At the height of their mid-90s fame, Jason Gunn and his sidekick Thingee made their own 60 minute movie, the Christchurch-set caper Jason and Thingee’s Big Adventure. Baz McDonald talks to team behind it, including Gunn himself.
For New Zealand kids growing up in the early ’90s, weekday afternoons from 3:30 to 4pm meant one thing – The Son of a Gunn Show, a glorious half-hour spent with Jason Gunn and his alien sidekick Thingee, in which they played games, sang songs, did impressions and presented sketches.
If you were anything like my brother and I, your love for Jason and Thingee only kept growing, making the release of the duo’s own direct-to-video movie in 1995 a momentous occasion.
Jason and Thingee’s Big Adventure is a 60-minute movie about Jason and Thingee’s attempts to buy a new TV one weekend afternoon in Christchurch. What starts as two mates popping to the shops escalates after thieves hide a priceless stolen moa egg in Jason and Thingee’s car. The pair continue on their journey – getting side-tracked by trouble with their car, a ride in a limo, and a stay at a hotel after Jason gets mistaken for Steven Spielberg – before finally being tracked down by the police, who believe Jason and Thingee to be the thieves. It’s a ripping good adventure, and clearly a memorable one, because despite not having watched this movie since I was five I could still recall its every frame.
Now, 24 years later, it’s time to look back on this seminal NZ children’s classic and consider its legacy, with a little help from Jason Gunn himself.
Although it might seem like a blip on the radar of New Zealand television, Big Adventure had a much more profound effect on the entertainment landscape than you’d think. Of course, Jason Gunn has remained a near-ubiquitous figure in the 20-plus years since, hosting first TV shows and now radio, as well as working behind the scenes on many projects through his production company, Whitebait Media.
But for Jason, his time working alongside Thingee will forever remain a highlight of his career.
“I went on to do all sorts of other television. But, without a doubt, those days will always be what I am most proud of in television. It was something we adored and going to work every day was just such a pleasure. There was never a bad day.”
Jason says a big part of what made the experience so great was the family they built around the show, both literally and figuratively. Jason worked closely with his brother Andrew Gunn on writing and developing The Son of a Gunn show, and Andrew was the lead writer on Jason and Thingee’s Big Adventure.
“That was one of the best things about working on Son of a Gunn – working with my bro on a TV show for kids.”
Andrew went on to a successful career behind the screen, most recently as writer of the 2017 film Kiwi Christmas. Right now the most topical legacy of this movie is via its director Nigel Carpenter, who has since directed some of New Zealand’s most-watched TV events – including this season of Dancing with the Stars NZ.
“[Jason and Thingee’s Big Adventure] was the grounding to my whole career,” Nigel says. “It means a lot to me, especially as I get older and am doing big productions like Dancing with the Stars, NZ Idol and NZ’s Got Talent. It shows to me that what we did in those early days was a very special moment.
“The older you get, there is more pressure commercially, culturally and editorially. Just getting out there and having some fun just doesn’t happen anymore.”
The Big Adventure: the big rewatch
So, how does the movie hold up?
For me, Jason and Thingee’s Big Adventure provided the kind of high you can only get from the purest nostalgia trip. On the other hand, watching with me was someone who had never seen the movie or Son of a Gunn and was only familiar with Jason and Thingee from What Now – and they enjoyed the heck out of it too.
And why not? It’d take a cold heart indeed not to enjoy Big Adventure, considering the infectious energy and happiness it exudes. A lot of that liveliness comes from the blistering pace of its half narrative/half ‘best of The Son of a Gunn Show‘ structure, cutting between the two at a pace seemingly designed to keep even the grumpiest toddler entertained.
Sprinkling the Son of a Gunn highlights through the movie may have originally been a way to pad it out on a minuscule budget. But now, decades later, they act as a time capsule of all the wonderful moments the show provided New Zealand kids.
The other great thing about the ‘best of’ format? You’re never, ever bored. Over the 60-minute runtime there are 21 songs, performances from dancers, magicians and impersonators, games and a selection of sketches. And that’s not even counting the road trip narrative that acts as the movie’s backbone.
But the success of Jason and Thingee’s Big Adventure is undeniably down to Jason Gunn himself. His performance is consistently delightful, especially when he is talking straight down the camera to his young audience at home.
“I loved walking up to the camera and saying ‘Hey! How you doing?’ It still annoys me profusely when I see presenter talk to camera and not mean the words they are saying,” he says.
“I liked to think you could make a difference. You might be talking to a kid who is home alone, because their mum and dad are working their asses off, or maybe a kid who isn’t feeling at their best. We had half an hour to talk to them. I liked to think kids thought of Jason and Thingee as mates.”
Jason Gunn has always been known for his irrepressible spirit and energy, but the 22-year-old Jason we see in this movie is at the peak of his powers. At times, his whimsy is so pure and his smile so bright, it’s like looking directly into the sun. Jason says he still gets people asking him if this vigor in those days was drug induced.
