Shaun Micallef’s The Ex-PM finished up last week, going out the way it lived – as a half hour sitcom. Which made it a bit of an oddity on Australian television in 2015, as the days when the ABC’s head of scripted comedy was willing to make (or with the funding to make) sitcoms that aimed for a wide audience seem to be over. The Moodys and Upper Middle Bogan are out: a whole bunch of niche shows initially meant for ABC2 are in. And next year when the ABC2 surplus has gone? Hey, you’ll still have The Weekly.
This kind of left The Ex-PM in limbo. While Micallef himself has become one of this country’s towering greats as far as comedy’s concerned, that’s largely come about because he’s sat still and done something people can understand – news satire, AKA the one kind of comedy the ABC does like to keep around – for five seasons and counting. Micallef’s sense of humour has always been just a little offbeat for a nation that’s made Dave Hughes a star: it helps a lot when his kind of comedy is put into a container that people feel comfortable with.
But in Australia 2015, a sitcom isn’t really that container. Hard as it is to grasp for hard-core comedy fans such as ourselves, it seems sitcoms are edgy stuff for Australian audiences these days. The last two sitcoms that actually hit big would be Kath & Kim and Summer Heights High – both of which tackled material that’s about as mainstream-audience-friendly as you can get.
Shaun Micallef playing a former PM might seem like similar sure-fire stuff at first glance, but with Shaun Micallef in the lead we were never going to get some kind of broad strokes At Home With Julia cartoon. What we did get ended up taking a little time to settle in: Micallef had clearly put in a bit of thought as to what an actual former Prime Minister would be like, whereas much of the audience just wanted to see him play some stuffy old duffer constantly being brought low by a squad of dimwits. Which is what we eventually got.
Part of the reason for the death of the Aussie sitcom is that a sitcom’s biggest strength is the audience’s familiarity with the characters. When a sitcom only has a handful of episodes to establish itself, that strength is gone: every scene with a character becomes a scene re-introducing us to them. It’s still possible to get laughs in that situation but it’s definitely a lot harder, especially if you’ve filmed all the episodes first so you’re not even getting audience feedback to guide you. No wonder people make dramedies instead: at least there if no-one laughs you can pretend you were being serious.
With Micallef – or the”Shaun Micallef” that we know from television – that’s not a problem. Shaun Micallef has been on our screens on various shows for so long now that we know what to expect: a slightly officious, slightly overconfident patrician figure who’s good on the double takes as the real world refuses to conform to his beliefs. So a show built around him titled The Ex-PM should have been perfect, right?
Thing is, Micallef – the real one – seems to have gone into this sitcom deciding to play an actual character rather than just “himself”. And suddenly we’re back to square one, only worse: now the audience has to get their heads around “Shaun Micallef” not acting entirely like we expect him to. To make the worst possible comparison, it’d be like having Daryl Somers turn up in a sitcom playing a comedy character that wasn’t different enough from his established persona for viewers to have a clean break (this is why Robin Williams made all those dramas), and yet not similar enough to his established persona for viewers to immediately relax.
These are all minor quibbles: the show found its feet quickly, delivered laughs promptly, gave us a chance to see John Clarke doing what he does best, reminded us that Lachie Hulme can be pretty funny when he’s not playing Kerry Packer, and ended up our favourite sitcom of the year (sorry Utopia). But it goes to show that making good television relies on a whole lot of things, and time – which Australian television never seems to have enough of – is perhaps the most important thing of all.
Oh wait, How Not to Behave got fifteen weeks and was shit from start to finish. Forget we said anything.