Laura Daniel has made a career out of committing to the bit. Sometimes it’s a joke. Sometimes it’s a zombie reality show.
And sometimes it’s a ten-week celebrity dancing competition.
In 2016, Laura Daniel was nominated for the Billy T Award for her show, Pressure Makes Diamonds. The show’s opening bit was also its best sell: Daniel performed as a parody of what your stupidest friend thinks a female comedian is like. She makes a few jokes about her period, and then, suddenly, gets her period onstage. She bleeds down her leg, starts screaming, and has to be taken offstage.
I’ve seen that bit three times. It killed. It’s not just the concept of the bit, but Daniel’s commitment to it. The morgue deadpan of her Garofalo-esque comedian. The full clown mask on her face as she realises she’s bleeding. The caterwauls as she’s dragged offstage. It would work just fine if someone less talented or committed was doing it, but Daniel doesn’t just make it work, she goes a step further and makes it work for her. It’s not just a funny bit, it’s a declaration of purpose.
She lost the Billy T that year to David Correos, a comedian who somehow turns gross-out gags into profundity. She was as gracious a loser as you can imagine, full of smiles and hugs. You can pick out a fake gracious loser a mile off – the kinds of people whose teeth light up and whose eyes go dead after they lose an Oscar – Daniel’s not one of those people.
She had to put on the face of gracious loser again two weeks ago on Dancing With The Stars. After spending more than six weeks at the top of the leaderboard, she finished second.
She hugged and kissed winner Manu Vatuvei – now a close friend – and smiled for the cameras, for the audience full of her sign-waving fans, for herself.
Quite fitting, for someone who toured an educational musical the year after she left drama school. The theme? Winning isn’t everything. While it might be a loss on the leaderboard, for the girl who had been dreaming of being on Dancing with the Stars since the days of Lorraine Downes and Suzanne Paul, it was anything but.
When we talk at Satya Chai Lounge on Auckland’s K’ Rd, it’s just two days after the loss.
Following ten weeks of daily rehearsals, I expected Daniel to suffer the post-show crash every performer goes through. But if she lacked energy, I couldn’t tell. The same smiling face that greeted the cameras after every waltz, every jive, every paso doble, greeted me as well.
Daniel is one of those people who feels authentic whether she’s ‘on’ or ‘off’. She can play to an audience of a couple of hundred people in her musical comedy act Two Hearts, or a couple of hundred thousand on Dancing with the Stars, or to a journalist in an empty bar at lunchtime. She’s warm, and quick to make herself laugh – often a warning sign with mediocre men, but a welcome one when it’s a woman who knows she’s funny.
We ordered our first bottle of wine – Prosecco. Who doesn’t want sparkling wine with their Indian fusion food? When it arrives and we open it, we find out it’s actually cider. Daniel contemplates sending it back, but shrugs it off with a smile.
It’s better than nothing.
Her Dancing dreams started way back in Palmerston North, not necessarily the ideal place for a performer to spread their proverbial wings. “When you grow up there, you don’t know any different. Everything is flat, it’s in a grid, so it takes ten minutes to get anywhere.”
She found a love for drama, and almost every extracurricular activity she could get her hands on, when she was in high school. “I was a good student and a shit student at the same time.” It was the written work she found hard, ironic given her later employment as a television writer.
After Palmy, she applied for drama school at Unitec, but was turned down in her first year. In her second, she was waitlisted and only got in after another turned down their place.
“I think that was good – if you get told no a lot, you either give up or you just try harder. I think that’s helped with my mentality through my career, because you just get heaps of no’s all the time, so getting no’s right from the start is really character building. You want it more, and you have to work really hard to get there.”
After three years at drama school – she played the Prince in Romeo and Juliet, sang a bit of Jacques Brel, did a bit of absurdist theatre, the usual drama school grab bag – she was spat out into the industry.
The post-drama school grind that nearly every actor goes through didn’t elude Daniel. She worked as a lifeguard at Point Erin pools, did a clowning show at the Court Theatre, toured two educational shows (one of them was about cyber safety, the other about how winning isn’t everything), and managed a athletic-wear store in Ponsonby.
