In the first of our new series, Comedians in Conversation, Alice Snedden and Justine Smith discuss the shift in comedy over the years, their worst performances and their mutual dislike for late nights.
Alice Snedden: So you were saying you were one of four women when you started on the New Zealand comedy scene?
Justine Smith: Pretty much.
Alice: So who was it?
Justine: Michelle A’Court, Jaq Tweedie, Cal Wilson and then kind of me, and Irene Pink and Jan Maree. It remained that way for a long time, really.
Alice: That’s crazy.
Justine: I mean the ratio is probably still similar, there weren’t many people doing it anyway. And I was just saying that it was weird how I find myself now in this position of being the grandma, you know, even though I still feel like I’m learning, like I have no fucking idea what I’m doing—it’s awesome though.
Alice: Being older?
Justine: Yeah, I’m glad I came through when I came through. I think it’s a completely different scene now.
Justine: Yeah, because there was no fighting for stage time. We always had gigs, I’ve been gigging ever since the Classic was open.
Alice: That’s such a luxury. Now, you have to email Scott like eight times before you get a spot, just because there’s so much demand for stage time. But the plus side of that is that a lot of supplementary venues are popping up.
Justine: Absolutely. We had nothing. There was maybe a couple of other, rough as guts pub gigs, where you took your life in your fucking hands. It was brutal.
Alice: Yeah, I don’t know how I would handle that.
Justine: It was so brutal.
And I was at one of those pub gigs, I was such a rookie, I had my little guitar and would sing a little song about waitressing.
I had maybe–you know when you’re starting, you have your set and you have nothing else—
Alice: Yes, a hundred percent.
Justine: You have nothing. Now I’m like like, I have that old chestnut, I’ll pull this one out—when you’re starting you get to the end and you’re like, ‘I’m finished now.’
The year I won the Billy T in 2003, my show was called The Justine Smith Hour, and it should’ve called The Justine Smith Forty-Six Minutes because I would just get to the end and go, ‘I’ve run out. Okay, good night.’
I had nothing. I was really nervous, I didn’t do any audience participation, and now I do so much of that but back then I was like, no I’m not going to talk to them.
Alice: I remember the first time I took the mic out of the stand that was a huge moment for me. For the first year and a half, I just never took the mic out—I said I would be one of those comedians who never takes the mic out of the stand and that’s what I’ll be known for.
I was just so nervous, when I take it out, how will I hold it, what will I do with it? I was overthinking so much. I remember one night when I was doing Raw—I said to, I think Jamie Bowen was hosting it—I had in my mind that I couldn’t keep my phone in my back pocket, I had to put it out, I wanted to record my set, I remember going over to him and asking, “Do you think I’ll have enough time when I go onstage to move the stool?”
He was like,“Just do whatever the fuck you want.” And then I got onstage and the music was going and I grabbed the table, I put it there, and the music was still going when I was done. It was such a nightmare.
Justine: It’s still the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life is go onstage for the first time. And I’ve done some stupid shit—bungee jumping, all that risky shit—that first time, I was just… horrifyingly terrified.
Alice: I was so scared. And I remember doing it and afterwards, it went well, but everybody was like, “That was great. Hey did you know you had your eyes closed?”
Justine: You’re kidding.
Alice: I think what I was doing, I was talking to them, but then I would go into my brain to remember what I was doing, and I had no idea, but they were laughin’. So even if it was sympathy, it was a good start.
Justine: Any laugh’s a good laugh.
Alice: Any laugh’s a good laugh.
Justine: The first time I did it my friend Emma put me up to it, it was at Kitty O’Briens—they called my name out and I was frozen with fear, I couldn’t step through the curtain, and so she just leaned around me, opened the curtain and literally just pushed me out in front of everybody.
Alice: How old were you when you did that the first time?
Justine: About 25. So it wasn’t super-super young.
Alice: What were you doing before that?
Justine: Drifting. Going to art school. Travelling. It’s real cheesy—but I really found my thing.
Alice: That’s dope. It’s a good feeling!
Justine: And then I got fucked off with it a few years ago and tried to retire—I was at the end of it, and then I retired, and not only did I miss it so much I realised that I’m not good at anything else, you know? I actually went ,”Oh I’ve got no other fucking skills.”
But I don’t think I’ll be doing it forever.
Justine: I don’t think so, no. I think it’s the thing you want to leave when you feel while you’re quite good at it. I don’t want someone to have to wheel me onto the stage.
Alice: I want to leave when I’m really bad at it, but successful enough that people just come to watch the trainwreck, for nostalgic purposes. So I’m still raking in that money, but nobody’s having a good time.
Justine: What money are you raking in, Alice?
Alice: This is in a hypothetical world. I’m not raking it in!
Justine: I don’t think anyone is raking in the money—I have the occasional rake, but it’s few and far between.
Alice: I mean there’s no money for me in stand-up, all the money’s in just like, doing TV shit.
Justine: I mean that shit for me is supporting what I really love, which is the live stuff.
