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Great comedy, but where’s the diversity? A former Billy T winner reviews Billy T Jams

The annual Billy T Jams showcases the nominees for the Billy T Award, New Zealand’s biggest prize for comedy. Former Billy T winner Hamish Parkinson reviews Friday night’s show in two parts: the first the show itself, the second what this year’s lineup can tell us about the state of local comedy in 2017.

Review 1: The Acts

The Billy T Award is a unique beast. It’s supported by the Comedy Festival with the noble intention to shine a spotlight on promising upcoming talent in live comedy. The pressure and process helps to put a little bit more shine on our rough comedy diamonds.

The Billy T Jams showcase is a gentle way to get people warmed up for the upcoming Comedy Festival, and a chance for the nominees to show a larger audience who they are, as well as where the Billy T judges think the future of NZ comedy is heading.

As a previous winner I know the strange pressure that this showcase puts on you as a performer, standing in front of a mix of industry people, comedy fans and an overwhelming number of ordinary drunk people who seemingly don’t go to live shows that often. This isn’t the room you want to fail in.

Our MC this year was Australia’s Matt Okine, a comedian and co-host of Triple J’s breakfast show. He set up a casual tone for the night, only stumbling a little bit in trying to explain what the Billy T Awards are, which is understandable: boy oh boy it’s a confusing award to explain, especially if you’re an outsider who might not have heard of it before.

In the four years I’ve been watching the Billy T Jams this is the first time they’ve had an international MC. I can only assume this choice was to help a first class comic who is relatively unknown here boost some ticket sales – I certainly hope it worked for him!

His laid back style never overpowered the acts but kept things moving along at a steady pace. Unfortunately I missed half of his first set as an inebriated middle aged man’s phone started going off. With the sort of care-free attitude that only someone without a student loan could have, he slowly looked for his phone, stared at it, then showed it to his seatmates while asking how to turn it off. The usher pleaded with him to turn it off as the rest of us stared daggers at him.

From left, Patch Lambert, Li’i Alaimoana, Angella Dravid, Ray O’Leary, and Paul Williams

First up was Ray O’Leary. Wearing an ill-fitting suit, he trotted onto the stage through rockstar-style billowing smoke, flashing lights and pumping music. Comedy gold.

Despite a slightly awkward presence, his is a confident style. He takes his time with each one liner, allowing the audience to slowly key into his comedy and the absurdity of the material to build. O’Leary’s a precise and quietly assured performer.

Next came the everyman comedian with a Cheshire Cat smile: Patch Lambert. He riffed on his Hutt Valley upbringing, getting the audience immediately onside with the classic comedy staple of laughing at Hamilton before launching into observational material on parenthood. Patch is clearly at home on the stage. It feels like he is having a yarn with you and he particularly shines when he is retelling his own shenanigans.

The first half was rounded off by the elegantly dressed Paul Williams. He gave the audience a few one liners to prove his place on the stage before impressing with his silky vocals and choreographed tap dance number. The theatrical build of his bit was halted by his track being cut too soon, and the tech taking his or her sweet time to deal with it. He handled it with grace and still had the audience on his side throughout.

Matt Okine eased us back into the show, uniting every demographic with his zinging potato observations before bringing on Li’i Alaimoana. Alaimoana was notably the first one to sink into some dick jokes, culminating in a surprisingly complex singalong song about a cheating man’s bizarre one stand. Like Patch, Alaimoana has a relaxed and assured stage presence, with some easy audience interaction.

The last of the nominees, Angella Dravid, approached the microphone, brought it down to her level, and began with some endearingly awkward crowd work. Dravid’s a natural sad clown who plays on her own nervous, world weary energy to add weight to her surprising punchlines.

Last year’s Billy T winner David Correos ended the night with his energetic, nothing to lose, borderline performance-art set. He committed wholeheartedly to every gross action, creating full noise hysterics from the crowd. Surprisingly, only one couple walked out, as the audience kept on urging him to go further, go grosser and do even more. And Correos delivered. It was a performance that was miles from everything else we’d seen before it on the night. Joyous anarchy.

It was a solid night of comedy, presented by a group of comedians who know their audiences and their unique voices. All proved that they deserved a spot there, and your attendance at their shows. Just make sure you turn off your fucking phone.

From left, Alice Brine, Rose Matafeo, and Laura Daniel

Review 2: The Elephant in the Room

Uh oh, politics!

When I was nominated for the Billy T in 2015 my fellow nominees were four other well educated white dudes. The truth is, there weren’t that many females who went for the Billy T in my year. It was just two years after Rose Matafeo, one of the best female comics on this planet, had won. Still it was disheartening to realise that female comics still weren’t rushing to apply for the Billy T.

But progress is unfortunately slow. The year after me was a bit better with Alice Brine and Laura Daniel both nominated. Each offered completely different styles of performance and both killed it. Alice Brine is a hurricane of feelings who brings an intense and infectious urgency to her material. Laura Daniel is a triumphant loser, someone who has learned and grown from all her failings. She gives a confident performance while being unafraid to challenge expectations.

The three male comics nominated also represented diversity. There was David Correos, a Filipino man proving fast and furious performance art can have mass appeal; James Malcolm, a fresh new gay voice experimenting and learning in ways that surprised his fans and himself; and one straight white guy, Matt Stellingwerf, who pushed his comedy into the intellectual places in which he thrives, building on his laid back, relatable style and cementing himself as one of the mainstays of contemporary NZ comedy. The Billy Ts were looking as diverse as you’d hope the new voices of comedy would be.

This year is diverse in experiences, and the voices are exciting, but it is noticeable how similar in tone they seeem: everyone has a low-key persona, whether their style is nervous or more relaxed. Each tended towards more punchline-based material – a natural fit for the performers, but after a year where the nominees had been wholly different from each other, it was weird to see similar tones throughout the showcase. Not a bad thing, but a noticeable thing.

The awards last year were fulfilling the promise of the Billy T Award: to showcase our diverse, expanding comedy styles and fostering those who need that pressure. A representation of what NZ comedy is and could be.

So, the elephant in the room: where are all the women?

I’m not saying the judges fucked up, I’m not saying we should have a certain quota of women – or ethnicities, for that matter – but in a year when so many women applied for the Billy T, all of whom with different voices and the right experience, why are they so noticeably absent?

Judging the breadth and width of the nominees in interviews and performances over multiple nights is a Herculean task. Comedy is so expansive now that those five spots are getting harder and harder to whittle down. There is a surplus of exciting female comics coming up right now who could have been up for this award, but only one made it through.

Are we doing enough to show all the other female comics out there that we want them, that they’re valued? If it came down to a coin toss, what do we need to do to weight the coin the other way, to get these comedians onto the Q stage next year? The female comics are doing the hard work, comedy rooms in Auckland are open and happy to book them, so what’s missing here?

Let’s not degrade that fantastic achievement of our new young noms, but let’s help out those in our community that need a hand up. It’s possible to support both as we move forward.

Feature image by Hamish Parkinson.

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