You can be cruel like Kevin Spacey when you’re Shaun Micallef in The Ex-PM

Politics with an edge: Shaun Micallef (left) as Andrew Dugdale in The Ex-PM. Photo: ABCShaun Micallef’s new sitcom, The Ex-PM, slyly takes slices off Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne, George Bush, Bob Ellis, Barry Cassidy, Bronwyn Bishop and Alexander Downer in just the first two episodes. Why is it so vicious? Micallef purports to be shocked. “I was trying to be family friendly, mainstream and warm and you’re saying it’s turned into a version of what I’ve done for the last 20 years,” he says in a hurt tone.

Well, yes, although there’s also some well-paced farce, slapstick and a few drops of poignancy that show the influence of Micallef’s heroes Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho Max, Neil Simon and Peter Sellers.

Micallef has been ‘s most successful political satirist of the 21st century (along with John Clarke, who also stars in The Ex-PM). His mockery certainly contributed to the loser image of Tony Abbott, while Bill Shorten is unlikely to recover from Micallef’s introduction of the term “zinger!” for his lame attempts at wordplay.

Micallef wrote the entire series of The Ex-PM singlehanded and says he didn’t want his portrayal of former statesman Andrew Dugdale to be a vehicle for mocking the current leaders of the nation.

“I’m hopeful you could watch it in 10 years’ time, or you could have watched it 10 years ago, and the observations would be applicable to whoever was in power at the time. We tried to have an equal representation across politics, from left and right, across the whole series, so you might have a little difficulty looking at him and saying which side of politics he’s on.”

But then again, he will admit that he takes some pleasure in the theatre of cruelty. “There’s a bit of an edge in it. The show that I’ve enjoyed most recently, maybe in the last three years, is House of Cards. I like Kevin Spacey as a performer and he’s got a really cruel edge to him. It’s apparent not just in House of Cards but in everything he does; there’s a cruel edge that I really like and I also find very funny. I’m not suggesting that Dugdale is as cruel and edgy as Spacey’s character, but there’s a certain pretension towards that. He’d like to see himself as a player.”

Does Micallef want viewers to like or dislike Andrew Dugdale? “It was a deliberate decision on my part to make sure he wasn’t too much of an ineffectual duffer. We do see that quite a lot in television shows. I personally am a bit over that. He can be a fool, he can take his eye off the ball, but rather than have him be stupid, I could have him being focused on something that isn’t helpful in the circumstances.

“The level of self-delusion isn’t the same as you see in a lot of shows. He does have moments of self-awareness but he’s probably overestimating what people might find interesting about him. One rule I had was when you see him get up and speak, he could believably have been prime minister. He’s not a complete idiot. It’s not a great stretch to see him as a normal human being that you could see elected.”

To ensure The Ex-PM was more “rounded” than his usual sketch shows, Micallef recruited actors rather than comedians.

“As we get to know the other characters, it becomes more of an ensemble piece,” he says. “Definitely it’s got a farce engine in it. But we had a drama director rather than a comedy director. Most of the actors are real actors rather than comedians. I don’t like working with other comedians. Maybe I feel like we’re all trying to go after the same bit of slippery soap. Actors are a little more disciplined than I am.”

Micallef is mainly out for laughs, but he hopes some viewers will find deeper meanings: “I’m speaking twice as fast as I would normally speak in real life. With the amount of lines I had, I really wanted to get them out at a clip. I figure if you’re doing three jokes at once, some people will pick one and some people will pick another. It’s a challenge to try and mix slapstick with jokes that require a bit of thought or a bit of knowledge to get the reference.”

And for the record, Micallef would like it known that he doesn’t have contempt for all politicians: “I admired the intentions and just the sheer gall of Whitlam. I also have a lot of time for Keating. And I look with interest and admiration at Malcolm Turnbull.” Until next year’s season of Mad As Hell, at least.

The Ex-PM starts on Wednesday, October 14, at 9pm on ABC1.

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