Alice Snedden’s Bad News is a new TVNZ OnDemand show in which Alice Snedden investigates the issues she’s interested in – and makes it all about herself. Sam Brooks talks to her.
Alice Snedden is a special comedian. I remember the first time I saw her perform, in the 2016 RAW Comedy Quest; she came onto stage with an assurance and a presence that the rest of the lineup couldn’t even remotely match. She seemed to have an absolutely righteous confidence in her material, where it was coming from and who she was. And even if all those things were just a front – and hey, everybody performing stand up comedy puts on a front, to some extent – she did a tremendous job of presenting as herself.
When she takes the piss out of people, it’s because she thinks they’re doing a shit job, and when she takes the piss out of herself, it’s for the same reason. Other comedians might take on familiar personas – “I’m so awkward despite being in front of a hundred people!” “I’m the exact level of shitty to call out my own flaws but not work on them in any way!” “I’m sexist/racist but I know I’m doing it so it’s ironic!” – but not Snedden. She’s uncompromisingly intelligent and dry-as-a-desert whether she’s doing her own material, writing a column, performing with the improv troupe Snort or on her great Twitter account. It’s why she’s a Billy T nominee this year.
And it’s also what makes her new TVNZ OnDemand show Alice Snedden’s Bad News such a delight to watch. This isn’t a mockumentary, it’s an already informed and engaged comedian doing her best to be more engaged, while being entirely cognisant of her own limitations and how funny both those things can be.
In the first episode she talks frankly with comedian Jamaine Ross about the justice system’s approach to people of colour, especially where weed is concerned, and what that means for the country. It’s funny, but also refreshingly real and honest. When she can’t get arrested (or even looked at) for smoking a pipe right in the middle of Aotea Square, it’s a pretty stark depiction of how our justice system has one rule for white people and another for people of colour.
I recently sat down Snedden to talk about the show and her approach to comedy.
So I watched the first episode. And I have to ask, how did you come up with the concept of the show?
Well, you know I had done Little Survivor with TVNZ – like the [Survivor] post-show-show, and I wanted to do more stuff with them. I just thought of all the issues I’m interested in and then I was like, ‘Well, I’ll do stuff with that.’ And then Leon [Wadham] could direct it.
I pitched the idea that I would find a way to make these issues all about me and then I just worked with Leon on it and, to be honest we found a lot of it as we were filming it. Now we have heaps of footage and are just cutting it together. The concept of making it all about me – that came naturally.
I thought about the issues I was into, the stuff that I was interested in at uni, and I felt like I was just getting dumber and dumber the more comedy I did.
I don’t know, man. I just stopped engaging in stuff the same way I was when I was studying law and politics – I wasn’t reading up about things and I wasn’t politically active, so that part of me became completely dormant. And even though I think comedy is a natural political expression, I wasn’t really doing political comedy.
So this felt like a good marriage of those two things. I wanted to be funny but also opinionated.
There’s something really clever in the way that you talk to these people on a super even level. Like in the episode I saw you talk to Jamaine (Ross, comedian) and another woman in the legal world – and you really engage with them while still being totally Alice.
I was just fortunate that those people were great and so articulate, like the perfect counterpoint to me, really. I’ve actually done one of Khylee [Quince]‘s classes at uni – I think I got an average mark. But the cool thing is she and Jamaine were friends, and I’d actually known about some of what I go into on the first episode from doing a ride-along in uni, and from just having friends and family who are Māori or Pasifika, and I know they have a completely different experience to me.
They felt like such good people to talk to, and we actually did talk to Bob McCroskie as well because every episode we try to have a counterpoint view, but I felt like that was the one counterpoint we didn’t need – it didn’t feel like it was articulated in a way that would serve the narrative.
Part of that is actually on me, it was one of the earlier interviews we did and I hadn’t quite figured out how to talk to people yet.
So how did you learn how to talk to people?
Trial and error, I reckon. It’s so hard to interview people. When I first conceived of the idea I was like, “I’m going to play a character, a heightened version of myself.” Which I thought without any appreciation of the fact that I cannot act. Playing a character is so completely playing outside of my wheelhouse, so to be all of a sudden, ‘I”m going to be different!’ didn’t work.
So that informed a lot of the show from that point forward. It relaxed me a lot once I figured out that I was going to play a character, I was just going to be myself and at that point I could have a conversation with people and try to listen and naturally follow when they’re going with it, and then contribute to that. It felt like less of a question and answer vibe and more like two people collaborating on this idea.
So were you surprised about anything that you learned?
Yes. A hundred percent.
We literally just came out of an interview with the managing director of refugee settlement for the Red Cross, and she told us about how the average amount of time for a refugee family to be in a camp is 17 years.
She had just talked to a family that had been in a refugee camp for 24 years, and after she said that, everybody in the room was basically crying. And that was genuinely shocking news to me, I had no idea that it was that bad. We’ve had a couple of moments like that – we’re doing an episode on blood donation, and we talked to Mark Fisher from Body Positive about how if you’re a gay man and you’re sexually active, you can’t give blood, basically. We talked to him about the effect that has on the community and the stigmatisation of gay man.
I guess I’m so privileged that I’ve had the joy of not ever having to think about this shit, so basically I’m like a basic bitch being educated.
That’s so good!
But it’s also bad because I’m putting the onus on other people to do it for me which I’m fully aware of. It’s like I’m getting paid to get to education that I should probably be seeking out myself.
There’s a really strong empathy that you have and it’s not something that you often see in a comedy kind of context. It’s really nice to see someone receiving this sort of information with the weight it deserves.
Oh wow. I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t have any perception of what I’m like.
That’s healthy, I think! To pivot very slightly slash quite a bit, I feel like you have this valuable outsider persona which comes across quite strongly in both the show and in your comedy, and it’s a really unique place to come from. Especially when you consider so many people in the comedy scene come from a performance or a theatre background. Are you aware of that?
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I definitely don’t have a theatre background and I don’t have a performance background, at least from before I got into performance. And I think that plays to my strength and my weakness, so that’s why I can’t be a character. I could write for someone who could be a character but I just don’t have that thing inside of me that makes me be able to act like a character. It’s also the strength because I’m kind of familiar with some of the issues before, and it means that I can feel comfortable in discussing those areas. So it leads to more interesting discussions.
I don’t know if it leads to maximum comedy, necessarily, but it’s certainly a mixture of the two.
Alice Snedden’s Bad News airs on TVNZ OnDemand, with new episodes dropping weekly. You can watch it right here.
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