Wednesday, 29 July 2009

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Micallef?

I have a good friend who for anonymity’s sake I shall call Dave. It’s also his actual name which makes things a bit simpler. Before I ever met Dave people were telling me that I would like him. They remarked on our similar backgrounds and accents and sense of humour and kept trying to get us to be friends. When we did meet we were friendly and chatted as colleagues do, but we weren’t best buddies, at least not straight away. This was mostly my fault because I didn’t want English friends when I first moved to Australia. Anyway, I grew up a bit and started hanging out more and more with Dave and I realised that everyone was right. I met Dave’s wife, and Dave’s wife met my wife, and then we all started hanging out together until suddenly they decided they were moving back to England. I don’t think the two events were related… We still miss Dave and Mrs Dave.

Anyways, sometimes life is like that. You spend ages getting your act together and then before you know things change and move on. I tell you this because something similar has just happened with me and Shaun Micallef. Not that I’m friends with Shaun Micallef. I have never (to my knowledge) even been in the same room as him. I have however been told on many occasions that I would like him and his comedy and that I should give him a try. Much like with Dave, my response has been to dawdle and basically stand in the kitchen of the Micallef love-in party getting drunk on cheap lager and telling boring anecdotes about how Australian comedy hasn’t produced anything wonderful since Frontline.

When Shaun and I did finally meet it was via Newstopia, the SBS news parody show. This disappointed me a bit because as funny as Newstopia could be (and it could be very funny), it was essentially a copy of The Day Today, the Chris Morris-fronted BBC show from 1994 that launched Alan Partridge. Micallef’s confrontational and aggressive host seemed a little too closely modelled on Morris’s character on the Day Today (and he has admitted to be being a fan) which left a taste similar to when I watched the first episode of the American version of The Office.

Perhaps the rewards I got when I stopped comparing Steve Carrell to Ricky Gervais helped with Shaun because I was still interested enough to take a punt on a second-hand DVD of the Micallef Program. Good job I did because now, finally, I realise the brilliance of Shaun Micallef, my new best buddy in the comedy world.

My damascene moment came mid-way through a brilliant piece of physical comedy in which
an inebriated Shaun battles to get a bottle of wine from his cellar which has been filmed at such an angle to render it impossible to tell what is a ceiling, what is a wall and where the hell the floor is. As the sketch unfolded and its intricacy became more apparent I was massively impressed that something so unashamedly intelligent yet unrepentantly silly could make its way onto typically conservative and dumb Australian television. Having since found other series on DVD it was a real treat to find out that The Micallef Program (or Programme or Pogram depending upon which series you watch) was consistently this brilliant.

The show’s strength is in knowing exactly what it wants to be, sticking to its guns and creating each program with a conviction that what they are doing works. It doesn’t explain concepts or provide unnecessary punchlines; it is, unapologetically, what it is. In that sense it reminds me of shows like Big Train or the Dadaist faux-variety of Vic Reeves. The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) has much in common with Bang Bang, It’s Reeves and Mortimer which is of a similar vintage and takes equal delight in doing something without reason (see
German Girls) or taking sketches to places that no one could ever have anticipated (see Vic and Bob become Seagulls).

Despite their different pre-fame backgrounds Micallef and Reeves seem to have walked similar professional paths. Both got starts on commercial television before being snapped up by their respective public broadcasters (BBC/ABC). Given funding and free reign both created shows that were funny, genuinely innovative, critically lauded but not commercially popular. Since then Micallef and Reeves have tried a variety of shows and formats as vehicles to bring their formidable talents to the masses but in both cases the results left a feeling that they were watering down the very thing that makes them special.

Entranced by the charms of 1999-era Micallef and YouTube clips of his Fast Forward sketches, Mrs Custard and I tried out an episode of Talking about my Generation; the latest attempt to sneak Shaun into the hearts and minds of commercial TV watchers via the backdoor. Sadly, even allowing for some great non sequiturs and general strangeness from Shaun the show is mostly pointless panel-based-I-remember-space-hoppers-and-care-bears-and-lava-lamps nonsense. The panellists seemed unsure how to react to his shtick (although how would you react to a middle aged man taking a baseball bat to a giant piñata of Henry Kissinger’s head?) and the audience like they had been augmented with canned laughter. We were left with the feeling of being lured into watching this mess like ancient mariners onto the rocks, with Shaun in a mermaid costume combing his silver hair in the moonlight.

So what to do with Shaun Micallef? There are no ready answers as Reeves can attest. Vic has spent almost two decades as everyone’s favourite talk show interviewee, movie cameo, award presenter and celebrity guest and yet has been forced to return to the safe bosom of Shooting Stars to earn a crust.

Clearly Micallef deserves more recognition for his formidable talents and fortunately it seems like there are enough television, radio and theatre producers who agree. He’s starred on every Australian TV channel in one guise or another – and yet the right mix of critical and popular acclaim has proved elusive. In some ways it’s great that he gets to sprinkle some much needed absurdity into the mainstream but it’s also fair to say that much of the Australian television watching public is not naturally inclined towards the wilfully strange. They’re as likely to be watching shows like Talking about my Generation despite Shaun as because of him. Those of us who do like a bit of oddness are unlikely to tune in for the same reasons. We want to see him doing what he does best – writing and acting out his own work – but as we’ve seen, that didn’t have enough mass appeal to keep going. Apart from overseas it seems to me that there are a couple of places he could go to occupy a unique spot on Australian television.

