Paul Horan, producer of TVNZ docuseries Funny As, at BATs Theatre.

The man behind Funny As on hustlers, hissy fits and history hidden in boxes

Over 300 hours of interviews condensed into five episodes that cover the entirety of New Zealand’s comedy history – how do you even start to approach that? Sam Brooks interviews Paul Horan, the documentarian behind the show.

It’s one of those projects that sounds utterly futile – how does one cover the comedy history of an entire country, especially a history that largely exists forgotten in people’s basements, like the Flight of the Conchords TVNZ pilot.

It’s wild that Funny As is as successful as it is. It’s a hugely educational series, with entire episodes focused around the history of women in comedy in this country and the history of musical comedy, but with online-only extras that cover the history of female impersonators and the dark history of anti-Asian comedy.

Even more than that, it’s entertaining and immensely engrossing. The entertaining part isn’t so surprising; when you’ve got a range of subjects who are used to being funny on camera, that’s the part that should come easily. It’s the engrossing part that leaves you shaken, like a moment in the third episode where Mike King visibly engages with some of the offensive comedy of his past and quite frankly says, “I hate that person now.” Funny As never lets you forget that while our comedy scene is a full-on, successful industry, it’s also full of people with their own journeys through that scene.

The series has the feeling of a true labour of love – which is where Paul Horan comes in. He’s been a stalwart of New Zealand’s comedy scene for years, setting up Auckland’s Classic venue in the 80s, and co-founding the New Zealand Comedy Festival. He’s spent the past few years flitting back and forth between Australia and New Zealand, working on projects as varied as The ProjectDark Tourist and the Topp Twins documentary.

I interviewed Paul in his Melbourne home over Skype, where he spoke passionately and intently about Funny As, which is in the process of putting some final interviews together for access on NZ on Screen. He talked about who he wishes was involved in the documentary, the moment he’s proudest of, and shared a legendary John Clarke anecdote.

So what made you embark on a project of this scale?

You either do it once properly or you don’t do it. 

One of the reasons I left New Zealand was I love it and I work back there enormously now, but it’s the short story, short film, modest endeavour capital of the world.

What I love about Australia, even though it deeply shits me at times, is the ambition and the brashness. So I kind of thought, “Well, I’m going to come back, let’s do it.”

But I also have a public broadcasting ethos deep, deep within me, in that I think culture-making is something that TV people do, and we forgot about that. I was looking at all this archive stuff from Avalon in the 70s and 80s, and going, “These are people who made culture.”

So, when we proposed this, we got good funding for the actual documentary. But then I thought, well, what else can we do? And when I saw the state of the comedy archives in the Alexander Turnbull Library and the Auckland Heritage Collection, I went, “This is shit. This is my history too. This is stuff I’ve been very personally involved in and no one has collected it.”

I bring that up because we’re putting all of this stuff online. We’re up to editing 160 hours of interviews right now.

I’m sure that half of that’s Ginette McDonald, frankly. I heard a small part of the director’s cut extra she did – it’s so easy to forget that she’s such a genius and such a core part of our cultural history, not just a really funny person!

Well that came out of a hissy fit of mine, because, well, I had to properly court Ginette to do this, because this is a TVNZ project. And with TVNZ, the second question I said when we sat down with them is, “I’ve got to be able to buy bottles of wine and apologise for TVNZ’s treatment and the NZBC’s (New Zealand Broadcasting Company) treatment of these people.” 

There was a lot of people that I spend quite a lot of time with, and quite a few bottles of wine with, going, “Come on darling, it’ll be great.” And Ginette was one of those people. I’ve known her for a while and I kind of said, “You are awesome and we haven’t had a glimpse of how awesome you are. Let’s do that.”

[does a very good Ginette McDonald impression] “Oh darling, no, no, no. Let’s talk about acting or whatever.” 

But it was water on rock – just slowly wearing her down. We asked everyone to bring along their photos because we wanted to make the book, in particular, quite like a family album. So we wanted to get as much personal texture into this as possible.

Ginette McDonald, who became a comedy legend as Lyn of Tawa

And Ginette said, “Oh, I’ve got some things, but the rest is in my garage.”

