“I keep on telling him ‘You don’t really have to hire me. You’re not beholden to me!’ But thank god he keeps on doing it,” laughs Francis Greenslade.
With partner in crime, Shaun Micallef, Greenslade has been one half of an enduring duo for more than 30 years.
“It is a “partnership” and we have worked together for 30 years, but he’s the writer and I just do the stuff. Not that we are in any way comparable to Laurel and Hardy, but it’s the same sort of relationship where the thin one was the writer and Hardy was just the actor.
“Shaun writes them and hopefully I do them alright. After 30 years I think I’ve worked out how his sketches should be done.
“I know his voices, I know what he’s going to do and he knows what I’m going to do.”
The pair first met in the early 1980s at Adelaide Uni doing law revues. As Greenslade recalls, aside from performing they actually didn’t have much else in common.
“I do remember us appearing an hour early for rehearsal and the theatre being locked, and moodily kicking stones and not really talking to each other,” he continues.
“After we’d left Uni, Shaun and another guy wanted to keep doing shows and asked me to be part of their group. We did some sketch shows in an Adelaide cabaret called Club Foot.”
“There was pressure to ‘Be a little bit more like Rove.'”
Over the years Greenslade has appeared in just about every original Micallef TV project: Welcher and Welcher, Newstopia, The Micallef Program, The Ex-PM and the short-lived Nine Tonight show, Micallef Tonight.
“The suits at Nine said ‘We want you to do whatever you want.’ But once the show started there was pressure to ‘Be a little bit more like Rove.’ So there was pressure to be conformist when really it was a pisstake of a Tonight show. It wasn’t a chat show –it was a parody of a chat show,” he recalls.
One night Micallef was ignoring a guest performer, because he was too busy watching Channel Seven. The kind of behaviour to send TV execs wild.
“I think you had to have a sense of humour if you were a guest because you weren’t being treated respectfully, as a guest. I had to crawl under a piano and steal Delta Goodrem’s shoes while she was playing piano. So that was fine, but I don’t think some of the others knew what they were getting themselves in for.”
Despite years of ‘cult’ popularity, Micallef’s comedic style has since become embraced by a wider audience, which Greenslade attributes to the success of Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation on TEN.
“Before some people felt like they were in the Shaun Micallef Club and some people felt excluded, that he was talking above them, or whatever. But there was something about Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation that everyone could relate to, and it taught people what his humour was,” he suggests.
“People could get into the experience of a game show but at the same time get into his being funny as the host. Suddenly he became ‘GP.’”
Now in its sixth season on ABC, Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell continues to win plaudits. For ensemble cast members, Roz Hammond, Stephen Hall, Emily Taheny and Tosh Greenslade (no relation), recordings are a hurried night of costumes and rapid-fire gags that have to be executed in short bursts.
“You have 2 or 3 sketches a night and you’ve just got to hit it,” Greenslade explains.
“I can’t talk to Shaun beforehand, and I can’t be part of the (warm-up). It’s almost harder if you don’t get a run-in. It’s harder sometimes to do a small part.
“I just have to focus and hopefully I get it done in the first take and then after that I’ll communicate with him, so it doesn’t help mucking around beforehand. But if you don’t get it in the first take it becomes a little bit tedious for the audience because they have to manufacture a laugh again. You just want that first reaction.
“You can always tell with Shaun when you are showing stuff on the floor, for the first time, when it cuts back to him (you can see) what his reaction is. And whether it’s going to get in (the final edit) or not.
“Shaun never says ‘The sketch didn’t get on because of you.’ There’s always some technical reason for it!”
“There are three jokes every one nanosecond.”
According to Greenslade it took at least a season for the show to find its feet. He was even worried that with the host commenting on politics and rotating characters in bite-size sketches that there might be little to coax viewers to return.
“Now everyone knows certain characters and everyone knows, presumably, the people who do the characters,” he observes.
“So there is a joy there. That’s the link, the continuity: seeing what they’re going to do now or what they’re dressed up as.
“But you can’t sit back on your heels. It’s just got faster and faster. The rate Shaun is doing his pieces to camera is at 150 miles an hour. There are three jokes every one nanosecond. So when you do the interviews or do the location stuff, you’ve got to have that energy.”
Later this year Greenslade and Micallef will also appear in a production of The Odd Couple for the Melbourne Theatre Company. Micallef is playing Felix Unger while Greenslade stars as Oscar Madison.
“The original concept was for us to swap every week or so. Which I quite liked. Olivier and Gielgud did it with Iago and Othello!” he smiles.
“We were very excited about the concept and then in the cold light of day we decided not to. It’s hard enough just to do one part!”
“One of the most important things I’ve ever done.”
Contrasting his comedic roles, Greenslade is also well-known for portraying Brian Gross on Seven’s Winners and Losers. While the show returns next week, fans will be waiting for some time to see him reappear.
“I’m not in it. They decided to ‘sex’ it up. They brought in some more young people,” he explains.
“I think they found it hard to keep me in a family situation when my wife (Denise Scott) was away. So they sent us both away. We came back for the last episode.”
But he remains very proud of his portrayal of a suburban dad, even in a TV melodrama.
“Just portraying a nice ‘gentle man’ in an Australian drama and showing that is something I am really quite proud of. Australian (shows) don’t do the male very well. There’s a masculine ethos that is hard and dry and impossible to live up to. English and even American males have much more range. To just play an Australian male who wasn’t tough or hard, but gentle and happy to be in a family, was one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”
Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell airs 8:30pm Wednesdays on ABC.