Made by a single family sewing together bits of old shows, Leigh Hart’s Big Isolation Lockdown was the funniest and most oddly comforting television created in level four, writes Duncan Greive.
It takes a special kind of ego to make what is functionally a career retrospective about yourself, with your family as extras and directors, during the seven weeks of lockdown. But Leigh Hart’s career is so vast and strewn with bizarre curios that it screams for such a treatment, and his status as mainstream television’s most DIY outsider, existing as a permanent parody of its values, means that no one else was ever going to do it for him.
Leigh Hart’s Big Isolation Lockdown just finished its run, playing on Duke and TVNZ OnDemand, off-peak locations for a talent seemingly too strange to thrive on the big stage. The setup is simple – it’s Hart and his family holed up in a cabin, with him commandeering his wife, son and daughter (who are all exceptionally funny too) to shoot him doing links between clips from his enormous and very rich back catalogue. The lockdown material is shockingly great, a tribute to his comic ingenuity, with deeply stupid gags, like pretending to hand-crank the footage back to an editor through an old telephone, landing better than they have any right to.
Along with the on-location material, he hauls in guests for Zoom appearances along the way. Their fame shows how devoted his fanbase is – it’s one of the oddities of his career that he seems both beloved by New Zealand’s biggest names and to have a very uneasy relationship with its TV establishment. Over the course of six episodes, he dragged in Kieran Read, Jason Gunn (brutally and hilariously), and, most bizarrely, PM Jacinda Ardern for what must be the strangest interview conducted with a world leader in the Covid-19 era:
She handled it well. The best guests on Hart’s shows don’t try to play along. Ardern treated him as she might any soft media, as it all fell apart, with Hart persistently interrupted by Jason Hoyte demanding his leaf-blower back.
Hoyte appeared throughout the series, and is Hart’s longest-running collaborator, with clips from Screaming Reels, the Late Night Big Breakfast and Speedo Cops regularly appearing throughout the Lockdown series. The duo have a rambling, digressive rapport, deployed to take apart various archetypes of New Zealand men. On Screaming Reels it’s the gearhead enthusiasts whose poorly disguised secret is that they can’t fish. On LNBB it’s the ill-prepared variety show hosts, forever letting their own hangups become what the interview’s really about. Speedo Cops… actually I don’t really know what Speedo Cops is about. Same with the desolate saga of Colin, the Hamster Man from Amsterdam.
So it goes for a whole thread of Hart’s comedy. The final episode begins with a clip in which a mother starts breastfeeding in a cafe, which feels set up for some kind of comment on public reaction to the act. But then, drama – milk sprays like a waterblaster, destroying the crockery and drenching the patrons. We cut back to Hart at his holiday home. “I’m not really sure what that was, to be honest,” he says. That goes for Speed Cooking, wherein he demolishes a kitchen, yelling about jus and using a chainsaw to make a quiche lorraine. It also goes for him destroying a blind during an Eddie Jones press conference. The line between absurdism-as-commentary and just weird funny shit is intentionally thin throughout.
It’s not without tension. Hoyte’s roaring “cook us some fuckin’ eggs” at a truly shocked Nadia Lim is on one level a savage comment on those who watched One Were Warriors without feeling it, and found it as quotable as The Hangover. But it can be read in other, darker ways, too. Likewise, the frequency with which women are some variety of prop in the various sketches feels tense at times.
Yet the likes of Jo Seager, Jax Hamilton and even Ardern clearly enjoy the chaos erupting around them, and Hart’s entire career is ultimately a skewering of New Zealand men’s behaviour and character. Done with a lot of affection, admittedly, but with such brutal accuracy that every Uncle Barry in the country has to feel extremely seen by the whole thing
Hart is ultimately one of the most original talents New Zealand has produced, successful here because of his fascination with this country’s peculiarities. As it goes for his comedy, so it goes for his business side. He is essentially alone among our creatives in owning everything he’s made – hence the essentially complete treasure trove of an archive that is Moonflix, a kind of working Netflix parody/nightmare where every show stars Leigh Hart. While so much of New Zealand’s TV archives are locked away in production company vaults, Hart’s are all there, even his just-released lockdown series, in full and ad-free.
It’s also there in the way Wakachangi ads are baked into his shows, parodies of the (mostly gone) era where a smooth dude impresses a bar by drinking a Heineken. They also advertise his massively successful beer. Is it legal to have undeclared beer advertising in the middle of a show? Who knows. It feels like Hart makes things entirely outside the system, and the system mostly just leaves him to it.
When Covid-19 hit, Hart was back at the Target furniture store on Auckland’s Dominion Road, deep into shooting a return series of Late Night Big Breakfast, the fourth (I think) go round for one of his most successful setups. The show was cut adrift from TVNZ after an utterly perfect season in 2014, a breakup between network and star that felt acrimonious enough as to be final. Time has healed all wounds – New Zealand is too small to maintain all but the most deeply felt of grudges. It’s beautiful and even a bit moving seeing him getting weird while so many of us are locked away, and to soak in nostalgia for all the long-dead cultural reference points of the various clips. Most of all, it’s reassuring, amid all this change, to have big, blundering Leigh Hart back on the state broadcaster, making shows about New Zealand, and the strange ways of a particular species of men who live here.