Kura Forrester recently won the Billy T award for her show at the NZ International Comedy Festival. Despite the award being named after a Māori comedian, she’s the first Māori to win it since 2004. She sat down to talk with Alice Webb-Liddall about her influences, why Māori people are so funny, and her one-night-stand with Sonny Bill.
Alice Webb-Liddall: First to address the yellow towel in the room, congratulations on the win, what was that like?
Kura Forrester: It was amazing. I’d ultimately decided that even if I didn’t win I was super happy with my run and the lead-up that it didn’t matter, but when I did win I was like yeeeeah.
Jess Joy Wood and I worked on the show together and we did lots of rehearsing and rewriting and I was really stoked with the show. The win solidified stand up comedy as something I can do.
You’re relatively new on the stand-up scene. How did you find your way to where you are now?
I moved to London in 2013 for two years and I worked as a waitress and I was really bored not performing, so I started going to some open mic nights. The people doing it were so bad and I thought ‘I can be that bad, I can stand on stage better than those people’, so I just gave it a go. After that it seemed like it was all right place right time. Expat comedian Jarred Christmas was in the restaurant I was working in and I got chatting to him and he invited me to come and do some comedy at a show he was working, and by the time I got back to New Zealand he had called the organisers of the Comedy Festival and told them to look out for me, so I was really lucky in that sense.
When did you realise you had the chops to make a room full of people laugh?
I’m the youngest in my family and I always had a natural comedic timing, but I always used to whinge, like ‘don’t laugh at me’, because I always associated being funny with being stupid. I had deep-seated issues about being dumb, because my brother and sister are really smart and classically academic, whereas I was off the other way. It was at drama school in around 2005 when I started thinking comedy was something I could do naturally.
Your comedy focuses a lot on personal stories, it seems like a lot of it is inspired by your family, I’m imagining pretty hilarious family gatherings.
I have a big extended family, and a lot of the characters I create for my shows come from listening to my aunties and uncles, especially on my Māori side. I’m from Tokomaru Bay on the East Coast, Ngāti Porou.
Oh, we might be related!
Hey sis! Yeah, I go back there every summer as much as I can and I go to the pub and just listen to people talk. You just can’t write that shit.
How does your family react to some of the more explicit content in your show?
I told my sister the whole journey about writing the show and said “it’s turning out to be a lot about us and Mum and Dad,” so she came along to opening night in Wellington and then went home and told my parents everything. “She talks about loving cock, about fucking guys, Mum she talks about how annoying you are…” and they decided they still wanted to go, which I guess is a real credit to how cool my parents are.
They didn’t want to make me feel uncomfortable, so they sat up the back and I made sure I wasn’t looking at them when I was talking about things like the list of dudes I’ve fucked.
Afterwards my dad was like “that was awesome,” and Mum was like “I don’t know what you were worried about, we loved it,” which is pretty awesome.
You say your inspiration comes particularly from your Māori side, and I find a lot of the funniest people I know are Māori. Why do you think this is?
I honestly think Māori are the funniest people in the world, we’re just naturally good at talking, and we raise our kids to be good at it too. I love that in Māori tikanga kids are always encouraged to stand up and speak, whaikōrero.
Māori people are doing stand-up comedy everywhere, we’re just not in the mainstream. My uncle passed away a couple of months ago, and his poroporoaki was one of the funniest nights of my life, it was better than Skycity with all the famous comedians, it was just people telling stories.
Are you one of those people who finds themselves in awkward situations often? I’m thinking particularly of one story you tell in your show, involving Sonny Bill Williams…
Definitely in relationships I’ve just had some doozies, but Sonny Bill was the weirdest one. That was just a one-night-stand though. It’s so amazing that it happened and when it happened I told myself I was never going to tell anyone about it, it was the sluttiest thing I’d ever done, and then I went and told hundreds of people every night.
When I was on The Project Jesse Mulligan was like “are Sonny Bill’s people going to ring you soon and ask you to shut it down?” and I was like “maybe, but until they do… it definitely happened, and I’m sure he’d just laugh about it, but also if he said ‘here’s $50,000 to never tell that story again’ I’d be like ‘cool’.” I don’t think I’m particularly a walking disaster or anything, but more and more now I kind of hope things happen to me so I can write about them.