It was during that year that Daniel had an audition for the second season of Super City, the Tom Sainsbury-Madeleine Sami sketch show parodying Auckland. “My flatmate had the DVD for the first season because he’d worked on it, and I watched all of it in one go, and then any time someone would come over we would just watch the whole season.”
Daniel knew Sainsbury a bit and messaged him to beg for an audition. It worked. She didn’t get cast in the role, a Polynesian woman who worked at WINZ (“I’m half Cook-Island but obviously pretty white-facing and pretty pale, so it didn’t work”), but she got another as Dave Dobbyn’s receptionist.
The one thing that put her career on another trajectory entirely was a little improv group called Snort.
Snort is an improv group (think Whose Line is it Anyway) that has spawned the best and most popular comedians of its generation. The group currently stands 16 strong and counts eight Billy T nominees, four Billy T winners and two Fred winners amongst them. These comedians have, with no hyperbole, shaped the modern face of New Zealand comedy.
Daniel has been part of Snort since its inception one chilly September night at the Basement Theatre in 2013. At that first show, Daniel uncharacteristically receded into the background. She admits that she “barely said a word”.
The show was a runaway hit, and before long had established a core cast of eight and The Basement had it programmed on a weekly basis. In the ensuing half-decade, the show has never let up, and it retains a group of devoted fans along with casual audiences of Friday night revellers. It sells out every week.
Snort was a huge deal for Daniel. After she had finished up her musical tour, she wound up working in that Ponsonby athleisure store, and it was her one chance to get onstage once a week. Not only that, but it introduced her to the people she would spend the next few years working with, including her future comedy partner.
But before that, she was playing small roles in sketches on Jono and Ben and being tested out as a writer. She would email super-producer Bronwyn Bakker (Jono and Ben, Funny Girls, the upcoming Golden Boy) on a weekly basis, asking if she needed any writers that week, and when someone was away, Daniel would get a shot.
Bakker says of Daniel, “The first job Laura did for me was to write a yoghurt commercial. She managed to not only write a TVC having never done that before – she wrote a funny TVC that the client loved.
Jono and Ben was the equivalent of a writer-performer’s gym. They had to generate content every week. It had to be funny. It had to speak to the audience. Daniel wasn’t just writing sketches, she was performing in them, as well as doing on-camera interviews and press junkets.
The one that really got people going was her thirsty interview with league players Jonathan Thurston and Shaun Johnson (“A lot of man lovers, a lot of man haters”). It’s racked up nearly 300,000 views on YouTube, over a million on Facebook, and comments are remarkably kind for, you know, a YouTube video.
Daniel reflects on her time on Jono and Ben with equal parts pride and raised eyebrows: “I look back on it and I’m like, when did you say that? Why would you think to say that? What happened there? It went so fast, and you forget to enjoy things when you are just having to constantly churn.
And then I look back at some of it and I’m like, ‘Oof, that was dicey.’”
Jono and Ben was a weekly show – there was always going to be dicey bits. The later years of Jono and Ben include some of its diciest. The format was creaking, and the sketches lacked some of the tightness of earlier seasons. In some of the Jacinda sketches, it felt like Daniel was struggling, valiantly, against a format that wasn’t working for her anymore. The under-the-title woman on a show named after two men is not the best place to work from.
But halfway through her run at Jono and Ben came her biggest television gig to date: she was cast as one of the titular girls, and more importantly, one of the faces, of Funny Girls. Funny Girls existed in conversation alongside Jono and Ben – which seems odd given the latter’s close association with The Rock, New Zealand’s premier radio station for rock music, where Jono and Ben were also hosts up until 2016 . Not only did Funny Girls share much of the same creative team, many of whom came from Snort, it was in the same block as Jono and Ben. The women-fronted show often felt like the cooler, hipper sibling to Jono and Ben’s audience-friendly mixture of lad comedy and laddier chat.
