Talkin’ ‘Bout Satire, Takedowns And Fighting Charlie Pickering To The Death With Shaun Micallef
"I’d probably die of natural causes during the fight."
“I just have one last question.”
It’s been a long interview with comedy legend Shaun Micallef, who got to the phone late after an even longer interview with another journalist. (“Some boring old newspaper, who actually prints on paper, was just talking to me. And they do go on,” he quips.)
“In a fight to the death for news TV supremacy, between you and Charlie Pickering, who do you think would win?”
Pickering, whose ABC series The Weekly has just wrapped up to make room for the new season of Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, has popped up a lot in our conversation. Quick as a shot, Micallef replies: “Well, it’d be a long fight. And because Charlie’s younger than me, I’d probably die of natural causes during the fight. So Charlie would just–” he pauses, chuckles to himself, then concludes. “He would survive me.”
Micallef Vs The New News Satire
Micallef doesn’t seem all that flustered by anything: not his prospective wretched death at the hands of an ally, nor the resumption of his show, Mad As Hell, in what’s gearing up to be an arduous election year.
“A lot of people have expected us to talk about the election thinking that’s the most obvious thing,” he tells me. “I know it’s counterintuitive but I think if we avoid the election entirely — just don’t even mention it — that’ll give us a talking point, you know? That makes us a bit different. It’s a bit of a gimmick.”
The increasingly popular “topical takedown” genre of late-night TV continues to have immense success in the US with series like HBO’s hot-take factory farm Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and it’s now gaining traction here too. The Weekly and Gold Logie-winner Waleed Aly’s work on The Project continue to produce highly shareable takedowns. But this doesn’t ruffle Micallef (who just picked up his own Logie for Outstanding Comedy).
In fact, he’s reluctant to even categorise Mad As Hell — an odd mixture of current affairs show, talk show, sketch and variety — as news satire. “It certainly uses topical events and a sense of the news as fuel,” he reasons. “But it’s not the machinery of the show. I’m not a satirist in the way you might call John Clarke one — John Clarke to me is a satirist. Barry Humphries is a satirist. These people deserve that title; I’m a sketch comedian.”
Micallef admits that when the show isn’t on-air, he doesn’t “bother with the news that much”. “If Charlie’s show was on that’s all he would talk about, [likely] in a very predictable way, whereas we will maybe just talk about whatever else is in the paper — like, you know, time and tide. Or world issues that don’t concern Australia at all. Let’s face it, 99 percent of what happens on this planet doesn’t concern us at all.”
It’s here the cynicism ramps up: “We’ll talk about helping the refugees or something. Now that certainly doesn’t seem to bother us at all.”
The Endurance Of Surrealism
Micallef, who has been on our screens for two decades in various incarnations (Full Frontal, The Shaun Micallef Program(me), Newstopia), is famous for his sardonic, slightly surreal persona. When talking to him, it’s hard to get a read on how much of what you see on TV is real.
“I don’t know anymore,” he tells me. “It was easier in the old days. On some of the other shows I used to do it was easy. I could say: ‘Well that clearly isn’t me, it’s just a combination of a couple of stupid people — even though he’s got my name’.”
He goes on to blame Talkin’ ’Bout Your Generation, the long-running quiz show he hosted on Channel Ten (where Pickering was a regular panellist), for confusing things. “That was probably the most ‘me’ I’ve ever been on camera. There are just points where what I think stops and you actually find some humour in the give and take of conversation. I think if you can imagine that version of me hosting a talk show, that’s probably what I’m doing on Mad As Hell … I’m happy to admit that 80 percent of the time, that’s me.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re really only ourselves 80 per cent of the time anyway.”
I ask him about the other 20 percent: the surrealism. After all, on Mad As Hell he regularly communes in absurd interview spots with bizarre guests, played by Francis Greenslade, Roz Hammond and others. “I think it’s a nice cover sometimes,” he says, “We’re a show that’s pretending to be up to date, but in fact, it’s all written and we shoot it a day before it goes to air. So sometimes it’s helpful to have a giant green squid come out of a cupboard to cover the fact that we don’t really have a punchline.”
I admit that the giant green squid, The Kraken, who bursts from a closet to Toni Basil’s ‘Hey Mickey’ when called, is one of my favourite gags on the show.
