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James Nokise on NZ’s faux class system and political stand-up: ‘It’s like no one told these guys Clueless was a comedy’

In a hectic schedule, comedian James Nokise finds time to tell Waikato journalist Annette Taylor about touring, the country’s faux class system and the sound of his aunty’s laugh.

James Nokise has been called New Zealand’s favourite Samoan/Welsh stand-up comic. Over the years he’s been to the Edinburgh and Adelaide Festivals, lectured at universities and been a member of the Puppet Fiction crew, as well as appearing regularly at Auckland and Wellington comedy clubs. He’s carved out a reputation for going after everything from gangs to politicians, and stereotypes within Pacific culture.

Currently on tour in the UK, James returns to New Zealand later this month as one of the speakers at Festival for the Future in Auckland’s Aotea Centre. The festival showcases youth-led innovation and gives young New Zealanders a platform to develop skills and engage in critical conversations about the future. Driven by 2015 Young New Zealander of the Year Guy Ryan and the team at Inspiring Stories, Festival operates nationwide with the vision to see every young New Zealander unleash their potential to change the world.

First up, where in the UK are you?

I’m in London, taking a light couple of weeks to decompress from the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s as close to a holiday as I get these days. I did 108 performances in 24 days, which isn’t as much as others, but more than most.

How did this tour come about?

Just hustling at festivals, always hustling. Essentially it’s just a series of convincing people to let me perform in a venue where someone else could see me perform so I could get to the next venue.

How many places are you performing?

Ummm… a few? I haven’t done a proper tally, but – and this highlights the difference between UK and NZ public transport – I can do a gig a few hours’ drive out of London and still be back in time to get a decent sleep. The three main places I’ve been are London, Brighton and Edinburgh. Does Glastonbury count? It’s only a couple of days though. Yes, that was a name drop – but it’s Glastonbury.

When do you get home?

The Friday the Festival for the Future starts.

What’s the reaction/feedback from the audience?

Good: not just because they’re laughing but because they can relate. That’s really important to me because of where I want to take them in a one hour show. But also, I’ve learned the more detail you throw in, the more people can relate, which kinda flies in the face of the Kiwi attitude of ‘Oh no one will get our stories, or humour, or eccentricities’ – I mean they still think we’re weird, but they can relate because they’ve got their own weird shit (can I swear?) too.

What do you miss most from NZ when you’re away?

The sound of Urban Pacific culture. From the kitchen to the choir – it’s just what I’ve grown up in, that urban Pacific vibe. I love cities, and city life, but I miss hearing my aunty’s laugh, and my cousins wind each other up.

Is home Wellington?

Home is always Wellington, no matter where I live. Newtown, to be specific. I was based in London for a while, and tried Auckland (we didn’t gel) so when I’m back in NZ I try to be in Wellington. Is it pretentious? Soooo pretentious. But I love that. It’s the capital but somehow 98% of the city doesn’t take itself seriously.

Where were you born, grew up?

Born in Hamilton. Left. Grew up in the Hutt Valley (Wellington).

Do overseas tours help get things in NZ in perspective?

Always. Or maybe I just get itchy feet. I don’t think it’s just the touring, but when you’re touring you’ve still got the ‘work’ shades, so you look back in with that rather than ‘holiday’ shades. I guess I mean we get caught up in the mythology of Kiwiana a lot, and being outside you realise we’ve got real bad problems in society that hardly anyone (including the people most affected) are dealing with because #tallpoppies #rugby #settledown

There’s been a lot in the media on Auckland and its problems – one young person said to me recently that Auckland is broken. Any thoughts on that?

It’s easier for me to move to and live in London than Auckland. And every time I come back, my relatives have moved further out from the city centre. I don’t know if it’s broken because I don’t know what Auckland is meant to be.

Have you ever lived there? Would you want to?

Yes and no. Oh actually – I would give it another shot. It feels stupid to say I’d never live there, it just doesn’t appeal to me – and I get that some people don’t understand that but… Look, I don’t really think Auckland is a city. I’m not trying to shit on it; it just doesn’t feel like other cities I’ve been in.

Families/young ones living in cars – what we can do as a nation?

