Inside the sparkling mind of Shaun Micallef

Photo: Simon Schluter

Photo: ABC

Shaun Micallef has just ordered a green tea when the young waiter leans in and declares: “I know you . . . as Joe’s dad.”

The writer, comedian, producer and actor is quite chuffed to be recognised as someone’s old man, his most significant and least-known role being that of father to three boys, aged 19, 17 and 15, and husband of Leandra.

Settled here on the Williamstown footpath with a nice cuppa, he looks less like the sharp-suited, slightly Clooney-esque Logie-winning host of such shows as Talkin’ ’Bout Your Generation and the ABC’s Mad as Hell than, well, what the waiter said.

We’re here to discuss Shaun’s latest production: a children’s book billed as “more grim than Grimms, less soppy that Aesop”, which is richly illustrated by Jonathan Bentley.

Imagine every popular fairytale figure was summoned to an emergency drill and some of them lost the plot and returned to the wrong house. Then add lashings of rhubarb and the occasional real historical figure, such as Gottfried von Hohenlohe-Schillingsfurst, and you have Tales from A Tall Forest.

“As a kid, I found the peripheral characters in these stories slightly more interesting. Like the old woman who built the confectionery house. How would she get planning permission for that?” Shaun demands, eyebrow cocked askance.

The book is a byproduct of filming the SBS documentary Stairway to Heaven, when Shaun found himself confined in an ashram for 24 hours. Basically, it’s what happens when you leave Shaun alone in a room.

“I hate not working and I hate not having my family around. If I am not working they are what I do,” he says.

Precociously, Shaun started subtly rearranging fairytales at kindergarten. “They did these plays for parents and we were doing Sleeping Beauty. I had to rescue her and when I leapt off my rocking horse during rehearsal, it kept rocking and everyone started laughing.

“I remember the kindergarten teacher said, ‘make sure it doesn’t keep rocking during the play, otherwise you will get a laugh’. I thought ‘why wouldn’t you want that?’. So, on the day, I made it rock as violently as I possibly could. Big, big laugh. So, if there is an instinctive thing that makes me do what I do, it was there early on.”

Less successful was his school holiday job as a gangly 15-year-old stand-in for Humphrey B. Bear. “I got pyria (gum infection) from the head. It was a horrible sweaty thing which had probably been worn since 1963. It was only the second suit, so I was actually the B in Humphrey B. Bear.”

The eldest of four children of Fred, who migrated to Australia from Malta at age 15, and local girl Judy, Shaun grew up without major incident in “beautifully boring” Adelaide.

Unsure of where, if indeed anywhere, an interest in geology would lead, he followed the advice of a careers counsellor and went into law.

Photo: Simon Schluter

Photo: Simon Schluter

He met Leandra at university. It was she who encouraged him to leave his job after 10 years in practice to pursue his comedy ambitions, circling November 11, 1993, on the calendar as a deadline for action.

After the Micallefs moved to Melbourne, Shaun swiftly established himself, becoming a cast member of the comedy skit show Full Frontal in 1995. That led to his own special, Shaun Micallef’s World Around Him, three series of the spoof variety show The Micallef Program and, in 2003, a real variety show, Micallef Tonight.

Occasionally he finds himself missing law. “I miss that it is important versus doing what I am doing now, which is dancing around on the periphery of life being a child, which may be why I am attracted every now and again, for example, to SBS documentaries,” Shaun says.

A non-drinker – like fellow comic the late, great John Clarke, whom he is grateful to have gotten to know filming the ABC’s The Ex-PM – he has in his mind a project that explores Australians’ attitude to alcohol. “Every time I vaguely mention it to people they go, ‘oh, yeah but you don’t want to be a wowser’ and that is true.”

After more than two decades entrenched in Australian lounge rooms, Shaun enjoys enormous public goodwill and weighs that carefully, especially when considering acting roles.

“With comedy there is that sort of cumulative effect, a general feeling of ‘I laughed at you and therefore I like you’. I get people saying hello. I don’t know if I know them or even if they know me, but people are genuinely nice,” he says. “I am a little bit introverted. I am not great with crowds or meeting people and it feels like the work is done without me having to sell or put myself in front of someone.”

Shaun, who co-created and starred in the legal sitcom Welcher and Welcher (2003) and the 2013 Channel Ten series Mr & Mrs Murder, has an impressive list of acting credits, including SeaChange and Offspring, as well as supporting roles in several comedy feature films.

He enjoys “collaborating to help realise other people’s ideas” but doesn’t really consider himself an actor and has so far declined “nasty” roles.

“There is a certain novelty perhaps in asking me to play a role that is out of my comfort zone,’’ he says. “But you can only do that a couple of times and it has to be good, like when Martin Short played a murderer on Law & Order SVU.”

Certainly, it could be a little confusing for audiences if Shaun were to suddenly bob up with, say, a shotgun and homicidal intent while he is currently appearing in The Ex-PM, and with Mad As Hell returning in 2018, plus Talkin’ ’Bout Your Generation, set for a revival on Channel Nine.

But never say never. “I am very attracted to doing things that I have never done before and really have no right to expect I can do. But I think it is sometimes healthy to overstate your ability to see what you can achieve,” he says. After all, nothing’s impossible in fairytales.

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