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‘We’re all craftsmen. Performers are athletes.’ James Nokise on creating comedy out of sport

James Nokise is known for his political comedy and theatre, but his show this year pivots to focus on a subject largely untouched by New Zealand stand-up comedy: sports. Sam Brooks talks to Nokise about the reasons for the change, and what’s so funny about sport.

Sam Brooks: So you’re known for doing a lot of politically-charged material. Why the shift into sports?

James Nokise: I had a lot of conversations where we couldn’t talk politics – but could only talk sports. And I guess I got curious if I can make a show on sports, because I have deep love of playing sports and it’s actually a big part of my down time. I seem to have done shows on all my other passions, except sport.

Is there a kind of humour that sports lends itself to? 

Which sport?

Is there a particular sport that you joke about? I just realised that lumping all sport together is like lumping all art together, which is the least helpful thing.

Let’s go field games – most is dry asides and in jokes when it comes to stand – very much in the John Clarke frame. Though that’s really the way Kiwis and Aussies and Brits talk about sport. Americans go a lot louder with their sports, and sports comedy.

Maybe it’s because the comedy is tied to the type of personalities – you don’t really get “loud” Kiwi sports personalities

Why do you think that is?

Because jocks can get bullied once they’re out of school? The funny thing with tall poppy is the way it encompasses everything –  the power dynamic can change but that fucking toxic mentality still sits in every interaction.

It’s a cliché, but it’s a true one. We tear down those who excel because it’s so much easier to find flaws in people we’re told are flawless, and we’re constantly told that sportspeople are flawless and that they’re the people we should be like.

James Nokie

This is a leading question, but how much do you think the sportsperson mentality is ingrained in wider New Zealander culture?

Deeply. Look, as with so many other countries, sports not just a way of empowering disenfranchised people, but it also speaks across economic divides and this is usually when my mates start looking sideways at me. I like watching people do extraordinary physical stuff – and I like seeing communities have a sense of achievement. And those two things, I think are part of the appeal.

So many people dismiss sports way too easily without ever actually thinking about what it means to people.

You can apply that mentality to theatre too! We’re all craftsmen. Performers are athletes. Yet we’re told we’re mortal enemies by… talkback radio? I don’t know. But go back far enough and someone wasn’t keen for arts and sports to get along.

This could be the circles I hang out in, but I feel like the prejudice of theatre people against people who do sports is way more prevalent than the other way around?

Is it because you’re aware of sports people more than sports people are aware of you? Like, can you see the Blues stressing on what the Basement crew are saying about them?

And that’s tied back to the national attitude towards sports and arts. Or can we extend that further to “physicality” and “dialogue” – and then apply that to social and bureaucratic attitudes to expression.

So think about what gets talked about, what gets funded, what gets seen – “physical” expression, and “dialogue” expression. Then consider the irony of how a country so repressed ties itself to physical expression so much.

It would please me to no end if Jerome Kaino was worried about what I thought about him.

I think Kaino would enjoy your stuff – he’s got performers in his family.

How do you compact this kind of discussion into an hour of comedy? I remember seeing your show in Edinburgh and you’re real good at not reducing complex conversations, but in packaging them in a comedic context. But how do you do it for this subject matter?

I mean, we’re not used to seeing sport and sport culture investigated, let alone unpacked. How do you introduce that concept to an audience?

Well, you don’t tell them.. and you try not to talk in straight lines. Or you make the straight talk part of the set up, so it gets absorbed with the punchline – I got penicillin in jam a lot as a kid – and I throw to pop culture a lot.

And I know my audience isn’t dumb – they might not know much on a topic, like NBA basketball for example, but they’re smart, and I can play with that. And that’s the joy, coz then you take all this complexity and turn a gig into a bunch of kids cheekily talking shit away from everyone else.

And maybe that’s part of why I’ve made this show – because I was worried my comedy hours were moving too far away from that.

You can book tickets to James Nokise: Talk A Big Game in the NZ International Comedy Festival here.

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