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Pre-Judging the 2016 Billy T Awards

On Friday the 2016 Billy T nominees all played a showcase at Auckland’s Q Theatre. In the crowd, somewhere near the back, Duncan Greive watched and judged.

The Billy T award is probably the coolest award in New Zealand. There’s just one given out each year – if you miss out, suck it up. It by its very nature skews young, and the judges mostly get it right. Some New Zealand award ceremonies hit maybe one of those criteria; the vast majority hit none.

Billy T Jams is a way for non-scene comedy consumers to hit every nominee at once, a kind of degustation of fresh New Zealand comic talent, the greatest benefit of which is that regardless of whether someone is great or terrible, you know they’ll be off soon.

The night was MCed by 2014 winner Guy Mont, who basically did one very extended ‘cream of the crop’ analogy throughout. It was super dumb and very good. But the best thing he did was involve himself in the whole production, playing a key role in Laura Daniel’s incredible closing set piece, and a good dumb bewildered foil to 2015 Billy T winner Hamish Parkinson.

The latter closed the night with a performance as extreme and uncomfortable as his 2015 Jams set, which featured him giving multiple pairs of underwear to a teenage girl. At one point two women in the audience had a loud verbal altercation. Such are Parkinson’s transfixing qualities that few in the audience seemed to notice or care. But such are his counterintuitive creative gifts that I was convinced for much of their row that it was a part of his set.

2015 Billy T winner Hamish Parkinson makes his way to the stage. Bad photo: author's own.

2015 Billy T winner Hamish Parkinson makes his way to the stage. Bad photo: author’s own.

Anyway. It was a real fun time. But it also served a purpose – introducing those on the cusp of being judged. So I thought I’d get in first – here are my assessments on the various nominees, and their likelihood of winning the thing in a few months’ time.

James Malcolm

What’s he like?

His eyes dart left and right furtively, and the expression on his face never dips below extremely pleased with himself. Which he has every right to be – Malcolm’s only a couple of years out of high school but already a Raw Comedy Quest winner and Billy T nominee. He’s very still, very self-contained, and he speaks with a kind of gossippy intimacy that has the audience feeling like it’s being let in on some scandalous secrets. Most of his material is about growing up gay in Lower Hutt, and the associated rewards and indignities. It’s a little bit one note at times, but his slouchy anti-charisma and a constant conspiratorial air mean you stay engaged throughout.

Can he win?

Maybe one day – he certainly has the talent – but probably not this year. The set was too familiar and lacked for the creative daring or fierceness present in the best of the field.

Laura Daniel

What’s she like?

Daniel rose from writing (excellent) yoghurt ads to replacing Rose Matafeo on Jono and Ben to being a key cast member of Funny Girls in what felt like a matter of weeks. Tonight showed exactly why: she was easily the most daring of the nominees, and one of the funniest. She did two bits, each of which could have been TV sketches, and made the rest of the line-up look hidebound by comparison. Her first section was a riff on a Taylor Swift single, which I think is something every New Zealand comedian is contracted to do at some stage in their career. But hers was conducted in silence and captured something about the casual nonsense of pop lyricism in a way which felt fresh and vital. It was just a prelude to her main bit though, an extended commentary on menstruation and women in comedy which took a very current trope and made it riotously funny, audacious and delivered with a sledgehammer.

Can she win?

Definitely. There’s a slight question, given both her sketch-y background and the nature of her pieces tonight, whether she can so something coherent together over an hour. But given the judges chose the deeply fucking weird concept comedy of Hamish Parkinson in 2015, there’s no good reason why Daniel can’t win them over this year.

Matt Stellingwerf

What’s he like?

Sorta generic. After a couple of years of all white, all male sets of nominees, this year was a victory for diversity. Only Stellingwerf flew a lonely flag for us straight white men, and he ended up playing the Coldplay to the rest of the field’s Beyoncé/Bruno Mars. It was the third time I’ve seen him live, and each time I like him a little less. He has this style of talking about himself which is meant to be self-deprecating, but ends up feeling like a humblebrag. A joke about Shakespeare which mainly serves to make it clear how familiar he is with Shakespeare’s output, that kind of thing. So while he had a few good lines and the crowd liked him, I never shook the feeling that his was a dull and dated style of comedy, and one which was getting older by the minute.

Can he win?

No.

David Correos

What’s he like?

A Fillipino ball of energy, Correos is known for getting naked and tying sharp objects to his head, but tonight for whatever reason he played it very straight. He told very good jokes about his ethnicity and his dick and it was both somewhat rote, and deeply engaging. He shared with Malcolm a sense that he was high on the energy of being picked, being on that stage with this big, potentially life-altering moment coming. I liked him a lot, and even though none of his jokes lingered in the memory the way Daniel’s and Brine’s did, there was an affability and a kind of innocent exuberance to his performance that made me want to see him again.

Can he win?

Everyone I’ve spoken to since says this performance was an extreme outlier for Correos, and sounded somewhat disappointed by it as a result. But I loved him, and either way I think he has a puncher’s chance.

Alice Brine

What’s she like?

Blonde, brash and loud, Brine talked abut her mental health, her home life and her terrible sexual experiences with a bracing frankness. It was the kind of material that could be cute, even twee, or just regulation comedy neurosis. But she went hard as a motherfucker, welcoming you into deep recesses of her brain and emotion others might fear to open up. She seemed to palpably swell in confidence on stage, feeling the audience’s engagement and saying the phrase “dick blood” more than I’ve ever heard before. She had this way of creating characters with a few precisely chosen words which felt very familiar, very real, then have them act out disastrously horrible scenarios which also rang depressingly true. We spent ten minutes living in her head, replaying the most undignified moments of her life, and it was a very good time in there.

Can she win?

If she can deliver an hour as fierce and unrelenting and engaging as those ten minutes then someone will have to do really bloody well to beat her.


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