Legally funny

Uncovering the real Shaun Micallef

Shaun Micallef

Shaun Micallef has courageously walked a fine line of political correctness in a way that only an intelligent, brave and naturally humorous person can. Originally a lawyer from Adelaide, he has carved out an illustrious career in television, movies, radio and books. And as one of Australia’s most recognisable comedians, Shaun’s trademark intellectual humour and presence are hard to miss on the ABC.

His latest memoir Tripping Over Myself is due for release in October and could hold more clues on how this lawyer turned actor gets away with his humour. Shaun’s distinctive style of comedy is satirical, surrealist and a blend of his comedic heroes: Jerry Lewis, Monty Python, The Marx Brothers, Morecambe and Wise, and Peter Sellers.

Shaun Micallef

Photo by Brett Walker

Born in Adelaide in 1962, he was educated at Sacred Heart College before commencing a Bachelor of Laws at the University of Adelaide. Law was Shaun’s first preference, but he also considered studying Wildlife Park Management and can still imagine himself “in an alternate universe being happy as a wildlife park manager”. During his time on the North Terrace Campus, Shaun was involved in the Law Revue comedy troupe and met long-time friend and fellow comedian, Francis Greenslade.

Shaun worked as a dedicated insurance lawyer for ten years before trying his hand at comedy. His leap of faith was made slightly easier by Francis also leaving law and moving to Melbourne to pursue comedy. The two friends still appear in Shaun’s shows together. They bounce ideas off each other and give knowing looks in a way that only best mates can.

After successfully breaking into the comedy scene, Shaun left his secure job as a Senior Lawyer. This was a huge step but a decision fully supported by his wife Leandra. “My backup plan if my career change didn’t work out was the law,” said Shaun. “I took a sabbatical to try out comedy in 1990, four years before I did it for real. During that time, I wrote two never-to-be-performed plays, tried out stand-up comedy for one night and appeared in a pro-am version of Amadeus directed by Peter Goers.

“The law firm I was working at was happy to take me back afterwards and didn’t quibble, when I finally left for good, about the fact that technically, I had not worked a full ten years there. They paid me my long service leave anyway. Good people,” he said.

Over the years, Shaun has dominated comedy shows on Australian Television. He currently hosts Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell on the ABC, where every line has been researched, prepared and practised before it hits our screens. He fine-tuned these writing and preparation skills in his former career as a lawyer. His intellect is a valuable trait for a comedian.

Some of Shaun’s jokes are so clever, they go over most people’s heads. But his gift is being able to include all of his audience in the laughs because of his impressive array of facial expressions - the deliberate pauses and eyebrow-raising, so even the proudest intellectuals know when to laugh. 

Shaun Micallef

In the last ten years, Shaun has become more interested in current affairs. “I wasn’t that interested in politics really until Mad as Hell started,” he said. “I write the interviews on Mad as Hell as I wish they were. The person you’re interviewing says exactly what you’ve written. I think that’s my legal training as I was taught as a lawyer that you never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to.

“Everything we do on the show is written. There is no ad-libbing, but there is a bit of surprising each other in the way that we deliver the lines. The humour is often intellectual, but there is always a performance element to the show. We make jokes about the characters in the way we present them. We try as best we can to not be too dry. We think okay, that’s been a bit dry… let’s bring an octopus out of the cupboard!”

Shaun has spent most of the past twenty years building his career and raising his family in Melbourne but remains an Adelaidian at heart. He misses friends and relatives but visits his hometown frequently. “I live in my head most of the time anyway, so I didn’t really notice any difference between Melbourne and Adelaide or Sydney when I go there now and then. Or Perth. New York, Rome, Paris – they’re all the same as Adelaide as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “My favourite place to go was the old Glenelg cinema on Jetty Road, which is where my wife and I tended to go when we were courting in our early days. We’d see a film and then go a few doors down to a pizza place with a tiger on the window to eat some garlic bread. The cinema is gone now. The Capri on Goodwood road is where I go when I go back if anything good is on there.”

One of Shaun’s fondest university memories is when his Law Revue team was invited to have dinner with former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. He remembers it as being the first time he met someone famous. “I was grateful to be able to thank him in person for making the legislation around the tertiary education allowance scheme. This gave people like me one hundred dollars a fortnight to pay for living costs associated with uni. Because of that scheme, a whole bunch of us were able to go to uni. It was an opportunity I’ve always been grateful for,” he said.

So the question remains, who is the real Shaun Micallef? Perhaps the biggest clue can be seen in his portrayal of the slightly awkward and unlucky in love Warwick Munro he played in the ABC hit series SeaChange. For those whose mothers were not addicted to watching SeaChange every Sunday night in the 90s, Warwick is an out-of-town lawyer who falls head over heels for small seaside town Magistrate Laura Gibson.

With his trademark humility, Shaun admitted he had no idea what he was doing during the filming of Sea Change. “If you look very carefully at all my acting work since, you’ll see that it’s all Warwick Munro – a slightly out-of-his-depth lawyer pretending he knows what he’s doing. I think that’s just me.”

Story by Kimberley Hoile

Tagged in lumen Spring 2022, lumen, alumni profiles