Spinoff Comedy co-editor Sam Brooks talks to the Williams siblings about family dynamics, what led them into comedy, and who’s the funniest (spoiler: it’s dad).
The Williams siblings are fast becoming a New Zealand entertainment dynasty. Guy, the eldest, is a Billy T Award winner and a regular on Jono and Ben; Paul, the youngest, is a Billy T nominee this year; and Maria – the self-declared most talented sibling – is an actor currently touring the country in Capital E’s show Songs of the Sea.
This interview took place at the Williams family home. Guy and Paul were there in person – Guy holding court from the couch, Paul playing with a yo-yo – and Maria yelled her comments via speakerphone as she walked down the main street of Upper Hutt.
What follows is part one of a (very lightly) edited conversation between the three:
Guy: So what’s the angle of the article? ‘How did a comedy dynasty come to be?’ Maria has a very interesting theory, don’t you Maria? Can you hear us Maria?
Maria: I can hear you a little bit. What did you just say?
Guy: I was saying Maria has an interesting theory that I stole her personality.
Maria: This is a hundred percent true. All of a sudden, Guy started loving these things he hated. For example, Taylor Swift, who I don’t love any more but I did at the time as like a 19 year old girl.And musicals, for example Wicked. Our whole family went to Wicked and I cried like a baby and our whole family meets afterwards and Guy thought it was lame and dumb…
Guy: I enjoyed Wicked.
Maria: …and now he’s the biggest fan of Wicked.
Guy: This is an unfair allegation! Can I say, I enjoyed Wicked and enjoyed the whole experience of going to Wicked in Melbourne. I remember it fondly.
Maria: I remember you not liking it fondly and I remember thinking–
Guy: Paul can be the tie-breaker. Do you remember my enjoyment level of Wicked?
Paul: Don’t remember it. I loved the show and I had a great night.
Maria: Also, Guy was also quite a grumpy person.
Guy: Yeah and I’m…
Maria: And he was always quite loud and quite grumpy…
Guy: Isn’t that my comedy persona though?
Maria: And so then what happened, he was quite grumpy and didn’t talk to people and suddenly he was a really nice person and was charismatic and talked to everyone, so people started being like ‘Oh Maria! You’re charismatic and you talk to everyone, when did your brother become you?’
Guy: So Maria, are you suggesting that my comedy career was based on my stealing your personality?
Maria: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. You ripped off my personality.
Paul: Can I just compare this to the rapper Rick Ross…
Guy: She’s saying I ripped off her personality.
Paul: Rick Ross did it. His real name’s not Rick Ross.
Maria: I’m not the only… I’m not the only person who thinks this, like, friends of mine who you used to not talk to, Mum thinks this…
Paul: Rick Ross…
Maria: …extended family members think this…
Guy: Maria’s got evidence. See this is quite a tense situation though, because I think I’ve been reasonably successful as a comedian and the best known of the three of us so far and it’s horrible to hear that I’ve done this by pushing my sister, my only sister, down. It’s evil!
Paul: Rick Ross worked as a prison guard and then there was a criminal called Ricky Ross or something and he stole his name and persona.
So you guys are the Rick Ross of New Zealand comedy.
Maria: So I don’t mean specifics to your stand-up because obviously my stand-up is of a higher quality-
Guy: Oh ho! Shots fired early on!
Maria: I mean like, your TV personality generally, like the stuff..
Guy: Definitely not my TV personality but maybe what I did on The Edge.
Maria: Can I just say, so far this has been exactly how I expected this to be: me and Guy yelling over the top of each other and not even being sure if Paul’s in the room.
Guy: Paul’s been talking it’s just you can’t hear him.
Maria: Oh OK. So Paul’s there?
Guy: Paul can chip in here, because I would trace many of our comedy roots back to something legendary and connected to musical theatre. It’s called The Nelson Youth Theatre, run by Richard Carruthers.
Paul: Sir Richard Carruthers.
(Editor’s Note: Richard Carruthers was awarded a Queen’s Honour Medal for his services to theatre and osteopathy, and is not a sir.)
Guy: Sir Richard Carruthers! One of the greatest…
Maria: Well I’m not sure if Richard would like to be named and kind of mocked in this interview but…
Guy: He’s not being mocked! He’s a legend! He taught us everything we know about comedy!
Paul: [Something that cannot be heard underneath his older siblings]
Maria: I know, he’s a legend! I got the family into the Nelson Youth Theatre Company, or NYTC as we so affectionately call it.
Paul: Well, Mum…
Guy: So the first comedy performance by any member of the family was Maria on stage at Robinson Crusoe.
Paul: No, no, Kindly Keep It Covered, a Farce at The Theatre Royal. I watched it about four times. Loved it.