Vote? Read? Care? To be blunt, if all you’re doing is watching on TV and empathising – you’re not doing anything. You’re giving human beings the same level of interest you’d give a cat up a tree. These people need help; we live in a country with 2 degrees of separation. Open a new tab and find a way to help.

How did you come to be a comedian?

I hung out with the wrong people. Twice. First time generated material. Second time generated career.

What are some of the highlights?

New York. Perth (first time). Pulp Comedy. My first NZ Comedy Gala at the St James, and the one with Wayne Brady as host. And I think this Edinburgh might be up there. I got to hang out with a couple of my heroes. I’m playing footy with one in a few hours.

James Nokise

James Nokise (Image: Supplied)

What advice would you give to the 10-year-old James in the school playground? (How old are you, come to think of it!)

34. Stick with your love of computer programming and train in IT. I still would love to write a computer game. Some people want to write a novel, I want to write a Final Fantasy.

What advice would you give to young people who want to break into comedy?

Actual advice? Umm… move to Auckland? It’s a sensible business move. My career is not the most financially brilliant model. Hmmm – get on stage. The only way you truly learn in stand-up is by performing and watching. And maybe you’re not a stand-up; there’s still plenty of avenues to perform/write/direct/produce/ manage in comedy. But you won’t know if you don’t get out there and do it.

How about advice to young people in general, in these slightly difficult times?

Don’t rush to cynicism. It’s not going anywhere and will be waiting with open arms in your 30’s

What are some of the issues/problems facing our young people?

I think there’s a faux class system in NZ – as in one that really wants to be a class system, but hasn’t got the historical chops – that this generation’s young people are experiencing a lot more than mine or my parents. We had much more classic bigotry (Race, gender, sexuality, which are all still massive issues) but this new wealth gap? It’s like no one told these guys Clueless was a comedy. The other big one, and it’s a real big one is apathy in a political/social sense.

Do you address these in your comedy?

Yes. I try. I’ve got be a bit careful, because the road to social/political comedy is full of potholes of ranting.

Can you give an example?

Like a written joke? Hmm – how ‘bout we just take a local thing from the past two weeks:

So Max Key takes a photo mocking a dude in gum boots, and people mock him, and other people support him –

But what I don’t get is why people are surprised?

His old man is an asshole, and often assholes beget assholes.

And who are these people at once both offended by me calling John Key an asshole, but insisting he’s an Everyman.

Is he Special or an Everyman?

Because every man can be an asshole. We prove this time and again.

There are atheist voters who treat John Key likes he’s Jesus; of course his son prances like a Messiah.

The difference is Jesus fed the poor and needy, and we have people living in fucking cars. You can say Jesus is made up, but those people in cars aren’t.

Now the thing is, I’ve just written this – I’ve never performed it, and probably won’t ‘til I’m in NZ, so I don’t know if this is the correct wording of it, if what I think are the punchlines are actually punchlines, or if it reads like I think it does. My delivery has its own rhythm, and sometimes it’s in synch with my writing, sometimes it takes a few performances to iron out. That’s why we always say a joke’s not finished ‘til it’s on stage.

What is something you did when young that you now regret? Or is it something you regret not doing?

Shucks, there are whole shows full of those regrets.

I let people tell me where to go and what to do, rather than listen and make up my own mind. I was scared – and lazy – and I thought it would be easier to follow, but it actually took me a lot longer to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do.

When did you first hear about Inspiring Stories/Festival for the Future?

I got asked to come talk to some students at Wellington High School

What do you think you’ll say to the audience?

A little instigation and agitation. I’ll have some images but really it’s about where they’re at, and trying to articulate their issues. I’ve only got 10 minutes so it’ll probably be fast.

What’s the key message you’d like them to take away?

Don’t listen to people just because they’re charismatic?

What about your future? What plans do you have?

More festivals. A solo play I made on the Pacific arts funding model, called Rukahu, is going up in November at Bats Theatre in Wellington. My aim is to be overseas just a little bit longer each year.


James Nokise is one of the speakers at Festival for the Future, 23 – 25 September 2016, Aotea Centre, Auckland. Tickets and information here.

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