Interview: Shaun Micallef

shaun micallef

By his own account, Shaun Micallef is a Renaissance man, particularly when it comes to his bad teeth and appalling personal hygiene. In this interview for TheVine, Micallef speaks about his new comedy album His Generation, his upcoming novel, resurrecting Milo Kerrigan for a New Year’s Eve special, and  the comedy greats who have shaped his work: some of the most cerebral, subversive and silly comedy acts of the past sixty years, including Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore, the Goons, Andy Kaufman, Barry Humphries, Steve Martin and Woody Allen.

Hi Shaun, how are you?
Is that Daryl?

No, it’s Darryn actually.
Oh. I want to speak to Daryl.

I’m covering for Daryl today, Shaun.
Excellent, excellent.

How are you this morning?
Very well. I’m walking round an empty rehearsal room at the moment. A very lonely place, a rehearsal room in which rehearsals aren’t taking place. There’s something philosophical there but I can’t quite work out what it is. Something about not using a room for what it’s designed for.

I noticed this morning that The Age recently published a story that covered pretty much everything up until now.
[laughs]

So there’s not much to talk about.
No. If you’re reluctant to use anything in that story do you want to get something that hasn’t been published before?

What hasn’t been published before? Do you have a scandal for us or something like that?
Sadly I live a very boring life. I’ve spent the last 15 years in showbiz trying to make what is essentially an extraordinarily humdrum existence into something remotely interesting but I can’t manage it, you know. Good luck. Good luck with this interview.

Well. You’re in the middle of rehearsals for a show showcasing the work of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I know so little of their work it’s embarrassing, so I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about what I’m missing out on.
Okay, how old are you, can I ask, Darryn?

Twenty-five.
All right, the reason you’ve missed out all Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s work is that the BBC, in its wisdom, decided to wipe the tapes. I’ll give you a potted history, is that boring?

Go ahead.
Up until 1961, revues were pretty ordinary. Sketch, song, sketch, song, sketch, song, that sort of stuff. That’s pretty much what it was. It was all very twee and bright and boring essentially. There was no such thing on stage as satire as we might come to know it now. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett did a revue at the Edinburgh Festival that pretty much changed overnight the perception of what a revue was.

Every university revue that followed pretty much stole the construction of it. It also started the satire boom in England. Dudley Moore was offered a TV show and he asked Peter Cook to come along as a guest, which turned out to be a two-hander, a little bit like Fry and Laurie. Dudley, like Hugh Laurie, was probably the better actor of the two, and the weird, nonsensical, strange flights of fancy were supplied by Peter Cook, as they were with Stephen Fry.

Anyway, they finished the series and they came to Australia to work up a stage show that they could take to the West End. They toured Australia, playing weird places like the Heidelberg Town Hall. They did the tour, went back to the West End, and it went to Broadway under the new title of Good Evening. It did very well. It ran for a few years, won a Tony Award or two. During the night hours after that show in New York they ended up doing Derek and Clive, where they’d get pissed and stoned essentially and go into a studio – I think it may have been George Harrison’s studio – and talk filth. Those tapes virally multiplied and eventually there was no stopping it. They thought, well, if everyone’s got copies we may as well release it, so that’s how Derek and Clive were born.

The thing I like about Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s work is that you look at your sketch shows today and it’s very structural and less about character, and this stuff was mainly about character. An average sketch these days would run to three minutes or something like that. Their sketches ran quite long. They weren’t quite as long as one-act plays but they were little vignettes with no punchlines. They had their foot more in the camp of drama rather than sketch comedy.

I remember a skit with John Cleese and Peter Cook from the Secret Policemen’s Ball that was a bit like a bit of absurd theatre, with Peter Cook’s character spurting out non-sequiturs.
Yeah, that was a popular thing for Peter Cook. A lot of his work is about incredibly boring people saying ‘interesting facts’. [Peter Cook impersonation:] “Did you know that the intestine is 33 miles long?”

