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The Kiwi comedian Hall of Fame.
The Kiwi comedian Hall of Fame.

NZ on ScreenSeptember 20, 2019

Behind the scenes of Funny As: New Zealand comedians on how they do it

The Kiwi comedian Hall of Fame.
The Kiwi comedian Hall of Fame.

When comedy documentary Funny As was made, a lot of interviews got left on the cutting room floor which NZ On Screen quickly picked up. Here are some of our favourites.

We’re a pretty funny bunch us Kiwis. Trapped on a tiny island at the end of the earth it appears we’ve evolved just a bit differently and we’re kind of proud of that. And for decades we’ve used comedy to acknowledge that. 

Released in August, the five-part documentary series Funny As does an exhaustive job of celebrating the role of comedy in New Zealand’s cultural evolution. To create Funny As, producer Paul Horan conducted hours and hours and hours of interviews. The result is a powerful documentary that traces the different periods of New Zealand comedy and the influence it’s had on how we see ourselves. 

It also meant that many more hours of interviews were left on the cutting room floor. Until they were collected by NZ On Screen and made available online in their entirety. The catalogue is an incredible archive of dozens of New Zealand’s most important comedians speaking openly and extensively about their lives and careers. The Spinoff writers watched some of the extended interviews with their favourite comedians and shared what they learned. 

The legend in our midst: Ginette McDonald

Legend is such a back-handed compliment of a word. Front-handed, it means that someone’s life and work has put them in the history books – they’re the stuff of not just hazy collective memory, but record. They’re important. Back-handed, it means that their work is now over. The book is closed, it’s published, and it’s printed in paperback. They’re done.

The brilliance of Ginette McDonald’s extended interview for Funny As – a towering 133 minutes of your finest Wellington gold – is that it shows that she’s not a legend at all. Lynn of Tawa, and more importantly, the mind and soul that produced that character, is still with us and firing on all proverbial cylinders. The soul of comedy is that it exists as reflection – it reflects our stories back to us in the most digestible form. It lets us laugh at our own stories, our own trauma, and our own unspoken thoughts. It puts into words and structure many of the things we experience every day but haven’t expressed.

McDonald is a master storyteller – Lynn of Tawa reflected a very specific kind of New Zealander back at us, and as an actress, she has the kind of craft and charisma that means that she can carry any story to the back row and make sure the audience doesn’t just hear it but feels it. What this interview does is allow McDonald to be the master of her own story, telling the history of her life and career, and delivering with as much charm, wit and knowledge as she has with everybody else’s stories for the past few decades.

It’s not just a gem of an interview. It’s a goddamned gift. 

– Sam Brooks

The cerebral charisma of Chris Parker

I still vividly remember the first time I saw Chris Parker. 10pm, a damp Tuesday in May, a packed Basement Theatre. My third show of a long night, the start of a long week. Filing in with a bit of sense of duty, regret already gnawing, wondering balefully if I’d stay awake. Then ‘Camping’ happened, a one hour, one-room play based on a double booking in a motel in ‘70s New Zealand, more sexually electrocuted than charged.

It was the single best comedic performance I’ve ever seen on a New Zealand stage. Parker has supreme command, considers every element of what he lays out. His extended Funny As interview on NZ on Screen displays those two elements – intellect and charisma – in full. 

He talks about growing up in Christchurch, a closeted gay kid with “too much energy”, with ballet and theatre less callings than ways for his parents to protect their home; about what ‘Hudson and Halls’ meant to him (“I became really psycho about David’s hair”); about his Fred award-winning ‘Camp Binch’, and performing a section of it for wine-swilling deputy principals in 2018, the kind of people who presided over a high school experience which he found so miserable. 

He talks with conviction about his identity as a gay man, about camp as an expression, about the way political correctness, far from constraining comedy, has simply allowed a whole lot more people in. All the while this cerebral quality shines through in equal proportion to the simple exuberance of having eyes on you, of making people laugh.

He’s quick to praise those who’ve played major roles in his career. Director Jo Randerson, “the ultimate radical”; Snort, an improv collective which has become a family who “support and raise each other up”; Rima Te Wiata “one of my comedy idols”.

Towards the end he’s joined by Tom Sainsbury, his co-star in ‘Camping’, and you see the interplay, the way that the pair elevate one another. It’s to the great credit of Funny As that its scope was as concerned with the current generation of comedic talent as the past, and broad enough to take in theatre and improv. The interview sprawls, well over an hour, yet is never less than fascinating, never begins to sag. Nothing Chris Parker approaches ever does.

