If you’re going to be a comedian, you have to make a choice: do you make comedy designed to appeal to the masses, or do you follow your heart? On the one hand, appealing to the masses seems like the smart way to achieve mass appeal but idiots will call you a sell-out; on the other, following your heart is how all great art is made but there’s a chance you have the heart of a pretentious wanker (or worse, Julia Morris). How to create a deeply personal work that connects with everybody?
In recent years in Australia the very idea of comedy having mass appeal has been so ludicrous comedians and their supporters have almost automatically fallen back on the line “does it matter if these shows find a large audience so long as they’re good?” They have a point too: in theory if you make an extremely funny comedy people will flock to it no matter what that comedy is about. The Games was about Olympic management; Cheers was about a collection of lonely drunks; Fawlty Towers was about a man completely unsuited for hotel management.
In practice though, ignoring your wider audience to follow your heart often leads to shows like Laid. That is to say, shows that expect the audience to come to them. The idea that if you do something intensely personal it will become universal thanks to our shared humanity is a good one, but only if you’re able to actually articulate and express something universal.
[When Louie CK makes a new friend on a trip to Miami then screws it up on Louie, the thing that’s universal isn’t the culture of Miami, it’s the thrill of being somewhere new and making a new friend and then screwing it up because you’re a klutz; when Roo on Laid discovers her ex-lovers are dying, the thing that’s universal isn’t the ex-lovers dying, it’s the friendship between Roo and EJ. Except that where Louie is about the awkward nature of human interactions in general, Laid is about a specific someone having their ex-lovers die because of their cursed vagina… which isn’t exactly an universal condition. Oops.]
Anyway, the real rejoinder to the “who cares if anyone’s watching, we’re making art over here” argument – apart from time itself, because if you don’t pull in an audience no-one is going to remember you long enough to acclaim you as art – is the work of one Shaun Micallef. Game show host, tonight show host, news parody host, sketch comedy host and creator of one of the broader sitcoms in recent Australian history, there’s almost no mainstream format he hasn’t tried. But once he’s inside the format – formats that decades of television have refined down to give them the broadest possible appeal – he delivers comedy that’s extremely individual*.
Micallef may have embraced the mainstream when it comes to formats – his one sitcom was “married lawyers tackle silly cases”, not “hipster girl discovers her ex-lovers are dying” or Outland‘s “gay science-fiction fans hang out” – but his actual comedy contains some of the most obscure and unusual references you’ll find on Australian television. Mad as Hell recently featured an extended riff on the Peter Sellers movie Being There; who even remembers that film today? George Formby isn’t exactly a current reference, yet Micallef sang the 1940s Formby comedy song “When I’m Cleaning Windows” to fill space at the end of an episode of Welcher & Welcher.
“A Shaun Micallef show” is actually a pretty broad remit: he likes wordplay, physical comedy, absurdity, pop culture references, pulling faces, silly character names, news jokes, political satire, pulling a gun on his audience, and so on. He’ll throw anything at the screen if he thinks it’ll get a laugh and he knows enough about how comedy works to give jokes room to breathe. He’ll get a laugh with a raised eyebrow; he’ll also get a laugh by having two equestrians angrily wrestling on his desk while he tries to introduce the next segment.
While Micallef has a firmly developed sense of humour (and he’s not willing to mess with it; these days he’s almost never seen doing anything outside his admittedly broad comfort zone), what he is willing to do is work to find the easiest way to bring audiences into his world. Time and again he’s done his best to remove obstacles to people getting into his shows, to the point where now the least interesting thing about a Micallef program is the format. If you could figure out a way to let Micallef do what he wants to do on a home renovation or cooking based reality show, chances are he’d be on it like a shot. It’s almost as if he actually wants as many people as possible to watch his comedy.
In recent years we’ve seen way too many comedies where the niche interests are up front – ones that seem to say “this is what we’re about, take it or leave it”, with audiences usually choosing the latter**. Micallef clearly has his own obsessions (old comedy for starters), but he takes care not to let his personal interests overwhelm his comedy. He’s not going to make Micallef’s Wacky World of Movie References any time soon. The joke is usually simply that the reference is to something out-of-place and unusual; if you actually get the reference the joke is funnier, but it still works if you don’t.
These references personalise the material too: for example, Micallef’s chair on later seasons of Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation said “Tyrell Corporation”. If you got the Blade Runner reference that was fine, but there was no joke there past the joke of having the host of a mainstream game show sitting in a chair that made an obscure movie reference. Micallef likes Blade Runner; we all have favourite films; the personal becomes universal.
*Yes, we know he works with a regular team of collaborators, including writers Gary MacCaffrie and Michael Ward, and performer Francis Greenslade. When we say “Shaun Micallef”, we mean “Shaun Micallef and friends”.
**We’re also aware that his decades of experience have earned him a level of trust other comedians don’t have: he can say “I want to make a cooking show” and producers know it’ll be a funny cooking show. Less experienced comedians have to pitch show ideas that are “funny”, even if it means by episode three the hilarious concept is burnt out.