From Gilchrist to Zeitgeist: Peter Helliar on how to produce a modern Aussie comedy

How to Stay Married

• Peter Helliar on why his sitcom is an Australian first

How To Stay Married returns for its third season on Tuesday, 4 May at 8.30pm on 10 and 10 Play.

Mediaweek spoke to the series creator, lead actor, executive producer, writer (episode 1 and 8 plus co-writer for episode 4), and director (episode 4) of the series, Peter Helliar, about where the show will go in its third season, managing his time, and the famous faces that pop up this season.

Helliar said that the team comes back each year with a blank canvas while also drawing on the history of the show to get the most out of the characters.

“We know which combination of characters work well together, and which actors are fun to put together. For example, this year we want to see more of Judith Lucy’s character Audrey and little Chloe.”

When asked where the production team took the show in season three, Helliar said that the show goes to interesting topics that it hasn’t before.

“This season feels more zeitgeisty in terms of things that are happening in the world and that’s not necessarily the pandemic it is a lot about people going through conspiracy rabbit holes.

“There is an episode about going through an enviro audit of the house for a school project and how hard it is sometimes to be good. And online debates, whether or not you can have a debate online and other interesting areas that we have explored this year that we haven’t in the last two.”

Actor, Series Creator, Executive Producer, Writer, and Director

While he wears a lot of hats in the production of the show Helliar said that he compartmentalises each role which makes it easier and has also taken less of a hands-on approach as the show has grown.

“Writing is done first so that can just be my primary focus, so when it gets to the acting, I can focus on that.

“I went from writing six episodes in the first season to two and a half this season, after expanding our writers’ room and diversifying it more. We have always been a collaborative group but to find writers who can come in and nail the characters and trusting the team really helps.

“The directing is a big challenge and I decided to do one episode this year, compared to two in the previous years because I just wanted to focus on one.

“At the end of last year, I felt really burnt out. I directed the last episode and I just wanted to really enjoy this season. We have really great directors around us who are more capable than I am of directing the episode.”

Helliar said that due to his schedule he has to pick and choose when to be hands-on.

“I can’t be doing The Project, a stand-up tour, and be a micromanager. You have to delegate so this is a genuine team that puts this show together.

“I sat down with Andrew Denholm who was one of the producers in the first series and we said let’s hope this is the type of show that can run for multiple seasons and if it does, we need to find people who can help carry that load.

“We got really good at knowing what are the meetings that are important and what are the details I need to be across and what ones others can handle.”

Married Life

When creating a sitcom on married life Helliar said that the goal was to make the show relatable to Australians.

“The fact is Australia hasn’t done a sitcom just about a family like this. There have been families, but they explored mother-daughter like Kath and Kim or mother-son like Mother and Son. The Hey Dad..! and All Together families there was no mother, it involved two widowed men.

“We wanted to show an Australian family on screen which is amazing that it hasn’t been done before.”

how to stay married

Helliar also said that the team wanted to make the story feel honest.

“One of the things that we discussed in season one was that this isn’t ever going to be about a marriage falling apart. Drama has done that endlessly over the years. We wanted to reflect a marriage that is more common in that it is a good marriage, but it gets tested in big ways and small ways.

“This is never going to be a show about affairs and that type of thing, but who knows if we make 10 seasons, we might explore that down track.”

A few famous faces

Casey Donovan and Adam Gilchrist are two notable names to pop up in the show’s third season and Helliar said both fit in perfectly with what the writing team wanted to achieve.

“With the Luna (Donovan) character, we were really determined to have that as an indigenous or first nations actress. We knew Casey had done an episode of a show a couple of years ago that didn’t last very long but we knew she did a great job on it and I have crossed paths with Casey quite a bit of the years and I knew how lovely and talented she was.

“Someone in the office said what about Casey Donovan and it just made sense. We wanted somebody that people loved and was really warm because the character she is playing can come across as quite cold and we wanted to have the audience trying to decide whether or not they like this character.

“This feels like another secret weapon, like when we launched Lisa’s comedy in season one, we are unveiling Casey Donovan like people haven’t seen her before.”

Casey Donovan in How to Stay Married

Gilchrist was a surprising casting choice but Helliar said he threw himself into a role that just kept growing.

“We came up with the idea of a celebrity who was going through a conspiracy rabbit hole and we thought wouldn’t it be funny if we could get someone to play themselves.

“I became mates with Gilly when he was working for 10 during the Big Bash League, and so I gave him a call and just ran it by him, and he was really keen. When I told the writers they started writing more and more for him and I had to keep calling him and say mate you sure you still want to do this?

Adam Gilchrist

“There was always a part of me that thought that it will fall over eventually. His schedule is huge, and he had been stuck in Melbourne and hadn’t seen his family because he was in lockdown and the borders were closed.

“There were so many reasons why he could have pulled out, but you can see why he was the best cricketer of the last 30 years because he did the work and has an innate curiosity of how things work.”

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