It’s slightly surprising that Micallef has sailed through adult life with so little exposure to drinking culture. After all, he is in comedy, a notoriously booze-soaked business. Hasn’t he ever found it difficult turning down a drink in the comedy scene?
“Maybe it’s because I only fleetingly saw the world of stand-up – the TV business didn’t have that drinking culture at all. I was more vulnerable, I think, to that drinking world when I was a lawyer. That was what you did, all the time – it was an extension of university, except the alcohol was more expensive.”
Embarking on a showbiz career, he quit both the law and the drink and left the culture of grog behind forever.
“Whatever crutch it was providing I just didn’t need anymore,” he muses, theorising that performing comedy filled the need that drinking had previously. As such, he embarks on his documentary journey from a position of curiosity.
“I’m genuinely curious as to why it’s a thing, why alcohol is a thing and why it’s so all-pervasive and seems to have its hooks into almost every single thing we do, whether we’re celebrating or commiserating, every landmark in our life.”
It wasn’t a subject of great interest to him until five or six years ago, when it raised its head due to the inevitable consequences of fatherhood.
“Since I decided not to have it at all anymore, I hadn’t really thought about it much … it was only when my children were getting to the age when people were going to be offering them alcohol, I realised I didn’t have a shred of advice I could offer, apart from, ‘hey don’t have it!’ Which is not very helpful advice.”
Unsurprisingly, given that origin story, it’s the most personal work Micallef has ever done. “It wasn’t my intention to ever reveal anything about myself in any of my work,” he says. That intention started to waver with his series on religion, Shaun Micallef’s Stairway to Heaven, but this is a step further: not only do we learn of the comic’s hard-drinking past, but a recent family tragedy caused by alcohol, that he relates in a moment that, for anyone accustomed to Micallef as comedic maestro, is genuinely difficult to watch – though not as difficult as it was for him to do.
To him, though, exposing himself in this way was a vital part of the mission: “The last thing I wanted to do was appear to be wagging my finger or chiding people for drinking, so I felt that I had to tell my story a bit. If I was going to expect other people to make themselves vulnerable in conversation I had to bare my neck as well.”
Bare it he does: in a particularly adventurous sequence, Micallef deliberately, and for the first time since his early twenties, gets drunk. In a strictly controlled scientific environment, of course: he imbibes under the watchful eye of a pharmapsychologist at Swinburne University. The idea: to undergo a series of tests to discover the physiological effects of drunkenness, followed by more the following day to discover the effects of a hangover.
It didn’t quite go to plan: “Because it had been so long, and because I was always a bit of a two-pot screamer anyway, they couldn’t actually get me to the point where I’d have a hangover. One of the things that was worrying for me when I was young and drinking is that I never had a hangover, and I think that was because I never drank enough. So there was never any punishment, I was never learning any lessons.”
Lessons are learnt by the truckload in On The Sauce, however, as the inquiring host discovers whole new (to him) worlds, at B&S Balls, football team bonding sessions, and eighteenth birthday parties. Along with the insights into human nature come revelations about the properties of alcohol itself. “If I’ve learned nothing else, it’s the alcohol is a Class One carcinogen – that strikes me as something we should all know.”
WHAT Shaun Micallef’s On The Sauce
WHEN ABC, Tuesday, 8.30pm