Starring in the new season of Taskmaster NZ is a dream gig for the veteran comedian, but the path there was far from smooth. She tells Sam Brooks about the ups and downs of a 25 year career.
“Butter knife. Butter knife. Butter knife. Meat fork. Knife. Ice cream scoop. Dessert spoon. Soup spoon. Dessert spoon. Butter knife. Teaspoon. The letter A. The letter H … this half-full bottle of water.”
It’s the first episode of the new season of Taskmaster, and Justine Smith is winking to the camera as she throws each of those items off the balcony. The task in question is to crack a small pot of creme brulee as “satisfyingly” as possible. The half full bottle of water cracks it.
Smith doesn’t win the task, but she clearly has fun doing it, and watching the comedian miss the creme brulee with an increasingly ridiculous number of thrown items is a delight. It’s a scene that serves as something of a parallel for Justine Smith’s quarter-century in comedy. She might not have gotten the most points, but she had a great time doing it, and we’ve had a great time watching her.
As a young girl growing up in Christchurch in the 1980s, comedy was part of Smith’s family life – her grandfather was a stand-up in the era where comedians had joke books rather than setlists – but it wasn’t until 1997, when she was in her mid-20s, that she was strong-armed into doing her first gig. By then she had a degree in photography, had moved to Auckland and was tending bar where a literal “smack on the head” was on the menu (customers would ask Smith “What’s ‘a smack on the head’?” You can guess what happened next).
The gig was at Kitty O’Brien’s pub, the go-to place for live comedy before The Classic came along. The lineup included Mike King, Ewen Gilmour, Te Radar and Michele A’Court – a legendary slate if there ever was one.
Smith learned two chords, did what she calls “a terrible song about waitressing”, and from that moment a 25 year career in comedy was born. In 20003 she won the Billy T Award for best emerging talent; in more recent years she’s been a fixture on television, filling in on The Project, 7 Days, and many other panel shows, before landing her dream gig on the new season of Taskmaster.
“I petitioned so hard for it,” she says of getting the Taskmaster gig. “I had my comedy manager, my TV agent, me, Chris Parker, Laura Daniel, and I just bombarded them with my fucking keenness because I wanted to be on it so much.” Despite her passion for the role, Smith knew that being picked was far from a sure thing.
Taskmaster is a beast of a show, and the cast composition and chemistry is key to its success. If a season featured two David Correos types, or even two Guy Williams, the entire thing would fall over. Smith knew she might not be the right fit, and she was prepared to accept that fact. “Maybe I’d have a couple little cries into my pinot gris, but you have to get over shit real quickly when you don’t get it.”
It was a Friday afternoon and she was sitting on set of The Project when she saw a missed call from Taskmaster producer Bronwyn Bakker. In that moment, she knew she had it – Bakker wouldn’t ring her to tell her she’d been passed over. She returned the call, and burst into tears of happiness and relief. Then she got on with the gig she already had.
That phone hasn’t always been ringing. Although recent years have been kind to Smith – lockdown excepted, which she says made her bank account look like it did in her 20s – there were many lean times. After the strongest possible start with the Billy T Award, she watched as her male colleagues started to pull ahead.
In the mid 90s, starting out, Smith was one of only a very few women doing comedy. She namedrops the others – A’Court, Jaq Tweedie, Cal Wilson, Irene Pink, Jan Maree – and of those, only she and A’Court are still regularly gigging, MCing and doing TV spots on the New Zealand circuit.
Talking to Smith in 2022, you can only imagine what an audience in 1997 would’ve made of her. She does not apologise for who she is, what she says, or how she says it. Sailors wish they had a way with fucks and shits like Smith does. She’s all personality, zero fake persona, with a mixture of “giving no fucks” and assertive approachability that is uniquely hers.
A’Court, a long-time close friend and industry comrade, remembers a young Smith as an absolute whirlwind. “Big hair, loud voice, louder laugh, all the confidence in the world,” she says. “And as funny offstage as onstage, which isn’t as common as you’d think.”
Smith credits her initial tenacity with being a little bit older when she started, and a little bit tougher. “Some of those guys treated me like trash, but I had this mindset that it was just on them. They look like the dick.” She also saw at least one advantage of being the only woman on the bill.
“I could fucking see that the audience was 50 or 60% women. I had that access to them.” Smith fed off the camaraderie of the women in the audience, but she also acknowledges the support of many male comedians, Dai Henwood and the late Ewen Gilmour among them. It helped too that she was able to rise above the sexism that was a fact of life for a woman comedian in the early 2000s.
“I wanted to be a comic so much. And I didn’t want to let any of these fuckers stop me. That’s why I was waitressing in my fucking 40s. I just really wanted to do it.