“When people are talking to me about how I was back in my children’s TV days, they say, ‘Oh Jase, you must have been on something, aye? Back in the day?’ Well no, I tell them, I hate to rain on your drug-induced parade but that is exactly what I was like. I was into life. I was high on life.”
Nigel Carpenter says as well being a delightful presence on screen, Jason made vital contributions off-screen. “He is an incredibly talented man and is such a joy to work with. He is funny, witty, kind, generous and genuine,” Nigel says.
Then there was Thingee. Alan Henderson has to be recognised for his portrayal of the alien sidekick – a character that remains a cultural icon, despite flying off planet two decades ago. Thingee is a wonderfully dry and witty character and is so well performed that it is easy to forget that he is a puppet at all – all testament Henderson’s superb puppeteering.
Throughout my rewatch I was impressed by how much of the comedy has stood the test of time. Not only were the jokes I loved as a kid still laugh out loud funny, but I discovered a lot of adult humour in there that I had obviously missed as a kid. A sketch formatted as movie trailer show opera singers in a theatre who are pelted with eggs until they all leave. Then a chicken takes the stage – revealing the title of the movie to be The Bantam of the Opera. As a kid, the mere concept of a chicken singing was hysterical; it’s only now as an adult that I get the parody and the pun.
“It was dual-edged humour,” Jason says. “We liked to think that parents would want to sit down and watch the show with their kids, instead of just sitting them down in front of it and thinking ‘what is this crap?’
“I also loved the idea of pushing the boundaries of children’s TV. It is easy to come out and swear and be aggressive with your humour – but in children’s TV you’ve got to be clever and entertaining in quite restrictive boundaries.”
Another reason the humour holds up so well: much of it was inspired by timeless comedy classics. “I grew up watching a lot of British comedy, you know, a lot of physical comedy – such as The Two Ronnies,” Jason says. “A lot of that comedy I love is at your own expense and I think that is what my thing has always been about.”
As such, Gunn’s work utilises comedy forms such as slapstick, mime, parody and double entendre. Often this inspiration is quite subtle – Gunn and his team filtering these styles through their own unique Kiwi perspective – but there are also blatant homages in the movie, including a Benny Hill-esque chase through the hotel.
“There is something beautiful about people who can master the art of physical comedy. I used to take my comedy very seriously – there is a way to fall down stairs, or into things, or do a doubletake. I’m not saying I am that great at it, but that the people I admired the most had practised and mastered it.”
What makes Big Adventure even more impressive is that it was clearly made on the smell of an oily rag. Yet, using creative solutions, it accomplishes a lot. Many of the movie’s Son of a Gunn sketches are one long shot of Jason trying to do something, like climbing onto a horse, in his inimitably goofy style. The clips are then sped up to give that Benny Hill vibe, with a Jason voiceover to enhance the visual comedy. It’s clear that these sketches were cheap and quick to make, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining.
“We had no money – all we had was enthusiasm, fun and talent,” Nigel says. “We just hit the road with a very small crew and had fun throwing things together – and, you know, it came together amazingly well.”
This mentality is evident in the movie itself, with several members of the crew popping up as cast members throughout the movie – including Andrew Gunn as the hotel manager and Nigel as a thief.
Nigel says many of the movie’s plot points happened simply because they thought it would be fun. “There were things I had always wanted to do – like the shot in the Cadillac, with your head sticking through the sunroof and having a good time.”
“That scene in the limo was actually really funny [to make]. You have to remember that Alan Henderson (Thingee) had his hand up Thingee’s bum. We shot in many confined spaces, so [Jason and Alan] became very closely connected both physically and mentally.”
Jason and Thingee’s Big Adventure 2?
Last year, Jason made a video for his Facebook page pointing out that it was the 25-year anniversary of The Son of a Gunn show – telling viewers to “stay tuned” because he “has a couple of good ideas to celebrate 25 years”. We have yet to see this long-awaited reunion of Jason and Thingee – Jason has nothing to announce, but says there’s still some unfinished business there.
“Where is Thingee? What’s he doing? Where has he been? I like to think he is in space,” he says. “What does he think of what I have done with my career since? He’d be like [Thingee voice] ‘Jason, what is with the heart attack? Was it all the chocolate fish?’… you know? He would have so many questions. ‘Jason, why did you host a dancing show? I mean seriously! And what was with Celebrity Treasure Island? Were things that bad? You could have come to me for money’.”
After all this time, both Jason and Nigel remain incredibly proud of Jason and Thingee’s Big Adventure and their work on The Son of a Gunn Show – a passion which they both seemed interested in revisiting.
“I would drop everything in a moment to work with those guys again!” Nigel says.
What I found most fascinating about revisiting this movie, is that as well as enjoying it as a piece of nostalgia, it was far more meaningful to me than I thought it would be. Watching it, I realised where my fondness for particular songs had come from, and even some of the jokes I still use today.
It’s been said that the TV and movies we watched heavily as kids helped shape us into who we are as adults. If that’s the case, I’m glad I grew up with these lovely, well-meaning Kiwi entertainers and their wholesome, charming comedy.
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