Okay, so Mad as Hell is back and it’s as brilliant as ever. What more do you need to know? The first episode back seemed slightly more desk-focused than previously – it felt like around ten minutes of Shaun talking before they cut to something else – but when the material’s this good who cares? Five thumbs up from us, would watch again until the end of time.
But then we got to thinking. Sure, Mad as Hell is funny. But what makes it a better show than a show like the surprisingly also funny The Front Bar? You know, the sports-related… oh great, everyone’s stopped reading. It’s an AFL-based show where Mick Molloy, Sam Pang and Some Footy Expert sit at a fake pub bar and talk shit. It’s pretty good.
Anyway, the point being: we’re always being told that comedy is subjective and personal, so if one show makes you laugh and another doesn’t then the one that made you laugh is automatically better comedy and that’s the end of that. Clearly the fact that people laugh at Dave Hughes puts paid to that theory (sorry Dave). But then how to put one form of comedy ahead of another?
In theory a better comparison here would be with The Weekly, but c’mon: The Weekly isn’t really trying to do the same thing as Mad as Hell. At least by comparing it to The Front Bar, we’re comparing two shows that have being funny in common – while both Mad as Hell and The Weekly feature men in suits behind desks talking about news clips, The Weekly never tries to do more than one thing at a time. It has two regular guests, both of whom play “themselves” and have firmly defined topics of conversation, it has serious interviews with actual people, and when Pickering makes fun of the news he does so in a straightforward fashion – no wordplay, lots of sarcasm, not much irony – with a firm focus on education. You know how most news satire shows, Mad as Hell included, will briefly explain a news story to set up their jokes? The Weekly is all set-up, no joke.
So the first comparison is form: The Front Bar works because they picked the right guys to sit around talking shit. That’s all the show is – the comedy there comes simply from letting the right guys go on and on about a subject they can get laughs out of.
Mad as Hell is a much more complicated product. There’s rants, news reports, jokes about news clips, fake interviews with comedy characters, running jokes, pop culture references, TV parodies, silly wigs and costumes, and on and on. There’s simply a lot more to watch and take in, and that’s before we get onto the wide range of comedy characters that turn up opposite Micallef.
There’s also a much wider range of jokes on Mad as Hell. Sometimes a comedy character will appear just for one joke or line before vanishing, and that joke could just be their name, how they look, or something they say. Mad as Hell will have a serious political observation made by someone in a bizarre outfit; silly things will be said by the suit-wearing and seemingly respectable host. If they can fit a joke in on top of another joke, they’ll do it.
While The Front Bar will use clips and props to get laughs, it’s all pretty straightforward stuff. The comedy is character-based too, but it’s the characters of the hosts – we laugh because we know who they are and why they act the way they do. If Mick’s team gets a drubbing, which they seem to do a lot, there’ll be jokes about that and they’ll work in a good-natured ribbing kind of way because it’s clear that Mick can give as good as he gets. These are funny guys and The Front Bar is giving you the chance to hang out with them.
(that’s not to say Shaun Micallef isn’t funny, obviously. But Micallef is clearly performing in a way that Mick Molloy and Sam Pang on The Front Bar aren’t. For some people, that’s what makes one show better than the other: as both shows’ hosts’ are clearly excellent at their jobs, it all boils down to personal taste)
The one area where The Front Bar has a natural advantage is pacing. A lot of the show is just people talking shit; if things get boring, more often than not someone will know to hurry it up. Mad as Hell is a more manufactured product – they’re obviously not making it up as they go along – so there’s a bit more skill involved in keeping it all on track, especially as the show itself is built around a wide range of jokes that all require different approaches to get maximum laughs.
And yet they manage it. Some jokes require a build up to work, others are at their funniest if they slip by almost un-noticed. Micallef can sell a joke with an expression; other times they’ll signal that they know a joke is corny as hell but they wanted to go with it anyway because why not?
Look, both these shows – no, not you The Weekly – are very funny. But The Front Bar is funny because it features a couple of funny guys having fun messing about; Mad as Hell is funny because it features a bunch of funny guys and a whole lot of various kinds of jokes presented with the skill to ensure that most of them are deployed for maximum effectiveness.
You might not like Micallef or find his show funny, but you’ve got to appreciate the craftsmanship. And also, it’s really funny; what the hell is wrong with you?