Shaun Micallef didn’t make a pilot for his new ABC show Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell.
He hasn’t had much by way of rehearsal and there were only about 3 or 4 pre-recorded sketches completed ahead of its first episode, recorded last night and screening tomorrow night.
But he’s very relaxed about the show despite the fact that even ABC executives don’t really know what to expect from it.
Such is the unique position Micallef now finds himself: once misunderstood by networks, and now practically given the keys to the studio.
Mad as Hell will use news as the basis of its comedy, but it’s not The Hamster Wheel and it certainly isn’t Media Watch.
“It’s the source material. So it’s the fact of Syria, the fact of Craig Thomson. It’s not a review programme about the way the news handles the story. It’s about the story,” he explains.
“While it’s not a news parody, the show will still have 4 walls and a ceiling and look a bit like a news show. The hub of it will be me presenting these stories and sometimes they’ll be explored in a news report form that is sketch. Other times they might just be a sketch.”
Newstopia on SBS was probably the forerunner of what will become Mad as Hell, offering an analysis of the week’s events with a cast including Francis Greenslade, Roz Hammond, Veronica Milsom, Emily Taheny and Tosh Greenslade. It will also feature a studio audience.
“We know how to get into it, and we know the things we want to try out. The benefit of having a live audience is so we can show them a whole lot of stuff and see how they respond to it,” he explains.
“I think we’ve all been around long enough to know if something will be funny or not. But the joy of it is that you’re never 100% sure. If I was sure that what we’d come up with in the room was funny then I wouldn’t have to do it in front of an audience.”
Despite the 24/7 news cycle, Micallef suggests that aside from the ABC there don’t seem to be many genuine news services anymore.
“There seems to be a need to entertain as well, which never used to be the case with a news service,” he says.
“They’re all hybrid mutations. Breakfast shows, Charlie’s show (The Project)… I wonder if The Panel is to blame for this? There’s an injection of light entertainment in news services. I watched an episode of Q & A the other night and Missy Higgins was singing a song. I thought ‘hang on a minute.’ Adam Hills doesn’t roll out the news desk and tread on Tony Jones’ turf.”
Current affairs shows are even worse.
“It’s like a mixed business. You can get anything, a song, a bit of entertainment, a cross-promotion, and what looks like a paid advertising spot pretending to be a story.”
The Mad as Hell reference is a nod to the 1976 film Network in which Peter Finch played an outraged news anchor who protested on air and encouraged viewers to open up their window and scream that they were “not going to take it anymore!”
“All those things that seemed so outlandish back in 1976 you look at now and think ‘It seems rather tame compared with what we’re watching now!’” he says.
“Donahue was probably the first show where you’ve got a mad evangelist host. I guess (writer Paddy) Chayefsky saw the tide coming and that was his great skill as a writer and satirist. It was probably another ten years before it turned up for real.
“People aren’t physically opening their windows, because they’re too lazy. There’s probably an Open Window app where you can do it on a touchscreen and Twitter out of it.”
Hints of Network will be built into the show’s DNA, including the retro news set.
“It’s there for those who know. It’s a 1976 movie so we can’t depend upon people to have seen it. But for me it informs the look of the set, getting away from that spaceship look of a lot of news sets, late at night. Then you have the breakfast shows that are sort of homey kitchen sets. So it’s getting away from that look. There’s wood, phones, a spiral staircase. There’s a retro feel about it, which is appropriate to a man of my vintage.”
As with any Micallef-hosted show, spontaneity and irreverence will abound, despite it tackling the week’s news. Jonathan Holmes should probably look in the other direction.
“It’s a comedy show so we don’t even have any obligation to be accurate,” he insists.
“We can say what we like under the guise or parody and ridicule and satire. I can make up a story, entirely. I have that power! Maybe that’s not so different from the regular news programmes. I can make it out of thin air.”
Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell airs 8pm Fridays on ABC1.