It’s been eight months since I last spoke to Shaun Micallef and, again, the interview has fallen at a pivotal moment for the Liberal Party and the government. That first interview took place mere minutes after then-prime minister Tony Abbott announced a failed leadership spill in February and this most recent one took place as Abbott gave his concession speech after being deposed by Malcolm Turnbull.
Micallef points out this strange coincidence, which is made even stranger by the fact that we’ve met to talk about his new sitcom The Ex-PM, which is all about the sudden and abrupt life transitions that can be triggered by such an event.
The comedian, who has hosted five successful seasons of the news satire Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, writes and stars in The Ex-PM. He plays Andrew Dugdale, a foppish amalgam of various prime ministers from Australia’s past who struggles to adjust to a quieter life after being booted from the top job. Given that experience, does he have any insights into the un-prime ministering process for Abbott?
“I wish him happiness,” Micallef said. “I hope the mellowing of time out of office will help him rediscover what’s important. He’s devoted a good proportion of his adult life to the public sphere and however effective or ineffective you thought he was, his motivations were nothing but honourable.”
“What would I know? But my observation is that it may be very liberating. You don’t have to compromise anymore, you don’t have to bite your tongue. I think the reason why he spoke so slowly, as well as Howard, Gillard and Rudd, is that they’re all processing ‘how is this going to sound? What is it they want me to say? What is it I can’t say that I feel I need to say?’”
Micallef finds it refreshing to finally have an erudite Prime Minister in Malcolm Turnbull who, at the very least, speaks at a more normal pace. But Turnbull’s leadership may well cause one significant problem when Micallef writes the sixth season of Mad As Hell next year: he’s simply not as funny as Abbott.
“My only hope is that the very process of becoming PM and the compromises that you have to suffer will give us some material,” Micallef said, recalling the time Turnbull was branded “Mr Broadband” by Abbott: “He looked like his soul had been sucked out of his body. So I’m hopeful something like that will happen: a gradual process of soul-ectomy will occur and he’ll become more and more amusing as he tries to cope.”
In The Ex-PM, Dugdale is forced to look back at his career in office and consider the various compromises he made. According to Micallef, there’s a fine line between compromising on strategy and compromising on central principles, and it can be very difficult for politicians to tell the difference when they’re surrounded by the machinery of being in office.
The series was inspired by an anecdote Micallef heard in 2008 about John and Janette Howard just a few months after his 11 years as PM came to an end. The pair were shopping and as they walked back to the car, they both jumped into the back seat, for a moment forgetting that they no longer had a driver and would have to drive themselves.
“I was just struck by how funny that was,” Micallef said. “I wondered — what do you do when you’ve had the most powerful job in the country and you suddenly don’t have it anymore, but you’ve still got all the other trappings — you’re still recognisable and you’re not as protected from people who recognise you.
“Howard is not as present in the media as many others who are very keen to remind people of their legacy; for example, Paul Keating, who I have a great deal of admiration for, but he does a lot of op-ed pieces and he’s always keen to get his opinion across. I imagine Howard sitting there in his Commonwealth Games tracksuit, waiting for the phone to ring and the ACB [Australian Cricket Board] to say ‘we want you on the board’.”
There are references to most of Australia’s recent ex-PMs in the series, including a great gag about antique clocks (which recalls Keating) and Dugdale’s spectacles (which are modelled on those worn by Kevin Rudd).
“We have a lot of ex-prime ministers, especially if we count Kevin Rudd twice, as we must. There are very public displays of just how hard it is to give up the limelight. As Mel Brooks says ‘it’s good to be the king’, but it’s hard when you’re not anymore.”
Dugdale was originally going to resemble Howard, with Micallef looking older and bald, but he eventually decided that would tie him down in a parody that would distract from the story itself.
Throughout the series, Dugdale is expected to work alongside a ghostwriter to write his memoirs, but he finds it incredibly difficult to engage in the necessary level of reflection.
“Once you do sit down and look back at your life, you’re sort of admitting that it’s over,” Micallef said. “But a life unexamined is a life unlived — if you don’t make some assessment of what your contribution is to humanity, mankind or just your family, then you just spend your life surviving and that’s about it.”
The six-part series begins on the ABC on October 14, and Micallef says it was always sort of inevitable that a scripted comedy like this would end up on the national broadcaster. Commercial networks have, in recent years, shied away from homegrown, half-hour comedies.
“Because of economies of scale, they want to make hour-long series, so they’ll make something like Winners and Losers, House Husbands or Offspring — they’re dramas, but they use humour quite a lot to sell the story.
But Micallef points to the massive ratings success Nine has had with The Big Bang Theory and Two And A Half Men and predicts that we’ll be seeing more homegrown sitcoms on commercial networks in the near future.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review.