Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

Summer 2022January 1, 2023

‘Please tell me that is not your penis’: The oral history of Shortland Street’s best line

Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

Summer read: In 2017 Chris Warner uttered a phrase that rang out from Ferndale, across the internet, all the way to Jimmy Kimmel. Here’s how it came to be. 

First published February 13, 2022.

It was the penis-based plea heard around the world. New Zealand’s longest-running soap opera Shortland Street is known for odd moments and memorable characters, but what happened on our television screens five years ago today was something else entirely. It was electric. It was startling. It was just a beet-red man, holding an unbranded tablet, begging his ashen-faced son to tell him that the photo he was looking at was not a photo of his penis.

Ending on Harry Warner’s guilty gaze and the iconic Shortland Street drums, the episode was left on a cliffhanger unlike any other: had a photograph of Harry Warner’s penis accidentally been synced to the family tablet?

The scene quickly set the internet alight, inspiring remixes, memes and the piece de resistance for any New Zealand cultural export: an appearance on an American late night talk show. It became the quote of the year in 2017. It amassed millions of views on YouTube. But how did the line “please tell me that is not your penis” come to be? And how do those involved conceive of the earth-shattering cultural moment, five years on? 

PART ONE: ‘This was the perfect modern situation’

Nick Malmholt, executive producer at Shortland Street, was working as a script producer in 2017. At Shortland Street, scripts begin with the storylining team, then are sent to the dialogue writers. Every script that rolled off the printer would then go to Nick for final sign-off. 

Nick Malmholt (writer): I would always sit down with the team and we’d say “Is this working? Is this true or funny or smart, or modern or savvy?” This storyline was broadly about Harry and his girlfriend Lily, and his father Chris being worried that his son was coming of age and losing his virginity. It was a sensitive story that was well told at the storyline stage, and it was well scripted at the script stage, but looking at it on the page it felt old-fashioned. It didn’t feel fresh, it felt like we could write something that was just funnier and sharper and much more in the “now”.  

Shortland Street writers Nick Malmholt and Maxine Fleming at work. Image: Supplied

Reid Walker (Harry Warner): Harry’s coming-of-age storyline had been kind of unusual up to that point, and there had been moments in that whole arc that had been very slapstick. I remember there was a moment when Harry and Lily were having a very cute, innocent picnic date on the beach. She’s like “can you rub some sunblock on me” and then does something remotely sexy and Harry squeezes the sunblock that shoots out onto the sand, basically. 

Malmholt (writer): Back then, in 2017, we were all becoming really aware that everybody was on their smartphones and young people were exchanging pictures that they shouldn’t be. The sharing of pictures across devices was happening but no parent really knew what was going on or what to do about it. We thought this was the perfect modern situation – someone thinks they are doing a private thing with a girl they like, and what’s the most embarrassing thing that could happen? They could share that picture with their parents. 

We cooked up that whole new scenario on the fly. At the very last minute, we decided to introduce phones and social media into Harry’s coming-of-age story, and having things get out of hand from there. 

PART TWO: ‘That’s when ‘please tell me’ just popped into my head’

With a new storyline introduced at the last possible point of the process, Malmholt spontaneously got to work rewriting the script. He knew it needed something punchy, fresh and modern to close out the episode. 

Malmholt (writer): As I was writing the final scene between Harry and Chris, I was channeling all my own embarrassing moments with my parents, those tellings off that we’ve all had. It truly was a last minute spontaneous thing, just sort of following the feeling between Chris and Harry into this absurd and embarrassed state. Chris is just hoping and hoping that what he is looking at on the tablet isn’t really what he thinks it is, and challenging Harry to tell him that there is some other possible scenario – even though Chris knows deep down there is no other scenario.

Original variations on the line were a bit more generic shock: “I can’t believe this is your penis” or “What are you doing showing your penis” sort of thing. But it just didn’t have that sad, plaintive, absurd, hopeful, parental language construction. That’s when that structure of “please tell me” just popped into my head, and I just added a penis onto the end of that. It just felt unusual and fresh and I knew it was a good line. 

Nick Malmholt, the mind behind ‘please tell me’. Image: supplied

Even though I remember being amused by the line, it didn’t feel particularly special beyond that. It just felt light, sweet, amusing and truthful to the situation that we had come up with. It genuinely didn’t feel particularly significant. Of course, every week we are shooting around 100 scenes and some of them are serious and some are silly and some are sad – it was just one of many, many, many scenes.

PART THREE: ‘Doesn’t Chris want this to be Harry’s penis?’

With the new scripts printed and presented to the team, some questions were raised about both the syntax and the statement. Michael Galvin (Chris Warner) and Reid Walker (Harry Warner) were both amused by the line, but Galvin had some reservations around the phrasing. 

Michael Galvin (Chris Warner): I remember seeing that line and laughing out loud and thinking “oh great, I can’t wait to deliver this”. It was funny because it’s a slightly absurd thing to say, and of course Chris is in a very serious mode when he says it. That’s funny – that tension between saying something that’s very stupid but is nevertheless very serious for that character. 

