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Television: I Got Next – The Story of Funny Girls

Funny Girls began life as a talent development plot hatched between New Zealand on Air and TV3. On Friday it debuts as one of the most hotly anticipated comedies in recent memory. Duncan Greive watched its creation.

It’s late afternoon on a Wednesday in early October. Outside commuter traffic crawls along Khyber Pass; one side flowing North to the river of possibilities that is the Southern motorway; the other south toward mildewy Remuera and the Eastern suburbs.

A few metres away, the club is pumping.

Rose Matafeo and Chelsea McEwan Miller are in the middle of Lucha Lounge, a dark, cramped respite from Newmarket’s commercial heart. Normally it’s got Mexican wrestling memorabilia everywhere, but today its walls are bare while it stands in for a generic city nightclub. “Here’s to 10 years since high school,” says McEwan Miller, yelling over a bad production music rap song. “And still best friends!”

“Selfie!” yells Matafeo, and they lean in to capture the moment.

As the flash goes off, Laura Daniel appears behind them, fake wine sloshing out of her fake wine glass. “Heeeeeeey Bitch!”, she yells, her voice scything through the air like a fork pressed too hard on a plate. The trio hold their faces for a moment – Daniel leering, Matafeo and Miller disgusted – before director Johnny Barker, a decade on from his turn as Shortland Street serial killer, yells cut. The club relaxes.

They’ll run through the moment upwards of a dozen times before we’re done. It gets better each go round, in ways small and large: Matafeo asks if she should take her boots off to get her closer to Miller and Daniel’s level; Barkers agrees. More importantly, Daniel grows increasingly unhinged, and starts riffing boozy late night dialogue. “‘’Sup sluts!” she adds. “Let’s go get shots!” Soon it’s accompanied by fingers at a vee over her mouth, the cheery universal signal for cunnilingus.

The scene is crackling, and even the extras, initially reticent, have begun to flirt a little: “You’re a student,” says a gangly man to a young woman in a satin dress, “what are you studying?” The fake club has become near indistinguishable from the real thing.

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This process, creating a convincing scenario out of thin air, often for a single scene or joke, has been happening throughout Auckland these past few months, as TV3’s brand new sketch comedy Funny Girls has come to life, the bulk of it over three frantic weeks. The hours were long and the process unnerving, but for a whole generation of young female comedy writers and performers, the show represented the most exciting and energising professional opportunity of their lives to this point.

Producer Bronwynn Bakker says the network was conscious that both comedy and television, in certain areas, can be hard places for women to rise. “It’s no secret that we need to develop female talent.” New Zealand’s peculiar decentralised television funding system means talent development happens in an ad hoc way, almost by accident. But with both 7 Days and Jono and Ben now well-established brands, the challenge for both the network and the funding body became figuring out how to provide a pathway for those who’d worked on the shows to get their own outlets. Funny Girls became the answer – a show with Matafeo, 23, and Daniel, 24, right at its heart.

“It was incredibly freeing, in that we could write about whatever we wanted,” says Matafeo, “but challenging for the same reason. As in, we can write whatever we want?! That’s too much freedom!”

They’ve used that freedom to conjure dozens of different scenarios. Most, on some level, riffing on the current state of the woman. No longer trapped in domestic servitude, but not exactly equal, either. The first episode features an ad for a pretend board game called ‘Career Girl’. In it a trio of pre-teens roll the dice on how their lives will play out. “We’ve got to get everything done before our body clocks go off!” says one, looking confused. “What the hell?”

Kimberley Crossman nominates her favourite sketch as ‘Disney Prison’, “basically Orange is the New Black meets a Disney or Nickelodeon show,” she says. If prison scenes sound tough to execute on the show’s tiny – and oddly precise – $278,997 New Zealand on Air-funded budget, then a superhero sketch seems plain dumb.

Nevertheless, it was written, and thus performed. I watched them bring it to life, in a craft brewery dressed up as a nuclear reactor, down a driveway in a light-industrial section of Great North Road. By 10am on a Saturday morning they were already well into their shooting.

