Shaun Micallef’s buttery voice immediately commands the attention of his sold-out crowd at Walsh Bay. He’s at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to tell a story—but it seems his audience isn’t really interested in the story. They’re here to hear him tell it.
Zoe Norton Lodge, also a comedian, writer and performer, introduces the living legend noting that she is so nervous to be in his presence that she has become slightly incontinent.
A bespectacled woman in the audience looks around and says, “I wonder how many of these people have actually read the book. Everyone is just enraptured by him.”
The book she refers to is Micallef’s latest literary offering, The President’s Desk, published last October. He’s at the festival to talk about it because “all of us here love good books. That’s why I wrote one.”
The President’s Desk is an alternative history of the United States that revolves around the centerpiece of the Oval Office. It reads like an essay produced by a genius schoolboy who has been mischievously daydreaming during his history lessons. Some of it is insightful non-fiction writing and some of it is his own absurd and irreverent imagination.
“I’ve never been to America. I didn’t do any research for my book,” Micallef says. “That’s the great thing about historical fiction—if you don’t know something, you can make it up.”
Undoubtedly a brilliant writer and exceptional comedian, Micallef is an intelligent and masterful storyteller. From political satire, to comedy game shows and documentaries about faith, he draws an audience and makes them think, cry and laugh.
Harking back to his previous career as a lawyer, Micallef presented the audience with an argument about why his book is a worthwhile read, notwithstanding the factual inaccuracies.
“Given that I am a quasi-celebrity, I thought I would read from other celebrities’ books and show you how poor they are,” he said. After selections from Michael Caine, Alec Guinness and James Stewart delivered in suitable character, he mocks the actors’ work with jovial gusto. Micallef asserts that his book is much better and waits politely as members of the audience try not to laugh too loudly at his terribly funny gags about Jimmy Stewart’s poem on the death of a beloved dog.
Then he moves on to talk about The President’s Desk, comparing it to Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. They both start with a big piece of wood, he says, but his turns into a desk while Collodi’s turns into a boy “who has very unlikely adventures”.
Micallef calls Pinocchio a “stupid book” and says, “My premise is much more believable.” He proceeds to read an excerpt as if he were rummaging through each drawer, while hurling unusual impersonations and dubious facts at the stunned audience. By the time he’s done ransacking the Resolute desk, he has covered nudity, crime, adventure, sex and a brief history of England as well. This is Shaun Micallef’s America.
“That’ll do,” Micallef says once finished. “Not only good writing, but very good word order.” His audience nods and laughs in exhausted agreement. He has them all convinced his is the best celebrity book-buy, or at least he’s convinced them to read it.
Questions from the audience focus on the creative space Micallef occupies—somewhere between writer and comedian. He is delighted by the attention and his answers suggest he sees his imagination as an art form. He talks about thinking up a new world, the way he would like it to be: “I spend most of my life in my imagination.”
Then there is the question everyone has been waiting for: “Is Mad As Hell returning to the ABC?”
“We are pleased to announce Mad As Hell will be on the ABC again in May next year,” Micallef says. Bolstered by the audience’s vocal satisfaction, he took a dig at Charlie Pickering, whose new show The Weekly usurped his own. “Charlie’s show was cheaper, which is why it is twice as long and half as funny.”
Of course, Micallef insists this is not true, and that the two comedians are indeed good friends. The man who has spent an hour describing his own book as “brilliant” and laughing about his “cringing, pathetic need for audience validation”, basks in long, loud and reassuring applause.