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A merry Christmas chat with comedy legends Tom Sainsbury and Chris Parker

Alex Casey chats to Chris Parker and Tom Sainsbury about putting on The Basement’s now-institutional Christmas show, and how to survive the holiday season.

Unlike Santa’s darkest truth, it’s no secret that writers and performers Chris Parker and Tom Sainsbury are two of the funniest people in Auckland. At any given moment, their comedic powers are being harnessed for the theatre (Camping), the television (Jono and Ben, Funny Girls, Super City) or the internet (Stake Out). More recently they’ve been decking the halls of The Basement for the annual Christmas show, a notoriously raucous and hilarious night out that features celebrity cameos, frequent improvisation and suitably festive lashings of alcohol from punters.

I caught up with the pair in the midst of the Christmas chaos to talk comedy, mall Santas and slap on sunnies. They did a lot of silly voices and Chris nearly fell off his stool twice. Safe to say, I laughed enough to keep me going well into the New Year.

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The cast of The Opening Night Before Christmas: Brynley Stent, Tom Sainsbury, Kura Forrester and Byron Coll

Merry Christmas to the both of you.

Chris Parker: Merry Chris-

Tom Sainsbury: [singing] -Christmas, Merry Christmas

CP: [sings even louder] MERRYY CHRISTMAASS

I’m feeling very festive this week, are you guys getting into it yet?

CP: I’m a big fan of the neon glass paintings that you see in the windows of a butcher shop with like a really weird Santa and his eyes are like [Chris’ eyes look in different directions]. ‘Tis the yuletide spirit.

TS: Fake snow in the corners of the window is always good.

Tell me about your Christmas show at The Basement.

TS: It’s set in Levin, where every year they’ve been putting on the same Christmas show for the past 20 years. This year, the director Rosa-Lynne Martin Shanks went to the World of Wearable Art Awards down in Wellington and was just inspired by how amazing it was. She’s come back and has written this really gritty script that throws everyone into the dark side of Christmas. Also, she’s organised for this celebrity guest to come from Auckland to be a part of the show. So every night, we have a new celebrity guest who joins us. They haven’t been given any prep or anything, it’s all improv.

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A selection of the celebrity guests on offer.

Your shows are always super fun and rowdy, what’s been the biggest drunken intrusion in your time doing the Christmas shows?

CP: Remember when we did Hauraki Horror? There was this woman who stood up and yelled “I KNOW YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT ME!”

TS: She was yelling so much that we had to stop the play and she was ushered out.

CP: I love thinking about her waking up and being like [yawn] “ahhh, what did I do last night?” with all her kids crawling over her for breakfast. She probably has no idea that she ruined the night but also kind of made it. That’s the nature of the beast really, you know you are going to get drunk crowds.

TS: It’s basically one step away from yelling “he’s behind you” at those old British pantomimes.

Let’s talk improv: what advice would you have to give someone like me who really hates being called upon for audience participation? How do you not blow it?

TS: Forget about the laughter. Forget about the comedy thing.

CP: The worst thing is when people try really hard to be funny. You’re in a system where people are going to work with whatever you give, so even a wrong answer is right. The worst thing you can do is not offer anything. It’s better to go strong and wrong than do nothing.

TS: ‘Strong and Wrong: The Chris Parker Story’

CP: No, my autobiography is going to be ‘More Tinsel Than Tree’ by Christmas Parker.

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Rose Matafeo and Chris Parker in Funny Girls

The last time I saw you Chris, you were in the middle of writing Funny Girls and we had a chat about political correctness and comedy, and how worrying about not offending anyone was making it hard to write. How do you cope with that?

CP: [gasps] I’ve just realised we haven’t even talked to the people of Levin about this show.

TS: You’re always going to offend someone, especially in comedy. It’s always easy to punch up. If someone’s white, it’s much easier to take the piss out of. If someone’s rich or middle class, it’s even easier.

CP: Yeah. We’re never going to write Once Were Warriors: The Christmas Show. It’s all about who deserves to be laughed at, and if it is fair to be laughing from your position in society. Plus, we mostly make fun of dicks.

TS: I love people who are affected. Like, people who portray themselves in a certain way that is not very genuine. That thin disguise.

CP: I find greed really funny at the moment. Those people who pretend they aren’t hungry but are secretly plowing into the chips on the table. Or, when you are sharing food and someone wants their own plate because they’re worried about how much food they’re going to get. I just think that’s so relatable.

TS: Also, on the flipside, there’s that person who is judging the person who is hogging the chips and is going to hold that resentment. You know it’s just going to come out later, they’ll go home with their partner and quietly say “did you see how much so-and-so was eating?”

CP: “Karen was a hoot wasn’t she?… Eats a lot though…”

TS: “The food was lovely wasn’t it?… Didn’t get so much of it…”

I have a question about productivity, the two of you seem to be involved in so much and create such consistently hilarious work. How the hell do you do it all?

TS: Well, I don’t have a job so I have those extra 40 hours that people don’t have. Chris and I just set ourselves these deadlines and say “yep, we’ll do the Christmas show again” and then you just have to get it done. Poor Chris, there was one point where he was working on Jono and Ben and Funny Girls filming all day, and then 11-2am was doing a pass on the script.

CP: The hardest thing when you are working that hard is that you just don’t feel funny anymore. You just sit there like, ‘I don’t even know what a joke is’.

TS: We definitely always have that last hope as well, especially with the webseries, that we can make it funny on the day.

CP: I’d also recommend having someone that you can bounce ideas off. Mostly we just sit in a room and joke and laugh.

[Chris nearly falls backward off his stool for the second time]

CP: Wow that gave me such a jolt. I feel like a new man now. I need to figure out what I’m going to do with my new life. I’ve gotta go, I’ve got to go back to Christchurch, that’s where I want to be.

Before you go: I have some quick fire Christmas questions. Best present you ever received?

CP: A Pokemon book. I didn’t even like it that much, I just really wanted the book because it had holographic bits on it.

TS: I love that. As an adult, a portable speaker. God, I’ve used it so much. As a child, those slap wrist bracelets. I loved those.

And… worst present?

CP: My mum gave me a pencil sharpener once that looked like a nose.

TS: Can I tell you the worst one that I gave? I gave crystals to my cousin once. 

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The cast of The Opening Night Before Christmas

Best TV show or movie to watch Christmas Day?

TS: The Queen’s message with my family, every Christmas. There’s always an argument every time, “is it 6.10 that it begins or is it 6- oh, it’s on its on it’s on!”

CP: Every. Single. Time.

When did you find out the truth about Santa?

TS: My sister told me when I was about eight and I refused to believe it for about three years.

CP: I remember my family like sat around the dinner table and Mum was like ‘now Chris, I have something to tell you. The Easter Bunny isn’t real… and neither is Santa.” I just screamed “but his name is Saint Nick! He’s a SAINT! and stormed out.

Finally, do you have any Christmas hacks?

CP: I’ve got a big family, so I would suggest the one person = one present model. It’s a kind of communist way of doing it, but it saves money and it’s easy to organise.

Actually, did I tell you that I was a mall Santa for three years? I’ve had my photo taken with thousands of children on my lap. I trained with all the mall Santas of Auckland; we had to watch this video about appropriate touching and stuff. Here’s an inside scoop: Smith and Caughey’s has three Santas on the go at any one time to keep the line moving.

TS: Now that’s a great Christmas hack.


The Opening Night Before Christmas runs until December 22 at The Basement Theatre in Auckland, click here to buy tickets

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