Duncan Greive

Cal Wilson’s worst gig ever

“Being in comedy is a bit like loving an alcoholic,” Cal Wilson says in her extended Funny As interview. “When they’re sober, they’re amazing to be around, but when they’re drunk, they’re an arsehole.” Cal reflects on plenty of arsehole moments during her comedy career, but the amazing times also shine through. She speaks of the joy of learning her craft through the vibrant Christchurch theatre improvisation scene, forming lasting friendships with other female comics, and building a career that’s seen her perform around the world from Melbourne to Montreal.

But for all these positive comedy experiences, Cal Wilson’s finest anecdote is about her favourite worst gig ever. It was the early ‘90s, and her Theatresports troupe was hired to perform at Tegal’s Christmas party. It didn’t go well. “They hated us, which was fair enough,” Cal says. Their stage was blocking access to the bar, the audience was drunk and angry, and in the end, the factory workers pelted the comedians with chicken drumsticks until they made a hasty exit.

“We left under a hail of chicken fire,” Cal recalls. “It was like Saving Private Ryan, but with chicken drumsticks instead of bullets.” Amazing, indeed. 

Tara Ward

How to Dad sees us, and that feels good.

Having a child is a beautiful and transcendental experience, but it can also be a deeply isolating one. To be a new parent is to upend the way you structure and consume and perceive time; to submit your entire self to a being who has no concept of the above and whose literal survival depends on your dedication to every single one of their pre-verbal demands.

It was three years ago, body-stoned on benzos and sleep deprivation, when the accidental autoplay of a rural aunty’s Facebook share introduced me to the works of Jordan ‘How to Dad’ Watson. Wilfully hammy and parodically blokey, Watson’s videos spoke to my experiences as a clueless, chronically harried new parent in a way that little else did. From mealtime explainers to baby-weighted ‘dad bod’ workout tips, each video’s gradual and barely discernible descent from reasonable-enough tips to deadpan absurdity felt like solidarity in the truest sense – a tacit acknowledgment of the futility of trying to truly predict or plan for the pure chaos that is raising another human, and an endorsement of anyone getting through it by doing whatever worked.

In his extended Funny As interview, he radiates a predictable humility, referring to his dad as his greatest comedy inspiration and talking about how the project’s initial success was entirely accidental – a supportive joke for a new-parent colleague that ended up being a lot more popular than he’d expected. The most subtly revealing moment comes when Watson’s asked how, as a primarily online comedian, he deals with trolls, to which his response is that although his videos have seen more than 250 million views worldwide, the number of truly vile comments he’s received numbers “only 10 or 20” in total. 

He seems surprised by the disparity, but it’s a testament to the warmth and inclusiveness of his work – there’s an innately Aotearoa quality to his material, his delivery and his Swazi-and-stubbies perma-costume, but its message is universal: if you’re a parent and you’re trying, you’re doing enough. And we love him for that. 

Matthew McAuley

Frickin Dangerous Bro: the three wise men.

The humour of Frickin Dangerous Bro, the comedy trio of James Roque, Jamaine Ross and Pax Assadi, is purely contagious. Each has one of those unique soulful laughs, fuelled by the humour of each other’s jokes, that are impossible not to join in with. Watching their show, and watching this 90-minute interview, feels like sitting on the couch in a flat with your closest friends laughing at the in-jokes special to just your squad. Except the jokes are so much bigger than that, and so much more important. 

Frickin Dangerous Bro built their reputation on making jokes about race. They laugh at the idiosyncrasies of their own cultures (Roque is Filipino, Ross is Māori and Assadi is Pakistani/Iranian), and examine the parts of Pākeha culture they find the most bizarre (Birkenstocks, bath bombs, Lululemon). 

The extended Funny As interview takes a deeper look at their humour, and what the group describes as the role of comedians as philosophers. By sharing their experiences with audiences they can discuss ideas that are too hard to talk about without using humour. They see comedy as the best way to talk about racism, privilege, and social power. 

They understand how important humour is for our social interactions and relationships. Initially, it felt like it was a defence mechanism for the difference they felt to the dominant culture in New Zealand. Then it became a celebration for their difference and a weapon against anyone who challenged it. In the interview, Assadi recalls their first show as a trio where a man in the front row whispered racist slurs under his breath when Assadi would pass his seat. He didn’t respond and continued the show despite the comments. 

“If that happened now, we’d fucking destroy him,” says Ross in the interview. 

“We are so confident in who we are now,” says Assadi. 