And that the whale is an insect. 
Yeah, that’s right. And he’d get ‘mosquito’ mixed up with ‘mosque’ because they were next to each other in the dictionary. That sort of stuff. I like them both, but Peter Cook is a bit of a touchstone for comics particularly in England. He’s sort of the missing link between the Goon Show and [Monty] Python. There’s always a connection in people’s minds between Python and the Goon Show but there’s actually 20 years between them. The missing link is actually Cook and Moore. I think you’ll find that John Cleese holds Peter Cook in very high esteem and he’s not alone in that. Anyway, there’s a potted history for you.

It’s an interesting point, them being the missing link between the Goons and Python, because you regularly remind me of the volatile headmaster that John Cleese used to play, and your fondness for wordplay. Is there something uniquely British about your own work, do you think?
I think it’s probably a big influence. We didn’t get a television till I was about ten. Most of my time around the house was spent listening to the radio and there was a lot of British comedy on the radio and obviously, because of the lack of the visual, most of it was listening to the words and the wordplay, that sort of stuff. I can see that in my own work when I look at myself, especially the early stuff – I’d think, gosh, that’s too much like Cleese, or that’s too much like Eric Morecambe from Morecambe and Wise. I’d see a lot of influences there. Later on when we got a television I watched a lot of American slapstick and that sort of permeated through as well. I can do both really, I don’t know whether they sit together with the same character, but I can split off and do slightly more cerebral stuff and then turn around and put on a false nose and fall over. It seems to be just as funny.

The Age article mentioned that you were going to bring back Milo Kerrigan and Roger Explosion for the New Year’s Eve show?
Roger’s going to be a DVD extra I think. It was a five-minute sketch, it was just too long. It still worked – it was very strange bringing him back after ten years. And Milo was certainly a little less destructive than he was previously. I can’t take those falls anymore.

You’ve become known for your verbal comedy, which is odd to anyone who remembers David McGahn plowing on while the room was upside down. Do you reminisce a little about the slapstick?
I did Newstopia not that long ago and I remember taking a really nice fall in that… but it’s been a couple of years, yeah. And also I’m nearly 47 now and I do hurt myself on these things. I actually took a fall on Generation in the last episode. They were chucking snowballs at me and I did slip and fracture my elbow, thanks to Josh Thomas hitting it right in my ear. It takes me a lot longer to recover now, so there’s no way I could do those tilted room sketches anymore. We used to do one take, and the director would say “Have you got another one in you?” I’d say “I reckon I could do another one in an hour.” We could never wait that long so it was always the first take we used. Have you seen the rotating cellar sketch?

That was amazing.
Yeah, it was a real feat. We spent half a day setting that up and shot it in about two minutes. Man it was difficult. I wish I was fitter when I’d done it. I wish it was someone like Frank Woodley – he would have had great fun with it.

I think you sell yourself short. It’s brilliant.
Thank you.

I remember that one of the Micallef Program(me) commentary tracks was just you reading The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Is there an Andy Kaufman lurking inside you, eager to misdirect the audience?
[laughs] I do enjoy misdirecting the audience but I’ve learned to my cost over the years that if you misdirect them too many times they get tired and they don’t want to follow you anymore. I did a night show on Channel Nine about six years ago now. And we were constantly leading the audience down a garden path. They’d think, oh yeah, we know what we’re going to get here, and then we’d pull the rug out from under them. We did it on ABC a lot but of course ABC audiences know what they’re going to get. So that was part of the fun.

Channel Nine is the home of the tonight show. Those audiences grew up on Melbourne Tonight and The Don Lane Show and Hey! Hey! and that sort of thing. We were constantly disappointing them by not delivering what they wanted. I’d talk about the Village People, and everyone’s expecting me to introduce them… and they can’t come, so we throw to plint that has a rotating $10.90 Chicken Parmigiana on it while ‘Y.M.C.A.’ plays. It was just bamboozling for them.

I read the liner notes of the DVD the other day, where Andrew Denton compares the DVD to the black box recordings of an aircraft disaster.
[laughs] Yeah.

