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Set Visit: Best Bits – Mining TV Turds for Comedy Gold

Duncan Greive visits the set of Best Bits, One’s panel show discussing the week’s worst television, to see how the sausage gets made. //

On a glass coffee table in the Best Bits green room there is a bowl with two chocolate chip biscuits in it alongside a purse-sized packet of Carefree panty liners. “I see they’ve brought my rider,” says Guy Montgomery. The biscuits get eaten fairly quickly, but the sanitary products remain unmolested, sitting faintly mysteriously for a few aimless hours.

Just prior to taping, their purpose becomes clear. Jesse Mulligan rips into the packet and distributes them amongst the night’s on camera crew. Every panelist gets a set apart from Donna Brookbanks. Which is to say every male panelist.

Montgomery, Vaughn Smith and Jason Hoyte whip off their shirts, peel off the protective coating and stick one under each armpit. It seems like a weird joke, but it’s actually a way of warding off the dreaded damp patches which are the inevitable consequence of spending hours underneath hot stage lighting.

They could have turned the air conditioning up, I guess, but the pads seem an elegantly cheap and appropriately silly solution for a problem on the Best Bits set. The show, which just returned for its third season, is production company the downlowconcept’s other panel show – the one that’s not 7 Days.

The premise of Best Bits is simple to the point of banality: play some funny TV clips and have a panel of funny people talk about them. While neither as popular nor as prominent as TV3’s quiz show juggernaut, its lowkey demeanour is the source of much of its charm. Without teams and scores or much in the way of structure the panelists are freed up to just make shit up. That mightn’t sound that exciting, but thanks to the well-assembled lineups and quality of the participants, it works.

I went along to the recording of the second episode of the third season this Tuesday just passed, to get a sense of how they make a show this simple deliver week in, week out.

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The Best Bits writer’s room is a harshly lit bunker in TVNZ’s labyrinthine studio complex. It’s decorated with massive heavy curtains on two sides, with a couple of desktop PCs and a busted-looking Sony tape deck in the corner. Couches are arranged in a U shape around an ageing Viera TV, replete with a Panasonic video player. Scattered around the room are some of tonight’s panelists: comedian Guy Mont, radio host Vaughn Smith and regular downlowconcept collaborator Josh Thomson.

The scene is quiet and relaxed, everyone deeply focused on their laptops, until Matt Heath and Jason Hoyte arrive. Heath is producing Best Bits this season, along with completing his Hauraki radio show and trailing the Black Caps around for the Alternative Commentary Collective. He got those gigs because he was good, not because he was organised.

“Josh – what time’s rehearsal? I have no ability to read call sheets.”

Heath is by no means the worst offender here. “Did someone send a call sheet?” asks Hoyte, sounding a little worried. “I can’t open that stuff.” Hoyte is worse than useless with technology. His wife has to show him the clips they use for Best Bits, and he asks, in complete earnest, what an iPad is not long after. He’s very comfortable with this, and is embracing the ageing process with relish. Later he’ll talk at length about the length of time it’s been since he last saw his penis, shake his head at discussion about the dress’s colour and complain about people using phones at cafés. The grumpy older gent persona suits him.

Heath and Thomson talk about this week’s clips, which come through from a variety of sources. Out of a batch of 50 or so they cull down to the 12-15 which will make the taping. Heath says that they all looked shit when they started, but once a couple bottles of wine got in them they got a lot better. By the end they’d drunk enough and watched enough to be confident it’d be a good week.

Soon we move through to the green room, where we’re joined by Donna Brookbanks. It’s a dude-heavy environment, but she seems to glide through it, quiet but not shy. As with the show, she doesn’t say a lot, but everything she does is worthwhile. Contrast that with Smith and Montgomery both very funny, but both have motors that mean they’re off and running all the time.

In the downtime before rehearsal and dinner the group kill time by swapping industry gossip: Ben Mitchell cooks steak all day every day at Shortland Street and it stinks. Once Simon Barnett and Gary McCormack’s More FM promo poster was direct remake of a Hamish and Andy equivalent from across the ditch. Smith didn’t want to air ZM’s headline-making interview with UK reality star Katie Hopkins because she was essentially a horrible person.

Hoyte talks fondly about his time in Dunedin following the Black Caps recently, where he caught up with his eldest daughter, down studying at Otago. He loves the town. “Everyone has a box of beers,” he says admiringly. “Everyone has alcohol. They’re all sitting on their roofs. Drinking, smoking, rooting.

“My daughter loves it down there.”

