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Jemaine Ross, Pax Assadi and James Roque of Frickin’ Dangerous Bro.
Jemaine Ross, Pax Assadi and James Roque of Frickin’ Dangerous Bro.

Pop CultureAugust 15, 2017

Only in Aotearoa: The new sketch comedy series about race relations in Godzone

Jemaine Ross, Pax Assadi and James Roque of Frickin’ Dangerous Bro.
Jemaine Ross, Pax Assadi and James Roque of Frickin’ Dangerous Bro.

A Māori, a Filipino and a Persian walk into a bar. They’re probably just getting a drink after a day of filming their new comedy sketch show.

Hosted by improv comedy trio Frickin’ Dangerous Bro — Jamaine Ross, James Roque and Pax Assadi — Only in Aotearoa is a new Māori Television comedy that skewers modern race relations in the tradition of shows like Pete & Pio and The Billy T James Show. They’re aided by an all-star cast including rapper and artist Coco Solid, who also co-writes the show, Tammy Davis (Outrageous Fortune), Tia Maipi (Born To Dance) and a host of new faces. League star Wairangi Koopu flexes his comedy muscles in an amazing sketch about Māori men sharing the stories behind their tā moko.

Comedy muscles.

While it has an undeniable Māori focus and flavour, modern New Zealand is a more multi-cultural landscape than in Pete and Billy’s day and the show also looks more broadly at the experience of ‘being brown’ in Aotearoa. Jamaine is Māori, Pax is Persian and James is from the Philippines. The three have been riffing on the differences between them and ‘white’ New Zealand in their comedy for years.

The cultural similarities are well illustrated in the sketch Brown Mum Mafia, which sees a group of Asian, Māori, Pacific and African mums gather together to discuss the ways in which they enjoy undermining their children. “We are here… to feed our sons constantly, and then mention their weight gain like the two things are not related.”

It’s more willing to view Māori culture in its native environment and explore the satire and silliness within, which risks being a comedy show not everyone will ‘get’, whether it’s making fun of people who don’t wear their pajamas to the supermarket, a young girl calling on her ancient ancestors to help her cheat on a test, or a marae wedding planner demanding there are only two rolls of toilet paper for the whole event.

Two of the writers and stars of the show, Jamaine Ross and Coco Solid, stopped by for a kōrero about writing the brown voice and changing the pop culture default.

The following conversation has been condensed and edited for brevity. You can find the whole kōrero here.

Where did you meet?

Jamaine: I met her on Brown Eye. How did you end up on Brown Eye? Was it Chelsea?

Coco: Yeah it was Chelsea [Winstanley], Taika Waititi’s partner. She was like, I need a wahine on there, there’s no girls, it’s driving me crazy.  So she came to me and said, ‘Do you know anyone that can kōrero Māori and do screenwriting and isn’t scared of the camera?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely not. I don’t know her. But I can write you something’, and I wrote this character, Wahine Jones. She said, we’re not quite getting it up here, can you send us something on Photobooth? So I sent a video like, this is what I want, this is how she should talk.

Coco Solid as Wahine Jones on the short-lived late night talk show, Brown Eye.

So you accidentally auditioned?

C: Yes! That was on a Wednesday and then I was in the the studio by Thursday, meeting all these MFs for the first time.

J: Working on Brown Eye with Jess, her writing and performing… I was like, ‘who is this person? Where has she been all my life!’ I decided if I ever work on something where I get to choose who I work with, I’m gonna ask Jess.

C: It’s just fun to be able to work on Māori projects with people who have your same worldview. You can work in TV and work with tāne all the time and there will be this insidiousness trying to shut you down, especially if you’re on a mana wāhine vibe, but these guys just let it fly, they sit back and take it.

J: You reckon you’re a down buzz…

C: Absolutely, 100% down buzz.

J: … but you writing serious stuff is what was really funny. You were writing satire but you didn’t quite realise you were.

C: People go ‘oh that’s so bleak, how funny’ and I’m like, ‘I wasn’t being funny’.

J: So we told you it was funny and you were like, OK, and you focused more on it and started understanding it better.

C: Yeah, and it’s been awesome. I’ve been on that waka for about two years working with these guys and other wāhine. It’s been pretty blessed. I know that local comedy can be pretty Eurocentric and male-dominated, but not in my world, which is pretty awesome.

 How did you hook up with Kura Productions, the company who produces Only In Aotearoa?

J: They’re affiliated with South Pacific Pictures..

Who make Shorties…

J: Yeah, and Rachel Jean who works at SPP, she used to work at TV3 where I work.

You TV people are so incestuous.

J: So she was talking to Kura and saying, you should go for this funding for this comedy thing, I know a Māori guy who can write and perform. And that was me! I ended up directing as well.

C: Kura are awesome, they’ve got lots of projects on the go which we’re all kind of tied to now, they’re like our kaupapa factory.

Coco Solid aka reporter Hine Williams busts open the secret world of women who over-achieve.

What was the Only In Aotearoa writing table like?

J: At first it was just brainstorming, we got 10 people in a room and sat around a table. This is kind of the second series, because it was a webseries first. There was a list of ideas leftover from that. Then everyone just pitched stuff and we came up with 60-odd ideas for sketches. We culled back the writers to only five of us, and then we went away and wrote scripts on our own.

C: I remember there was one day where I was laughing for about four hours straight. It was really painful. It’s hot and cold, and people are telling each other to shaddup and going, no that sucks, or OK, I can see where you’re going. But I’m pretty sure 80% of the show came out of this one afternoon. There was a lot of indigenous anxiety and migrant anxiety. How do you industrialise trauma into something snack-sized? And alchemise it so other people can go, ‘haha me too, now I don’t feel so bad.’

J: And that’s something me, Pax and James have been doing for the past three years. Writing live sketch comedy and talking about race quite a bit. What was the term? ‘Industrialising trauma’.

C: Monetising trauma too. When I can monetise my trauma, I’m very happy.

A lot of the sketches in the show are about being brown in New Zealand, but a large proportion is specifically Māori culture and humour. What were James and Pax’s take on that?

J: They were all in on that. They’re pretty woke. They’re real sympathetic to indigenous struggles. They experience struggles from having immigrant backgrounds and some of them weirdly relate. I have so much more in common with people with migrant backgrounds than I do with Pākehā New Zealanders, which I didn’t realise until I started hanging out with them.

I think the Brown Mum Mafia sketch really illustrated that well. The Māori experience is different from the Pākehā experience, but the ‘brown’ experience is kind of universal.

C: Also, it’s a different relationship with matriarchy, right? It’s not a ‘women are seen and not heard’ situation. As if! So we had to work with the correlations culturally between all of us and make them productive and enjoyable. One of the key ones was family.

J: Me and Pax and James have already connected on a lot of those things, the similarities growing up.

Jamaine Ross, Pax Assadi and James Roque

What do you find funny when you watch TV?

J: I used to love watching all comedy but recently I’ve been really into minorities in comedy and different experiences. I banged Atlanta hard, and the one I’m hooked on at the moment is Insecure with Issa Rae. It’s so good. It’s mainly about being an educated black woman living in LA. It’s awesome seeing real stories about minorities, written and made by them. Think of something like The Cosby Show… Oh, maybe that’s a bad example.

You’re going to have to update your references.

J: But you know, back in the day it was white people making shows about black people. The shows I like, they’re influenced and made by the people they’re about.

C: Same, just really into the amplified, marginalised voice, whatever that looks like. That’s a shapeshifting thing based around race and gender and orientation. I just want to see something new! Anything that diverges from the dominant worldview that I’ve had to deep throat all my life.

J: But at the same time, how dope was Friends, right?

C: I like the Jay Z black remix better. But like I said, I’m a buzz kill at the table! What attracted me to this rōpū is the kaupapa that’s centred around amplifying an alternative New Zealand take on what’s funny. It’s funny how people can appraise the show too. Some people be like, there’s this racially edgy show on. I’m like, you mean brown people wrote it? Yeah I guess. Because women have equal billing with the guys? I guess.

J: Exactly, you used the word ‘alternative’. For me and Pax and James, we’ve been doing comedy for six or seven years separately and three as a group. And it’s not alternative for us, it’s normal. That’s what we find funny and what we’ve grown up with.

C: I went to this writers festival in Australia last year and they put me on a panel called Diverse Writers. No lie, this was the first question: ‘What’s it like being a diverse writer?’

It’s like, when time time stands still and you know you’re gonna pop off, and you have to take five or six seconds to be like, do these people deserve me to teach them something or should I just go ‘It’s good!’? But I went in, and I said, ‘when you ask if I’m a diverse writer, what you’re implying is that I’m a diversion of the norm, or of the default. And I’m not a diversion. In my world, this is normal. This humour, this ideology, this worldview. This is the default. You have to stop prescribing that to us. I mean, we are refreshing!

Also, one person can’t be diverse. A group of people are diverse. That’s not even correct English.

C: I know! At a writer’s festival! I gotta teach you grammar as well? You’re gonna have to up the fee. But that’s the story of our lives as we move through these markets and these mediums. If you don’t have the energy to explain it, you have to act it. Be about it in what you make. It’s like the show. You don’t always have time to explain these idiosyncrasies that unite marginalised groups in Aotearoa, you just have to make a sketch comedy show, hopefully they’ll get something out of it.

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