Is it just us, or has Shaun Micallef been losing his grip a little lately? Not that he’s ever really been known for his iron grasp on things, but the occasional smirk at an over-the-top performance has, in recent weeks, seemingly blossomed into a lot of near-corpsing in the face of what’s become a regular installment of “let’s see who can make the host laugh”.
Weirdly for a news satire program, this isn’t really a bad thing. Micallef has never pretended to be a “real” newsreader, let alone whatever it is that Charlie Pickering is doing on The Weekly, so there’s no character to break by breaking character. And it’s never the kind of forced laughter that, well, we’ve already mentioned Charlie Pickering once in this paragraph. Faced with a laughable performance, he laughs: what’s wrong with that?
Usually a run of breaking character by laughing (aka “corpsing”) is less than ideal because it turns the performance away from the audience: they’re making each other laugh, not us. But Mad as Hell has a slightly different feel to it. It’s not as ramshackle as, say, The Late Show was (that was a show where the comedy was almost entirely based on the idea of “look how pissweak this is”), but there’s definitely an element of watching a group of performers putting on a show that’s not quite as polished as it could be.
In those circumstances, occasionally breaking character to laugh at an extra hammy slice of performance is as much part of the show as dodgy wigs and wobbly sets. No doubt the lack of an actual audience at the moment plays a part too – performers love a reaction, and if there’s not a crowd handy to give them one it’s hardly surprising that they’re going after laughs anywhere they can find them. And having people actually laughing during a comedy show? Not a bad thing.
(they’re hardly playing characters that demand a subtle touch either. Not every interview subject requires a performance dialled up to 11, but when they do the cast aren’t going to hold back)
Over the last few years Mad as Hell has quietly expanded its approach. It’s been taking advantage of the ABC’s dwindling comedy output to push things, safe in the knowledge they won’t be infringing on anyone else’s turf. Not that telling topical news stories through the medium of interpretive dance was ever a regular feature on, say, Tractor Monkeys, but there is a bit of a sense that, as the last comedy program left on the ABC, they might as well take advantage of all the tricks nobody else is using.
One of those tricks is to invite the audience in by making the occasional dud moment part of the performance. Sometimes a comedy (especially a parody) has to be flawless to work; other times, being a little rough around the edges makes the end result more grounded and welcoming. Mad as Hell is the latter, and Micallef occasionally over-reacting to an especially egregious piece of over-acting is just one more way to get a laugh at home.
Or, you know, they’re all cracking under the strain of Melbourne’s lockdown. If that’s the case, look out for a rash of sketches in the next few weeks that end with the men in white coats turning up to take away someone from the cast. That stuff’s always comedy gold.