‘It felt like he was making TV specifically for me’: David Farrier on his love for Jeremy Wells

Ahead of Jeremy Wells’ return to television tonight, David Farrier looks back at some of his favourite moments from the deadpan broadcaster. 

I feel passionately about Jeremy Wells.

When I heard the official announcement from TVNZ that he would be joining Hilary Barry (another excellent broadcaster) on Seven Sharp, I felt a pang of joy I haven’t felt in some time. I had a similar pang when I heard Josh Thomson and Kanoa Lloyd would be on The Project. But this pang was a little bigger.

I think it’s because I’ve grown up with Jeremy Wells. He’s been a consistent force in my New Zealand television viewing habits since high school.

I suppose for many people today, he’s the guy who imitates Mike Hosking really, really well, co-hosts a laddish radio show with Matt Heath over on Hauraki, and offers observations about his favourite sport with the ACC.

But for me, it’s always been his time on old-fashioned TV which has excited me the most. He’s made me tune in. For decades now, for often surprising reasons.

Like, the only time I’ve ever watched a sports show – let alone a whole series – was thanks to Olympico.

Here, Jeremy Wells co-hosted a show about the Olympic Games, in which none of their crew had credentials to the Olympics Games. It was a silly gag, but it worked – and I learnt more about sport in that month than I ever had before.

In that show, he demonstrated some of his finest assets – those eyes, that chiselled jaw, and the ability to deliver some of the driest lines uttered on New Zealand television.

I suppose it all started back in the 90s when he existed as Mikey Havoc’s sidekick “Newsboy.” While Havoc would spit out thoughts and words in often incomprehensible ways, Wells stood there calmly, observing. He’d never get caught up in Havoc’s hype.

He was a man of few words, and when he used them, they were very good. Their “Gore” episode is a perfect illustration of Wells’ ability to say so much with so few words.

After a gushing diatribe from Havoc about the southern town, Jeremy simply states:

“Gore. The G’s for gay.”

It was deadpan genius, a lie sold to a generation of New Zealanders. The people of Gore hated it. They still do.

I’m sure everyone has a hot take on that particular, potentially problematic, episode. But for me, a teenager at a private Christian school in the late 90s who was confused about his sexuality, this was the first time I recall “gay” being openly talked about in a sort of harmless, non-terrifying way.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but that segment of TV from the mid-90s was sort of groundbreaking for me.

Remember, this was pre-YouTube, Netflix and torrents. TV shows were appointment viewing, and shows like The X-Files, South Park and Havoc & Newsboys Sellout Tour were discussed and dissected for hours by my nerdy little schoolmates. For me, this was an opportunity where the word “gay” could be talked about in a context that didn’t include hellfire, judgement and intense worry.

It was lighthearted and fun and not scary.

From then on, it sort of felt like Wells was making TV specifically for me.

When I became deeply interested in the media and how it functioned, he did season after season of Eating Media Lunch, a much more grown-up series that analysed and satirised recent news events and trends. Written and directed by Paul Casserly, the show was both utterly juvenile and completely mature. It didn’t fear saying, well, anything.

Working with commissioners in subsequent years, I’m increasingly impressed this thing ever made it out the door, especially considering its often jarring takes on race relations in Aotearoa.

“We decided to test the patience and cultural awareness of some of our leading talk professionals” announced Wells, before throwing to an item in which an actor called various talkback hosts to see how many times they could get in “tena koutou” before being cut off.

Michael Laws made it to six, before saying, in typical Laws fashion, “Goodbye stupid man.” Southland TV, with Tim Shadbolt grinning widely on the panel, allowed 18 to be said before moving on.

Perhaps the show’s maddest moment – and what will always stick with me – was when they did a report on Anal Mana. This was a completely fictional bit of Māori pornography, which many viewers, including my mother, thought was completely, 100% real.

Anal Mana is porn with a difference,” voices Wells. “Unlike most skin flicks, the story is based on actual events and will feature Māori actors speaking Māori dialogue and wearing traditional Māori costumes, in a two million dollar reconstruction of colonial New Zealand.”

What really sold it was Wells’ deadpan delivery. You couldn’t help but entertain the fact that this was maybe real. And given New Zealand’s often batshit take on all things Māori, you can see why many viewers were fooled.

And then, to top it all off, he went and made a documentary series about birds – birds! – my favourite creature in the whole wide world.

Loosely based on an excellent book by Steve Braunias, Birdland took a deep dive into the New Zealand bird scene, from the plight of our native birds to our love of exotic parrots. 

My favourite episode of all, titled simply “Capitalism”, looked at an enterprising New Zealand man who wanted to commercially farm weka. The man’s unique call of “Weka Weka Woo!” is a thing of beauty, and Wells is at his finest.

A gentle curiosity and humour seeps out, even as a cute mouse is mercilessly slaughtered by a hungry weka.

“Thankfully the end, when it came, was swift”.

He pauses.

“Ish”.

It’s great television – right up there with his other series The Unauthorised History of New Zealand – and demonstrates there’s plenty of smarts and subtlety behind the gags.

It’s also further proof that there is far more to Jeremy Wells than being like Mike. I mean, that’s the big joke in all this, right? He’s nothing like Mike.

If Jeremy Wells can bring even 10% of the madness, charm and wit of his own TV shows over the years to TVNZ1 tonight, then Seven Sharp is going to be in a very, very good place. Whether their audience is ready for it… that’s an entirely different matter.

 

Postscript: I fully echo this sentiment by the writer/director of 2015’s excellent Deathgasm and the upcoming Guns Akimbo, Jason Lei Howden:


Seven Sharp begins at 7pm tonight on TVNZ1

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