So, in a sense, Funny Girls was stuck between The Rock and a hard place. Not only was it coming off the more bro-y, albeit subversively progressive, vibe of Jono and Ben, it had to live up to its title. Which is a damn sight better than one of the original proposed titles: Girls Aren’t Funny. “It was weird when it first started. Obviously people are a bit more kinder to women now in the comedy scene, but it felt like we were on that wave of change. It felt like we were constantly trying to break down barriers. Sometimes you just want to make something for the sake of it being funny, but we were on what felt like that initial wave.
“It felt like they were saying, ‘Hey, we’re giving women a go. Don’t fuck it up!’ That was the pressure on the show the whole time.”
The second and third seasons of the show, in the wake of #MeToo, had a fine line to walk. On one hand, the conversation around sexual assault and harassment meant the show could go darker, could get realer, could put the now-acceptable targets of the patriarchy in its sights. On the other hand, it meant that the show had to exist in conversation with that movement, whether its creators wanted it to or not.
“Even if the show was to go again, I feel like times have changed and you could probably just go out there and make a funny show. At the time, it really felt like we needed to be commenting on ‘women’s issues’.
“In saying that, we did a lot of stupid shit too.”
In a few short years, Daniel had gone from begging for a rescheduled audition for Super City to being directed by Madeleine Sami as she fronted her own television show.
Then came, in her own words, the crowning achievement of her career: the musical comedy duo known as Two Hearts.
When you think of New Zealand musical comedy, your mind goes straight to Flight of the Conchords. Two Hearts is the opposite of Flight of the Conchords. Daniel performs as the show-stopping diva with the titanic voice to match her moves, while fellow comedian Joseph Moore plays the Mark Ronson-esque DJ behind the scenes. There are terrifically choreographed back-up dancers, there are confetti cannons, there are Beyonce fans (technical term).
Daniel and Moore had worked together not only as a part of Snort, but on Jono and Ben and Funny Girls. The pair had always gravitated to each other, finding themselves in a sort of yin-yang relationship. “Whether he likes it or not, he’s the type of person that likes to develop people. He’ll look at something someone has done, and then try to help them see a better way of doing it.”
Moore had seen Daniel’s Billy T-nominated show the year before, loved it, and felt like his own stand-up was ready to evolve. The pair tested out a song at Dope Joke Party, a late night musical-based comedy line-up show that Moore ran for a few years. It was ‘Slutty Ghost’, which would become a staple of their Two Hearts show a year later.
The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive called Two Hearts his favourite of the 2017 comedy festival. “It raises a fundamental question of both performers: are Daniel and Moore still comic writers and performers collaborating on a pop music show – or have they actually just found their core medium?”
Among the praise, there’s a quote from that review of the show that has aged poorly. “Daniel is visibly swelling as a performer, playing a haughty, charismatic star barely tolerating her lovesick sidekick.”
Not long after the show’s sell-out season, the comedy duo became a real-life romantic duo.
It’s not quite a recipe for disaster, but definitely a recipe for raised eyebrows and an falsetto-octave ‘How does that work?’. At the time they got together they were working together on not just Snort, Funny Girls, and Jono and Ben, but also a return season of Two Hearts.
“We had to find the balance. It wasn’t that we were just doing Two Hearts, but we were seeing each other at our actual money making job, our daytime job at Jono and Ben, and not even that – he moved up to being my director, so all my segments ended up being directed by Joseph.”
The pair work together well – they’re particularly skilled at dredging up gold at the last minute. Not quite like a constant mining, more like taking a super-powered drill and finding it through sheer determination. It’s a work ethic that Daniel has had since Jono and Ben, according to Bakker. “She will fight for her script, her shoot, her team and her edit – she has a clear idea of what she wants and she makes it happen.”
Since that initial season, the pair have been nominated for a Billy T Award and have toured a best-of show to the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where fellow Snortee Rose Matafeo won Best Comedy the very same year. They’re going back again this year, with a plan in mind.