Ten has missed a real opportunity with its new comedy news round-up The 7pm Project. Kudos for recognising that Australia needs a Daily Show / Colbert Report-style show, but they seem to have got it wrong. The show suffers from a lack of purpose, reporting the news more than it analyses, as well as a crushingly familiar cast (yet more Dave Hughes moaning on about ‘stuff’ like he does on every other panel show). I’m pretty sure that Micallef has the wit and intelligence to be Australia’s Jon Stewart and could add some much needed gravitas when required. One of Jon Stewart’s finest moments was the day after 9/11 when he and his staff found the right words at the right time. It’s hard to imagine Hughesy and co having much to say the next time something terrible happens, but somehow you feel like Micallef could hack it. It’s not too late, Channel 10.

Alternatively, if that’s all a bit too serious then how about filling the huge gap in interviewing styles between Andrew Denton and the mystifyingly popular Rove McManus? The paucity of choice on offer in Australia was even more apparent watching Jonathan Ross on Channel 7’s late-night repeats of his BBC talk show. Ross is by no means perfect but his interviewing style is unique and he walks a quite brilliant tightrope between flattery and abuse with all of his guests.
Compare that to the ingratiating perma-smile of McManus and tell me that Micallef couldn’t do better. If we have to be a nation obsessed with celebrity, let’s have an interviewer who can prick a few egos to balance it out. (I say this without having seen Micallef Tonight from 2003 so I’d be interested to hear if anyone thought it was any good).

My hope is that there is some brilliant TV producer out there ready to team up with Shaun and give him the freedom to create something great. There was talk of an ABC pilot called Mouse Patrol written with Tony Martin, but there’s been nothing new on that since 2005. In the meantime I’ll keep working my way through The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) DVDs and hoping for more of this kind of brilliance:

Godzilla Interview - Dracula has a Seachange - Julie Anthony sings Computer Games - Polite Distances

… and to AB, my friend who insisted I watch Micallef and whose advice I ignored, yes yes yes. You were right, damn you. You were right. Happy?


Anonymous said...

You write beautifully about the Micallef conundrum. As far as the 2003 show went, as an interviewer, he was too focussed on the comedy to actually listen to the interviewees' responses (and in many cases, who could blame him). Interesting development in recent times is that he has relaxed more on camera, and is able to channel some warmth - probably would interview better now. Is growing into an eccentric father figure, and will be comfortable in this role. I used to live in Melbourne but now live in England. I did know Micallef years ago.

Mint Custard said...

Hi! - agreed that balancing the focus might be difficult for those inclined to be the centre of attention, but yeah, I still think Shaun could be great at it. I suspect Denton's empathy was a surprise to many after his start on Triple M.

Just as a postscript I read yesterday that Talkin' Bout My Generation (sic) has been a big hit. Shaun was involved from go to woe in its development and is apparently enjoying being a gameshow host. It still feels odd after the P(r)ogram(me)'s entertaining pokes at such shows


thanks for reading and for taking the time to write - much appreciated!

Rani said...

Yes, I have been watching the growing TBYG phenomenon and intially felt a bit sick at the idea of him hosting a game show - but I think it's about survival on the rather stupid beast that is mainstream Oz TV. And he seems to be enjoying himself.

Do you like Green Wing? I have been watching the DVD recently. It depends how long you have been in Oz, Green Wing never made it there, channel 4 comedy with a lot of improv, very weird and funny. I feel a compulsion to throw names at you but will leave it at that. I do like your blog. You don't say things like 'lol'. Surely that will pass out of use soon.
Anyway, thanks for replying.
Rani (I can put my name now because I see the comments aren't displayed.)

Anonymous said...

What a thoroughly enjoyable piece! I really loved your insights.

I watched Talkin' Bout My Generation for the first time tonight, and Micallef hooked me. I actually typed "what sense of humour does shaun micallef have?" into google and this was the first result!

Mint Custard said...

Hi - thanks for passing by. I caught the end of TBYG last night too and it only reinforced that he's the best thing about the show... hope you got to check out some of his older work from the links.

@Rani - thanks again. Your comments about using lol made me laugh. Perhaps I'm just a bit too old! Re Green Wing, haven't seen too much but Mark Heap is always worth watching...

Rani said...

Mark Heap is awesome. His latest thing is playing Charles Dickens in a rollicking com-dram about, of all things, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (about which I know just a little too much). He just pops up in every third scene and looks arch, it's getting to be a running joke.
Green Wing made me a fan of Stephen Mangan. He has made a really lovely series with the lady who made 'Pulling' (which is also brilliant), Sharon Horgan. This series is called 'Free Agents' and manages to be moving and hilarious and filthy all at once.

Now I'm sure all that is really too much information (TMI).