Spinoff Comedy co-editor Sam Brooks takes a look at the recent history of the Billy T Award, what felt different about this year’s nominees, and what that means for New Zealand’s comedy industry as a whole.
There was a Moonlight/La La Land joke when it came time to announce the Billy T. It wasn’t funny. Those jokes haven’t been funny since about a week after the Oscars.
The five nominees were:
The amiable Lower Hutt-ian Patch Lambert
The philosophy nerd Ray O’Leary
The charming Li’i Alaimoana
The quadruple threat Paul Williams
And then we had the eventual winner Angella Dravid. Her show was one of the best hours of the festival. You knew you were watching the winner as it unfolded. She engaged in some beautiful crowd work, she opened herself up to us and peppered it all with some truly dark and very real punchlines. Dravid is a natural clown and true original.
She’s our Billy T winner and in any year she would’ve deserved it.
There are a few concrete criteria when it comes to applying for the Billy T Award. There’s the usual admin stuff, like it’s only open to New Zealand residents (sorry Ricky Gervais) and they must be performing a one hour show in the Comedy Festival the following year (probably also sorry Ricky Gervais).
Then there are the things that just make sense: applicants can’t have been performing for more than five years (I’m assuming this means performing ‘stand-up’, things like Snort or being an actor don’t necessarily count) and it’s only open to people who have done fewer than three solo shows (applicants can have done two standalone hours and can apply with their third hour).
This is all objective stuff that’s fairly easy to check if you have a festival programme handy or you’re one of those people who have encyclopedic knowledge and instant recall of extremely niche information (hi, nice to meet you).
Then there are the other criteria:
“In selecting the Award nominees, the Panel will consider many factors including:
- performance history
- professional attitude towards their career
- current form
- future plans
- live performances in the lead up to the Festival (where possible)”
You might be thinking, “Hey, that’s vague!” And you might be right. You also might be thinking, “Hey, that’s pretty subjective!” You would also be right.
The applicants are judged on three things:
1. The application. I assume all our Billy T winners have been able to fill out an application form, or at least have their managers do it for them.
2. The showcase. The showcase takes place in October, and is split over two nights. A selection of nominees perform about five-to-eight minutes each.
3. The presentation! This is the part we don’t see.
Let’s talk about the presentation. This is where the applicants pitch their idea for a show. Having seen all of the Billy T nominees, I can imagine what their pitches might’ve looked like and how strongly they would’ve pitched.
You could speculate endlessly about why certain people weren’t nominated, especially after seeing their shows. We don’t know, and we won’t ever know. I wasn’t at the showcase, I’m not on the panel. I can guarantee you if I was then I would’ve made sure five women were nominated. Because looking at the list of who applied you could fill the Billy T nominee slots with ten women and still not have enough room for all the women who deserved it.
But I digress (and show my biases).
We can’t know what happened with these nominees or why they were picked, and we won’t ever know. The only thing we can go on is what happened about six months later during the Comedy Festival. And honestly, based on what happened six months later, the question needs to be asked:
What happened with these nominees?
When the nominees were announced, I thought, “huh – that’s weird.” The nominees were three comedians from Wellington I frankly hadn’t heard of – one of whom had won as Best Newcomer (Ray O’Leary) and another won Best Breakthrough Performer (Patch Lambert) at the NZ Comedy Guild Awards – a performer with whom I was super familiar, and a comedian who had done a half hour in Auckland and been a Raw Comedy finalist. I was familiar with Paul, who has been around the scene for a few years but is most famous as Rose Matafeo’s sidekick in her show Finally Dead, and with Angella, who had a show in the festival last year, but the other three were enigmas to me.
To explain a bit I’m going to do a quick overview of the last few years of Billy T nominees:
In 2016, the five nominees were Alice Brine, David Correos, Laura Daniel, James Malcolm and Matt Stellingwerf. You’ve got a fast-rising Wellington comedian there, a dark horse clown, a star of Funny Girls and Jono and Ben, and a previous Billy T nominee.
And in 2015, the five nominees were Tim Batt, Eli Matthewson, Hamish Parkinson, Nic Sampson and Matt Stellingwerf. A popular comedian with an even more popular podcast, a previous Billy T nominee, one of the best clowns the country has ever seen, the head writer for Jono and Ben and a solid newcomer.
I could go further backwards and bore literally everybody, but a running theme is that these are comedians who were familiar to both the community, which I am tangentially part of because comedy and theatre blend like vodka and coke (you can mix them, and people sometimes do, but should you?) but also to audiences. It’s crucial to say that I’m talking about the Auckland community here – three of the nominees this year are based in Wellington and popular there.
Look at 2015: two people who have done hours before, and three people who are part of Snort. None are taking their first crack at doing comedy. People could pick up a programme and they’d know who Nic Sampson was, because they’d seen him on TV.
So what was different about this year?
First off, I’d like to give you how the Billy T Award is defined, as by the Wikipedia page, which I have on fairly good authority was created by Guy Williams: “The Billy T Award is a New Zealand comedy award recognising up-and-coming New Zealand comedians with outstanding potential.”
That’s a vague definition, which is fine. It’s why we’ve got winners as diverse as Rose Matafeo, Guy Montgomery, Guy Williams, Rhys Mathewson, David Correos and Sam Wills (The Boy with Tape on His Face). These are people who were all at completely different stages of their career. Rhys Mathewson won when he was 18, Rose Matafeo won when she was hosting U Live, David Correos won before he’d ever seen the other side of a camera (this is me making an assumption based on David’s comedy).