“It’s television, you know,” Micallef says, nonchalant. “I like the fact that visually it can entertain a bunch of people who probably don’t care too much about the news. We’ve always tried to have a couple of different levels going on, and I’m not suggesting they’re deep levels at all, but different pranks have different tones. We’ve created an environment where you can laugh at something stupid like hitting somebody over the head with a frying pan, or having somebody yell nonsense, or whatever, and then you turn around and have a joke that’s quite clever (or that we think is quite clever). That’s not such a bad smorgasbord.”
One of his more famous silly/clever jokes is Bill Shorten’s Zingers: a joke so sharp that Shorten himself has tried to co-opt it. “I think if we just do the one or two things [like that], and that’s all we do, I’d probably get bored with it,” Micallef says. “I can’t imagine the audience would be too far behind me.”
Micallef As “Moving Target”
Perhaps Micallef does get bored easily, because he’s always skipping from one project to another — a self-described “moving target”. Late last year he starred in the ABC’s The Ex-PM, a comedy about the political afterlife of Australia’s “third longest-serving prime minister”, though the response to the series was tepid. There was also Mr and Mrs Murder, the Channel Ten comedy procedural about a husband and wife pathologist team, in which Micallef teamed up with Kat Stewart.
“[That] was the biggest production I’ve ever been involved in,” he says. “I’m used to coming in and working in a studio and reading an autocue for an hour-and-a-half on a Tuesday night.” He chuckles. “And I do that for ten weeks. But this was actually six months of getting up at five in the morning and going in, and getting home at nine at night. That was tough for a man of my delicate sensibilities. It actually involved me having to remember my lines.”
Later in the year, Micallef will stretch himself again. First, with a the second season of his documentary series about faith for the SBS, and later in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s final show of the year, The Odd Couple, with Mad As Hell’s Francis Greenslade (who Micallef insists will “carry” him through the run).
When I quiz him about the SBS doco-series, Stairway To Heaven, he sounds cautiously proud. “That’s me as a sort of Michael Palin-type. Just travelling around being a bit surprised at the way the rest of the world works. I’ve travelled to places around the world that I would never have considered going to at all because I just don’t like travelling. It’s been interesting meeting people and talking to them on camera. I don’t regard myself as an interviewer but I really enjoyed those conversations, and they’ve come up quite nicely in terms of illuminating a particular person’s faith. And while that’s not comedy, there’s a lot of me in it.”
It’s no surprise that Micallef wants to try everything; he was a relative latecomer to entertainment after 10 years practicing law. “Ah, you’re assuming I was successful,” he says wryly, when I ask him about his reportedly successful law career. The move from law to entertaining seems rather drastic, but Micallef says his love of comedy extends way back to childhood. “I’ve always enjoyed the currency of a joke and laughter… that’s just sort of how I relate to people. So it doesn’t seem like a big ask to do it every day of the week.”
His other great love from childhood is movies, and he laments the dearth of local film funding, which has thus far kept him from his movie-making dreams. “You’d like to think that one day you could get one up, but it’s hard in Australia,” he says. “It takes ten years to get the thing on the screen, and often it’s not there for that long, so it’s a little — it can be a bit soul-destroying.”
Eventually he admits, “there are a couple [of films] in the drawer”. “But the thing is, if you’re writing for yourself, by the time it gets made you’re too old to be playing the role you’ve written for yourself, so I have to factor that in. I’ll tell you what: maybe I’ll start now. I’ll write for a 75-year-old man. And then, by the time the funding comes through, I’ll be just the right age.”
Still, Micallef is happy sticking to his diverse TV work and resolute that his wheelhouse “houses a pretty small wheel” — a metaphor I introduce that he decides to run with for the remainder of the interview.
“I’m fortunate to have been doing this now for about 20 years, and I still find it enormously fascinating. Just the prospect of trying to retool my wheelhouse to suit whatever project is coming up, I find that in itself quite satisfying. As long as it can continue working, and have that wheel turning — just to push that metaphor even further — as long as the house continues to turn that wheel I’ll continue to do it.”
Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell is on ABC at 8.30pm Wednesday nights. You can catch the first episode of the new season on iView now.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith.