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Pop CultureSeptember 13, 2017

‘We’re now slushing around in a tabloid shit pit’ – An interview with Guy Williams

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Former radio host, current Jono and Ben man and Billy T winning comic Guy Williams has just released a half-hour stand-up special for free on the internet. He spoke with Duncan Greive about a variety of things.

The first time I saw Guy Williams live was a co-headliner with Rose Matafeo at the Grey Lynn community hall. It was before The Edge, before Jono and Ben, before he succeeded in his aim of becoming a New Zealand “crap-lebrity”. He did a half hour of jokes which reached back into his teens (he would have been maybe 22 at the time), and he had a lot of teen stuff (VHS tapes, posters etc) on stage with him. The show was principally a kind of meta-comedy about a bumbling, confused stand-up.

It was very weird and very good and prompted me to see most of his subsequent shows, which have become increasingly conventional while remaining very good. Over that time he has become a star, thanks to those prominent mainstream gigs, and easily the most successful comic of his generation. And yet, because of the compromises inherent in those gigs, there is a dissonance to him – the mostly happy buffoon of his Mediaworks gigs belies the fury which fuels his stand-up. These shows feel like a much more pure expression of his comedic id, and have become increasingly concerned with politics, the media and social issues.

They’re deeply informed by his worldview, unsurprisingly, which is quite a specific one: that of a (self-confessedly) privileged wealthy tall handsome Pākehā man from the South Island. And yet as much as that might put him in a particular box, there is a lot which is just different. His own politics cusp the radical left – his partner is high-ranking Greens candidate Golriz Ghahraman, and he has publicly declared his support for the party. His comedy and personal views are almost apocalyptic, and he has near-conspiratorial views of how mainstream politics, business and the media interact.

Yet he’s no Russell Brand – he’s way too smart and not nearly self-involved enough. He’s also lifelong sober, and lives with his parents. Those last two facts might be the most salient of all: they mean he costs about $10 a week to run as a human. Which is why he could just quit his very well-compensated gig hosting The Edge drive show last year, and not get another gig. It’s also why he is able to film a stand-up special and put it on YouTube rather than trying to get money back from it. It all seems strange, but then he’s a strange dude.

He’s also someone I really like: as a person and as a comic and as a media presence. Full disclosure: we play basketball together regularly (he is very good and I am a warm body), and are basically friends. Last week I emailed him some questions, about his special and the election and that sort of thing. And at 2.27am today, he replied. The answers are below, interspersed with clips from the special (you can watch it in full at the bottom).

Duncan Greive: Hi Guy! You quit The Edge at the end of last year and replaced it with… nothing! That’s not what radio celebs do. What happened there then?

Guy Williams: “Nothing” is kind of underrated these days! I’m very relieved to be doing less stuff! Between my wacky job on TV and my wacky job on radio (both very fun wacky jobs) and a bit of wacky stand-up, I was overdoing it with a huge (but very wacky) workload. It’s weird how our culture now rewards working all the time. People are proud of being really busy. I wanted to take more time to do what I really want to do, and focusing more on what I do well… nothing!

Jono and Ben used to be live and then, without anyone noticing, stopped being live. How come? And did you enjoy it being live or was it incredibly horrible?

It was a great idea and it was a terrible idea! It was a great idea because it was exciting. For us and the audience, anything could happen! And it was a great idea right up until I said “fuck” (during episode one) and after that we had to be a lot more risk averse.

We learned why no TV comedy shows are live – you need to be able to edit out the shit parts that come when you improvise, we couldn’t take risks and we couldn’t edit out the shit parts. And we had a lot of shit parts!

You recently declared support for the Greens. Not long after their support absolutely tanked. I’m not necessarily saying these facts are connected. But has anything about the process of publicly tying yourself to one party given you pause since? Like, have you caught Jacindamania or disagreed massively with anything they’ve said or anything?