“I wanted to be a comic so much. And I didn’t want to let any of these fuckers stop me.”
“I felt like I was a really good comic, but stand-up wasn’t working for me because 7 Days ignored me for so many years,” she says. She describes watching the rest of her cohort – 7 Days stalwarts Dai Henwood, Paul Ego and Jeremy Corbett among them – starting to buy their own houses when she was still asking friends if she could borrow $20 until payday.
It’s not that her abilities were ever in question. While comedy producer Paul Horan thinks it took Smith longer to find her groove, that was only because she’s more herself onstage than any comedian he knows. “She didn’t really create a persona to protect herself, and that’s an extraordinary choice for a comedian to make,” he says. “That realness can obscure her unquestionable skills. You might miss her phenomenal timing and the smart, articulate writing because you think she’s having a chat with you.”
Smith says she hopes audiences have been able to see past the bolshiness that’s inherent to her act. “It’s really important as a comic to be warm first”, she says. “You can be be fucking brutal, but if they like you, you can get away with so much. And if they don’t like you, and you tell someone off for talking, they’re gonna go, ‘You’re just a fucking bitch.’”
“You’ve got to package it, especially with men,” she continues. “You’ve got to package it for straight, fucking, boring cis-men. So that it’s acceptable for them, in a way. But honestly, I give less fucks about it as I get older.”
In 2014, Smith quit the comedy business entirely to run the bar at Q Theatre, just a few metres down the road from where her friends were still gigging at The Classic. She’d started to feel resentful towards her fellow comedians, not understanding why she wasn’t seeing the same success when she felt she was just as good as them. “I didn’t want to get bent out of shape like that, I really truly did not want to feel like that.
“In the end, I only left for two months, because I realised I have absolutely no other fucking skills.”
It was then that things started to fall into place. The long-running panel show 7 Days finally started to book her, and she eventually became its first female head writer. She’s now a fixture on the show’s regular nationwide tours. Smith pops up on screens where you might not expect her – a role on Golden Boy here, a bit on Joe Daymond’s latest project there. She’s even booked every New Zealand comedian’s dream gig: hosting the annual Comedy Gala. “When I walked out on that massive stage and everyone was so warm, it was hard to talk. I felt quite emotional,” she remembers.
Now, she can pick and choose her appearances – she’s not rushing into the Classic on a Saturday night for a couple hundred bucks – but the gig that means the most to her is the one that chose her: Taskmaster.
Smith came to Taskmaster as a superfan – she’s watched every UK season, both New Zealand ones, and even attended a few of the live recordings here. She also comes to the show as a celebrity who has no interest in doing other celebrity shows – she rules out Celebrity Treasure Island due to its lack of creature comforts, Dancing with the Stars for the huge amount of work required, and declares filming her episode of The Great Kiwi Bake Off to be one of the most stressful days of her life.
Taskmaster was the dream one for Smith, though that didn’t make the filming process any easier. She knew she had to read the cryptically worded clues properly, something her husband Dan reminded her to do, but then when it came to actually doing the tasks, she found it was a completely different experience from doing live comedy. “You go out, you do your thing, and Paul [Williams] is there with the camera crew,” she says. “Everyone’s masked and no one’s allowed to talk to you.”
For Smith, Taskmaster is a personal career high. It might not be her peak achievement, but it’s the result decades of hard work, tenacity and the talent to back it up. It’s the one that means the most.
A’Court, who regularly tours with Smith as part of the Feminists Are Funny tour, has loved seeing producers finally embrace Smith’s talent. “She can win any audience, bring the house down on any night, and she’s 100% authentic and relatable. They’ve finally worked that out!”
“It means everything to me that we both stuck around, that I get to walk into a greenroom and see her,” A’Court says. “We both spent so many years being the only woman in the room. Now greenrooms are filled with women, and the two of us have been around for a very long time.”
Although local comedians have opportunities for international success that weren’t there in the same way in the 90s – hour-long TV specials, the potential to make it big in Edinburgh or even in Australia – Smith is happy to just work here, and take the occasional trip to Disneyland with bestie A’Court. In fact, she’s starting to think about what comes after comedy. “I’m 53 and I know that’s not super old, but I don’t want to be doing stand-up when I’m 60. There are people who are, and that’s fucking great, but I think it’s something I should probably have a bookend on.”
For now though, Smith just wants to be the best person on every stage. “I want to take it so seriously that I feel I’m as good as or better than everyone on the lineup.
“I want to be the one that people that people remember – without being an asshole.”
Taskmaster NZ screens at 8.45pm on Wednesdays on TVNZ 2, and on TVNZ+.