In front of me are Milo Cawthorne, Eli Mathewson, Will Hall and Olivia Tennet, clad in a mixture of neoprene, gumboots and motocross gear – wardrobe’s low-budget version of Marvel world outfits. They stand in front of a row of fermenters, facing Crossman, who is playing a blockbuster movie’s version of a scientist, teetering on heels, her huge blonde hair piled high. She explains to her charges that they’ve just received superpowers. But the power hasn’t been evenly distributed.

Producer Bakker whispers the gist to me between takes. “In superhero movies the girl always gets the worst super power,” she says. 

The observation is simple, yet trenchant: that shit is fucked up. It came out a writer’s room in which, unlike that for the strongly male-skewing Jono and Ben, Matafeo lead a clutch of women, rather than being her gender’s sole representative. It fundamentally changed the feeling of creation, she says.

“Being surrounded by a bunch of incredible women on set every day was a freaking joy. And something which is so rare,” she wrote to me, from her new home in the UK. “I got to hang out on set just trying to make Jackie laugh, or catching up with Jussi [Justine Smith] or trying to figure out what goes on in the insane brain of Kimberley Crossman.”

Matafeo and Crossman cut an unlikely pair. Not just physically – Matafeo is near six foot, while Crossman isn’t much over five – but in any other area you care to name. Matafeo was head girl at Auckland Girls Grammar, just off what passes for Auckland’s red light district on Karangahape Road. Crossman was deputy head at private school Diocesan. Matafeo threw herself into standup while still at high school; Crossman travelled to cheerleading competitions in the US.

In 2012 they were even further apart: Matafeo was a host on U Live, a youth TV show filmed in a functioning hallway (disclosure: I sometimes guested on the show), while Crossman was hugely famous post-her Shortland Street stint, fixated on becoming a brand. She announced on Twitter that she would have “a COMPLETELY different look come Monday”, launching the hashtag #kimsnewlook, and unwittingly provoking a spasm of satire from a section of the New Zealand twitter community. Particularly the young comedians.

It became an enormous stream of jokes, which veered between good-natured (“pensive”) to straight up disgusting. Most were just having fun, never imagining Crossman would scroll through the full stream, but on balance, the cumulative force of dozens of people all punching up at once became functionally identical to cyberbullying. One blackly funny jibe from Matafeo – whose first effort, to be fair, was “she looks really nice” – cut Crossman deep enough to respond “ouch”. Even today, Crossman seems shaken by what happened.

“It became a funny thing,” she says. “It’s just when you wake up it’s not that funny. Have a cup of tea and a bit of a cry and then you can go and get on with your day.”

#kimsnewlook functioned as a giant, very public teachable moment for New Zealand’s social media community, particularly the young standups. Now, three years later, they’re all working together, the exchange long since forgiven, if not forgotten. “It wasn’t awkward the first time we worked together,” jokes Crossman. Matafeo says they’ve never talked about it, but seems particularly devoted to Crossman now, and it seems to work as the kind of grit in a relationship which can bind it tighter.

That goes for Matafeo and Crossman in micro, and for the relationship between the standup and dramatic actors more broadly. Each side brought different strengths to the series, and each viewed it as an opportunity to experiment and grow professionally in a safe environment.

“What’s cool about the melting pot that is Funny Girls is that everybody has a different skillset,” says Crossman, “and that’s perfect because that means something that Rose is really good at I could learn from.”

This matters to Crossman, who is in LA, trying to figure out how to build a career in a city with a million others who want the same thing. She’s hustling the way you have to, working on her standup, and taking gigs from big – NCISto tiny, and believes comedy will be an essential skill for her professionally.

The same learning relationship existed in reverse for Matafeo and the standups. “I did drama in high school and that’s about it. It was funny when there was like a proper actor on set,” says Matafeo. “I’d freak out. ‘Cos I always thought I could act, but then would see myself in the editing suite and be like ‘oh my god, what am I doing with my eyes? Why can’t my head stay still?’”

