Alex Casey talks to comedian Rose Matafeo about her eclectic TV upbringing, getting toenails in the mail and becoming a television star. //
Rose Matafeo has already lived many television lives. Just 23, but already a grizzled showbiz vet, having been on the TV and comedy grind since the age of 15. That’s essentially child labour! Currently she writes and performs on TV3’s Jono and Ben at Ten, and is heavily involved with the channel’s forthcoming sketch show Funny Girls. Full disclosure: so am I.
This interview was conducted a couple of month’s back, before the ‘My Life in TV‘ series had debuted. I was anxious about my technique early on, and didn’t want to stray any further than someone I’d Facebook chat with at first. Rose has been a close friend of mine since we met at Auckland Girl’s Grammar, where by night she would bust her ass at late comedy gigs, and by day she would be an exhausted school pupil (and eventually, head girl).
One of my fondest memories during this time was in seventh form, when our History class held a mock trial for the assassination of JFK. We had to spend the whole day in character and, after yet another late night treading the funny boards, Rose fell dead asleep slumped in her chair – dressed head to toe as Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. It was an enduring image of a young woman on the brink of fame, juggling all her important commitments in hilarious fake facial hair. Nothing has really changed.
Rose is an old friend, but she’s also incredibly busy. I thought I would lure her into spending time with me under the guise of an interview and a free sandwich. She arrived in a swanky new pair of reading glasses, and it was pretty hard to ignore the likeness to 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon. I’ve seen her in action at TV3, and the comparisons go far beyond sophisticated eyewear. She commands the writer’s room with as much ease as she commands the last Mallowpuff in the writer’s room. It really is a sight to behold.
We ordered some delicious sandwiches, and dove right in to her Frankenstein-eqsue mash up of experience both watching, and being on, the telly.
What was your family’s attitude to TV in your house when you were growing up?
TV was definitely something that they passed on to me. Some households don’t have the TV on if they’re not watching it, but in our household it was was always on, even more than the radio. My parents really didn’t like silence. Now I feel really uneasy when people don’t have the TV on. I literally prefer white noise to silence.
I had two older brothers, so I watched a lot of TV with them. I remember watching a lot of TV that possibly wasn’t appropriate. No children’s television, mostly sitcoms like Friends or Spin City as opposed to stuff that was actually for me, because everything runs a little older than you when you’re the youngest.
Every Friday night me and my brothers would watch these old martial arts movies late at night on Triangle TV. I used to watch so much Back of the Y that I did a skit at school about it. It’s funny growing up in a family with siblings who pick the way you watch TV. I used to hide the remote from my Dad every night, because I hated the news so much. Friends was on at the same time, The Simpsons was on at the same time – so I’d just hide the remote.
Watching all those sitcoms, did you see comedy or TV as an aspirational career from an early age?
I didn’t ever think, “I want to be on TV.” You either just aim for an Oscar or nothing. A kid is never going to be like, “I really want to be David Spade in Just Shoot Me.” But some people do get into performing through TV. Either they have an innate talent, which I don’t, or they can imitate people. I think, from watching a lot comedy, I learned to mimic voices on TV and copy the speech patterns of a sitcom joke.
As far as influences on me, I remember Seinfeld vividly. I would go to the library and borrowing Sein Language, which is just a huge book of his jokes. I wouldn’t have done that had I not seen him on TV. I always wanted to be an actor at first, then Bic Runga, then a director. I realised that you could do all of those things by yourself if you did comedy. Even Bic Runga. Being a stand up totally shows someone in TV that you can write, you can act, and you can obviously do comedy. It’s a huge asset to have that skillset.
When did you first get into TV? Was U Live your on-camera debut?
Don’t forget the period of my career that I am most recognized for, which was Sticky TV. Throughout intermediate, I was on an advice panel where kids would write in. It was so funny, I just gave the worst advice ever. I once told a kid to go commando for some reason.
I also judged their cooking competitions where you would have to eat the worst cold food. It was 11-year-olds cooking for 12-year-olds. It was horrific. One time they mistook salt for sugar, so I had to eat a really salty tart. I started working at the production company after school and opening all the fan mail, and then I started writing for them. That was the first time I realized that TV isn’t some weird far away land – that normal people just do it for a job.