Simon Day

Jackie van Beek is elbow deep

Like the improvisation style of comedy she’s famous for, almost anything goes in the career of Jackie van Beek. She thrived in the ‘90s Wellington theatre comedy scene, alongside mates Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie and Taika Waititi. She’s performed in strange places, like that time Dai Henwood organised a performance for some unsuspecting One Red Dog diners (“people just wanted to eat their pizza, but we had Jonny Brugh in a red vinyl suit, playing his guitar, often with his leg up by someone’s pizza”). She even stuck her arm up a sweaty penis puppet in My Brother and I are Pornstars, the play she co-wrote and took around the world.

 How many other Funny As comedians can say they’ve gone elbow-deep inside a talking penis? Hardly any, probably.

“I’ll do anything, if it’s with a good group of people,” van Beek says, and you get the sense she loves comedy because she loves the people she gets to make comedy with. Whether it’s improvising on What We Do With the Shadows (“loose, fun, meticulous chaos”), or making The Breaker Upperers with Madeleine Sami, van Beek generously shares every success with the people who inspired and encouraged her, or just helped hide her dog when the landlord came to visit.

 It’s a delight to hear van Beek speak about the joy of creative collaboration, of working with talented people who, like her, are passionate about creating work that “celebrates the weirdos that Kiwis are”. After watching her on Funny As, I just want to celebrate Jackie van Beek, comedy legend.

Tara Ward

The timeless fart jokes of Jason Fa’afoi and Anthony Samuels

It is a truth universally acknowledged that farts are the funniest thing that can ever happen. So, cogito ergo bum, someone being called Farty is surely the funniest name a person can be called. Jason Fa’afoi and Anthony Samuels knew that during What Now! in the 90s, and they still know it now. “You gotta go back to the old trusties” says Samuels, by way of opening their Funny As interview. “When someone farts, that always makes you laugh – that’s just honest, eh.” First of all: trusties. Second of all: Samuels has extremely cool cornrows now. 

It’s been two decades since I thought about these two at all, so to see them both looking essentially exactly the same, beaming at the camera and cracking each other up, is an absolute joy. Fa’afoi talks about how bullies at school used to call him Farty-foi, a name that he hated until Samuels took one look at him, called him “Farty” and history was made. Reliving their days as young guns learning the ropes on What Now!, there’s a special kind of magic in realising that all the hijinks of your childhood Saturdays were as organic as they seemed. 

Some of my favourite anecdotes include Farty’s ongoing misinterpretation of the ‘wrap it up’ hand signal (he thought it meant kept going), how the pair would spray the cameraman in the groin while recording their live links because they couldn’t do anything about it, and how they welcomed Carolyn Taylor to the team by putting an empty Coke can on her head and shooting at it with a BB gun. It’s clear that the chemistry between these two still lingers, not unlike Farty’s finest. Fill your absolute pants with this walk down memory lane. 

– Alex Casey

The rise and rise of Flight of the Conchords

Despite being by far our most successful comedic exports, it’s comforting that, grey-flecked beards aside, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement don’t appear to have changed a bit since the days I’d vaguely recognise them walking down Cuba St, looking like pretty much every other Wellington dude in the late 90s/early 2000s. 

The extended interview with the duo, collectively known, of course, as Flight of the Conchords, runs for an impressive 122 minutes, covering everything from their TV-obsessed childhoods to their first creative collaborations after both dropping out of uni (burying Dai Henwood in a grave for a play at their Hawker Street flat; fortnightly Shortland Street auditions; disastrous corporate gigs and awkward stag nights).

Gems from the interview include the low-key pair reminiscing about the awkward process of becoming famous; their insights into the crossovers between Wellington’s comedy and music scenes; and Clement’s continuing glee at giving TVNZ shit for the fact it rejected their pilot (Flight of the Conchords went on, of course, to star in an HBO show that brought them worldwide fame).

It’s pretty clear why there’s no love lost between Clement and New Zealand’s television industry – he relates one cringe-worthy episode of a white producer pitching a show called The Brown Boys to him, Taika Waititi and the guys from The Naked Samoans, where they would “talk about being Meeri”. “We didn’t want to play into those stereotypes, it didn’t feel right,” says Clement. “They would keep trying to make the Billy T show but without Billy T, which of course is not possible.”

I loved the snippets about the early days of Wellington’s comedy scene, particularly the pair’s interactions with the now madly successful Taika Waititi. McKenzie worked a hospo job with him at a “fancy pizza” restaurant, and cracks up as he recalls Waititi’s open disdain for customers. Clement, meanwhile, reminisces about Waititi’s “anti-comedy” methods that included trying out new personas in public – he’d approach people on the street in character, complete with fake paunch, teeth and wig, and scare the bejesus out of them. 

Towards the end of the interview is where the pair really loosen up and drop some gold quotes, so be sure not to miss the last half an hour or so. 

– Alice Neville


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