Shaun Micallef is standing on a quiet country road outside of Snowtown, about two hours’ drive north of Adelaide. As the camera settles on him, he jumps as if surprised – a textbook Micallef manoeuvre – then greets the audience.
“Oh, hi there.”
This road, he tells us, is where almost 100 years ago to the day (“depending on when this is broadcast”) his then 76-year-old great-great-grandfather fell asleep on his way home from the pub. Then, in what one newspaper at the time described as “a tragedy shrouded in mystery”, the man’s still-lit pipe set him alight, and he died.
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“Sure, it’s funny now,” Micallef tells the audience. “But I wonder if, back in 1920, he hadn’t had so much to drink at the Snowtown Hotel, and so hadn’t fallen asleep – or been as flammable – my now 176-year-old great-great-grandfather would be alive today.”
The opening scene of On the Sauce, the new three-part documentary by the comedian, writer, and host of ABC’s Mad as Hell, is the perfect microcosm of the series. It blends comedy and gravity in a way that’s both informative and entertaining, touching on the personal while speaking to universal truths.
As the title suggests, this show is all about booze. Micallef, who describes himself as having drunk far too much during his university days, hasn’t had a drink in 30 years.
Calling me from the Mad as Hell office, he says it’s his desire to unpack Australia’s longstanding connection with drinking that drives the narrative of the show.
“Why is it a thing?” he asks, in a way that feels genuinely curious and judgement-free. “In terms of alcohol, why on earth do we do it?”
The show is divided into three parts, looking at Australia’s drinking past, present and possible future.
Micallef travels around the country (the series was filmed late last year, when you could “hop on a plane and get off, you remember that, when that was easy?” he says with a laugh), plunging himself into different scenarios that paint a comprehensive picture of how alcohol is used – and abused – in our society.
At an 18th birthday party, he learns about jelly shots for the first time. He goes on a pub crawl with a women’s soccer team to uncover the ways drinking can be used as a way for people to bond.
We learn about a short-lived plan for Australia to be an alcohol-free country. Experts weigh in on the psychology. Actor Jack Thompson – perhaps best known for his role in the 1971 Australian classic Wake in Fright – talks about how heavily drinking is embedded in our country’s history.
When Micallef attends a booze-soaked annual Bachelors and Spinsters Ball, he’s introduced to the “shoey”, which involves pouring a drink into someone’s shoe and drinking it. (The practice garnered international attention in 2018 when American rapper and singer-songwriter Post Malone did a shoey on tour in Australia.)
“One fella … he was just so insistent that I have a shoey; that I’d drink alcohol from his boot,” Micallef tells me. “It struck me from one angle as quaintly romantic in a sort of fairytale sense. But it’s also one of the most unhygienic offers I think I’ve ever had in my life.”
The show also tackles the darker side of drinking. Ultimately alcohol is a drug – and an addictive one – that can do serious damage to our mental and physical health in both the short and long-term.
“We all have drinking stories, and we all tend to share them like war stories. It’s a common experience.
They’re often told to us as funny stories, and often we laugh,” Micallef says. “But if you were to actually strip away the laughter and just read the story, just in cold words, they could be horror stories as well.”
In one scene, he visits Flinders Medical Centre on the southern outskirts of Adelaide to get an up-close look at one of the consequences of excessive drinking: some diseased livers preserved in formaldehyde.
He also meets Donna, a self-described third-generation alcoholic who was dying of chronic liver disease when she was given a second chance after receiving a liver transplant. “You lose everything,” she tells Micallef. “They say that alcohol is the great remover, and it does. It removes everything you hold dear.”
One motivation in making the series is Micallef’s own family. “I didn’t feel it would be fair of me to ask people to reveal so much about their own personal lives without at least throwing a bit of my own in there,” he says.
He wanted to know how to talk about drinking with his kids, and he tells me his wife’s sister lost her life due to the effects of alcoholism a few months prior to shooting.
“She was going to lend her voice to the documentary, she was thinking about doing that,” he says, then pauses. “That was still very much at the forefront of my mind when we went in there, and just – emotionally – it made the project a bit more important.”
Exploring Australia’s longstanding, turbulent relationship with alcohol is tricky territory, but Micallef navigates it by jumping back and forth between straight, sobering commentary and his trademark absurdist comedy, but without ever being flippant.
“It’s such a multifaceted thing, and there’s good and bad and it’s all mixed in and there’s not much difference between something going well and something going sour,” he says.
“You don’t want to feel like you’re being told off, either … I genuinely wanted to go in and just talk to people. And leave the conclusions to those watching.”
Shaun Micallef’s On the Sauce premieres on ABC and iView on Tuesday July 21 at 8.30pm.