Didn’t you used to get really disgusting fan mail at Sticky TV?
Yeah, mostly toenails and dried chilies. It was really, really gross, but very good.
What was next after Sticky TV?
I was on a couple of episodes of Late Night at the Classic doing stand up before U, and then I went to TVNZ when I was 19. It was a very annoying decision to choose whether to stay at uni, or I go do something that I wanted to do anyway afterwards. It was ultimately a good decision. I’m fine with not having a degree, I’ve got glasses so everyone trusts me now.
How did you find working on U Live?
It was a really full on job. The budget – the amount of money to make that show in that channel – was horrifically small. It did so well for how much money we had, and for how little resources we had. I’m quite surprised it lasted that long. With just a bit more backing probably it would still be around.
I feel like U Live was a little bit ahead of its time. It was so social media-oriented and created this amazing, weird community.
You are totally right, I think it did actually come a bit too early. It was too early for TVNZ to realize that it was worth putting money behind. TVNZ didn’t even know what we were. It was just weird. It was such a big place, and the higher-ups were just like, “what the hell is this show?” It was a really weird experience, but it was really fun as well. Not often are you allowed to feel subversive within New Zealand TV, because it’s so small. There was no Alt TV or anything anymore. By the end, the stuff Guy and Tim were doing at U Late was insane.
It was a real platform for people to play around and try out ideas or characters. To have the chance to do that all on live TV seemed like a great opportunity for young performers.
It’s amazing, even the fact that I learned how to produce and present live TV for three hours a day, every day. We learned so much and it was so invaluable. We learned how to do voiceovers, everything I learned there I have used since. Looking back I’m like, “that was a really good time”.
You left just a little bit before the channel got cancelled right?
Yeah I missed out on that redundancy package – that was fun. I left and had a meeting with the producer from Jono and Ben. I was pretty lucky. It was a real big thing to come into the team of those three guys, all symmetrical and nice.
You’re still the only female on the team?
Yeah. I hate the word female, though. I’m trying to phase it out. Especially when male comedians say “we need more females”. It makes me feel like I’m in a science lab. It’s not really hard being the only girl, though. Only rarely do I notice it, like when you offer a woman’s perspective on a joke or a sketch. Everyone tends to go, “oh yeah, you’re right”. And it’s genuinely often because they just didn’t notice something at first. There’s is no ganging up, because I’ve become a bitch [laughs]. I have become a lot more volatile maybe, well not volatile, but I’ve definitely learned to speak a bit louder.
I don’t think people know how many women are involved behind the scenes at Jono and Ben. There’s the graphics team, the people that work in the office and, most importantly, our producer is a woman. Having Bron is the best thing, because you have someone to be a constant support.
Do you think, with this massive surge in strong female-led comedies, that it would be easier for more women to see themselves in comedy?
Not necessarily easier, but more comforting. It’s always going to be hard actively being part of a minority. It’s a daunting thing, but it’s so cool. When I started, there were about five female comedians in New Zealand. I was thinking about this the other day, when I was little I wanted to be a director, and later I wanted to be a comedian, but it’s so interesting when you don’t have a person’s career trajectory to try and emulate.
I read so many Wikipedia pages, I love seeing how people got to where they are. There are countless articles about “how this male comedian got his stardom and blah, blah, blah”, but you almost have no woman to be like, “is this possible, and how can I do it?” Now there’s tons more girls doing comedy at Raw nights, and I think they stick it out because they can see that a woman who achieved success by sticking it out.
Do you think that not having a blueprint, could be an advantage in some ways? Like you’re really forced to forge your own identity outside of comparison?
You’re not emulating anyone, yeah. I could compare myself to countless male comics who I love. Sometimes I worry about sounding a little like Aziz Ansari or something, and then I realise that it doesn’t matter because nobody’s going to notice. It’s funny.
Finally, is there any TV you are watching at the moment that you love?
I love Broad City. It’s a great show. Someone said to me other day that he was annoyed because it was just like Workaholics. That’s real weird to me. It’s weird when there are minimal women on TV, that they are held to such a high standard and mustn’t be like anything else. I like Workaholics, but I feel like Broad City is beyond that. It’s like watching myself on screen.
You can watch Rose Matafeo in Jono and Ben on TV3 at 7.30pm tonight and every Friday thereafter
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.