There’s a low ceiling to hit in New Zealand comedy. You can get on TV, and be recognised nationally fairly quickly. To its immense credit, the Billy T Award doesn’t automatically go to the most famous person.
Which brings me to this year’s nominees.
It’s important here to note that comedy exists in bubbles and venn diagrams – like any artform. If you’ve been reading my specific coverage, it skews very much towards The Basement crowd, which skews much more theatrical and if I’m honest, much more Snort-y. That’s the comedy I’m familiar with; I’m not the kind of person who goes to open mics or Big Wednesday at the Classic. So someone who might be very familiar to me, like Alice Snedden, who I’ve seen performing for a few years now, might be utterly foreign to another person. On the flipside, someone like Li’i Alaimoana wasn’t familiar to me when the nominees come out, but he regularly sells out gigs down in Wellington.
The industry doesn’t look the same as it did when the Billy T Award started in 1998. Back then the award went to Cal Wilson and Ewen Gilmour. Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture. Madonna had a critical and commercial comeback with Ray of Light.
I remember talking to Justine Smith, way at the start of this gig as comedy co-editor, about what the industry looked like when she was starting out. She mentioned that it was easy to get stage time at the Classic – you just rang up Scott and asked for a gig.
That’s not what it’s like now, to put it bluntly. According to many comedians, it’s getting harder to get any stage time at all. The Classic is a stalwart but it’s the main stage for comedians both established and emerging, from Brendhan Lovegrove to Alice Snedden. Gigs have popped up around town, from Down to Clown at The Basement to Talk and Show at Golden Dawn, to an open mic at Revelry to accommodate the demand for the stage time. But there’s just not enough stage time for the amount of comedians we have now.
When there’s less stage time, there’s less time to develop your craft, fewer chances to try something out, to figure out who you are as a performer. It’s no wonder the Fred Award (an award that recognises the best NZ show of the festival) nominees were largely comprised of the Snort crew. These guys are out there performing and honing their craft every single week, onscreen and onstage; they’re match-ready. They know their voices, they know their style, they know their audience and they’re refining all three of those every single week.
From this group over the past few years, we’ve had three Billy T winners (Rose Matafeo, Guy Montgomery, Hamish Parkinson) and four Billy T nominees (Laura Daniel, Eli Matthewson, Joseph Moore, Nic Sampson). It’s no wonder three of them filled the Best Newcomer nominee slate this year (Alice Snedden, Donna Brookbanks, Brynley Stent) either. These guys have been dominating the industry, and there’s an entire piece in figuring out how, why and what that means.
This year’s nominees were five people doing their first hour of comedy, and four people who were doing their first festival show ever. That’s pretty rare, as far as I can tell. So not only have you got five comedians who are frankly not used to doing an hour of comedy, you’re presenting them to an audience who have likely never seen them do any comedy whatsoever, at least in Auckland. (I can only speak for Auckland here – I have on fairly good authority that the three Wellingtonians had killer crowds in their hometown.)
That’s four people doing their first hour with the weight of being a Billy T nominee on their shoulders. You’ve got audiences who are crossing their arms and waiting to be blown away. They want to see the next Rose Matafeo, the next Rhys Mathewson, the next Ben Hurley, the next big thing.
It’s a weight that few of the nominees can shoulder – hell, it’s a huge weight for any comedian to shoulder. These are newcomers to the industry, simply put. It’s a huge jump to go from six minutes of solid material, which all of them had at the Billy T Jams, to an hour of structured comedy – and to do that while trying to define and refine your voice and style at the same time. I can see how some of these comedians would have done a great showcase, how some of them would have pitched well and how they fulfill the subjective criteria outlined. But those things don’t necessarily translate to an hour of amazing comedy.
I’m not saying this was an undeserving set of nominees – that does nobody any help – but this set of nominees looked different from the past few years. It felt different. I’ve only been following comedy for the past five years, a period in which the Billy T was dominated by comedians who were very much within my venn diagram of taste. And as that generation of comedians moves past their newcomer phase, a new wave of comedians has come into fill their shoes, in an industry where stage time is increasingly scarce, and so are the opportunities to define and refine your voice, your style and even your material.
The industry is changing, and the nominees are changing, but the meaning and weight of the Billy T Award remains the same.
Does that mean we need to re-define what the Billy T Award is and what the Billy T Award means? Is it a newcomer award? Is it recognising young talent? Or is it giving people wings like Icarus and tossing them into the sun?
Angella Dravid is no Icarus. She’s the perfect Billy T winner for 2017. Dravid represents an industry that thinks bigger and thinks riskier than it ever has before. Even compared to David Correos last year, Dravid’s style of comedy opens herself up and finds the humour and the humanity in darkness. There’s a vulnerability and an openness to her that recalls the yellow towel wearer himself. She doesn’t feel like anybody we’ve ever seen before.
For my mind, that’s what the Billy T Award is, and should continue to be. It should be awarding the next person to change up New Zealand comedy.
There hasn’t been another Ewen Gilmour. There hasn’t been another Rose Matafeo. There hasn’t been another Hamish Parkinson.
And there sure as hell won’t be another Angella Dravid.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.