“We’ve definitely looked to Flight of the Conchords and their trajectory and how it happened for them. They got all the ‘no’s in New Zealand, like every single no you could get, but they kept going over and doing Edinburgh until something stuck. Last year we had all these great comedians come and see us, so it’s about getting the word out and going until something sticks for us.”
It’s our second bottle – this time actual Prosecco, not a cider. Nobody else is in the lounge. We’re in the middle of discussing a friend in common, and there’s a sudden photographic flash from the kitchen.
Daniel doesn’t flinch, and thankfully there’s no reason to. This isn’t the second place finisher on Dancing with the Stars being papped having a lunchtime drink. It’s a t-shirt designer taking a photo of upcoming Satya merch in the tiny kitchen.
A few years ago, there would’ve been no reason to worry. But Daniel is now famous, or at least ubiquitous. She’s got a reason to be wary about photographic flashes in her general vicinity.
She’s been on building-size billboards all around the country as the face of Flick. She’s gone from sitting in the nosebleeds at the Vodafone Music Awards to presenting an award at the ceremony. She’s touring international festivals with her own comedy show.
And yeah, she’s hosting a zombie show on TVNZ on Demand. Zombody Save Me! is strange, compelling television, and Daniel acquits herself well. “I made friends with all the zombies so they wouldn’t scare me. I’m a scaredy cat. I can’t stand Spookers.”
In saying that, it’s probably no more scary than her time on Dancing with the Stars.
There’s a generally understood requirement that contestants at Dancing are required for 15 hours a week, but Daniel was turning in 10-12 hour days – while also rehearsing Two Hearts. She was used to that sort of schedule doing Two Hearts, and while her partner Shae Mountain was open to reducing their schedule, there was a mutual understanding between the two about what would be required to win.
“I was lucky I got a partner that came in with real drive to make it and do better, because that’s what I wanted. He was so open to learning new things – even though he’s a strict technique kind of a guy, he knew that Dancing with the Stars is a different thing. You need to have good showmanship, put a lift or a trick here, because otherwise people get bored watching.”
The collaboration between the pair paid off. They were the first on the leaderboard six weeks out of ten, but despite their leaderboard placing still faced elimination one week (a mathematical anomaly that frankly boggles my mind).
She knew she wasn’t going home – the other person in the bottom two was K’Lee, who had already been in the bottom a few times – and the judges have the final deciding vote. Still, she says, “that was gutting. I did genuinely, statistically, think I was fine. It was also gutting because up until that point it had been all women that had gone home, except for Mike.”
This season’s harshness on women wasn’t lost on audiences, and not on Daniel either. “It had felt like this was a particular season where it was really hard to be a woman on it, just because that was the vibe from the start. The judges’ comments were harsh – you can’t be particular with the women’s technique and not pick up on the guys’ technique.”
There’s no anger when she says this, and there shouldn’t be. The spoils of Daniel’s hard work are evident – unanimous love on social media, recognition for her charity, and a newfound best friend out of the whole thing. Second place feels like a footnote. “I definitely thought of that Bring It On quote, ‘Second place, hell yeah!’. I was aware when we didn’t win that I had to be really careful about what I say, because there’s going to be a lot of people – women, young girls – watching, and you have to give a good message.
“I thought back to that musical I did. Winning isn’t everything. You can’t always win at everything. It’s the same thing you always get ‘no’s, but this isn’t a no. It just means I can’t have the glitterball trophy on my recycled coffee table in my shitty flat.”
In fact, if there’s any moment from her career that feels like a true showcase for Daniel, it’s that final show dance from Dancing With the Stars NZ. She’s not just dancing, she’s singing to her own track, a shockingly accomplished cover of Nicki Minaj’s ‘Pound the Alarm’. It’s made all the more spectacular by the eight women she chose to dance with her, just because she could. With Joseph Moore sitting in the audience – as side-kick, as hype-man, as key collaborator – it could well be a number in a Two Hearts show. It’s Laura Daniel as diva, as frontwoman, as winner.
It’s Daniel committing to the bit. And in that moment? The bit is herself.
You can watch Laura Daniel on Zombody Save Me! on TVNZ on Demand right here.