For years an hour-long comedy special felt like the impossible dream. Tonight, it premieres on Three. James Roque tells the story of how it happened, and what he learned along the way.
In 2006 I got a bad case of gastro from eating undercooked chicken at a friend’s high school party. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that bout of gastro turned out to be a pretty pivotal moment in my life.
While I was bedridden at home, my mum went to Civic Video and rented me some DVDs. One of them was Chris Rock’s 2004 special Never Scared. It was the first stand-up special I’d ever watched in its entirety and I was immediately hooked. I ended up memorising the whole thing word for word.
When I eventually started doing comedy myself a few years later, I spent my first year or so pretty much just trying to emulate this special. I don’t think I actually wanted to be Chris Rock, but I was trying to capture that rockstar energy of a comedian who could kill it onstage for a whole hour. The reality of starting out in comedy was quite a different picture – less “crushing in sold-out theatres” and more “crushingly sad open mics to four or five audience members”.
Flash forward 12 years and several career-induced existential crises later, I’m proud to say that this week, after three years in the making, one of the nation’s biggest broadcasters is premiering my debut stand-up comedy special, Boy Mestizo.
A quick synopsis: Boy Mestizo is about my first trip back to the Philippines since moving to Aotearoa 20 years ago. It unpacks how I feel about myself as a Filipino person who grew up here, and my relationship with my Filipino-ness. Basically, it’s a show I wish my younger self could have seen. It’s also a show that questions the effects of colonisation on the psyche of the people dealing with generational trauma as a result of it.
If you’re reading that going “how the hell is that comedy?” then welcome to my own personal hell of trying to market a stand-up special about decolonisation.
I first performed this show for a year around New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia in 2019. It seemed like it struck a chord with Filipino audiences and allowed people to unpack their own internalised trauma. And for the non-Filipino audiences, it served as a digestible way to learn about the insidious lasting effects of colonisation. I felt certain it had life beyond the small rooms I was performing it in.
So when 2020 came around, I partnered with a producer friend of mine, Yee Yang “Square” Lee, to plan a tour of the show for later that year. We’d start in New Zealand, then take it to Australia, then Asia, then the rest of the world. That didn’t end up happening, for the obvious reason, but I couldn’t just let the idea go.
The goal was to try to reach more people with the show – but if we couldn’t travel, how could we do that? I half-floated the idea of taping it as a special, not really thinking it would be possible – there isn’t really a culture of taping comedy specials here in New Zealand. But the more we talked about what that might look like, the more I thought… why not? Let’s just do it!
This is where all the lessons I’ve learned during my comedy career kicked in. I know from the outside I might look like this huge go-getter who talks a big game about “just going for it!” and “following your dreams!” but the reality is it took years of failing in the comedy industry to adopt this mentality. I spent most of the first half of my career feeling bitter and resentful about being rejected from the opportunities it felt like all my friends were getting.
One of the best pieces of advice that helped change my mindset came from my counsellor Sonia: “If one door says no, that’s actually a good thing. It means you know that door isn’t right for you. Go knock on a different one.”
So that’s what I did – over and over again. We applied to several funding bodies to try to get this special made, but it turns out filmed live stand-up comedy doesn’t really fit cleanly into any funding box. Was it a TV show? A film? A live event? It was all those things, but none of them at the same time. Every “no” felt like a dagger, and I started to lose hope that this project would ever get off the ground.
Eventually we just said “screw it – if they can’t see the vision, we’ll do it ourselves”. Our production team had a meeting and decided to crowdfund most of the costs instead. I’d cover the rest out of my own small savings. It was a huge risk, but I believed in this show so much it was a risk I was willing to take.
This was all before the second lockdown in August 2020. When that came along we had to cancel a planned tour, then our venue for the taping fell through and we had to keep pushing the record date back because of scheduling issues. We were rejected again in yet another round of funding. But by this stage my mantra had become “get on board or get out of the way” – we just took it on the chin and kept knocking on more doors.
Around the start of 2021 we launched our crowdfunding campaign to help cover the costs of filming the show. I know I literally just said my attitude was “get on board or get out of the way”, but in reality that was only the attitude I was projecting outwardly – on the inside I always had this tiny voice telling me no one else cared about the project other than me. What finally helped me overcome this was seeing all the donations to the campaign and all the love and support from people who believed in the work and wanted to see it get made. It was overwhelming to receive so much support, and I’ll forever be grateful to those people. We ended up raising $15,000 – more than double our original goal of $6,000 – which helped cover costs.
On the morning of the taping, our core team – Square, myself, tour producer Eleanor, assistant producer Danielle and the live show’s director James Nokise – had a team brunch. I remember looking around the table at all the faces that helped me make it all happen and feeling a deep gratitude. Later, as the crew was packing in the theatre, I took a second to sit quietly on my own in the empty stalls and take it all in. I watched as the final piece of the giant LED background screen was assembled, and they dimmed the house lights and threw on one of the beautiful graphics (made by Mardo El-Noor) to test it out. I sat in the dark having a quiet little cry to myself, so happy that it was actually happening. I thought about all the failures and rejections of my career, and how none of them really mattered now.
We recorded two shows back-to-back, and they felt like two of the best shows I’ve ever performed in my entire life. It was, for the lack of a better word, special. I thought to myself: this is just like Chris Rock! (With way less people, but still.)
I spent the following months in the edit suite with our editor Luke, combining the best parts of both shows into one. When I watched the whole show as a special for the first time I felt a sense of quiet peace. I was trying to think of a similar feeling to it and the only one I could come up with was that scene at the end of Avengers: Infinity War where it shows Thanos finally retiring on a farm after achieving his goal of wiping out half the population of the universe. I wish I could come up with a better analogy.
We spent most of the long 2021 lockdown coming up with a strategy for who to approach and the best way to pitch the special. We’re still executing that strategy now, but at some point I got the heads-up that Discovery was interested in broadcasting the special in New Zealand. That brings us to today.
I learned a lot during this process. I learned that with enough hard work and good luck, manifestation can work. I learned that you can’t make things alone – I couldn’t have made this show without SquareSums&Co, Kevin&Co and all the Boosted donors. I learned to make sure you tap people’s shoulders with your ideas, no matter how wild and impossible they might seem. I learned that sometimes you have to be your own biggest cheerleader – something that we as a country struggle with a lot.
And I learned that you should make the things you want to see – growing up in New Zealand, I never saw a Filipino on primetime TV. I hope I can be that person for a younger Filipino kid.
Most importantly, I learned that I probably owe my counsellor Sonia a percentage of this show because of how much she taught me about how to deal with failure and rejection and just keep knocking on new doors.
I’d love to see more comedians make specials like this in New Zealand. I’d love to see networks and funding bodies realise the value that these shows can have. The US, UK and Australia have all done it, it’s about time we caught up.
As for Boy Mestizo, the goal remains the same: to deliver the show’s message to the Filipino diaspora of the world. Which means getting it on the biggest streaming platform we can possibly reach. We’ve already had a “no” from one of the big ones. But no biggie. We’ll just keep on knocking.
James Roque: Boy Mestizo airs on Thursday May 12 8:30pm on Three, and will be available on ThreeNow.