Comedy isn’t a competition, but there’s only so many hours in a day so why settle for second best? Hackneyed writers spouting cliches we may very well be, but even we can recognise that Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell is the best Australian comedy of the year.
Do we even need to write a new one of these posts?
Seven seasons in it remains remarkably consistent, in a way usually only seen in the kind of shouty panel shows that really can’t get any worse. Of course, there are changes if you go looking (especially if you consider Micallef’s previous fake news series Newstopia to be a close relation). Micallef himself has loosened up, while the show has settled down; if it turns out that the first ten minutes or so are just Micallef delivering news jokes to camera, these days he can pull it off – usually by throwing in a few wacky expressions to vary the tone.
It felt like there were slightly less comedy grotesques being interviewed this year, but slightly less slick media players as well. Characters that had been built up to near-regulars last year only made the occasional appearance; at a guess the Kraken was released just the once, and after a few cameos in recent years Micallef’s classic (or is that “classic”) character Milo Kerrigan failed to show at all. There was only the occasional mention of Bill Shorten’s zingers. Nobody had a piano dropped on them.
But there were sketches, often so traditionally cornball their old-fashioned nature was part of the joke. There was Cross-Promotion Corner, which gave younger comedians the chance to tell Micallef to fuck off. And unlike The Weekly, a show we’re constantly amazed has the guts to show its face on the same network as Mad as Hell, there were plenty of actual jokes about the news.
When Micallef gave some long-winded spiel about the state of some topical issue, it wasn’t some fingers-crossed-this-goes-viral-nailing-it presentation of opinions everyone at home already had; it was more often than not a joke about how slippery opinions can be, and how most of the time following our views to their logical conclusion takes us a long way from where we want to be. Or it was just funny. Either one will do.
It seems strange to remember it was only a few years ago that it looked like Mad as Hell was being eased out by the ABC bigwigs. There’s been seven seasons over seven years, but after three seasons in little over a year (seasons 3-5 ran from Feb 2014 to April 2015) it was a full year until season six of Mad as Hell – with 34 episodes of The Weekly in between. If you thought it looked like the ABC was grooming a replacement, you weren’t alone.
At the time it seemed almost reasonable. A blunter, less jokey form of news satire was on the rise, and the form rising fastest was the “nailed it” brand of internet-friendly lightweight news with aggro opinions that former newsreader Charlie Pickering claimed to be a specialist in. Mad as Hell‘s more traditional, less overtly opinionated form of comedy – you know, the type that focused on being funny rather than being right-on – was seemingly out of step with the strident times.
Yet The Weekly was shithouse, failing on even the most basic level to meet the pathetically low standards it set for itself. It’s little more now than a time-filling flop, a show unable to gain traction on any level, full of forgettable bits that fail to go viral as the the funny cast members seem increasingly side-lined. Now-ousted cast member Briggs has a running cameo on Get Krack!n, one of the few new ABC comedies with any excitement about it, while Weekly fixture Tom Gleeson hosts a minor game show even the contestants forget is going to air.
And Mad as Hell? It’s more relevant than ever. Where The Weekly increasingly feels out of touch with anything going on outside a shrinking segment of social media, Micallef’s surrealism nails the off-kilter zeitgeist of 2017 in a way that few news comedies – from any corner of the globe – can currently manage. It’s brilliant television that all involved, including the ABC itself, can be rightly proud of: unlike just about everything else looming on the horizon, its (presumed) return in 2018 can’t come quickly enough.
‘Mad as Hell’s’ end of season musical numbers are phenomenal. The non-creepy definition of ‘Hate to see you leave, but love to watch you go’. And this year’s ‘Hey Mr Blue Shy’ was brilliant. When a baby (having been greeted to the human race) then levitated, for no reason, off into the studio lights in an explosion of sparks, I delighted in this show’s one last, exquisite reminder of why it remains so glorious.
…And then the rage set in.
Because how the fuck is that the end?! How do we get only twelve weeks of this impossibly brilliant brew – wry social commentary, news media satire, exaggerated character bits, and hilariously unhinged absurdism – and yet ‘The Weekly’ seems to be on every goddamn other week? A show only slightly more recognisably a produced television program than the test pattern?
I mean, I’m sure that there is a financial element in the considerations.
‘The Weekly’ consists of only three on-air ‘talent’ (I’m obliged to use the word even if inappropriately applying it to Tom Gleeson) – or at least that’s the only three they let on screen. I doubt anyone keeps pretending Briggs is part of the production on its return. And for what they produce, the writing staff seems to consist of a mildly sentient facebook newsfeed filter set to ‘smug’.
‘Mad as Hell’, in contrast, has a cast of phenomenal comedic talent, writers who outstrip every other Australian television production on quantity and quality of jokes crammed into every frame, and conceives some extravagant filmed pieces and sets.
On paper, I can see why ‘The Weekly’ would be seen as the most financially viable – even though I’m sure on closer inspection that logic becomes suspect. ‘Mad as Hell’ magically spins gold out of a noticeably shoestring budget, and Charlie Pickering wouldn’t be doing that crap for free. He, and presumably whoever keeps running his show, mistakenly believes he is a bankable star, so he’d be getting paid.
But still. Even if the finances are the principle motivation (and I’m not convinced they are), why keep throwing money (even if its less) into a vapid, weightless program, so satirically toothless that it’s point of its stories are forgotten by the viewer while they are still in the process of watching them?
Why not redirect all the cash that would’ve gone into forty ‘Weekly’ episodes into making another dozen ‘Mad as Hells’? Fill the remaining weeks with a thirty minute shot of one of the ‘Play School’ toys sitting behind a desk in a suit.
It would literally fit the definition of ‘satire’ better than what Pickering has managed to cough up in three years.
And don’t even get me started on Gruen filling that slot. Fuck us all.