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Barbie who? (Image: YouTube / Design: Archi Banal)
Barbie who? (Image: YouTube / Design: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureJuly 20, 2023

Before the Barbie movie, there was What Now’s Serial Stuff

Barbie who? (Image: YouTube / Design: Archi Banal)
Barbie who? (Image: YouTube / Design: Archi Banal)

The world has gone bonkers over Barbie, but 25 years ago New Zealand made a doll drama of its own. Tara Ward speaks to Andrew Gunn, writer of What Now’s Serial Stuff.

Grab hold of Lifeguard Ken, because the entire planet seems to have been swept away in a pink tsunami of hype for the new Barbie movie. We can’t leave our own dreamhouses without seeing Margot Robbie’s Barbie rocking some snazzy pink outfit, or Barbie and Ken rollerblading their way to true love, or Barbie hooning off for a wild adventure to somewhere called “the real world”. Who would have thought an unlikely story about a plastic doll could captivate so many? 

For kids who watched What Now in the 1990s, it’s a familiar scene. Serial Stuff was the original show about the highs and lows of life as a doll, airing three days a week on What Now PM. It quickly became a Kiwi classic.

Much like the Barbie universe, the characters of Serial Stuff lived in a cartoony world of saturated colours, perfect plastic hair and hot pink gingham, but their “real world” adventures were next level. Barbie might have a convertible, but these guys had a campervan.

Each three-and-a-half minute episode of Serial Stuff was a fever dream of comedy, and a generation of New Zealand children rushed home after school to watch the latest antics of Outdoor Trevor, Sport Susie and Xerox Warrior Prince. In the outside world, they were just normal dolls, but when they were inside, a magical transformation occurred. These dolls became humans, living absurd lives of drama, intrigue and suspense, and everyone knew you didn’t mess with Manly Jack and Lifestyle Sharon.

Even though it was the 90s, they would have kicked Barbie and Ken’s arses. You don’t end up in Te Papa if you’re not a New Zealand legend. 

Outdoor Trevor, Sport Susie and Xerox Warrior Prince on a trip to Sydney (Screengrab: YouTube)

Andrew Gunn knows how to tell the stories of a half-doll, half-human better than anyone. Gunn was working as a staff writer in the TVNZ children’s department when director Chris Clarkson created the show in the late 90s, and fell into the role of writing the scripts. “I was the person on staff whose only skill was a writer,” he says. “Basically they went, ‘you can be the writer on this,’ and I wrote every episode from then on.” 

The show’s core characters were all played by What Now presenters. Outdoor Trevor (Anthony Samuels), “not very outdoor at all”. Manly Jack (Steve Joll), “pompous-arse superhero, the mansplainer of his time”. Sport Susie (Shavaughn Ruakere), “thick as a whale omelette”. Confused viking Xerox Warrior Prince (Jason Fa’afoi) and sharp-tongued Lifestyle Sharon (Fiona Anderson). Several minor characters also appeared through the show’s run, like Mr Evil Trevor’s Dad, the wicked Bad Bobbie Jo, Commander Roger Darling, Lady Laura Flashheart and upper-class horse lover Amanda Parker-Rowles.

For more than 500 episodes, these characters never strayed from type. Serial Stuff was built on a series of running gags, repeating themes and cartoon sound effects, the type of colourful comedy that Gunn compares to commedia dell’arte. “You know when each character turns up what’s going to happen,” he says. From the ongoing love affair between Manly Jack and Sport Susie, to Sport Susie’s trademark greeting “HUI UVURYONE, UT’S MUI”, kids watched Serial Stuff knowing they were going to see something joyfully ridiculous, with a heartwarming soundtrack of a thousand squelchy fart noises. 

Lifestyle Sharon always loved the fart noises (Screengrab: YouTube)

Serial Stuff was a cheap and cheerful show where anything could happen, and as the only writer, Gunn had a huge amount of freedom. “We weren’t making high drama, we were just churning out entertainment,” he says. His only rule? Keep it funny. They would film three to six episodes at a time, and amid the scandals, giant squids and occasional adult joke, Gunn would end each block with a juicy cliffhanger. He had no idea what would happen next, but it didn’t matter. “I’d just come back the next Monday going, ‘well, how are we going to get out of this one?’” 

“It was just completely over the top melodrama,” he laughs. “Goodies and baddies and evil plans and thwarted romance and physical comedy and silly catchphrases and slapstick. I think that’s just timeless. Kids love that.”  

Layered through the farty melodrama were jokes aimed at a more mature audience (“kiss me! Kiss me on the mouth!” Lifestyle Sharon orders Manly Jack in one episode). “The kids were definitely our main audience, but occasionally in the dialogue, we’d throw in a little bit of innuendo, things that were a little ‘what? What did they say?’” Gunn remembers. “It doesn’t matter if you are seven or 87, you’ll find it funny. So that’s what we were going for.”

Another day in paradise (Screengrab: Facebook)

Gunn doesn’t know exactly how many Serial Stuff episodes he wrote in total, but he does remember celebrating the show’s 500th episode. He also remembers the Serial Stuff Story of Christmas, which was a half-hour special featuring Jesus, Mary and Manly Jack as a Roman centurion. “Manly Jack just sort of swaggered in and said ‘Sorry I’m late, I’ve been putting down an uprising in the Balkans. Sweaty work!’” Gunn chuckles. “I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds great.” 

That Christmas special has tragically been lost to the sands of time, like most of Serial Stuff. There are precious few episodes floating around online – including this incredible one-hour special that was originally sold on VHS and this behind the scenes episode – while others were hunted down by a dedicated fan. Sadly, Gunn is quick to crush any hopes that Manly Jack is guarding a secret vault somewhere filled with Serial Stuff classics. “I’d love to think there is, but back in the day the show was recorded to tape and then the tape was used again for other stuff.”

In 2021, Serial Stuff rose again for a special 10-episode run on What Now, with Samuels, Fa’afoi and Ruakere reviving their beloved characters. Gunn looks back on his time working on New Zealand’s iconic doll drama with great fondness. “It was just a wonderful team of people working together and having fun,” he says.

As the next generation of children get hyped up about a movie where dolls turn into people, Gunn is thrilled that New Zealanders still remember that wonderfully silly show from all those years ago. “We know kids were watching this and having a laugh and brightening up their day,” he says. “I’m just so pleased about that.”

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