Shaun Micallef (Preincarnate, Talkin About Your Generation, Full Frontal) : Exclusive Interview
Shaun Micallef is one of Australia’s most loved and respected comedy talents – two traits that don’t always seem to go hand in hand – yet thanks to his likeable nature and truly unique comic mind, he somehow manages to juggle both.
His sketch shows The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) and Newstopia are critically acclaimed, while his years on Full Frontal as “Milo Kerrigan”, “Fabio” and “Roger Explosion” are now part of Australian Comedy Folklore. Yet, Micallef isn’t one to rest on his laurels.
His first novel, Preincarnate, delves into the world of soul transference, space ships and even the Loch Ness Monster.
WATCH OUT FOR | COMEDY‘s Sean Lynch caught up with his comedy idol to talk all things time travel, comedy context – and goats…
Soul transference and suspended animation – how did did you decide that was the type of time travel you wanted for Preincarnate?
That was simply the device and shape for the story, then I picked my favourite periods of history that I found interesting and sort of stitched them together.
We have Victorian London [with the Jack The Ripper murders], and I found a way of tying that in… Then, on top of that, made it a bit of a detective story with the narrator and how he’s actually piecing together this story.
The information comes to him out of order – and then we’re suddenly hopping around history and alternate histories and then it resolves itself neatly at the end… but I won’t spoil it for you.
You’re still doing your live Peter Cook / Dudley Moore shows with Stephen Curry, which brings back the “long form” sketch. Do you think we’ll ever see a mainstream revival of that sort of word-driven sketch comedy?
The Internet’s actually been a great boom for that – YouTube is perfect for seeing sketch, because they are the exact length needed. Unfortunately, they might be the only places you are ever going to be able to see it.
Recently, on television, we’ve had Comedy Inc and Double Take. They’re every bit as good as Full Frontal or Fast Forward – I don’t think there was much difference.
I don’t think there was any stuff done on a set, there wasn’t any studio component – most of it was recorded outside in the real world. I think the problem with that is that it’s a bit “samey” sometimes.
I make no criticism of those shows, I think they were very good performers and it was very good material – but sometimes when you’re acting in the real world, you can’t play those outlandish characters.
Sometimes those outlandish characters can only be explored in a slightly fake looking studio world with a live audience. It only works in the slightly faker world of a studio. Maybe that’s what it missed – but I guess it’s just too expensive to make that kind of show these days.
I had that experience with doing Milo Kerrigan, which was a very clownish character, but he wouldn’t have worked that well in the real world. He only works well if you are able to walk through a wall and shoot a machine gun at a statue and all that sort of rubbish.
Is it true that, what appeared to be, gibberish from Milo’s mouth was actually quite highbrow…
I wouldn’t say highbrow – but I’d often be describing the plot lines to films like On The Waterfront, or telling a particular joke : “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar with a chicken on his head”. That was the set up for most Milo sketches. There were also references to Citizen Kane…
There were some truly elaborate sketches in The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) that literally went for 10 seconds – how do you get the money men to agree to such things?
Not to blow my own horn… but the last show that actually enabled you to do all those things, with a complete armoury of sketch comedy styles, was probably The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) because it had a decent enough budget to build a set if you wanted to. To hire a helicopter if you wanted to. Build a huge World War I trench…
It was a fixed budget, the budget was certainly less than what we would get for a half hour Full Frontal.
The difference was we’d have a sketch involving a helicopter that went for three seconds – but then you’d have a six minute interview in the studio with Wayne [Hope] playing a blind man.
So there was a big enough and simple enough studio component, where 18 minutes of a 26 minutes show was live on the set. The other 8 minutes was the production value.
So we’d build a village for Sotto Voce’ in a quarry and it was great. That way, the show looks bigger than it really is.
It was always obvious which was your material on Full Frontal, but they were the sort of sketches which seemed impossible to capture the essence of on paper.
In that, your performance sold the piece. How did you pitch those ideas in the writers room?
The first year I was involved at Full Frontal, I was a writer, and I only did a little bit of work as an extra in other people’s material. So, a lot of my material was being rejected – probably for that reason, because on paper it didn’t read as well and required a pretty specific performance.
Then the next year, when I was actually in the show, we had a second unit (which was just a single camera and a microphone) and we’d go out. So a lot of the David McGhan stuff I did initially was just shot with what was, essentially, a news crew.
Once we’d played that stuff to the audience and they’d liked it, I think I was trusted a bit more to do stuff. So David McGhan moved into the studio and we had those nature documentaries – which, again, were very easy to shoot because it was just me coming in and introducing a bunch of stock footage.
