James Acaster

The quiet problem with New Zealand’s comedy audiences

This year’s International Comedy Festival was a roaring success, but some comedians have turned the spotlight on audiences. Are they too timid? Do our hecklers suck? Josie Adams sizes things up.

When Netflix star James Acaster closed his last show of the Auckland International Comedy Festival, he ended with a confession: “This is only the third show I’ve made it all the way to the end.” It was the final statement in a show about the worst year of his life. The implication was clear: New Zealand audiences weren’t laughing as long as other crowds. The internationally-renowned comedy heavyweight had ended previous nights up to 20 minutes early. For the record and to his credit, he went 20 minutes overtime on his last show.

Part of the show was about resenting New Zealand audiences. While he was joking, there was a ring of truth to what he said about us forcing modesty on him. You don’t finish a show early because you’re confident.

Several nights earlier there had been a heckling. Acaster allegedly called the guy a “dickhead” and a “loser”. It’s unclear exactly what the heckler said to deserve this, but we’re sure he did. He tweeted afterwards: “For a guy discussing mental health etc I thought you were pretty harsh to me.”

Did he think Acaster would go easy on him because he understood mental health? Did he think Acaster would vibe with the unstoppable urge to ruin a moment for 700 people? Did he think struggling with mental health equated being a total pushover? All these rhetorical questions and more wait to be unpacked. The audience laughed a good Kiwi level of loud – a couple of notches above ‘eerie’ – through the entire rollercoaster of interaction.

Another international guest, Aaron Chen, flew in from the exotic shores of Sydney to find our audiences were giving him imposter syndrome. “One night the audience was laughing at everything and I felt really good about it, but also felt it didn’t reflect how good I was that night,” he lamented. Again, the laughter remained at a constant throughout an ever-changing set.

Comparing our audiences to those on the other side of the pond, Chen was relatively positive. “Melbourne audiences are pretty touchy but also very knowledgeable. Sydney audiences are very honest and won’t give you imposter syndrome. Auckland audiences are kind, I feel, but a bit reserved.”

Kiwi comedian/poet Brendon Green acknowledges this as classic behaviour. “A Kiwi audience will sit in silence with their hands crossed for an entire show, and then tell you afterwards it was the best thing they’ve ever seen. And they will mean it!”

Aaron Chen performing a classic gag on Comedy Up Late.

While his solo shows went well, the Breakout Comedy line up showed him a less reserved side of local crowds. “I was talking about soccer and then someone in the audience yelled for me to do jokes about ping pong instead,” he said, revealing the worst heckle ever conceived in the Basement Theatre. Aside from that, a couple of subdued audiences were the only downers.

Subdued audiences are great for fostering hecklers, who are summoned by pauses in the laughter to prove they’ve got more guts than the crowd and more jokes than the comedian. During a show, local comedian Hamish Parkinson brought on David Farrier on as a surprise guest. The gag was getting his Mum’s favourite Kiwi celebrity wrong (it was David Fane).

The crowd winced in the presence of a celebrity. We’ve all been trained not to acknowledge them, but Parkinson was embarrassing him. It was a good gag. A woman in the third row, emboldened by her cool haircut, took advantage of a pause in the script. “David,” she yelled out, “I’ll pay you to get me a wine.”

“Oh,” he mumbled. “OK.” He went and got her a wine. There was no other course of action. He was stuck, like us, in a submissive role. She did not pay him. The woman in the third row had taken control.

This is one of Parkinson’s Big Audience No-Nos: don’t try and take control of a performance. Later in the show, he would single her out as someone who could consider shutting the fuck up. When asked what that moment was about, Parkinson could only state the facts: “She wanted a Sav, I guess. And she was a loudmouth.”

Hamish Parkinson and Ryan Richards, also known as Fuq Boiz, in a classic scrape.

Sometimes, that’s all that’s wrong with an audience: one loudmouth. “You try, as a performer, to be accommodating and bring people into your world, but that’s an almost impossible hurdle to get over with some people,” said Parkinson. “We are social creatures, so you want the audience to be almost a unified person.” This year’s audiences have been less unity, more litty.

He’s experienced more chatty audiences than in previous years. “It’s annoying for the audience and for the performer; it takes you out of the flow and the world of the performance. I’ve had cute examples where someone is explaining jokes to someone hard of hearing. That’s fine, but chatter is rude.”

In a room full of individuals, the audience needs to come together and stamp out heckling as a community – even when it’s just a drinks order. Comedians may come out guns blazing, slinging interaction bullets with hecklers names’ on, but it’s all for show. “We are trying to be open,” confided Parkinson, “and sometimes quite vulnerable.”

He’s reminded of a time he was betrayed by an audience. He chose to interact with an event organiser, someone he thought would have his back. They didn’t. “They sassed me, interrupted joke patterns, each time I brought them in they got more hostile.” He lost the room. “Inside I just broke. I didn’t trust the person who booked me, therefore I lost a lot of trust in the audience. That’s too hard to come back from.”

Local musical comedy duo The Fan Brigade (Livi Reihana and Amanda Mitchell) feel that if Auckland audiences are critical or subdued, it could be because they’re spoiled for choice. “Some audiences are more comedy-savvy these days and can get bored with the same old thing,” they explained. “We do hear complaints about ‘pale, male & stale’ lineups and all-male or overly male-heavy or all-white lineups, and perhaps resistance to that is what some international comedians are finding a challenge.” The comedy scene in New Zealand is thriving, with unprecedented diversity and quality available.

Livi Reihana and Amanda Mitchell of The Fan Brigade.

That being said, The Fan Brigade loves their audiences, which are “smart, enthusiastic and up for it.” At most of their shows, you can find plenty of knee-slapping and lung-busting, but the pair are also comfortable with a subdued reaction, echoing Chen’s yearning to earn an honest laugh. “If they are silent for someone, that’s OK. Audiences aren’t there as the comedian’s puppets.”

All a performer wants to do is have a relationship with a room of people. “Sometimes that’s hard, and sometimes that’s easy,” said Parkinson, who adores the vast majority of his crowds. Most audiences in New Zealand agree that laughing at jokes is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ve also agreed to let hecklers have their moments.

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TV’s Angella Dravid might have an explanation. She thinks that New Zealanders make for a timid audience. “I think we are afraid of laughing in comedy shows,” she explained. “For a lot of audiences, no one wants to be the lone laugh in the room. There is an overwhelming fear of being labelled and mocked by your laugh, or in some way given an unwanted spotlight.”

The timid mindset gets more complicated as hecklers enter the equation. “No one likes the confident heckler in the room,” agreed Dravid, “but it’s a dichotomy of giving the performer undivided attention, and laughing as a response.” Audiences freeze up in these moments and stick to what they know – a humble chuckle.

On the last night of his Auckland run, Chen asked his audience to let up a little. It was getting in the way. “You guys are too masochistic,” he said. “James Acaster has a funny bit on it.”

 


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