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‘I don’t leave the door open for bullshit to come in’: A conversation with Urzila Carlson

Urzila Carlson is straight up the biggest comedian in the country today. Spinoff Comedy co-editor Sam Brooks talks to her about how she got so good at being funny.

Sam Brooks: So you’re fucking excellent.

Urzila Carlson: Thank you!

How are you as good as you are? It’s like… you’re so good.

Thank you. I dunno, it’s just a lot of stage time I guess, and the more you work – I do a lot of festivals, so I get a lot of stage time. I literally just go running from one gig to the next to the next, so yeah. That’s it, that’s all I can say. You know, I think you can fake natural ability if you just work hard at it. That’s basically what it comes down to.

How do you think you became so mainstream and a big deal?

I think there was just a gap in the market. I think I hit at the right time, at the right angle, if you will, and there was a gap for just a mainstream comic.

Just this past week in Wellington, my gig was after these kids who were just amazing and could fucking swing on ropes and do all these weird acts and stuff, cause they have other skills than talking, but I have none of that!

I think there was just literally a gap for that and I sort of snuck in before the door closed. I mean it’s a revolving door, so it doesn’t ever properly close does it? There’s always room for more. And that’s the great thing about comedy, you know? Trends come and go. I was just lucky that whatever the hell I was talking about was going at that time. And I’m lucky that my fan base have stuck around and grown with me, which is nice. I have people that have been with me since my first show with Jarred Fell and Stephen Boyce in this building, when it was still the…what was it? The Wallace Arts Trust. (Editor’s Note: The building that is now Q Theatre used to host Pidgeon Tyre Distributors, the Auckland Citizens Advice Bureau and the Wallace Art Collection.)

Oh shit, really? Wow, That was ages ago.

No toilet, no nothing, and yeah, I think that was the last year it was a venue and that was our first show, our first festival show, and we had a triple bill and there’s still people coming who came to that first show, still coming to my shows, so it’s great.

What do you think about you resonates with a wide range of people, who just outright just love and adore you?

I don’t know. I said to someone recently, I think its relatability but also approachability.

How so?

People feel like they can just come and talk to me. You know? Like, my wife says I’m TOO approachable, like people just come up to me in the street and go “Can I have a hug?”, and I’m like “Yeah, sure”, and she goes “Don’t hug people on the street!”, and I’m like “Why not? That’s what they want!”

But also I think my material is just sort of observational shit, so it’s just whatever we all go though, or the majority goes through, and it’s sort of evolved. When I started I was single and then I met someone, and then we got married, and then we had a kid, it keeps growing, and I think a lot of people that come are sort of going through the same stuff, or will be going through the same stuff. And then some stuff is just flat out poo jokes.

Which works!

I think I’m that friend at the BBQ that’s had just enough to drink, that’s entertaining. I’m that person. And I don’t pick on my audience. So I don’t necessarily know if they like my comedy, or maybe they’re 50% there, but they say “Fuck it, she’s not going to pick on me so that puts me 80% there.” I have the skill set, I just don’t do it.

But I think that puts people at ease. They go “We can just go out and have a laugh and not worry about what she’s going to do.” I think that’s my thing, I hope that’s my thing.

How does your comedy translate in other countries? How do you find the audiences respond?

You know how they go “The Kiwi humour” or “The Australian humour” or “The South African humour”, everybody’s got their own. They go, “Will it translate?” And you know, some stuff I don’t know if it will work in other countries, but literally it’s only regional stuff. Stuff like taking the piss out of Paula Bennett or any politician, of course you can’t use that, but the rest of it you can. Because every country in the world, except for maybe Russia and Germany, they all go: “We just want to have a laugh at ourselves, were pretty good at taking the piss out of ourselves.”

So all comedy, as long as it talks about the human condition and the frustrations we all feel, it reaches people. Comedy, I think, is universal, it works everywhere, that’s why you get Ismo (Leikola) and he comes over from Finland and he’s just fucking amazing, so obviously their humour is like our humour because he doesn’t write a whole new hour just for us. And it’s the same with me, I go to Australia all the time and I don’t write a new hour just for them, I just talk about the human condition.

It’s the same as when the shit hits the fan, like when the earthquake hit Christchurch, or with the bushfires in Australia or the tsunami in Japan, the world leaders all come out and go: “We will come back from this, we are resilient people, we will rebuild.” Because no leader ever comes out and goes: “We’re fucked, we’ve got nothing, we don’t know where we’re going with this.”

And it’s the same with humour: we all do that same thing with a joke, where we just like to have laugh at ourselves. It translates. Laughter is universal.

That makes heaps of sense.

Yes, but with the exception of Germans and Russians. I don’t know how much they laugh at themselves.

For someone who’s so “othered” in heaps of ways, to make it big, and to make it here, it means so much. And that’s a comment and not a question!

But it says heaps about how much people in this country can accept difference and accept someone who is not near themselves, which is fucking amazing. And that is also a comment and not a question.

I want to comment on your comment. Because a lot of people have asked if I find it intimidating to talk about anything from my sexuality to our lost baby, and I go “Nah”. Because I think if you just celebrate whatever your ‘thing’ is, then people almost get to a point where they think it’s too awkward to judge that person for it because they are happy about it.

So I just talk about whatever goes on in my life like it’s not an issue. Because it’s not an issue for me, so if there’s an issue that comes into it, it’s your issue, not mine.

Absolutely.

So I don’t leave the door open for bullshit to come in. Like people go: “Have you ever had any sexism or homophobia?” or whatever. I go: “If it was there, I didn’t notice, cause I just don’t give an egg.” If you don’t address it, and you just go, “Fuck off, that’s not for me” then people can’t bring that shit to you.

Yeah. Fuck, that’s so cool. How do you bring all that mental headspace into an hour of standup?

Well, I’ve been writing a new hour since 2009. Every year I write a brand new hour and every year I think, ‘That’s my last hour, I’ve got nothing left to joke about.’ But then every year more stuff happens and every year you can observe so many things.

So, number 1: Because it’s overwhelming to write an hour-long show, some of the other comics go: “Don’t look at it as an hour, look at it as writing four 15 minute bits.” Because its a lot more achievable to go: “Ok, I’m doing The Classic, I’m doing an open mic night or Big Wednesday or whatever, I’m going to work in 15 minutes of new stuff. Or 5 minutes, 5 minutes, 5 minutes, over three weeks in a row” …BOOM! You’ve got 15 minutes.

So you just do that, but you do four 15 minute slots, and you’ve got a lot more room when you have an hour to just have a conversation with the audience. I find that if I just approach it as if it’s a conversation, a funny one, but it’s a conversation, then I don’t feel overwhelmed. I don’t go, “Christ, I have to come up with a whole hour, these people are looking at me to make them laugh for a whole hour,” like, you can have conversations with your family members for an hour that are funny!

Oh yeah, easy.

So just take it from that approach.

Nothing makes me more nervous then when people say, “Tell me a joke.” I go, “Ugh, I don’t have any jokes, I don’t know jokes!”, because it’s just one story.

My approach is always honesty first. Like, if anything goes on, I just tell the audience that something has happened. I just tell them my story and hope that they laugh. And if they don’t, I go, “Don’t talk about it.”

“If you enjoyed it, tell everyone, if you didn’t – shut your mouth.”

Urzila Carlson is touring the country! You can check when she’s coming to your city right here.

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