New Zealand’s leading mother-son comedy duo
New Zealand’s leading mother-son comedy duo

Pop CultureApril 2, 2024

‘Why the hell did I say yes?’: Meet Janet Mustapic, reluctant comedy star

New Zealand’s leading mother-son comedy duo
New Zealand’s leading mother-son comedy duo

Tara Ward talks to James Mustapic’s mum about finding love and making TV magic with her son.  

WARNING: The following story contains major spoilers for James Must-a-pic His Mum a Man. 

Janet Mustapic is wearing a beautiful sequinned ball gown on a beach somewhere in Auckland. It’s her birthday, and she’s spending it watching comedian Ray O’Leary woo her with some, quite frankly, alarming dance moves. Janet’s son James stands beside her, as does Colin Mathura-Jeffree and an anonymous extra, whose only job is to hold several bottles of champagne. It’s not how Janet thought she’d be spending her special day. But, then again, it’s not often your son tries to find you a new husband on national television.  

How on earth did Janet end up here, the reluctant star in a comedy series based entirely on her love life? It’s all down to her son, comedian James Mustapic, a man so desperate for a father figure that he created his own six-part television series to find one. James Must-a-pic His Mum a Man is a dating show the likes we’ve never seen on local television before, featuring a heroine who could not be less enthusiastic about finding love and a comedic mastermind who yearns to fill a deep emotional void.

It also features Art Green in a bathtub, like all good local reality shows should.  

Janet, James, Colin Mathura-Jeffree and Ray O’Leary in a scene from James Must-a-pic His Mum a Man (Screengrab: TVNZ)

Dating strangers was the last thing on Janet’s mind when she received a mysterious phone call from James last year. “I could tell from his tone of voice, he was trying to break bad news,” Janet tells me over a coffee in an Ōtepoti Dunedin cafe. James had called to ask for his mother’s permission to pitch a television comedy show about finding Janet a man. It was a request that, unlike his previous pleas for her to star in his YouTube videos and live comedy shows, Janet immediately turned down. It’ll be funny, he told her. Janet didn’t agree. 

But much like the power of a Ray O’Leary dance sequence, James wore his mother down. After more persuasion, Janet eventually agreed, but secretly hoped James wouldn’t get the funding to make the series. “That’s not very good parenting, but never mind,” says Janet, who works as a psychologist when she’s not dating strangers on television. Weeks passed. She forgot about her son’s ridiculous idea until James called again, this time with great news: Janet was about to be married off on national television. 

Janet and James (Photo: TVNZ)

“I lay in bed, thinking ‘why the hell did I say yes?’” she laughs, shaking her head. Despite what her son tells us in the show’s opening credits, Janet wasn’t lonely or unhappy, nor was she looking for a husband. Leaving her busy life in Dunedin behind, she flew to Auckland to begin filming, honouring the promise she’d made to her son all those months ago. She arrived with zero expectations of finding romance, let alone having a good time. “I thought it was probably going to be really tedious,” she says.

It was, of course, anything but tedious. Between axe-throwing with Matt Gibb, bowling with David Seymour and karaoke with Wayne Anderson, Janet was swept up in a dating whirlwind. On the first day of filming, she found herself on a blind date with a man who performed headstands in the middle of an Auckland cafe. “People were walking past the window and looking at me like, ‘that poor woman’”. Another outing saw James talk to Janet covertly through a secret earpiece, instructing her about what questions to ask her date. She froze under pressure. “The guy probably thought I was nuts.”

But once Janet realised many of her dates were with actors or comedians (“I thought, there’s no way Ray O’Leary is interested in me”), she felt the pressure ease and even started to enjoy herself. In fact, Janet, who admits that she usually cries on a daily basis – “at TV adverts, I can’t help it” – didn’t shed a single tear while she made Must-a-pic. She loved the crew, adored the catered lunches and delighted in the camaraderie of working with comedians. “I kept saying to James, I had no idea how much fun it would be,” she says. “I just laughed my whole way through it.” 

And against all odds, Janet did find true love – twice. The first was at the end of a long day of filming, when James told Janet he had a “wee surprise” for her. Assuming she was about to endure another awkward encounter with another eccentric singleton, Janet was overjoyed when she discovered her personal hero Suzy Cato hiding in the hallway. “I almost collapsed,” Janet recalls, her face lighting up at the memory of Cato singing ‘It’s Our Time’ a capella. “She had a lovely hot pink striped jersey on. I said, ‘I love your jersey’, and she said, ‘it’s from Farmers, it was on sale’. She’s just so real.”

Looking for love (Photo: TVNZ)

The second big love story was a surprise to everyone. In the show’s final moments, James reveals that Janet is now in a long distance relationship with Bill, one of the brave suitors who danced alongside O’Leary on that Auckland beach in the middle of winter. Bill also appeared on New Zealand’s Got Talent in 2012, playing the Dad’s Army theme tune with his mouth, arms and legs, and appears the perfect fit for this unconventional showbiz family. “That’s one thing I am very grateful to James for,” Janet says. “To meet the love of my life, which completely shocked me.” 

It was the happy ending Janet wasn’t looking for. Because whatever happens next between Janet and Bill, the great love story of James Must-a-pic His Mum a Man remains the one between Janet and James, whose genuine affection and respect for each other shines through all the silly set-ups and wacky dates. Even though Janet still doesn’t think she’s funny, she’s glad that the ridiculous show her son pitched over the phone all those months ago is bringing some joy into New Zealand homes. 

“It’s lovely to be able to make people laugh,” she smiles, finishing her coffee. “That is a real privilege.”  

James Must-a-pic His Mum a Man streams on TVNZ+.

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