Australian television doesn’t have comedians any more, it has hosts. Think about how many much-loved laugh-getters from radio and sketch comedy have, under the relentless all-bland pressure of Australian television, turned into little more than less competent versions of Larry Emdur. Think about all the “comedians” coming through now who, first chance they get, throw away all but the first two pages of their joke book as they settle in to introducing celebrity guests and giving “funny” answers on panel / game shows. Now you might have some idea why we hold Shaun Micallef in such high regard.
Unlike pretty much everyone currently working on Australian television – with the notable exception of Chris Lilley – Micallef isn’t a host. Sure, he plays one on Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation, but that’s just it: he’s clearly playing a host. Australian television wants its’ hosts to be friendly, open, approachable – basically, radio jocks with slightly less edge. And a big, big part of being a jock is swapping being funny for opening up about your private life.
Again, it comes from radio. With so much pressure to produce material, sooner or later radio jocks end up strip-mining their own lives. Stories about their weekends, stories about their kids, stories about their relationships, stories about what they think of the issues of the day: it’s what a host talks about. It’s all a host talks about. Frankly, we couldn’t care less what Dave Hughes thinks about anything, but it seems we’re in the minority there.
Micallef, on the other hand, works on television. He knows that he doesn’t have to “be himself”to win viewers over; all he has to do is be funny. When he’s on panel shows or giving interviews he dials it down a little but he’s still more about cracking jokes than revealing who he is. Fun fact: out of all the Australian comedians to write a book in the last five years, he’s the only one who wrote a work of fiction.
All of this would seem obvious – hell, maybe it is obvious and you stopped reading three paragraphs ago – if it wasn’t so unusual for this day and age. Let us now point out that after years of struggle doing comedy his biggest success has been hosting a game show, which is about as mainstream a hosting job as they come. It’s easy to imagine pretty much anyone in Australian comedy doing roughly the same thing – it’s just not possible to stay awake while doing it.
Micallef doesn’t want to “share” with us. He doesn’t even want us to “like” him if he can get bigger laughs from being a bit of a jerk. And this is why we’re still paying attention to Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation, long, long after the show itself ceased to amaze and enthrall. We even waited an extra week before writing about the latest season just in case it had any surprises up its’ hilariously retro sleeves. It didn’t: apart from a steady drip of new games (which all seem the same to us) and more cross-promotional theme shows than regular episodes, it hasn’t really changed since the early days when Micallef wrestled it to the ground and put his brand right on its meaty flank.
Don’t get us wrong, we appreciate Micallef’s endless nutty touches. Using the chair from Blade Runner still gets a smile ’round these parts, as does his hammy fake organ playing. But everyone else on the show (with the surprising exception of the otherwise painful Josh Thomas) is dead weight. Amanda Keller is at best a comedy mirror – fire enough comedy her way and eventually she’ll reflect something back – and these days Charlie Pickering is clearly a host, not a comedian. Don’t believe us? What’s his comedy persona? What does he do that’s funny beyond saying smart-arse things? Okay, maybe he’s kinda smug and above it all. Wow, that’s hilarious.
At least with Josh, Micallef has something to work with. Josh may be actually like he is on the show, we don’t know, but on the show he comes off as a comedy character, dim and distracted, with stupid hair and a bogus voice. It’s often annoying; it’s also occasionally somewhat funny. If you’d never seen the show before you’d assume as a matter of course that a comedy game show about a battle between the generations would involve team leaders who somehow embodied the cliches about those generations, but clearly that fell into the too-hard basket for the casting director and so apart from Josh the other two are just… well, collecting a paycheck for starters.
Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation works to the limited extent it does because Micallef is hosting, and because as a host Micallef is a talented comedian trying to be funny. “Be more funny” is a simple thing but considering how many times Peter Helliar’s scored work hosting sports shows clearly it’s not a high priority for the networks. It’s not a lesson you think will be learnt by them in a hurry either: if this proves to be the last season of Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation (and it really should be), you know the fact that the only long-running successful comedy show on Australian commercial television was hosted by a comedian, not a blandly-grinning host, will be glossed over the second Micallef’s out the door.
There may be only one Shaun Micallef, but there are (presumably) other funny people in Australia; next time someone thinks it’s a good idea to try a comedy game show, maybe hire one of them for a change.