For a man so consistently hilarious, it’s a little surprising that Shaun Micallef has never quite cracked the secret of sitcom success. Welcher & Welcher has its defenders – ironically, they don’t include Micallef himself – but it’s generally seen as more miss than hit, while the first season of The Ex-PM never really scaled the humour heights that Mad as Hell has made its home. For a performer who’s tried (and generally been pretty good at) just about every form of comedy there is (aside from stand-up)… what gives?
The answer lies in the first episode of the second season of The Ex-PM, which is handy as this is meant to be a review of that show. While the first season was largely about the titular former PM Andrew Dugdale (Micallef) puttering around at a loose end while his family and various sycophants fluttered around him like moths to an extremely small flame, this time around there’s been an injection of narrative: Dugdale has been asked to stand in a by-election for a safe seat, which is so safe no possible amount of bungling could tip it the other way. Ahem. Laughs ensue, along with various hints that something more sinister is going on, as the whole gang ups stumps for the rural electorate (which looks a lot in parts like the industrial areas out the back of Micallef’s home suburb of Williamstown).
Probably the most startling moment was the appearance of the recently deceased John Clarke – actually in the flesh and not only appearing over video, as he did in the first series. Reportedly he passed away only a few days after he finished filming his scenes in April: he’s as funny as ever, but it’s still going to take a little bit of adjusting before we can really get around to laughing at him here. But his scenes also reveal why Micallef’s sitcoms haven’t really taken off (with the possible exception of Welcher & Welcher, because… well, read on).
One of the many, many reasons why John Clarke’s death was a massive loss to Australian comedy is that he was easily the best comedic performer around who you could always rely on not to steal the show. Well, he always stole the show – c’mon, it’s John Clarke – but his performances were always low-key, assured, and unshowy. He was a brilliant performer who was also a safe pair of hands, which is why he often showed up across from performers who rarely let other big guns in the room: he could hold his own without overshadowing the star.
On another, initially unrelated point, Micallef really does seem to be a big fan of screwball comedy. His favoured pace for delivering dialogue is “rapid-fire” (the dialogue itself can usually be filed under “snappy”) and if the jokes aren’t coming fast enough that just means there’s room to squeeze a few more into the gaps. Which is all well and good: lord knows Australian comedy needs more practitioners whose knowledge of the genre goes beyond a few episodes of The Office.
The thing is though, screwball comedy doesn’t necessarily throw everything at the wall at once. Many of the best-loved examples basically involve two people firing lines at each other. And while Micallef tried this with some success in Mr & Mrs Murder, nobody watched it and he hasn’t worked with Kat Stewart since, which is a massive shame. Going all out works perfectly well on Mad as Hell because it’s a screwball comedy with the audience as Micallef’s partner. He can spin jokes and pull faces to his hearts content because we don’t have to do anything but keep watching to keep up: when he does it in a sitcom he really needs to be facing off against an equal.
The Ex-PM has a great cast, but none of them really work as consistent foils for Micallef. Nicholas Bell has a more low-key kind of energy; when he goes big it often feels like an act. Francis Greenslade is basically Robin to Micallef’s Batman; they might go about things differently but they always feel like they’re working towards the same end. But John Clarke is a performer who can stand up to Micallef – he’s just as naturally funny but in a very different way, and there’s a useful comedic tension in their (all too brief) back-and-forths.
(the same thing happened in Welcher & Welcher, where Robyn Butler made for a perfect counterpoint to Micallef’s buffoonery. For a long time Micallef was pretty much the only male Australian television comic who seemed comfortable working opposite women as equals: we wish he’d do more of it)
Unfortunately Clarke is just one member of a large cast on The Ex-PM, and while the constant flurry of activity is no doubt meant to be part of the appeal, it wouldn’t hurt to slow things down a little. Then again, the reveal of having the political tour bus be just a regular public transport bus – complete with someone pushing the button to get off at the next stop – was as good a joke as any we’ve seen locally this year. Maybe we should be satisfied with what we’ve got.