessed with Australia. And we don’t tend to do that sort of “let’s make light of something serious and horrible” which is what we were doing on Newstopia, which you can do without an audience, quite easily without seeming cold and heartless. But if you do it in front of an audience, they’ll either shrink from it, or they’ll laugh and the folks at home will go “ooh that’s a bit… you can’t make jokes about that.” Some of those jokes we did on Newstopia….
.. there were a lot of things in warzones and …
that’s right, obviously being on SBS, we were obsessed with international news and on the ABC, we’re not as obsessed, which is good I think.
Do you think that focus has come about due to the change in station?
A little bit, that’s true. But also on the second episode we did a story about Syria, which would have been at home on Newstopia, and it just didn’t feel right. And there were a few jokes that were sort of a little harder, and we thought “we just don’t want to make that show, we want to make sure it doesn’t look like it’s insensitive.” So therefore, apart from a few of those, we call them TJs, those three jokes where we say coming later on it’s this, this and this, where we can deal with international issues very quickly without dwelling on it, we don’t tend to deal with international stories at all. It’s mainly… the obsession is the pettiness that is Australian news. Or occasionally, as we do with Sky News, just the way some Australian media reports things. Very rarely, because that’s the Hamster Wheel’s gig and we don’t want to go into their territory, or even Jonathon Holmes’ territory on Media Watch, so we don’t tend to do that much. But we’ve done that 3 times, and we seem to be whipping Sky News, which I quite enjoy.
The cast, you mentioned (to the audience during the taping) it was a concious thing to mix up the age range…
I didn’t want it to be an old show.
How did you come together? Obviously you’ve worked with Francis and Roz before.
That was the appeal, I would always do something with Francis, and it had been a while since I’d specifically worked one-on-one with him. Roz, I hadn’t really worked with since The Micallef P(r)ogram(me), and I scratch my head now thinking “gosh, she’s just so good, why wouldn’t I use her in everything?” The truth is, I enjoy collaborating with new people, and I think this show is bit of both. The certainty of Roz and Francis… just the pleasure of working with them. I’d seen Veronica on the Ben Elton show, Live From Planet Earth, and I thought she was fantastic in it. Quite coincidentally, Andrew Denton recommended her because he worked with her on Hungry Beast. And Veronica and I corresponded, and we auditioned, and I think she’s fantastic. Emily, Gary had worked with on Comedy Inc, when he was writing for Comedy Inc, and I thought she was great too. She was almost in Newstopia, we almost approached her to be in Newstopia, but I think was doing Comedy Inc at that time. So that was nice to work with her. And Tosh Greenslade, is actually… I think this is his first TV, in fact I’m absolutely sure of it. Francis worked with him in theatre, and recommended him, not just because of his name. And he’s great, I mean he’s really good.
It has been mentioned, “there’s nothing about him” and “where has he come front?” And you had to press release a few times that he’s not related to Francis.
It’s just an unusual name, and for it to turn up twice in a credit roll begs the question doesn’t it?
And this question got answered (in discussion with the audience), will there be another series of Mad As Hell – you’ve said yes, absolutely there will be.
From about mid-February on.
So next year. And you’re hoping (another) for the election later next year?
I hope so. I’m doing a drama, so we’ll see if that’s shooting or not.
More generally, something I have noticed with some of your work you do, I noticed it on TAYG, even with Tom and Alex (on Triple J), you’re very good at slowly unleashing the absurd-ism. On TAYG, you were a little bit straighter to start with, and slowly the Meercat came out, and the use of the Blue Juice music, and on Triple J it only took a 3 or 4 weeks before you were playing sound effects on tape decks. Is that a concious thing, or does it just happen that way?
Oh I think it happens, but it’s different though. On Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation, I was a hired gun to front someone else’s show. So the process was a bit slower, but once you’re in charge of the writing you can start to bend things. You could argue that the more absurd it got, the more alienating it got for certain members of the audience – maybe not, I don’t know. I think I just started to get comfortable with it. It’s not a concious thing. You can see it with the development of this show, it’s quite odd now. We’re back in the world that we always inhabit, we start bending the edges and playing with the transitions. The content is always there, make sure all that fun doesn’t overwhelm the content, it still has to mean something and be about something. It’s a particular song, with a particular bunch of lyrics, but the way we sing it is peculiar to us I think.
And when I’m guesting on things, like Tom and Alex or Gordon Street Tonight or whatever, the agreement is always “we’ll can I just have fun, can I do what I like?” And they’re like, “sure, do what you want”. Usually, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, like the Channel Ten breakfast show.
That was hilarious, because at the time that happened, I noticed it, blogged about it, and a few people watched it, and then 2 months later it hit the Internet and people were saying it happened the other day. But it happened in March or the end of February.
I think people assumed it coincided with when this show (Mad As Hell) went to air, and thought it was a plug for that show.
But Your Gen was still on?
Yeah, it was about TAYG. It hadn’t actually gone to air.
I’ve been reading your books, Preincarnate, The Moment, which I’m still not sure what to think, and your latest, Ahead of the Game. All of these had an element of time shifting in there, is that a subject that fascinates you?
Might be, yeah, I hadn’t really thought about that, but I guess that’s true. It’s all about perception, which is a particular thing I quite enjoy. It might be because my grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and over the course… I could see hunks of her memory disappear. So that might account for some of the stuff, that’s all happening in the mind. Time travel… maybe I just like time travel stories.
Do you plan to write any more fiction? I know you said Preincarnate was to be your only novella.
I’m writing another book at the moment, but it might be another year or so before I get time to finish it, but that will come out.
And while Shaun ran out of time on the night, he agreed to answer more questions by old fashioned email. So stay tuned over the next few weeks, as I add the interviews with Tosh (Greenslade), Stephen (Hall) and the part 2 of Shaun!