Maria: To give Sam an idea of what was happening in Robinson Crusoe, I was in the ‘Special Singers’. So in all the Nelson Youth Theatre Company musicals, there were the ‘Special Singers’ who were like the good choir. So you tried to get into the ‘Special Singers’ as opposed to just the crappy chorus. So of course I made it into the ‘Special Singers’–
Guy: Stop saying ‘Special Singers’! It sounds bad!
Maria: So then I got my first ever role in a musical production which was as The Gorilla. You may or may not be aware that in Robinson Crusoe pantomime there is The Gorilla who is the love interest of The Dame and I had to get up on stage and I had to learn to–
Guy: Why is this so long? I’ll summarise this for you…
Paul: She danced to ‘Rock DJ’ by Robbie Williams.
Guy: And it killed. It killed. It was hilarious. It was gold and it was the start. It lit a fire!
Maria: Guy! I just want to finish my sentence! It’s not difficult!
All I want to say is that I had to lip synch to ‘Rock DJ’ by Robbie Williams. Through my costume you couldn’t tell I was lip synching, I had to learn the words in case the music cut out. If that happened, they would turn on the prop microphone in my hand and I’d sing ‘Rock DJ’ acapella.
Guy: So as you can tell, and I think this is the same with any comedy, is that it kind of like verges on reality. And like, as you can tell with this argument where you can’t tell if me and Maria are joke-arguing or real-arguing, that’s where the comedy comes from a little bit.
Maria: I’m one hundred percent real-arguing!
Guy: Okay, sure. My point was going to be that one of our most legendary family comedy moments was a famous moment when we were downstairs in a room similar to this in Nelson and Maria was watching TV– Maria what TV show were you watching?
Maria: I don’t remember.
Guy: She was watching Full House or one of her shows.
Maria: It was probably like Ugly Betty…
Guy: Paul, you tell the story.
Paul: So she was watching a TV show, can’t remember…
Guy: Probably Full House or ‘Olsen Twins’ (Editor’s Note: Olsen Twins is not, and has never been, a show.)
Paul: …and I wanted to play XBox on the downstairs TV so I said, ‘When can I go on the TV?’ and she was like, ‘This show finishes at 6’ or whatever. I come down at 6 and she’s watching the next show that’s just started and I’m like, ‘Can I go on now?’ She was like, ‘Oh but this is…’
Guy: She was addicted to TV! She was like, ‘The Olsen twins are on now I can’t get off the TV!’
Paul: So I only had one choice – I’m not proud of it, but I snitched. Obviously now I have a no-snitch mentality but at the time the no-snitch policy wasn’t in play yet and so I went and told Mum. Mum came down and was like, ‘Maria you’ve got to give the TV to Paul now.’ Maria burst into tears, went halfway up the staircase, turned around and went, ‘BURN IN HELL PAUL! BURN IN HELL’ and then went up to her room.
Guy: Now this is something that Maria remembers fondly as a story that we would bring up at every family gathering, party, the time Maria told Paul to burn in hell because she had to stop watching Full House on television.
Maria: No! No! That is completely inaccurate. OK. I just remember… I don’t think it escalated that quickly–
Guy: It went from zero to 100 pretty quick. My point being is that when Maria–
Maria: No shut up! Let me talk! I was trying to insult Paul in a way, without swearing… and being the meanest insult of all time, and having gone to Catholic school, ‘burn in hell’ was the best I could come up with.
Maria: I did not bring this up at parties–
Guy: No, we did–
Maria: It started to come up because Guy kept bringing it up–
Guy: Yeah, and I’m still bringing it up, like twenty years later… OK my point was going to be that I’ve used the catchphrase ‘burn in hell’ throughout my career ‘cause it’s so valuable, like, ‘cause it’s really hard to insult people without swearing, as she just said, and it’s really hard to really show anger without having good acting skills or swearing which are two things I don’t have so I’ve used ‘burn in hell’ all the time and taken that psychotic aspect of Maria that day and used it, like if you’ve seen anything I’ve done on TV, that’s why I’m aware that Maria’s saying she thinks she influenced my TV career, like, that psychotic character that’s like ‘GET THE HELL OUT OF MY SHOP! BURN IN HELL! GET OUTTA HERE’ like I do that all the time and it’s based… it’s inspired by Maria–
Maria: I know! It’s just further proof that Guy has just ripped off–
Guy: That’s what I was saying! You’re the inspiration! So Maria’s obviously a huge comedy influence on the family. Um, do we want to talk about Mum and Dad’s roles? Is that very important?
Guy: Gary, my dad, he thinks he’s hilarious. Do you think Gary’s funny, Maria?
Maria: Um, yes. I think the funniest moment in our family history was the one time Dad tried to cook a meal.
Guy: Yeah. It’s a real had-to-be-there story but um, our dad has never cooked. Our dad has never cooked in the history of our family and one night Mum was like, ‘You’re cooking tonight’ and we were like, ‘Holy shit this is an eventful thing’ and we were like, ‘What’s he gonna DO?’ like everyone was excited for the big Gary Meal.
