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Helliar is TV comedy's everyman

Lisa McCune, Kat Stewart and Peter Helliar in the return of It’s a Date. Picture BEN TIMONY

Much-loved Aussie comedian Peter Helliar is a busy boy these days.

At the start of this year, he replaced his good mate and fellow funnyman Dave Hughes on Ten's news-panel show The Project.

The ABC also gave him the green light for a second season of his comedy series It's A Date after a successful first season. Then there is the juggling act of having a wife and three children and following his beloved Collingwood Magpies.

So it's not surprising to hear the knockabout, easy-going Helliar sounding a little tired during our interview, having just emerged from taking his kids to see The Boxtrolls on a rare day off.

"I'm more relaxed and just unwinding after the week," the 39-year-old reassures me from Melbourne, where he works on It's A Date in the morning and The Project in the afternoon and evenings.

"To be honest, I was a bit worried at first, thinking I would get into The Project a bit mentally drained from all the writing in the morning. But it has worked out great.

"Writing narrative comedy is a totally different skill set to writing jokes about the news. So I wasn't fatigued at all. The adrenaline actually kept me going. It was a perfect world in the end, and Ten, The Project and the ABC have been great about it."

Season two of It's A Date, which Helliar created (he also co-writes, co-directs and co-stars in), returns tonight with a mostly new cast of actors and comedians playing characters on all sorts of weird and wonderful dates.

As with the first season, the title of each episode addresses a curly dating question such as "Do set-up dates ever work?" or "Is it OK to date a friend's ex?" and "Should you re-connect with an old flame?"

"I felt pretty relieved the first season worked so well that we returned for a second," Helliar explains. "You never really know what people will like. Arrested Development lasted three seasons but I think it's one of the greatest TV shows of all time. 30 Rock has struggled to find an audience in Australia. So it's really hard.

"So yeah, I felt vindicated that it worked, and we've taken season two up a notch. We're really proud of it."

Many of the situations on It's A Date are again inspired by the real-life dating experiences of the cast, most of which hail from Helliar's comedy community.

This season, that includes Shaun Micallef, Rhys Darby, Lawrence Mooney, Tom Ballard, Matt Okine, Joel Creasey, Ronny Chieng and Helliar's close friend and colleague Rove McManus.

"One idea taken from real life was when I used to take dates to art-house movies so they thought there was a bit more depth to me," Helliar confesses.

"I once took a Christian girl to an indie film that turned out to be about a gay Catholic priest. That was a pretty awkward drive home. Thank God it happened because 20 years later I've got an episode of TV out of it."

The resulting episode sees Veronica Milsom think Dan Wyllie might be gay when he takes her to a gay romance film and follows a man into the toilet. More serious actors guest-starring this season include Deborah Mailman, Vince Colosimo, Roy Billing and Lisa McCune returning as his wife; the latter two appear with Helliar in the first episode, where he sets up a single mum (Kat Stewart) on a blind date with his dad (Billing).

Wary of his heavier workload lately, Helliar has given more responsibility to his co-writers to give him more downtime with his family. "Last year, not a word got written if I wasn't in the room," he laughs.

"This time it was more like, send me what you have! I make sure I have my own space and that I'm present at home and being a good husband and father."

"It has worked out great. Writing narrative comedy is a totally different skill set to writing jokes about the news . . . a perfect world."

It’s A Date airs today at 9pm on ABC.