What began as an easy way of filling time during Covid-19 lockdown has blossomed into a primetime television show. Guy Montgomery tells Tara Ward that being a good speller is no guarantee of success on Guy Mont Spelling Bee.
Guy Montgomery assures me he is good at spelling. “It was one of the things I would hang my hat on as a young boy,” the comedian and star of Taskmaster NZ says, launching into a story about how he would copy the work of the child sitting beside him at school, until the day he realised the other kid had spelled “vehicle” incorrectly. Now that stirring memory of spelling success has taken Montgomery all the way from primary school to the television studio, with the premiere of his new comedy panel show Guy Montgomery’s Guy Mont Spelling Bee.
Spelling Bee is a high energy romp through a linguistic battlefield that celebrates the joy of spelling like no New Zealand show has before. Each episode sees four local comedians compete to spell everyday words of varying levels of difficulty, from “Adam Parore” to “marijuana” to “NBA”. The challenging part? “The only thing they have to help them is their brains,” Montgomery warns in episode one, before sending the brave contestants into an hour-long intellectual obstacle course filled with moments of both shame and glory.
Montgomery hosts the show, which means his spelling is never in question, a position he delights in. “It’s so fun to have people I admire come on the show and I can, in a very trivial way, make their life really frustrating.” Episode one stars Josh Thomson, Hayley Sproull, Matt Heath and Abby Howells, while later episodes feature comedians like Bubbah, Audrey Porne, Courtney Dawson, Urzila Carlson and David Correos. In every episode, Montgomery is assisted by his trusty sidekick Sanjay Patel, the Paul Williams to his Jeremy Wells. It’s an eclectic mix of experienced and upcoming talent, with Montgomery using the power of spelling to introduce viewers to a variety of New Zealand comedians.
Spelling Bee hits our screens at a time when we need something light and fun to escape into, so it’s fitting that the show grew from an idea Montgomery had when he too needed a distraction. During the first Covid-19 lockdown of 2020, Montgomery found himself isolated from his comedy community, and decided an online spelling competition was the ideal way to connect with comedians around the world.
A longtime follower of the Scripps national spelling bee, Montgomery knew the potential for spelling comedy was huge; with every word, spellers can ask for either a language of origin, definition and to hear the word in a sentence. “Immediately, you’ve got three joke opportunities to branch off every single word, and seeing that, I was thinking, ‘oh, there’s quite a lot of fun here’,” he says. “Also, it would occupy me. During those long days and weeks, it would give me something to do.”
All Montgomery needed was a pro Zoom account and some comedian mates who wanted nothing more than to spell “giraffe” from the comfort of their own homes. At first, a few hundred people watched the spelling bees live on YouTube, but over time, bigger audiences began responding to the simple pleasure of watching funny people have a laugh spelling wacky words. When the world began to open up, Montgomery expanded the concept into a stage show and took it to the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and then teamed up with a production company Kevin & Co. (Taskmaster NZ, New Zealand Today) and comedian Joseph Moore to develop the idea into a television show. Three years on, Montgomery is blown away by the organic journey of his initial lockdown vision. “To go from a Zoom, to having the best people working on it at all these different parts, was pretty overwhelming.”
Spelling might seem like an odd topic for a TV show, but Montgomery reckons it’s something we all have in common. “There’s a false equivalence inside all of us that spelling is a reflection of something greater, but it’s really not. It’s just a reflection of your ability to spell,” he says. “Everybody spells, is what I’m saying.” Spelling Bee is nothing like those spelling tests we all had at primary school, which means you don’t have to be a good speller to enjoy the show. In fact, the dodgier your spelling abilities, the more fun you’ll probably have, and this unpredictability makes it a delight to watch. “Good spellers performed abysmally on this show, and people who probably thought of themselves as bad spellers won some episodes,” Montgomery says.
Part of the joy of Spelling Bee is seeing comedians take spelling extremely seriously, despite the silliness of the competition. In episode one, Montgomery asks each of the comedians to spell a missing word from their social media updates from the late 2000s, while in another round, each player chooses a word to spell from either the “Coward’s Cup” or the “Bucket of Bravery”. Josh Thomson roars with frustration as he misspells “kaleidoscope”, while Hayley Sproull dances after successfully spelling “waiporoporo”. The winner of each episode continues on to the next, while the player with the fewest points sits in the Dunce’s Corner, wearing the dreaded cone of spelling shame.
The show radiates the same kind of chaotic energy you see on Taskmaster, which is no accident. Montgomery describes his time on Taskmaster NZ as the best job he’s had, and he wanted Spelling Bee to replicate the same type of inclusive comedy that brings out the best in the performers. He loves the affectionate way that Taskmaster tries to wrong-foot its contestants, and knows the value of creating comedy that’s deliberately non-topical. Spelling Bee works regardless of where you are or what’s going on in the world, and Montgomery is grateful his fellow comedians trust him enough to appear on the show without any knowledge of what’s in store. “It’s the total freedom of just arriving and being given these opportunities to have so much fun.”
What began as a humble lockdown time-filler has grown into something beyond what Montgomery ever hoped. “That’s part of what I find so incredible about the show is that in its genesis, there was really no ambition or understanding that it might make it this far, that it might develop its own life. It’s incredibly gratifying.” Ultimately, Montgomery hopes Spelling Bee will give its audience a fresh perspective on language and words, while also introducing them to new local comedians and a comedy format that’s uniquely New Zealand. “It’s a rarity. We don’t have a lot in the way of original panel comedy shows and so I really hope that people embrace it and enjoy it,” he says.
Guy Montgomery’s Guy Mont Spelling Bee might just be the vehicle for a good time, at the right time. His pandemic dream of making people laugh over letters is about to come true on a whole new level, and he couldn’t be prouder. “I hope people will have as much fun watching it as we did making it,” he says. “I can’t believe we got to do it, and it really was a total blast.”
Guy Montgomery’s Guy Mont Spelling Bee premieres on Thursday 16 February at 7.30pm on Three and streams on ThreeNow.