Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell is the best Australian comedy of the last decade. Unless you’re a fan of … let’s say Fat Pizza, in which case congratulations because it’s not like Paul Fenech is going to stop making his brand of low budget slap-happy violence any time soon. But for the rest of us, Mad as Hell ticks all the boxes – including the one that explains why comedy is seriously struggling in the television economy of 2022.
Now in its tenth year (and 13th season), Mad as Hell manages to be both extremely accessible and a maze of callbacks and in-jokes, while always being very funny no matter what.
The primary focus is as mainstream as it gets, which is to say it’s Australian politics. Even if you barely have time for the evening news, Mad as Hell provides everything you need (in the form of actual sound bites and news footage) to make sure you’ll get the joke. At a time when most local comedy seems more about sucking up to power, it has real bite: a segment featuring Scott Morrison making his 2019 election pitch over later footage of his governments many failures was a tougher punch than any the ABC news department’s been able to land.
Host Shaun Micallef’s been at this so long it’s hard to remember he was once seen by some as too highbrow for mainstream audiences. With Mad as Hell, he’s got the balance right, packing the edges of the show with quirky jokes and references while the main thrust stays mainstream.
Much of the fun for long time viewers is the way Micallef anticipates a train of thought then subverts it: if you don’t get why host Shaun Micallef says to military expert Vice Rear-Admiral Sir Bobo Gargle ‘we’re not doing that any more’ when Gargle cries ‘release the Kraken’, it doesn’t matter: they’re already onto the next joke.
Mad as Hell also sustains a few of the older arts of Australian comedy. For one, it features caricatures of political figures – though rarely directly, as the extremely talented cast present as a range of media advisors and assistants functionally identical to their high-profile bosses. There are media parodies too, some so long-running they’ve basically become their own thing, and always so bluntly ludicrous you don’t need to get the references to laugh at a high school girl shooting lasers out of her eyes.
The trouble with making this kind of television in a globalised market is that it doesn’t travel. It’s world-class comedy the rest of the world isn’t interested in because they don’t understand the references. What makes it so essential for Australian audiences – the fact that it’s poking fun at the things that affect our society – is what makes it impossible to sell overseas.
That doesn’t mean Australian comedy is dead on the small screen (the big screen is another matter entirely). ABC budget cuts and an increasingly global focus has done serious damage to the model in which Australian comedy was what you tuned into on a Wednesday night, but other providers have taken up the slack. The best news panel comedies are now on Ten in the form of Have You Been Paying Attention and The Cheap Seats. As for everything else, streaming is where you need to look.
After a few years trying to make scripted comedy work on their free-to-air channels, Ten (now owned by Paramount) has shifted its focus to its streaming service, Paramount+. The big local comedy offering last year was Spreadsheet, a comedy-drama about a divorced lawyer (Katherine Parkinson) who used a spreadsheet to juggle her romantic life with hilarious (well, sometimes) results. Comedy fans will focus on the supporting cast, which includes Ryan Shelton and an all-too-brief cameo from Damian Callinan.
Foxtel has all but vanished from non-sports fans radar in recent years, but it does occasionally present viewers with quality scripted content. Mr Inbetween wasn’t exactly a comedy (so it has to settle for being the best Australian drama of recent years), but Tim Minchin’s Upright from 2019 definitely counts. A mildly quirky dramedy about a man (Minchin) who meets up with a runaway (Milly Alcock) while trying to transport a piano across the Nullarbor, a second season is due later this year.
Amazon’s local comedy content has largely focused on (often excellent) stand-up specials, but late last year they released sketch comedy series The Moth Effect. A mix of media parodies and traditional sketches with a bunch of big names backing up a solid central cast, it wasn’t ground-breaking stuff, but laugh-wise it did have a decent strike rate – and what more do you want from a sketch show?
If you’re watching Netflix you’re spoilt for choice no matter what you’re interested in – but if you’re interested in Australian comedy, then Aunty Donna’s Big Old House of Fun from 2020 remains a surreal highpoint. Plus Netflix is the home of Hannah Gadsby, if you’re the last person on Earth who hasn’t seen her stand up special Nanette.
Stan has also focused a lot on stand-up specials, but there have also been a few scripted dramedies over the years, including Plonk, Bump and two seasons of Matt Okine’s semi-autobiographical The Other Guy. Their big comedy hit was No Activity, in which Patrick Brammall and Darren Gilshenan played a pair of bantering cops on endless stakeout duty. The format (and Brammall) made its way to the US. The latest season – it’s now animated, seemingly defeating the entire purpose of a series that was just filming two guys sitting in a car – has just recently arrived on Stan.
Seven’s on demand service is often overlooked, which is a shame as Seven is pretty much the only commercial network still making scripted comedy (almost entirely shown on 7Mate). Last year saw the continuation of Fat Pizza, plus the occasionally very funny mockumentary Australia’s Sexiest Tradie: fans of old-school dramedy, or just Claudia Karvan, will be glad to know they also have her classic ‘my best friend is the ghost of a dead rock star’ series Spirited.
The ABC’s on demand service is a gold mine when it comes to Australian comedy past and present. Whether you’re after the best Australian sitcom in recent years (that’d be Fisk), overlooked gems like Ronny Chieng: International Student or Woodley, or undisputed classics like The Games or Mother and Son, this is the best possible use of your eight cents a day. And if you missed this week’s Mad as Hell, here’s where you’ll find it.