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Despite the co-mingling of the dramatic and comedic fraternities, one group clearly has the whip hand. The core of the Funny Girls writing and performing crew came out of Snort, a long-running improv group who perform late on Fridays at The Basement theatre off Queen Street. It has become something of a cult, for both its audience – it sells out every week – and the comics, for whom it functions as like a second family. There’s a private Facebook group with a group message which has run for just under two years, and as we went to print ran to 66,290 responses. “It can never be shared,” says Snort’s Joseph Moore, one of the show’s male writers. “We joke often, in the thread, about how many of us will lose our jobs if it’s ever shared.”

For Matafeo, the Snort experience fed directly into the creative genesis of Funny Girls.

“I didn’t realise when I started with them that it would become this amazing creative team that we could tap into for different projects,” she says. “In terms of the writing process, it helped a lot – the discipline of offering and building ideas without blocking them, and supporting each other when you’re writing and performing are all things I learnt from doing improv with these guys.

“It’s also just easy day to day – we all have a bit of a shorthand and are comfortable to tell each other when things are good and when things are bad which I think is incredibly important when making a show.”

There was a key difference to the Snort environment, though, in that the men working on the show had to make sure they never forgot what Funny Girls was about. “It was always remembering that Rose, Laura and Bronwyn were the most important voices on the show,” says Moore. “Our job was to make a show that…” he pauses, struggling to find the appropriate language. “encouraged… great… jokes. I’m gonna word it better. It’s a tricky subject.”

It is a tricky subject. The show has dealt with persistent whispers that men were playing puppet-masters to the women involved – though reading the list of key personnel would tend to disprove that theory.

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Rumours are one thing, realities another. While the ‘men in charge’ theory appears never to have been true, few shows can have begun as inauspiciously as Funny Girls. A story on Stuff announced the project in the vaguest terms possible. “The sketches, lasting 30 seconds to two minutes, will have domestic, workplace and relationship themes,” it read. Rose Matafeo was maybe involved? “We spoke with her before we started preparing the proposal and putting in for funding,” said TV3’s Head of Internal Production John McDonald, though Matafeo that day indicated otherwise.

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A year on, and things have changed radically. Few local shows in 2015 have been more anticipated than Funny Girls, which premieres on Friday at 10pm. Most involved describe it as the most creatively fulfilling experience of their lives. Those near the show – but not actually making it – speak of it with a ratio involving jealousy and excitement, generally running around 3:2.

What happened? How did Funny Girls, which a year ago had little more than a name and a budget, become the focus of such excitement? It all started with producer Bronwynn Bakker – and with Jono and Ben, a Friday night variety hour which also features many of the city’s best young comics working in various capacities. Three of the key drivers of Funny Girls are Bakker, the recently-departed Matafeo, and Daniel, who has essentially replaced Matafeo in the writing and performing cast.

Jono and Ben’s role in the Funny Girls story embodies an odd paradox. Its hosts’ main job is with MediaWorks’ blokey financial juggernaut ‘The Rock’ FM, which describes its audience this way:

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That’s a big, lucrative demo; and part of Jono and Ben‘s appeal to TV3 is that it brings some of them across to their channel. The Rock tends juvenile and is often outright hostile to women – just two months ago its website published this nightmare – coasting on the charisma and energy of its hosts. But as well as being a lucrative source of embedded advertising – Boyce and Pryor’s faces have been plastered across V cans for months – it, along with sister show 7 Days, also helps employ many of the country’s best young comedic writers and performers. And, in an excellent irony, The Rock has now helped birth Funny Girls, a vision of female-driven comedy in which men are consciously consigned to a token role.

The show came from TV3 being caught in that classic talent development bind: wanting to keep a good thing going, while needing to do something new to facilitate that.

