Comedian Peter Helliar: Marriage and kids 'should be challenging'

TVNZ
Peter Helliar and Lisa McCune star in a new Australian comedy.

Television relationships are funny things. Many shows end when two people, who are clearly attracted to each other, eventually get together after a multi-season 'Will they, won't they?' storyline. 

Then there are the programmes which illuminate the uncomfortable or ugly side of marriage where unions are blighted by constant bickering or, worse, affairs. 

But when it came to creating his sitcom How To Stay Married, a show about a couple in their 40s, actor, comedian and writer Peter Helliar didn't want to stick to tried-and-tested formats.

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In How To Stay Married, Em (Lisa McCune) and Greg (Helliar) have been married for 15 years. It's a happy union that has produced two children. 

But they face big challenges when Greg is made redundant from his boring government job and stay-at-home mum Em goes back to work. As if that wasn't tough enough, Greg's younger brother Brad (Phil Lloyd) comes to stay for an indefinite period.

Vivien Turner, Peter Helliar, Willow Ryan-Fuller and Lisa McCune in How To Stay Married.
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Vivien Turner, Peter Helliar, Willow Ryan-Fuller and Lisa McCune in How To Stay Married.

"I wanted to make a sitcom that obviously looked at the trials and tribulations of marriage but really, in the end, celebrated marriage," says Helliar.

"I think (on television) everybody talks down marriage and nobody really speaks honestly about how good marriage is – besides those shows that celebrate the courtship and the actual wedding. 

"That's what we wanted to do. We wanted it to be a show that was set long after the honeymoon period when a couple are trying to find out what's next. 

"They've got through 15 years and there is a shift in their relationship."

While the show isn't all candlelit dinners, flowers and chocolates, it does highlight the upsides of marriage.

"We're careful to show that this is a really good marriage," says Helliar. "They have their arguments, as we all do, but we didn't want to over-dramatise it. There is so much on TV where a marriage is falling apart."

Helliar, 44, is an experienced stand-up comedian who has branched out into a variety of areas including hosting radio shows and penning his Frankie Fish series of children's books. He also appears on the Australian versions of The Project and Have You Been Paying Attention?

Anyone who recalls watching the variety comedy series Rove, hosted by Rove McManus, may remember his regular appearances. Additionally, he has performed his stand-up comedy in New Zealand and has appeared on 7 Days

Inspired by his own life, creator and star Peter Helliar says, “I wanted to make a sitcom that obviously looked at the trials and tribulations of marriage but really, in the end, celebrated marriage.”
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Inspired by his own life, creator and star Peter Helliar says, “I wanted to make a sitcom that obviously looked at the trials and tribulations of marriage but really, in the end, celebrated marriage.”

Helliar is currently filming the second season of How To Stay Married. He says he was pleased with the feedback he received in Australia after the show's first season screened.

"I think people do relate to the pull of family and work and getting that balance right, whether it be your immediate family or extended family," he says.

"We cover everything from trying to find time for a date night to, you know, one's a hoarder and one wants to get everything out of the house."

The subject of marriage is one thing Helliar has insider knowledge about, having said 'I do' to his wife Bridget more than 15 years ago. 

So what are his thoughts on the well-worn line that marriage is hard work?

"It is," he says. "I always laugh when people say, 'Aw gees, having kids is hard work'.

"But it should be when you're raising these tiny lives from day one and you have to look after them and handle them with so much care.

"It would be weird if you were married and having kids was as easy as raking the leaves on your front lawn. It should be challenging but that means that the rewards are greater."

The Helliars live in Melbourne and have three sons aged 16, 14 and 11.

As to whether the children have a similar sense of humour to their father, Peter Helliar says, "They've got their own quirky senses of humour. It's been interesting to see it develop over the years. 

"They all have their own in jokes. Sometimes I'll be at the table with my wife and they'll be making jokes that I don't quite understand.

"It's a balance of laughing along and going, 'OK. It's good that they've got their own in jokes' – or (me) getting frustrated and feeling like, 'Let me in. I want to be part of the gang'."

How To Stay Married, TVNZ 1, Thursday

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