Also, the word penis. It’s not really a rude word because it’s a part of human biology, but nevertheless there is a huge taboo around that word. You’re kind of getting away with saying a naughty word, or in this case saying it very emphatically, so there was that aspect to it. 

I do remember that I had a question around the phrasing of the line. I went down to Nick and I said “when Chris says ‘please tell me that is not your penis’ – doesn’t Chris want this to be Harry’s penis? Because otherwise he’s sending pictures of someone else’s penis, and isn’t that worse?” 

Malmholt (writer): There was a bit of discussion about the particular syntax of that line. The penis was never going to be taken out, so to speak, but the “please tell me that is not” came up for discussion because the phrasing of it was just a little bit odd. I strongly believed it was the slight oddness of the phrase that made it, so the writing team held our ground. 

Galvin (Chris Warner): Nick explained to me that Chris was not thinking logically in the moment, so the line just kind of leaves his mouth. What he is really saying is “I don’t want this to be happening” and it is. In that way it made a lot of sense for it to be a slightly confused statement. Nick was right – it was perfect how it was. 

PART FOUR: ‘Michael was doing it really, really big’

Shortland Street scripts are delivered to actors about two weeks ahead of the shoot day. Actors are used to shooting multiple scenes a day – sometimes more than 15 – so rehearsal time is always tight. For a small scene like PTMTINYP, Walker and Galvin had 15 minutes to rehearse. 

Galvin (Chris Warner): We didn’t really need a lot of time to rehearse it. Reid and I had been working together for so long that you sort of fall into a rhythm with each other. Our characters had so much shared history at that stage that we know we can just rely on that. There’s so much that had happened in Harry and Chris’s relationship that we could easily call on years and years of shenanigans that the two characters had been through together.

Chris and Harry have had many tense moments. Image: Supplied

Walker (Harry Warner): I remember Michael was doing it really, really big in rehearsal and trying to make it as slapstick as possible. Rehearsals are not so much about the line reading, but the blocks and the movements and what the director wants for the shot and all that sort of thing. Normally everything was always bigger in rehearsals and then you’d dial it in or tone it down when you actually go to shoot. 

PART FIVE: ‘It needs to be bigger’

When it came time to shoot, the actors had about 20 minutes on set and under five takes to nail the scene. Director Caroline Bell-Booth was aware that they were not dealing with a typical line of dialogue to end an episode, but both Reid and Walker were ready for the challenge.  

Galvin (Chris Warner): The line was very clearly written and it was very clear that we needed a tension in the scene – Chris had this thing that he was wanting to bring up but he can’t, and he is trying to be calm about it. But Harry is belligerent and defiant, so it all just sort of spews out of Chris. Sometimes when a scene is very clearly written, well-written like that, you get a real feel for how it should be delivered. Those are always fun to play. 

Chris goes bigger than big. Image: Supplied

Walker (Harry Warner): On that day we had to fall in line because we were shooting a lot of scenes and this was just one amongst them. It was sort of amusing, and we laughed a bit during rehearsal, but we held it together on set when it came to shooting. I remember Michael did a few versions that were more toned down, but then our director Caroline was like “it needs to be bigger”. Especially because it’s the end of the episode, you obviously want it to be dramatic because then it goes “dun dun dun” and all the theme music comes in. It was very hard not to laugh.

Galvin (Chris Warner): It was the last line of the episode, so I knew it needed a strong delivery and I knew I needed to emphasise the word “penis”. The delivery is quite musical and sing-song, that was intentional too. It’s like Chris knew what was coming so he tried to downplay it a bit, I think, saving it all for the killer line at the end. Basically, I was just having fun with the line and that’s how it turned out.

Caroline Bell-Booth (director): I knew that Michael would have to deliver it in an exasperated tone to hit the comedic beat. After encouraging him in that direction, we got the intended performance and moved on to the next shot without any fanfare – such is the nature of that show. 

Walker (Harry Warner): I had to do about three of four guilty reactions for the final frame. We would have definitely done it a couple of times, just to make sure we had options. I was pretty good at guilty looks by then though, because Harry was a little shit. It was just business as usual after that scene, honestly. This was 2017 so I had been on the show for eight years at that point. I wish I could say, “Yeah, we knew it, we knew we had just created a Kiwi icon, we could feel it in that moment.” But honestly, it was just another day at the office. Then we all just forgot about it.  

PART SIX: ‘A bit of a sexy joke gets the people going

Two months later on February 13, 2017, the episode went to air. It was a quiet Monday night, but social media was instantly set alight by a single line uttered by Chris Warner: “Please tell me that is not your penis.”

Malmholt (writer): We often check the Shortland Street Facebook page for social media reactions, and the response to that line was much bigger than I thought it would have been. It was kind of huge for our page. To be honest I always thought there would be some kind of reaction, because a bit of a sexy joke gets the people going. It was good that they were responding with levity, but I wasn’t expecting everyone to find it that fresh and new and absurd.

