In this extended version of Anything But, an interview series published on The Brief, Julia Baird and comedian Shaun Micallef discuss hot feet, fear of fun parks, and why he laughs at funerals.
When he was just a young lad, Shaun Micallef learned of the power of television when he was given an award for “the most enchanting smile” by Bobo the Clown. Getting something for nothing, he decided, was an alluring transaction. Since then, he has worked as a stand in for Humphrey B Bear, and appeared on our screens in a variety of roles, including a host of comic characters. His most recent creation is a caricatured version of himself in Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell. He was very happy to talk about Anything But his area of expertise, as he thought that left a rather large area to explore. We inadvertently discovered his deepest fears, and comforts.
Tell me the most thrilling moment of your life, in the conventional definition of ‘thrill’.
It’s as a kid, I think, because we’re less encumbered with consequences and considerations of how things come to be. It was probably, I remember running, I was probably about eight, I reckon, I ran from the car, it was a very hot day in Adelaide, it’s baking heat over there. And I ran from the car, which was extraordinarily hot, in bare feet across the car park, which was also extraordinarily hot, it was actually quite tacky, the tarmac there. And then jumped onto some grass, which was so cool. I know it sounds stupid, but that moment was thrilling, landing on that grass.
What about fun parks, were you into fun park rides when you were a kid?
No, they scared me, but I did go I did go out of a sense of obligation every year. We would go to the Royal Adelaide Show, which is, there are equivalents everywhere, where people who looked barely qualified to tie their own shoelaces, let alone set up death-defying rides. I remember being laced into a teacup with a piece of rope. So there was no seatbelt per se, it was just a bit of twine, I think. So, I think that might have put me off, because there was a sense of centrifugal force, obviously, and perhaps being hurled from the cup, like a spoon would be, if you were stirring the contents of that cup.
What has been the biggest anticlimax for you of the last ten years?
Well, I did a show on Channel 9. I don’t know why I was asked to host a chat show on Channel 9, because I simply had no experience at all, as evinced from the debacle that ensued. And we were truncated, we were 13 episodes, we were told we were being extended, and then we weren’t, and we were sort of gone. So there was a show we had planned, it was all ready to go, and we had the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing “Macho Man” while a chicken – I think a chicken cacciatore – was revolving on a plate. I wonder why we were axed, when I think about it.
It didn’t go ahead, but there was a lot of love in the preparation for this show, and it was a grand old show. Because we were going to announce the extension et cetera, so it was a big show, and it wasn’t allowed to go ahead. So we ended with a promise that the Dandy Warhols would be on next week, goodnight everybody. And they weren’t.
Now because this is the perfect opportunity, do you have something your private self would never admit publicly?
Well, I like the irony that the moment it is expressed, it ceases to be the very thing that has been described.
Let’s just say loath to admit publicly.
Well, I’m a mystery, deliberately so, I’m a mask, as you can see, you’re not speaking to a real person at all. You can hear the way that I’m avoiding even answering the very question you’ve put to me. Alright, but I will, I will tell you something that I’ve never told anybody. When I was fifteen, I wet my pants in a public phone box. It wasn’t a joke or anything, it wasn’t a planned thing. It was just one of those things. I think it’s happened to everybody, hasn’t it? Judging from the phone booths that I’ve used over the years, I suspect it’s used for nothing else.
Do you have anything that makes you laugh when you know that it shouldn’t?
I do, yeah, well, I laugh in hospitals when I go visit people. I don’t laugh at them so much as, I think I’m threatened by hospitals, I don’t really like them very much, and so I find it odd, my reaction. And the same with funerals, I have done it as a younger man, where I’ve just gone into a fit of giggles. I think it’s because…it’s now because I’m worried about laughing, and then I start laughing.
It’s so forbidden. And most laughter is the result of some tension just about to break, anyway. And I think that happens, so I’m really bad company – or good company, depending on how you look at it, when I go to hospitals or funerals. It’s almost a hysteria. It bubbles away.
My mother and I share a black sense of humour, I remember when my grandmother had died, and we were driving all the way up to Lochiel, from Adelaide, which is up near Jamestown. It’s quite a hike, in the hearse, so were going slightly faster than we should have. And my grandfather was also there, so it’s his wife we’re burying, and it’s my mother, her mother, and my grandmother, and we’re about halfway there, and she said, “why don’t we just pull over here and dump her in that field?” And it was just such an appalling thing to say, and I just found that hilarious. I took the cue from my grandfather, who did burst into laughter, and that’s maybe the source of it. They’re from Irish stock, and I think Irish folk have a sense of humour anyway, but part of it can be very, very black.
Do you have a favourite view?
Yes I do, and it’s a very simple view, and it’s one that I’m protecting. It has been suggested that we invest in a swimming pool in our backyard, but I actually just quite like the look of the grass from the back. And we have a nice big picture window, and I’m comforted by it. Maybe it’s because when I look out there, there’s nothing for me to do out there. I don’t have to do any work. Whereas if there’s a pool out there, it would simply be a constant reminder that I have to go and pour some chemicals in it.
