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Frances Greenslade: Still Mad As Hell for news satire

Francis Greenslade tells why Mad As Hell is funnier than ever.

When Francis Greenslade first performed with Shaun Micallef in the 1980s with the University of Adelaide's Footlights Club, Micallef, dressed as a prison guard, hit him with a riding crop until he laughed. Thirty years later, from the set of Micallef's news satire, Mad As Hell, Greenslade reflects, ''Nothing much has changed''.

''The whole Footlights group was very bad - Monty Python rip-offs, basically. We even did the sketch where someone came in with a parrot - shocking. Shaun was more influenced by Groucho Marx and Jerry Lewis. I had never heard of Jerry Lewis and when I did actually see him, I was appalled at how much he'd stolen from Shaun.''

Greenslade's range of nutty ''experts'' to Micallef's equally nutty straight man include a union standover man, an army official with echoes of Dr Strangelove and a television scientist, which are among the series' most memorable sketches.

''I do like them all. I like (scientist) Ian Orbspider, because it's the school of comedy where you say everything as fast as you can. Sometimes you get things like the Tony Abbott speech that Gary McCaffrie, one of the unsung comedic geniuses of Australia, wrote a couple of weeks ago, which is just a beautiful thing for an actor to have. It's something I've never done before. You've got four days to come up with a character. The show is just so on the balls of its feet.''

That the third season has been so rapturously received by fans is, according to Greenslade, down to the show's evolution and a more fertile political environment for comedians.

''Everyone has worked out what they're doing and the writing, especially, has been really sharp with this season. But also, the last season was just before an election and there was a sense that we had to say, 'Here's what this side says and isn't that funny? And here's what that side says and isn't that funny?' Now we've got a government that is, whatever you think about it, quite out there in what it is doing.


''We have to try and be a little bit balanced, but what is balance? If someone thinks the world is round and someone thinks it's flat, balance is not saying that it's a squashed egg shape … I sometimes think that comedy is not the right response to some of these things.''

With comedians finding new avenues into television via the internet, he says it's an exciting time for the genre.

''What's happening is that people who have a comic bent are just doing their own stuff on YouTube and uploading their own little sketches, and I'm seeing evidence that television producers are actually taking notice of it. People are not waiting to be found. It's an interesting and far more democratic way than having a project, and trying to persuade the powers that be to give you the money to do it.''

As a successful dramatic television actor, Greenslade is a rare hybrid. He says he sometimes has to restrain himself from veering into comic territory in his current straight role, as Jenny's dad on Channel Seven's Winners and Losers.

''Everything in television drama seems to be put in place to prevent you acting. There are 150 people in your kitchen pointing things at you and fiddling with your hair and your trousers and your make-up. There are lights and you have to hit your mark and find the camera, and you have to do it over and over. The challenge there at 5.30pm, when you still have three set-ups to do, is to keep it truthful and fresh and real. But also you get a long story, which I don't get in Mad As Hell. With that show you get two minutes to sell a character - one minute sometimes.

''Any comedian will tell you they are an absolutely brilliant dramatic actor, but they've never been given the chance.

''I do think comedy is harder than drama and if you can do comedy, you can do drama. I'm very lucky in that I've been able to do both.''

Shaun Micallef's Mad As Hell, Wednesday, ABC1, 8pm.