Alice: To be honest, I really love the writing side of it. I want to get to a space where I can not perform stand-up and just write for other people.
Justine: Yeah, I don’t feel like that.
Alice: Stand-up is just a constant source of anxiety to me. So I don’t know how long I can sustain it.
Justine: You just have to get past that hurdle, that goes away a little bit.
Alice: I mean it’s definitely abated from like, years ago, where I’d be thinking about it all the days before.
Justine: But the day of the gig is a different vibe of a day—
Alice: It is, it’s such a different vibe. When you’re anticipating it, god, yeah. I think actually, the first time I ever performed onstage was with Snort, and it was scarier than stand-up.
The first time I ever did Snort, that was actually scarier than stand-up. Somebody pushed me onto the stage for that, actually Eddy (Dever, of Snort) pulled me onto stage.
But I feel like improv is the thing like, well, I consider it the most fun I could possibly have.
Justine: That’s why I like writing because it’s collaborative. This show is the first time I’m writing with people for my own stuff.
Alice: Wow, that’s cool! So you have people in writing for you—
Justine: No, no. I just get together, it’s just Jamie at the moment, but I think we’re getting together with (Rhys) Mathewson next week to do structure—
Alice: That’s such a dope idea.
Justine: It’s such a lonely process, it’s hard. I find it so personal, I find it hard to offer shit up if I think it’s funny.
Alice: The first time I did stand-up I asked my friend if I could run some ideas by them, but I was so nervous about anybody hearing, so I said, “Can we go down to the beach at night and do it?”
Justine: Absolutely! I totally get it.
Alice: So we were sitting on the beach at night, and even then I was like, “I can’t tell you.”
Justine: It’s so personal, but that’s also what makes it fucking rewarding though.
Alice: Yeah, when it pays off—and then so gutting when it doesn’t.
Justine: And so horrifyingly-horrifying, I haven’t had a bad gig for years.
Alice: I remember one time in New York, I was doing a gig and something happened—
Justine: I can’t even listen, I know what’s coming.
Alice: I was doing a joke—and you know what I should’ve recalibrated but I didn’t know how to at this stage. I’m trying this new material, I’m trying this material, I did this new joke about a car crash, but I was nervous about doing the joke even before I got there—
Justine: So you probably didn’t commit to it.
Alice: I didn’t commit to it, but the guy before me had talked about how someone he knew had just died, not in a funny way but in a show-and-tell kind of way, and I was sitting there going like, “Don’t do the joke. Don’t do the joke.”
And then I thought, “If you don’t do it now, how will you know if it works?” So I got up on stage and opened with the joke to dead fucking silence. Dead silence. I carried on for another minute and then was like, “Well. This isn’t fucking working.”
You know you get such small spots there—”I’ve got two more minutes so you’re all gonna have to fucking sit there and listen to me”—I just went off on the crowd. And then I ended up—I don’t know what was happening I was having a brain aneurysm—and then I walked off to complete silence, and the worst part was there’s no backstage, you just have to walk off through the audience. So I just had to walk off.
I record every gig, but that is the only one I have ever deleted.
Justine: My toes are physically curling in my shoes.
Alice: I hopped on the train and cried for a good hour, and just went back and forth between Long Island and Manhattan. It was terrible.
Justine: I’ve shut down a heckler too hard and lost a whole audience.
Alice: It’s such a fine line. I don’t know how to deal with hecklers yet.
Justine: I just get less and less prepared to take any shit from people. It’s a real mistake to let them see they’ve actually rattled you.
Alice: That’s exactly what I did that night. I just lost my cool.
Justine: I almost did that in Johnsonville last week—this table of drunk women at this Wellington gig—and I turned to them and went, “Look can you use your fucking manners and not talk when someone else is talking?” And I thought, I’m just horrible now, but I got mad at them and went, “Can you fuck up actually?” I think I even waved my hand and pointed at them! And then I went, “look Justine. Just let that go.”
Alice: Now I find it funny when I’m bombing a little bit, I now enjoy the challenge.
Justine: I often chuckle to myself audibly if it’s going bad.
Alice: If it’s going bad, I’ll be like, ‘Well we’re all along for this horrifying fucking ride.’
I had this gig about a month ago at Late and Live, and it was so bad that Brendhan Lovegrove called me and told me not to give up on comedy.
Justine: He’ll be trying to be nice!
Alice: He was trying to be nice. It was actually affirming to hear. I mean also, I was not going to give up after one bad Late and Live.
Justine: I’m doing my first late show for the first time in about five and six years—
Justine: When I was young and keen—too old to be both those things—I was living out at Piha and I’d be driving forty minutes and you’d get paid $40, and now I’m like, ‘Oh I simply can’t be up that late.’
Alice: Even I don’t like staying up that late for them.
Justine: Jesus Christ, I want to be done by 10. You mean there’s a show at 10:30?
Fuck that, my back hurts.
Alice Snedden and Justine Smith both have shows in this year’s NZ International Comedy Festival. You can book tickets to Justine Smith: An Hour Roughly here and book tickets to Alice Snedden: Self-Titled here.