But you know we’re getting a bit of a theme here, because you said that grass comforted you when you were eight.
Oh! Oh Julia, I didn’t think of this.
Maybe you’re comforted by green grass. It soothes you.
I like green grass. I sense the coolness of that grass. I don’t have to experience it, but I can look out there, and it triggers some Proustian response.
Do you have any recurring dreams?
Not these days, but as a child I did have a recurring dream which I often reported to my parents, and they didn’t decide to take me to therapy, so I feel, why not share it with you. It was the foot of a long staircase, a winding staircase, and a skull going down the banister, curling around, almost like an MC Escher type staircase, in that it was quite complicated, this journey of the banister. And it was a human skull descending down in quite a calm way, it wasn’t sort of tumbling down, it was just as if mounted on it. It was a bit like the rabbit at the greyhounds, a bit slower, no one chasing it.
It was dark, you know, wouldn’t surprise me if Fritz Lang had directed that particular dream, there was a certain German Expressionism to the whole thing, which I quite liked, I quite enjoyed it. But I was a bit disturbed by the fact that it was a skull. And I do remember that about that time in my life, I had a report card in Grade Three that said “Shaun seems to have a morbid preoccupation with death,” which is an unusual report card for somebody who’s seven years old.
When’s the last time you were genuinely gobsmacked?
It was many years ago, when I was at law school, and a friend of mine was doing medicine, and in those days they could bring plus ones to the morgue, because you get to cut up bodies later on in life. And he said, “We’ve got a cadaver there, do you want to come over and have a look?” Now, I wouldn’t do it now, it feels extraordinarily ghoulish to do such a thing now, but at the age of, I guess I was about eighteen, I suppose, I found it intriguing enough to go over. And I was literally gobsmacked when I was watching that body being cut up. Because we heard a little bit about who this person was, too, in terms of the fact that they had wanted to be used as a cadaver, and that’s a strange thing to think of, “Yeah I would like to be dissected by barely-trained medical students, thank you.” So yeah, what really struck me was the colour of the body. There’s a deathly pallor about the skin, but it’s grey, even inside is grey. There’s a bloodlessness about it, there’s a sense of carrion, not surprisingly I guess, about the dead body. And I think the thing that was astonishing wasn’t that it was horrifying in any way, it was just that it was so final, I think. Who knows, maybe it’s not final.
We’ve come straight back to a preoccupation with death again.
My grade 3 teacher was right, Julia.
So, with Anything But, we’ve been plucking out the odd year to see if it triggers any particular memory. Does 1985 mean anything to you?
1985 might have been, in fact I’m pretty sure it was, the first time I appeared on television. And I was still a lawyer, but I’d taken some time off to appear on the ABC, in a show that mercifully has never been repeated, and I don’t think it’s even been released on DVD, or even back then VHS. It was the ABC version of Theatresports, which gave us the first appearance of Andrew Denton, I think Glenn Robbins might have been in it, a couple of other comedians, and me and Frances Greenslade, who I still work with on Mad as Hell. And we were in a team called “Get Her”, wearing our suits from work, essentially. And we lasted two episodes, I think, before we were sent packing back to Adelaide.
But it must have been a little bit intoxicating for you.
It was the first taste of it. I mean, I had been on television before in Adelaide, when I was a small boy, appearing on The Bobo Show. He was a clown. I think I won the, it was the “enchanting smile” competition, if you were in the audience, I was the most smiling child, and a small superimposed ring, a halo I suppose, would come round and hover over your head if you won the award, and of course everyone’s yelling “it’s me, it’s me”, and they’re looking at the monitor, and I’ve got no idea, I’m looking above my head, not knowing of the magic of television from 1966. And I won a speedboat, just a toy, Bobo presented it to me. And once I had the taste of what it was like to be recognised in the street as the speedboat-winning child with the halo-awarded smile.
Who cares if you can play sport? You’re getting speedboats for smiles.
Yeah, I got reward for nothing, and that certainly encouraged me into the world of showbiz. We’re selling air, we’re all selling air. Not you though, you deal with the real issues. You host an actual news program.
Thank you, thanks for that caveat. It’s more than air, hot or cold. What’s your definition of contentment?
I think it’s that moment just after relief at having accomplished something or finished something, so just after that. Doesn’t include that. So it’s that moment just before that, but just before anticipation kicks in again for the next thing. Where there’s this moment, it’s got nothing to do with me, at all, because in terms of my own self, I feel bored. But if the circumstances are right, as if they’re created by the elements, or my family, or other people. There can be this moment of contentment which I sometimes feel when I’m walking with the family. I have three sons. My wife and I and three sons, so walking off to have dinner together. And I’m just hanging back slightly from the boys as they’re walking along, and that for me is, it’s a very fleeting moment, it’s almost, it’s probably as close to contentment and happiness, they’re probably the same thing in that moment. So it’s not feeling full or self-satisfied or proud or anything like that. It’s just a thing that’s looking after itself. I do like that moment.