Maria: He was taking it really seriously. He put on an apron.
Guy: He cooked for hours, for hours he was in the kitchen toiling away… And the meal he produced was mince and cabbage. Like we were from the Depression or something like that! And I realise that’s an insult to people from the Depression but it was like the most grim meal you’ve ever seen and we were all like, as kids, this is the moment you realise your dad’s not a hero.
Paul: There was no kind of sauce or anything–
Guy: No! No! No flavour! No condiments!
Paul: Like maybe salt.
Guy: Yeah. And some cabbage. So we sat ‘round the table mocking him, laughing at him, having a good ole time eating our mince and cabbage and then Gary hit the perfect punchline halfway through when he was disappointed the meal hadn’t turned out quite the way he wanted.
He said ‘Oh! I’ve forgotten the main ingredient!’ We were like, ‘Oh, obviously! What would the main ingredient be? The one thing that’s gonna make mince and cabbage better?’ And I was thinking maybe tomato, maybe a Watties thing that you pour in to try and make the whole thing better. I was like obviously he’s missed something massive.
But the thing he’d forgotten was rice.
And that was when I was like, ‘Gary’s an idiot!’ but like an accidental comedy genius. As if rice was going to help that meal in any way! Um, yeah, so Gary, much like Maria, when they’re being most funny, it’s hard to tell if they’re really being funny or if it’s just their normal personality which is just hilarious. It’s a fine line we walk with our family.
If you scratch below the surface of Gary you’ll find some comedy gold. He tries to be funny but I don’t know if he’s intentionally funny. You’ve got to see our appearance on Family Feud. He’s very angry about it.
After it happened, Gary went into a side room where he thought we couldn’t hear him and he said to our mum, who rightly refused to be on it because she didn’t want to be humiliated, and he goes, ‘Oh they cut all my good gags out!’… You didn’t do any good gags, Gary! Like, I don’t know what you thought your good gags were!
Maria: Also, he’d pre-written a lot of jokes–
Guy: He’d pre-written jokes, like burns on Dai Henwood and stuff like that–
Maria: He was really disappointed. When he came off, everyone was like, ‘Oh that was funny, you were hilarious, Dad’ and he was like real disappointed with his, not only his performance, but like, his answers. He was like, ‘I panicked’ and everyone… you watch it and you go, ‘Oh he was trying to be funny’ and he was just like, ‘Oh I’m so disappointed I panicked’.
Paul: Yeah. Before the show we went into it and we were like, ‘Are we going to go on and just try and be as funny as possible or are we going to go on and try and win?’
And Gary was the one person who was like, ‘No! We go to win!’ And we go there and he was the one like, accidentally doing comedy…
Guy: He was the funniest one by a mile. Um, but, uh, Gary has a long history of comedy awesomeness. One of my favourite moments was, I was doing a bleak gig at Classic – we live with Dad, so I’m always like ‘I’m off’ and he’s like ‘Where’re you off to’ and I’m like ‘I’m off to do a gig at The Classic’ and he’s like ‘OK’.
I was doing a bleak gig on like a Thursday night, and I’m embarrassed to say I did this hack joke, but um, someone spilled a glass and the classic hack comedy response which I did that night ‘cause I was desperate is ‘Uh oh! Dad’s home!’ and uh, turns out it was actually my dad.
My dad was in the audience. So I was still doing this gag and he was like ‘Yeah, Dad is home.’ And I was like ‘Dad, you’re drunk, go home.’ Like that’s normally the response, like ‘Dad, you’re drunk, go home.’ And, uh, it was my dad.
Later he said he was trying to help out with the show by heckling and and I go, ‘What are you doing at the gig, Gary?!’ And he’s like, ‘Your mum kicked me outta the house!’ and that got the biggest laugh of the night. So in a way he did help me.
Maria: That would’ve 100% been true by the way, she totally would’ve kicked him out.
Guy: Yeah. He also heckled me on my Billy T show night, the night when all the judges were in as well. I did a joke about ambulances and how it’s weird that they’re spelt backwards, like who looks in the rearview mirror and needs to see ‘AMBULANCE’, like who sees a big ambulance-shaped ambulance and thinks, ‘Man, that ecnalubma sure is in a hurry’ that was the joke right? And my dad started heckling me like ‘They’re called Health Vans now!’ I’m like, ‘What?? Is that Dad, heckling me??’
So Mum and Dad I think are definitely very funny just maybe not intentionally. Mum probably is quite often… She occasionally has like moments of genuine hilarity, often in quite a cynical, or maybe slightly sarcastic way. But then, more often than not Mum’s funniness is just like the crazy shit that she says.
Read part two of this interview here.
Book tickets to Guy Williams: Why Am I Like This here.
Book tickets to Paul Williams: Summertime here.