Walker (Harry Warner): I wasn’t watching my own episodes any more because I had been watching the show for so long. After it aired, I immediately started getting messages from mates saying “hahaha look at this” and sending me Snapchat videos of it. I think I really realised it had become a thing when I started to get random messages from people about it on my Instagram, strangers saying “oh my god that scene was so funny” or “hahaha wow that was so great”. 

Galvin (Chris Warner): I knew there had been a big reaction when a publicist got in touch with me the next day and said “oh, we’d like you to do an interview about this”. And then there was another interview and then another interview and I was just doing all these interviews – so was Reid – about this one line. I had seen all the stuff on Facebook and the remixes and stuff like that, but there’s only so much that you can say about it, really. 

The penis goes viral.

Malmholt (writer): I guess it was pretty unprecedented to have the show end on the word “penis”. The Facebook response was pretty big, but it didn’t feel huge and overwhelming. I felt like our writing was being appreciated and that was enough for me. It was only a few days later when it began kicking off internationally that we realised “oh, something else is happening now”.

Walker (Harry Warner): The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is I open Reddit, and one day I opened my computer and my face was right there, at the top of the front page of Reddit, staring at me. That’s when it really hit me, like, oh wow, this is a whole thing. 

PART SEVEN: ‘Alec Baldwin did a filmic performance of Chris’

As PTMTINYP spread across the internet, it began to get more and more international media attention. Within two weeks of the scene airing on New Zealand television, it had made it all the way to American late night television show Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where it was recreated by Jimmy Kimmel and Emmy Award-winning actor Alec Baldwin. 

Malmholt (writer): The moment we realised that something extra special was happening was when the team from Jimmy Kimmel got in touch. We were just like “what the fuck? WHAT?” The fact that they even wanted to have a conversation about that line at all was amazing. 

Galvin (Chris Warner): I got this weird text very early in the morning, from one of our publicists here, and it said something weird like ‘HAHAHA ALEC BALDWIN PLAYING CHRIS WARNER!” I honestly thought he had been up all night and had just sent me a weird drunk text, but then I went online and soon realised what was going on. 

Walker (Harry Warner): Seeing Alec Baldwin and Jimmy Kimmel and Guillermo recreate it was when it really hit me. I knew this was something very unique, even for Shortland Street, even for the iconic viral Kiwi moments. I was a huge Alec Baldwin fan because I used to love 30 Rock, so that was very surreal seeing that. I think I got sent that clip probably over 100 times that week, everyone was just like “bro have you seen this?!”. 

Baldwin and Kimmel take on the tablet. Image: Youtube

Galvin (Chris Warner): I wouldn’t say it was an enjoyable thing to watch, it was actually quite a shock. I couldn’t get my head around it – I still can’t really get my head around it. It was too incongruous. They acted out the whole scene, and I thought Alec Baldwin did a really interesting filmic performance of Chris Warner. My daughter watched both and she said “oh you were better Dad, you had more expression”. I’ll take that win. 

Malmholt (writer): It completely blew me away. It was a big American star on a big American show with this really kind of fun generosity of spirit, making fun of what we have done, and embracing it. It was a real thrill. Even though I was privately tickled by the line, never in a million years did I think there would be a) any sort of reaction and b) certainly nothing involving Alec Baldwin and Jimmy Kimmel. Never in a million years. 

PART EIGHT: ‘The penis still pops up in funny little ways’

Five years have passed but the penis continues to haunt the New Zealand psyche. As Shortland Street stares down its 30-year anniversary, how would those involved like PTMTINYP to be remembered? And is it still a big part of their lives?

Galvin (Chris Warner): People said “you’ll be hearing that for the rest of your life”, but it actually died down really quickly for me. The odd person will pop up and refer to it but it is always a bit of a surprise to me, and I think “oh yeah, that’s right, that thing happened”. It absolutely blew up at the time, but then it died down really quickly. Maybe that’s the nature of things now with the internet, things get really big and then they are gone. 

Walker (Harry Warner): I haven’t been on Shortland Street for a few years now and I wear glasses in real life and have grown up a bit, so I don’t actually get recognised all that much. But, when I do, and when it is by strangers, that line comes up within the first two minutes every time. Every single time. Often it’s my own friends dropping me in it as well. 

Malmholt (writer): The penis still pops up in funny little ways. It never went away, basically. I guess, 25 years on, it is a little bit like our version of the original “you’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata”, which was the iconic line and in many ways still is, but it was nice to be able to do something that came close to it. Shortland Street is always trying to push the boat out and make the show as urgent and funny and true and real as it can be. 

The Shortland Street writers’ room always aims high. Image: supplied

We’re never resting on our laurels, we’re always, always, always trying to make it better. It’s a constant dance with the audience to give them characters that they know and understand, while also exposing those characters in ways that they didn’t see coming. We’re always reaching for something original and something truthful. We don’t always succeed, but we do our damnedest. “Never be lazy” I guess is the legacy – keep on trying. 

Walker (Harry Warner): It was a really entertaining part of my life for about three months, and incredibly annoying for about three months after that. I really desperately hope it is not my legacy, I think I can aim higher. But hey, if “please tell me that is not your penis” is going to be my legacy, it could be a lot worse. 

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