The result was Funny Girls, which would allow some of the young people which had been confined to Jono and Ben or 7 Days room to grow, without harming the big, profitable motherships. But because the idea sprang from the network and the funding body, it initially seemed a show in search of a concept. The Stuff story listed names which indicated a desire to go broad and familiar: “Urzila Carlson, Michele A’Court, Madeleine Sami, and Jaquie Brown were others Mediaworks was keen to approach,” the story read. Talented women all – but united by gender rather than sensibility.

It had the potential to become a mess of different styles, without any unity of vision. And with that came a greater and more profound risk, says Matafeo, of taking this all-too-rare opportunity – to make a show by and for women – and have it come out hopelessly compromised.

That shouldn’t have been such a big deal. Most TV shows last a single season, and do so for a variety of reasons. But Matafeo felt a pressure, felt that a perceived failure here might have profound consequences for getting both sketch comedy and female-driven comedy on screen in New Zealand.

“Of course I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity,” she says, “but I was also wary – as I always am – of it being put in the wrong hands and, I had a hard time negotiating what I thought I show like that should be.

“It’s quite a lot of pressure, not only to try and make a sketch show in New Zealand, but to also be bold in saying that it’s made by women and it’s for a female audience.”

That is why Bakker’s appointment to the project was so important. She created a sense of hope that this thing might be alright after all. “They told me Bronwynn was going to produce it,” Matafeo says, “it was like a weight had been lifted – I knew it was going to be fine.”

It was at this point that Funny Girls ceased to be a trainwreck-in-waiting, and started to transition toward the object of intense affection and excitement it has become.

Its genesis was the perfect inverse of how good television is supposed to be made. Instead of springing from the notebook and fertile mind of a single creator, it came down as a loose set of ideas from an internal production department. But at that point it ran into Matafeo and Bakker, and became something else again.

The first episode is a perfect image of its development process. Like all sketch shows, not everything comes off. There’s a brilliant period piece Romeo and Juliet sketch playing on men’s tendency to unthinkingly dominate a decision making process, which glides effortlessly on the chemistry between Matefeo and Chris Parker. Less successful is a long-running gag involving multiple trips to the bathroom during a boring double date. It’s not at all clear what the point is.

The ‘Career Girl’ sketch mentioned above has a different kind of problem. It is very funny; but also feels similar to one which appeared on Inside Amy Schumer – an avowed influence – earlier this year.

The most successful element is perhaps the most difficult, and impressive – the bones of a sitcom threaded through the sketches. It’s a meta narrative about the making of a sketch show on a tiny budget, inside a terrible media company, with supervision from moronic male execs. It’s sharply observed and portrayed, and it’s easy to get the sense that it is a very exaggerated version of the lived experience of the writers.

I watched them film a wrap party scene from this storyline down the Viaduct, which climaxed with an exec, played by Sampson, giving a thoughtless toast “My colleagues will inform you,” he says, “that I’m not given to long speeches…” I won’t give up the joke, but it’s a brute, and feels like it came straight from the pooled anxieties of the women involved.

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That sense of nervous tension runs throughout shooting, and conversations with those who wrote and performed Funny Girls. It’s like they can’t believe they’ve finally been allowed to make a show, and are half-expecting to be told that it was all a mistake. But if TV3 are smart – and the way that they’ve recruited and developed these kids suggests they are – then they’ll commission a second season right now. Because one episode of Funny Girls shows you they have more than enough energy and ideas to bring a show like this to life. If nothing else, they’ve created an entire series – filled with dozens of imaginary worlds – for under half the price of a single episode of Westside.

It’s an absurdity of the New Zealand television industry: whole creative communities exist on crumbs from the funding table, terrified of making the kind of necessary mistakes which help you grow – while others get to make shows over and over again. Funny Girls won’t be perfect – what is? – but it feels like the start of something brand new.

“We do sometimes feel like some orphan kids who discovered an abandoned factory. That we’re now expected to run without too much adult supervision,” laughs Matafeo. It’s apt. Now those orphan kids need to be told the factory is theirs to keep.


Funny Girls debuts on TV3 this Friday, October 23rd, at 10pm


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