But you mention Andy Kaufman. I really like Andy Kaufman. I remember when Jim Carrey’s film came out, Man on the Moon, I was asked to review it, someone from The Age sent me a whole swag of stuff, I’d never seen Andy Kaufman, and there were bits from TV shows where he actually looks like he’s drunk, or like he’s been living on the street. Anyway, it’s really uncomfortable television when he’s smashing that wrestler on the David Letterman show. Barry Humphries used to do it to a certain extent – he’d turn up on other shows as Les Patterson and be appalling – but there was always the knowledge that it was Barry Humphries dressed up as a character, so that softened it a bit, made it a bit safer.

But Kaufman decided to make those appearances really unsettling. I think it’s hilarious but it’s not for everybody. Sort of like a comedian’s joke rather than an audience’s joke. I think there’s a danger of self-destructing if you go down that path. But sometimes you can’t resist it. Sometimes I’d rather tell a joke for ten people instead of 1000 people.

What about the slightly similar approach that Steve Martin took? They both took their audiences out for cookies, or McDonald’s, afterwards.
Yeah, I see a great comparison between those two. Steve Martin obviously has a better commercial eye than Andy Kaufman ever had or could ever have. He was also a better writer of material than Andy Kaufman. Everything Steve Martin does – even if you watch him plugging something as atypical of his sense of humour as Pink Panther – if he turns up on Letterman or the Tonight Show to plug it, he’ll always have a bit, he’ll always have some shtick. I think that’s a really good thing. He’s a hard-working guy.

L.A. Story for me is one of the funniest films ever. I’d rank it alongside Annie Hall. It’s very well written, it’s very personal, and it’s that very difficult balance between stand-up material and film. Woody Allen does that very well – he does different sorts of films now but when he started out he was doing those sort of fantasy elements and then real-life romance in his films. Steve Martin just hit the nail on the head with L.A. Story. It’s a great film.

In terms of prose style, in the written word, the style of your work in Smithereens [Micallef’s book, a collection of pieces reprinted from The Age] is very similar to both that of Woody Allen and Steve Martin. Does your upcoming book [Pre-Incarnation, to be released in 2010] show a little bit more of that?
Yeah, I was very influenced by Woody Allen when I was 15, 16. I remember getting out Without Feathers, his anthology of stuff, and I knew that he’d been influenced by SJ Perelman, and then I found out that SJ Perelman had written for the Marx Brothers, so I thought, great, you know. I quite liked that because I liked the Marx Brothers as well. So I started reading SJ Perelman, and also James Thurber, Stephen Leacock, and all those early 1930s–1940s American writers. Steve Martin, I think, has also been influenced by either Allen or SJ Perelman as well. That idea of exploring language and genre and that sort of thing.

The book next year is a novel actually. I don’t know how good it is but I enjoyed writing it. It’s a single story all the way through. Again, it plays with the conventions a bit – sometimes it’s a book and sometimes it’s a send-up of a book.

I was going to ask if you it was a little bit straighter than people might be expecting.
No, I think it’s probably going to appeal to a small, marginal part of the community. It’s certainly not a straight book, I don’t think I could be bothered writing a straight book. Maybe I don’t have the talent to write a straight book. It’s a bit like a sketch versus a movie, you’ve got to throw some of the absurdity out – you’ve got to have strong rails to put the story on, otherwise there’s no point telling it. Structurally it’s probably a bit straighter, but there’s some weird characters and anyone who’s interested in hearing my voice when they read something I’ve written can do that but hopefully it works on another level as well.

What inspiration did you draw on for the new record [Micallef’s new comedy album, His Generation]?
Well, I’d always been a big fan of comedy records. I used to collect them as a university student. Peter Sellers was a big influence for me. I love his voice work.

I’ve done a lot of sketch comedy over the years where voice work isn’t as important as make-up. So I got the chance to do it on this album. I thought, why not do all the voices? I’m responding to myself and that sort of thing. So we had a bit of a play with that. Yeah it was fun. You’d never be able to do a real show like that on TV, it’d probably end up being a bit boring.

We’ve covered a lot Shaun, so I just have one final question for you. With Rove leaving the building this week, many people might be suspecting that it clears the way for another Shaun Micallef tonight show… 
[laughs] Oh God. No, I think I’ve done a tonight show. I quite liked it, and you know… But I’m not sure I’d give myself that cross to bear anymore.

This interview originally appeared in TheVine in November 2009.

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