It’s weird to me that Ben Thomas will write ‘Why Bill English Won the Debate‘ for the Spinoff, and it doesn’t mention that he used to work in parliament for National anywhere in the article? Ben’s a great commentator, and Bill English probably did win the debate! But that’s a pretty strong conflict. We all like to think we can rise above it, but it’s gonna be weird for readers two days later when they find out the author is directly connected to the subject.

I’m directly connected as heck, I’ve voted Green since I could vote (not before, important distinction for the Greens) and my partner is standing for them! It would be awkward and disingenuous if I promoted them and didn’t mention this.

I’m not some grand wizard who can oversee politics and talk about it impartially, we all have our biases and ingrained prejudices. Full disclosure: I’m a rich white kid from Nelson with hipster glasses. Like all the geniuses who weighed in on Metiria.

In my opinion, our media is incredibly biased. Not necessarily to a party, but normally towards an old/white/male audience. That’s why I was so devastated to see the aggressive and surface level coverage of the Metiria Turei story. I’m so proud of those privileged white dudes who weighed in to say that they’ve never committed benefit fraud. What a pack of legends.

It’s my (maybe unusual?) opinion that it’s good to be open about who you support. While I’m a comedian who borders on commentary, a lot of political journalists now border on commentary and are striking a very Hosking-ian balance. I don’t think they’re driven by a secret agenda – they just want to write some sensational shit that gets some clicks.

I find it very hard to understand “swing” or “undecided” voters, I like to think that politics should be philosophical (I would almost respect ACT if they were genuinely a libertarian party, and not weird mix of populism/Epsom that they’ve been forced to become) and I believe that we need to tax high earners to help support New Zealand’s most vulnerable.

I haven’t been swept up in Jacindamania; obviously I also support Labour, but as a major party they can’t be as radical as the Greens. The Greens are the only party that has promised to raise taxes, and aggressively fight poverty – something they are doing so well right now that they might be out of parliament. I really hope we can clear the 5%.

There is no doubt that my influence is directly related to recent poll results, I have huge influence over NZ elections in much the opposite way The Sun swings British ones. I look forward to the headline “It was the guy wot lost it.” I’m doing very specific references now that most people won’t get.

You have long made fun of the poor long-suffering media, despite also being deeply embedded in this terrible industry and taking money which should go to print hacks and using it for comedy etc. Are there any parts of it you admire? Any radio stations or magazines or journalists who aren’t fucking up? Or is it just all totally terrible?

You’re taking the piss with this question, I love so many aspects of the New Zealand media. I read almost everything Tony Veitch writes in the Herald, and Rodney Hides blows me away with his depth of knowledge and expertise. Really fills you with confidence regarding the high standards of our MPs.

In my opinion, we’re now slushing around in a tabloid shit pit that is so deep that TV trash like me get to write opinion articles cause they can get more clicks than traditional journalists.

I don’t understand how you can possibly have a positive outlook on the situation. Just cause your Lightbox review blog has done quite well and picked a few good writers from the carcass of dying newspapers doesn’t mean we’re not drowning in articles recommended by Outbrain.

I’ve been there bro, I’ve seen the horrors! I’ve literally shot Jono and Ben sketches set in the Apocalypse, and we’ve used the abandoned wings of former newspapers where journalists and subeditors used to work!

Money in old media has dried up or is drying up. I don’t think anyone is evil, or that it’s some grand conspiracy, it’s just the hand the market has fed them. Media organisations used to be powerful, and now they’re weak.

Media companies in 2017 can be easily intimidated and manipulated by corporations… not even companies just dudes! No one talks shit about Bob Jones anymore cause everyone is afraid they’ll get sued. Not that Bob Jones is super newsworthy, but if companies are afraid of him, you bet they’re terrified of the Chanui Tea Corporation which would explain why no one want’s to talk about the [redacted] and the [redacted].

The 5th estate… the 3rd estate… (what is estate is the media again?) has been severely weakened. And most people don’t care imo, so we’re fucked. I still haven’t checked out the, hopefully that fixed it.

Things are improving in some areas. I think the range of voices, companies and perspectives is growing – but just cause The Spinoff has a business editor now, doesn’t mean we’re not much worse off than we were 10 years ago.

