Micallef prayed for Abbott victory

Written By komlim puldel on Jumat, 13 Februari 2015 | 20.01

The team ... Shaun Micallef with the cast of Mad as Hell. Pictures: Nicole Cleary and Erinna Giblin. Source: News Corp Australia

EVERYONE in the media loves a leadership spill — except perhaps comedian Shaun Micallef, who, for the first time, was forced to write two completely different scripts for this week's Mad As Hell.

With the comedy news program taped on Tuesday night, just a few hours after the spill was originally scheduled, Micallef and writing partner Gary McCaffrie needed to have alternate versions ready to go in which either Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull had taken the top job.

Micallef was desperate for Abbott to hang on.

"We literally don't have any Malcolm Turnbull jokes," he says. "He's too reasonable.

"The good thing about Mr Abbott winning is we had a whole holiday with things happening and stuff sitting in the drawer ready to go."

Concentration ... Shaun Micallef prepares for Tuesday night's recording. Picture: News Corp Australia. Source: News Corp Australia

Mad As Hell, which debuted in 2012, returned on Wednesday with its fifth season and attracted a nationwide audience of more than a million.

Even in a normal week, the show is fly by the seat of your pants television. The first draft of the script goes out just two days after the previous broadcast. Mondays are spent gathering props and costumes and filming sketches, with new material added in right up until the read through on Tuesday.

With that sort of time pressure, you'd think they'd be flat out just writing 30 minutes of gags — but it turns out that only half of the ideas suggested make the script and only about half the script is actually shot. Then a third of that is dropped from the broadcast depending on the audience's reaction.

Pondering ... Tosh Greenslade at the rehearsal. Surprisingly enough, he's not related to Francis Greenslade. Picture: News Corp. Source: News Corp Australia

"Why else are you here?" he tells the audience of their role as joke-testers. "Otherwise we'd be doing Newstopia and no one would be watching.

"We are professionals — we can write a joke. It's a question of whether it is funny enough, not: Is it funny?"

Sitting in on Tuesday's rehearsal at the ABC studios in Elsternwick, it's clear the cast and crew love their jobs and get to laugh a lot.

"It's the best fun in the world," says Stephen Hall, whose Schwarzenegger-channelling "spokesborg" for Mathias Cormann has become a fan favourite.

"There's a great atmosphere that's been created. The scripts are as good as it gets and every time you get one, it's like Christmas."

Comedy ... Stephen Hall and Shaun Micallef rehearse a "cheese shop" inspired sketch. Source: News Corp Australia

It's impressive on a technical level too, with video clips, graphics and sound effects added live. "Marrying the technical with the comedy is particularly difficult," says director Jon Olb. "That's the biggest challenge."

Micallef is the undisputed ringleader of this particular circus, hamming it up to entertain the cast and crew while keeping a close eye on every aspect of the production.

He's head writer, he produces, stars, and even edits. When a grab runs too long, he'll suggest where to cut, he'll rewrite lines on the fly and even suggest camera moves.

Every so often his desk phone will ring — the real white one, not the red one he uses for comedy bits — with Olb offering a suggestion. At one point there's concern in the control room that a joke about "best before dates" in relation to refugees is "questionable". Micallef tries out three or four ways to rephrase it before deciding just to ditch it altogether.

Long time friends ... Francise Greenslade met Shaun in the 1980s at the University of Adelaide. Picture: News Corp Australia. Source: News Corp Australia

"He puts his stamp on every department and every aspect of it," Hall says. "He really is in a rare position because not everyone can do all these things, but because of his track record people are happy to let him have the reins."

The backbone of the show are three researchers who log every second of Aussie TV news to unearth grabs and funny clips the writing team can build on.

Tonight there's footage of Senator Glen Lazarus's opinion on the federal budget: "You can polish a turd as long as you want, it's always going to be a turd", which inspires a sketch where Micallef interviews a French-polisher (Francis Greenslade) about how many turds he polishes a year, only to be told "the arse has fallen out of the turd polishing business".

They find this so funny they can barely get through the sketch in rehearsal and during filming Micallef twice fails to say "French-polisher" without cracking up. When finally manages it with a straight face, Francis bursts into laughter.

Where it happens ... The studio audience at ABC Elsternwick. Picture: News Corp Australia. Source: News Corp Australia

For all the barbs at politicians, they get surprisingly little blowback, although a Senator "with the same initials as Bill Heffernan" once complained about his treatment and asked for fairer coverage of his policies.

"I reminded him at the end of our half-hour chat that we weren't a real news show," Micallef says.

Unusually, the team film two different endings tonight, one where NSW police covertly film each other, and the other about the free-speech debate, with a cartoonist looking at the Charlie Hebdo front cover of Mohammad musing that no one actually knows what the Prophet looked like.

The warm up ... Warm up man Michael Pope with Shaun Micallef. Picture: News Corp Australia. Source: News Corp Australia

After recording winds up just after 9pm, Micallef disappears into the edit suite. Tonight is an easy one and he crawls into bed around 12.30am. Often he doesn't make it home until 2am.

In the edit he cuts out an entire sketch of Woody Allen going to Canberra for not being funny enough ("it will never see the light of day") along with an interview with an Adolf Hitler impersonator, which is all set up, not enough pay-off.

A Monty Python's cheese shop inspired sketch is held over and the Charlie Hebdo ending dropped.

Effort ... Tosh Greenslade went to all this effort in the make-up chair for nothing. Source: News Corp Australia

"That was a bit of a test, we wanted to see if we could deal with something as tragic as that," he says. "I'm not sure it fitted with the tone of the show. Sometimes it's just a feeling."

But fans will be glad to know there's little danger of Micallef dropping Bill Shorten's Zingers segment any time soon.

"I look forward to the day he comes up with a good gag," Micallef says.

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