Our long national nightmare is over: Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell is back. And while Australian comedy has been doing pretty well on television of late – well, judged by quantity if not quality – it’s safe to say that Mad As Hell is pretty clearly head and shoulders above the pack when it comes to making serious fun of things. But why is that?
If we accept – and we probably should, considering it’s what just about everybody seems to think – that the best way to judge a comedy is by the laughs it gets, how it is even possible to say one comedy series is world-class and the other is, say, The Weekly? Surely if something makes you laugh then it’s good comedy and if something else doesn’t then it’s not? Which would be great news for Channel Seven’s footy comedy The Front Bar, which is doing well in the ratings and is usually a very funny watch even if you don’t care much about AFL.
So obviously there’s a bit more that goes into a comedy series than simply trying to make people laugh: The Front Bar is often very funny, but it’s also a show that’s largely just three guys propped up against a pub bar talking crap; all the effort goes into picking the right three guys and the rest of the show just flows from that.
In contrast, Mad As Hell is an extremely complicated endeavour: Micallef himself is often undercutting or over-selling jokes with his expressions or reactions, while the comedy comes from news clips, fake interviews, running jokes, sketches, TV parodies, pop culture references, and so on. It’s a very busy show with a lot to take in, which puts it ahead of something superficially similar like The Weekly, which tends to stick to one thing at a time and often can’t even make that work. Just compare The Weekly’s desk chats with Mad As Hell’s: the former offers straight interviews with one of two (occasionally there’s a third) comedians, both of whom largely riff within firm borders – Kitty Flanagan makes fun of some new-ish trend or fad, for example.
Mad As Hell has a slightly larger cast, but they never appear as themselves – there’s a steady stream of new and established characters appearing opposite Micallef, sometimes popping up for a single line or joke before vanishing. Sometimes the joke lies in what they’re saying, other times it’s their appearance or just their wacky comedy name: if there’s a space to fit in some kind of joke, Mad As Hell will take it. And yet the team behind Micallef know that some jokes require a quiet build up or time to sink in: pacing is just as important as the number of jokes (as anyone still watching Family Guy knows, a fire hose approach isn’t always best).
It’s the combination of a lot of jokes (value for money) combined with the skill to show off those jokes to their best advantage (with some jokes, less is more – lingering on a silly name gets boring fast). It’s the sense that there’s a lot going on, but that it’s never quite out of control that makes Mad As Hell a great comedy show: we could do with a lot more like it.
Written by Anthony Morris
Image sourced via ABC Television