Then they trusted me even more, so we started playing with the set and then we went onto Roger Explosion.
The idea for writing Milo didn’t actually happen like that – it was just that we were doing a news segment, we needed 30 seconds of something to kill some time, I did a stupid voice where we thought :
“We might as well not write anything, I’ll just ad lib it in a garbled voice”.
Then, sure enough, he gets a nice response – so the next one we do in a gym, the next one we play table tennis, it just grows in that way.
Then eventually Milo just got to big to do in the studio because he was just smashing walls down. It’s hilarious and good fun, but there was only so far he could go and it was starting to get quite expensive. So we retired him – he turned up at the desk a few more times, but that was about it.
Are there any sketches you look back on that you are particularly proud of?
My kids are quite young, but they occasionally look at Milo on YouTube – I guess because it’s big and stupid and it’s just funny on a visual level I suppose… but smashing stuff is always funny [Laughs].
I don’t know, for me the memories are more about when we were recording them. I remember there was a ballet [Milo sketch], and it ended when I lept up onto a piano made of polystyrene and it just shattered.
Kitty [Flanigan] finally lost it and laughed. For me, that’s the kick, that’s what I remember about that sketch.
For me, in terms of comedy writing, I often liked to read your book “Smithereens” or Steve Martin’s “Pure Drivel” to help get my brain into a very free and absurdist head space.
It allowed me to think outside of formula, to follow tangents – what methods do you use to get you into a particular headspace for writing (comedy, drama or novels)?
The way I tend to write these days is that an idea will occur… I used to write everything down, every idea that occurred to me, but I found out over the years that you don’t need to because the good ones tend to stay in your memory.
Gary [McCaffrie] and I used to sit down and go : “Ok, what’s the most time efficient way of dealing with that idea – how can we explore that idea without outstaying our welcome”.
That is why The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) was such an eclectic show because we just said “Ok, this is probably one sketch, or one line or a back announce for an act”. We’d have these various little categories and the idea was to distil it down to what made it funny and we learnt that we didn’t have to set up things any more.
We didn’t have to establish thing, we could simply assume the audience would work out where we were if we just cut to it.
So the idea of those tangents, or those bits of air that you build into it, are things that are more character based tend to come during the writing [rather than the initial idea].
So the writing was actually the fun part. Gary [McCaffrie] would get into a room and I’d be driving [sitting there to type] and he’d be over my shoulder and sort of play the characters ourselves. And really that’s what it is, you and The Shambles guys would probably know that too, there is no funnier way to say the line than the way you instantly said it at the meeting.
It sounds like real conversation because it is real conversation, and sometimes when you go back to finesse things you lose some of that reality and grain of that moment.
After you left Full Frontal and had the freedom to steer your own shows in your own style, how did you go about weeding through to find other comedy writers who spoke the same comedy language as you?
It’s a difficult process, it’s a bit brutal sometimes. I’ve had friends of mine who are very good writers who have been asked to contribute to various programs that I’ve done and the material just doesn’t quite fit.
Is it true Newstopia knocked back material from one of The Chaser boys?
We did. I remember I knocked back, as politely as I could, the “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation”. It got Chris [Taylor] into so much trouble when he did it on The Chaser’s War On Everything. But we had done a not dissimilar idea on The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) a few years earlier and I didn’t want to repeat, or be perceived as repeating, an idea we’d already covered.
Full Frontal / Fast Forward was, arguably, just as influential in building the culture of Australian Comedy as SNL was to building a culture of American comedy. Do you think they’ll ever release a sordid tell all book about the behind the scenes?
[Laughs] God no! There wasn’t any drug taking as far as I’m aware. It’s funny though, if you watch those David McGhan documentaries – particularly one about ants – you can hear Julia Morris laughing her ass off in the audience. It’s hilarious to hear her voice – but everyone was so supportive of each other, there was no backstabbing or anything. It’d make a very dull book.
I’ve always wondered – is there a Channel Seven cameraman out there hating himself because he isn’t making royalties off the stock footage of the goat with the horns?
[Laughs] It’s funny, because the footage of the goats was from a news report and they wanted to use that stock footage in a genuinely serious story on antelopes or something later on. And they said “No, you can’t use it because Micallef’s been using it on Full Frontal for the past two years”.
We basically spoiled that footage.
If these are last words you ever hear – how would you like this sentence to finish : “Shaun! Watch out for…”
“… That huge group of fans racing towards you to buy Preincarnate“.