Nigel McCulloch, a downlowconcept founder, wanders in and plops down next to Brookbanks. He helps Mont pick out a shirt – they go for a large rottweiler print tee over a tamer button-down – and tells Mont that he “felt really let down by the Sex and the City films”.

This is not news to Montgomery, who has spent much of the last week being delivered much the same opinion. It certainly doesn’t change the fact that he’ll have to watch Sex and the City 2 52 times in the next year for the second season of he and Tim Batt’s ‘Worst Idea of All Time’ podcast. Starting at 9am tomorrow. Mont currently spends an unnatural portion of each week watching bad video – in addition to Best Bits and ‘Worst Idea’ he also hosts another clip show called Fail Army on TV3.

Curiously, though, he’s the most buoyant of the group. Hoyte seems weighed down by the endless summer he’s spent in that gnarly little caravan with the Alternative Commentary Collective. Smith’s day started before first light, as did Heath’s, while Brookbanks mostly focusses on the script.

Thomson talking with Mulligan between sections

Thomson talking with Mulligan between sections. Great in-focus photo by Duncan Greive

Mulligan arrives, wearing a fancy shirt and beachy shorts, and leads us through to the studio to run through the night’s clips. After settling into his host’s chair he talks about the latest instance of an occupational hazard of the show: encountering people they’ve made fun of in the hallways around the station.

“I ran into Simon Dallow and he was slightly disappointed in his treatment last week,” says Mulligan. Dallow had said the word ‘shizzle’ in a live cross, and was mercilessly flayed for it. “He felt he was using it ironically.”

“He was,” says Heath flatly. They all knew, and didn’t care. Best Bits’ philosophy is what it has to be: if it happens on TV and is funny to talk about, then that’s what they’ll do. If they have to deprive it of context to get those laughs, so be it.

The clips this week are good. Some incredible footage of John Campbell doing John Campbell stuff with an NZ Breaker. A godawful TV psychic. And an old man on a terrible cooking show delivering the single worst piece-to-camera I’ve ever seen.

It plays through smooth and everyone’s feeling good about what’s coming. We head upstairs for dinner. It’s on TVNZ’s vast balcony, with three types of meat and an excellent savoury strüdle. Smith and Montgomery discuss a show called Thank God You’re Here and wonder at length about why there’s no New Zealand improv show on TV.

The answer is probably pure economics. Speaking with McCulloch the following day he told me about the origins of Best Bits. TVNZ came to the Down Low Concept wanting a panel show that A) used local talent and B) was cheap to make. They wanted their own 7 Days, essentially. But the Down Low guys didn’t want to make another quiz show, or anything too news-driven. Best Bits was the result – television eating itself, with a focus on New Zealand’s own production. Cheap – certainly compared to a deep cast improv show – but not nasty.

It started out hosted by Radar, with a rapid fire scripted section to open the show, before a panel came in for the latter portions. They would bang out as many as 24 clips an episode. But it felt wooden, and the best stuff they got was the more spontaneous chatter between panelists. When Mulligan came on board for season two they ditched the scripted intro and halved the number of clips. Mulligan’s dry, deadpan style suited was a good bed for the panelists to bounce on. The show became a place where established media brands like Smith and Heath could chat informally with the wave of young comic talent that’s gushing up without many places to go.

That sense of different eras having fun together is a good portion of what works about the show. The clips end up near-incidental, with the real pleasure being watching Mont, Mathewson or Brookbanks match their sensibilities and styles with the different eras and emphases of Smith, Hoyte and Mulligan.

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After dinner there’s more mucking around in the green room – sanitary pads on, TV-friendly shirts on, script read throughs – before it’s go time and we’re ushered through the studio. The show records for two hours, during which there are long sections on what John Campbell’s orgasm might sound like, whether grey pubic hair makes a penis look distinguished and whether men can lactate.

OSH and ACC (the accident guys, not the commentators) are recurring themes, and Mulligan reminisces about his days on Seven Sharp, filling out an OSH form talking about the hazards of the day’s work. Smith counters, quick as a flash: “On your last day did you fill out ‘Mike Hosking wants to get rid of me’? Or did you not see that coming.”

None of this will likely make it into the show, which is very loose for One, but not that loose. The ability to make gross jokes and go off on wild tangents with no pressure to always make it TV palatable is what gives it an engaging transgressiveness on screen.

After two solid hours we’re done. The crowd are ushered out and a selection of noddies and laugh combinations are recorded before the panelists are let out into the night. In two days it’ll be on our TV’s. Then they’ll get together the following morning and do it all over again.

Best Bits airs on One on Thursdays at 9.30pm. The episode Duncan watched airs tonight – Thursday March 5th.