What do you think of Matthew Hooton?

PR people are the worst part of Radio New Zealand. I love RNZ (privileged white guy with glasses) but it’s very weird that they just fang out two PR people: one from Labour, and one from National and pretend that’s balance.

I’m fine with firebrand Fox News-style commentators but Radio New Zealand shouldn’t use them just because “It’s hard to find commentators who are right wing” which is genuinely something I heard someone say out loud one time… was it you that said that haha? [Editor’s note: almost certainly]

Right wing commentary in NZ is a real “creme of the crap” type situation. Anyone who’s right wing – and any good and anything – is not taking a career in something as poorly paid as the media. They’re off making millions and evading taxes on jet skis, or whatever it is they do. As a result, we end up with a real dream team line up: “Hosking, Hooton, Hide, Oil (Whale)”. First year economics lecturers use this phenomenon as an example of “market failure”. It’s a real indictment on the merits of capitalism.

I strongly believe we need government intervention to pay for right wing commentators who don’t also moonlight as PR people for Kings students with drink driving convictions, or run debate prep for John Palino.  

How good is John Palino? I just remembered him then, I hope he runs for mayor every election, that guy is gold! Also bring back Luigi Wewege!! Best name in politics, best attitude in politics.

What do you think of Gareth Morgan?

It’s weird that a party that is smarter than everyone else wasn’t smart enough to run in an electorate? (Shit I’m in a glass house with the Greens eh?) Surely he could have taken his money to the Hutt Valley or Ōhāriu and fucked shit up!!? Learn from the mistakes of Kim Dotcom and Colin Craig, these dudes are giving rich people a bad name.

Every time a new dude shows up and says “I’m gonna do things differently than the guys who have said they’re gonna do things differently in the past” it’s pretty embarrassing.

I was just thinking “He should save his money and do something fun and buy the Warriors” and then I realised he already owns the Phoenix! Maybe politics is the last frontier when you’re rich and you’ve got a lot of spare time. It’s a real shame, cause Labour or the Greens party could have really done with his expertise and money. I wonder if he’s tried to a more conventional approach in the past?

Why are you recording a stand-up special? No one seems to do that here – surely there’s a good reason?

New Zealand is tiny so there’s no money in it, and comedians don’t like to retire material. I’m normally forced to retire material naturally because it’s often quite topical. I’m giving it away for free which is very risky commercially with high fixed costs and no revenue plan.

Why are you just giving it away for free? Isn’t that risky commercially, in terms of having high fixed costs and no revenue plan?

Does the Spinoff make money? In my short career, I’ve learned that it’s hard to get paid to do what you really want to do. A great gig at the Basement theatre normally pays nothing, but doing 30 minutes at the Wild Bean Café barista of the year awards…. Kaaa chiiing.

That’s a real gig I did when I was starting out (the money almost makes up for the hole in my heart). I bombed hard and then later told my friends that I did it on purpose to protest the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a comedian, Jono and Ben, 7 Days, and The Edge are as close as I’ve come to doing what I love, while also getting money. I’m greedy, I want push even further and see if there’s an appetite for slightly more political comedy. The answer is almost certainly no.

Best case scenario? 40,000 people watch it? Even if I monetised it and got $1 per view… fuck that’s $40,000 dollars I should have monetised it, shit. If everyone who watches it could give me a dollar if they see me around that would be great! A massively expensive vanity project with no obvious pay off: this special is my equivalent of the TOP party!

One of the best bits in your show is about immigration. Labour tried a ‘bit’ about immigration, riffing on ‘Chinese-sounding names’. It was not well received by the public on account of being thought quite racist. Have you avoided this fate do you think?

People say “necessity is the mother of invention” well then desperation is the mother of saying some racist shit to try and get a laugh, or increase your party’s standing in the polls. Lets hope I don’t try anything racist or it’s back to the old Wild Bean Café awards for me!

Watch Guy’s stand-up special ‘In an election year’ below:

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