Like the law of attraction, right? If you will it, it’ll materialise.
If you look at the top grossing NZ films there’s Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, both Māori stories with Māori comedy. It really connects people, regardless of ethnicity. What gives Māori comedy that effect?
Absolutely it connects people, it’s because Māori comedy is truthful. I remember Taika [Waititi] coming out and responding to people saying Boy was a story about neglect. But that’s how all of our parents grew up, there’s no lack of love there, that’s just the situation. I remember being in the movie theatre and when the nanny drives away everyone going ‘oh that’s so awful’ but I thought it was normal. It’s how people raised their kids then.
Māori people tell the truth, and they’re happy to be themselves. I wondered if that was adversity, when you’re challenged with so much stuff you don’t really have time for bullshit, because people who can laugh in the face of adversity are the funniest people. A non-spoilt person is always going to be funnier than a spoilt person. Actually that’s a pretty harsh thing to say, it’s not entirely so black and white. Don’t put that bit in your story.
It makes sense though! You’ve got to not take yourself so seriously if you want to be funny. Despite what you’re saying about Māori being so naturally comedic, you’re the first Māori comedian to win the Billy T since Ben Hurley 15 years ago. Is the industry doing enough to support Māori comics?
I think any industry that wants diversity is going about it in a weird way by standing there with their arms open saying “we need diversity!”. I think the comedy scene should go to them. The best example I can think of about finding young people is going into schools, running workshops. I work with Massive Theatre Company and we do this – we connect with kids, email them, all for free.
The smaller town you go to, the more humble the people get, it seems. Do you think some people don’t think they’re funny enough to consider comedy?
Of course, and I also think people have more shit to worry about than being comedians. I was talking to Chris Parker about this and he was saying how much of a privilege it is to be able to do what we do. You have to be able to pay your rent and live, but you can’t really have a full time job if you want to be a comedian. You have to be a privileged person already if you want to do this kind of stuff, so I don’t think many small town people see it as an option. But I also don’t know how we start to make them see it as an option.
How can Pākehā join the discussion around getting more diversity in comedy?
I think the more of us in the conversation the better, but I do also believe that sometimes the best thing you can do with your platform is step aside and let other people move up. I felt so supported through the comedy festival and I think the people running it are doing a really great job.
There was a part of me that thought ‘am I going to win this because I’m Māori?’ that’s always a question in my head, whenever I get a gig, and sometimes I’m like ‘well fuck it, if the answer is yes then why not?’ but also I want to get it because I’m the best.
There seems to be this curse on Māori people of feeling almost fraudulent in their careers and education because of scholarships and quotas and things that some people see as ‘unfair’, have you ever felt that in your career?
Fuck yeah, for a long time. I feel like I’m just coming out of that now and I’m 34. I got a scholarship as a Māori student in my first year at drama school and a girl told me that was really unfair and I didn’t know how to respond to her.
I knew it was Māori money, it was Te Puni Kōkiri money put aside so that more Māori students would go through drama school, but she was like “that’s bullshit, your parents earn money”. I just remember feeling like absolute shit. I’d often hide my Māori-ness and I started catering for people’s ignorance. I’d introduce myself as Kura and I see people panic and I’d feel sorry for them.
For my craft, I think it’s great to have something to push against because then I have something to make. I feel like I’ve got something to say because all of that shitty stuff happens, so it’s a blessing and a burden. You also get over that hump, you get into your 30s and stop giving a fuck what anyone thinks.
It would be great if Māori always looked at being Māori as a positive thing, that it’s great to be Māori, it’s so special and so cool, because it’s been too long we’ve been told it’s not.
I’ve always thought that way about my Māori heritage, but I think it’s different for me because as a white person, I can go through the world without people’s first impression being that I’m Māori. It’s shielded me from a lot of the bullshit.
That’s true, I often wonder what people would say if I wasn’t there, because I’m so clearly Māori. Sometimes I feel like they hold back around me.
But that’s a good thing right? You just being in a room makes some people internalise their racism before they blurt it out.
Yeah, actually. Amen to that.