Alex Casey spends a surprisingly emotional Sunday morning in the studio audience of the longest-running kids’ show in Aotearoa.
You’d think we were in the middle of a dramatic home birth. “DOES ANYONE HAVE MORE TOWELS,” someone yells across the room, hastily balling up fabric oozing with hot pink and bright orange goo. “MORE TOWELS?!” another pleaded to the heavens. Within seconds, there are more towels. And mops. And dozens of people on their hands knees cleaning up a cursed elixir of gunge and foam. After more than four decades on air, What Now is still as messy and chaotic as ever.
The day that I’m invited to the What Now studio – filmed at Whitebait Media in Ōtautahi – is also the final episode for presenter Erin Wells. She’s been on the show for over five years, and her farewell is such a big deal that the entire studio audience is packed out entirely with her friends and family – and me. We file into the bleachers as she excitedly waves and greets all her favourite people in the world. And me, a nobody with nothing to her name but a notepad.
When we are seated just after 8am on a Sunday morning, my barely-opened eyes threaten to close forever when confronted by the sheer volume of colour and texture in front of me. LED screens filled with undulating gunge. A twinkling backdrop of stars. Balloons. Neons. Was What Now always this bright? I think back to the last time I was in a What Now studio audience – Avalon Studios, Lower Hutt, circa 1999. I see only primary colours and me proudly wearing a USA hoodie that’s aged really, really badly.
These were, of course, the heady days of Props Boy and “Fill Ya Pants”, Farty and Shavaughn, Serial Stuff and a… chef? Was there really an in-studio chef? My eyes adjust to the bright lights and I realise there’s a replica wharenui frontage in the studio that is lined with all the old What Now logos. It’s a reminder of the true legacy of our longest-running kids’ show, which still goes live every Sunday morning – and did so even through nationwide lockdowns.
Although I swear everything is so much brighter now, much is still the same. There’s still tele-ops taking calls in studio, although far fewer than in 1999. Everyone wants to talk about progress, but nobody wants to talk about the impact of technological advances on the tele-op industry. Gunge remains central to the What Now brand, as does having an inexplicable primate presence (Shakespeare (not that one) back in my day; Camilla the Gorilla now).
A lot has also changed. For starters, at least for one more episode, the show is hosted by two women in Erin Wells and Stella Maris – the first female hosting duo in the show’s history. As they rehearse their opening musical number together with dozens of dancers, it’s clear this is going to be an emotional rollercoaster. “I’m crying already,” says Stella, dabbing her eyes. Erin asks if they can take photos together before things get “messy”, which would prove to be a very smart move.
Before long, the show is live. The dancers are doing it for real, and Erin and Stella are crying for real. I didn’t think when I sat down to watch a What Now taping I’d be left choking up at the depth and power of female friendship, but this show has always been full of surprises. Speaking of, Camilla the Gorilla brings out a basket full of Erin’s favourite things, including raspberry Pepsi, chicken nuggets and rainbow cake. The Pepsi threatens to fizz over.
“Argh!” cackles Stella, “this is going to be like Justin Bieber all over again.”
Once the live show is underway, it’s remarkable what a delicate dance the whole studio crew has to do. Last minute script changes are scrawled on the back of scrap paper and held up next to the camera. “HAS ANYONE SEEN A SCRIPT WITH BLACK VIVID ON THE BACK OF IT?” Stella yells during an ad break. “IT’S VERY IMPORTANT!” On What Now everything is constantly in motion, everyone constantly mucking in to pick up a cable or wipe up some gunge.
There remains a head-spinning number of segments and games, including a prize draw from Sneaky the Kiwi which looks a lot like Powerball for kids, the jackpot being a trip to Sāmoa. “I have no perception of time in here,” an audience member mutters. “It’s like a casino.” Indeed, the wins are stacking up – Cirque on Ice tickets here, cricket set there. A little fellow waits patiently in a chamber to be gunged, arguably the most prestigious prize of all.
Things get extremely emotional when there’s a supercut of kids who have sent in their farewell messages for Erin. “Hi Erin, you really inspire me,” says one, “maybe one day I’d like to be on What Now too.” “We’ll really, really miss you,” waves another. Erin is inconsolable, and frankly so am I. “I remember all of you,” she sobs. She is so beloved that someone even named their cat after her, a perfect time to bring a bunch of impossibly cute kittens into the studio. Why am I crying?
In the final episode of Interstella, the modern episodic equivalent of Serial Stuff, Erin’s character makes an exodus to outer space and leaves her best alien friend, Stella, behind. In the studio, the real Erin and Stella are arm in arm. A digital tear counter on screen is in the double digits now, and there’s even more to come as her former co-host perform a live song in studio, her family and friends piling into the background. I hang back – probably not the time to introduce myself.
In keeping with the long, messy history of What Now, Erin’s final words on the show are poignant: “MESS ME UP PLEASE AND THANK YOU!” By the end, her pale pink overalls are soaked in orange gunge, her hair slick with with foam. The cameras stop rolling and the floor manager announces “we’re clear for Erin”. The studio erupts into applause and tears, and I slip out quietly past the festivities. ‘Be careful,” a crew member whispers. “It’s slippery.”
It’s been a tremendous journey of glitter and gunge, singing, dancing and an unprecedented amount of crying. I’ve witnessed the cutest kittens in the world and the most charitable gorilla of them all. I’ve been to the depths of outer space, backstage at Cirque on Ice, and even nearly to Sāmoa. My bleary eyes adjust once more to the dull grey of the concrete Christchurch carpark. It’s only 9.32am on a Sunday morning and I have just two small words to ask myself: what now?