And I went, “Fucking what? This is one of the most important archives of New Zealand comedy history and it’s in your dirty old garage? You dreadful woman!” So I said, “We’ll come round and we’ll literally fish out the boxes.”

And, what you don’t hear in that interview is my slightly bossy, you know, overbearing tone going, “Woman, you should put this in a proper bag. This shouldn’t be out in the elements. For God’s sake. I’m going to get an intervention from the Alexander Turnbull Library to come around, women in tweed skirts to whack you about the head for this!”

A lot of the scale of it comes from having enough time on this project, which is a thing that is very rare for a New Zealand documentary project. I had an entire year of being able to sit down and have these conversations. Negotiations with some of these people was very awkward and they didn’t want to talk about various things. 

We did miss a few people who just wouldn’t talk to us and that’s fine. Some of these people have not been treated well – there’s not a lot of comedians with big houses, you know?

Is there someone who isn’t in the documentary that you really wish was?

I think I would love to have got Pio Terei and Rawiri Paratene, who were major figures in the 70s and 80s, but they’re just over it, really. And that’s not their world any more. And I totally appreciate that. Both delightful men and really nice, but also it was them going, “Yeah, no.” 

I would love to have done an international episode of it because New Zealand comedians are around the world. Melanie Lynskey, for example. There’s a woman that’s represented the dry New Zealand sense of humour on one of the biggest sitcoms of all time.

Now, whilst that’s not New Zealand writing, there is a tone to her that kind of comes from where we are coming from. 

John Clarke created the character of Fred Dagg, and is arguably New Zealand’s most beloved comedic icon.

There’s a famous anecdote that New Zealanders tell over here of John Clarke at the Logie Awards one year. Some Australian comedian came up to him and there was a group of New Zealanders in the corner around John, because when John Clarke was at any do, all the New Zealanders gravitated to him to spend time with the great man. Then there was Tony Martin, who’s the comedian’s comedian over there and Alan Brough, who was a major comedian there for a long time.

So some snotty little Australian comedian comes up them kind of going, “Are you Kiwis? Do you always, like, hang out together? Do you have a club or something?” John Clarke turned to this little snot and said, “Yeah, we do have a club, actually, it’s called the Australian entertainment industry.”

And, it’s true, because when you look at any major comedy that was made in Australia over the last 20 years, there are Kiwis all the way through it.

You’re in such a unique position now that you’ve made this documentary – it’s like you’re the guru and holder of all this knowledge. From that place, do you think there’s anything that our comedy – our comedy scene – has lost that you think it should get back?

It’s easy to get sentimental about this stuff, but one of the things about all of these people that I’ve looked at is they are hustlers. Comedy doesn’t have central funding. When you look at Noel McKay, when you look at all of these people, even the early stand-ups, there’s not one cent of government money there. So, these people are hustlers and they are doing what they can do to make money.

So sometimes you get a bit sentimental about kind of, “Oh look at these amazing cabarets that happened in Auckland in the 1950s, wouldn’t that be lovely.”

But they were just ripping off overseas material to make money. And that’s there too, the nice kind of commonality about this, is that these are people doing the best that they can do themselves. I’m very proud of that, because the history of theatre and the history of dance is a subsidised art, and it relies on institutions. It relies on buildings. 

If you look at the assets of New Zealand comedy, they don’t even own The Classic.

These people are hustlers and they’re on the make the entire time because they don’t quite know where their next cheque is coming from. But I’m not sure that there’s anything that we’re missing because it is so diverse now, and still very dynamic.

So what was missing in the old days that is so present now?

I think that a thing that was missing in the old days is one of the great things about comedy, and even comedy worldwide, that cultural issues are almost there immediately. So, for example, at the moment, I mean there’s an article in the Guardian today saying “The boys’ club has been obliterated.” 

It said that #MeToo has had more effect on comedy than anything else. 

And it’s kind of true. Racism is, also, a much more interesting conversation in stand-up comedy than it is in theatre at the moment, I think. You’re getting people, white people, who don’t understand saying, “I don’t understand,” and you’re getting brown people up there kind of going, “Fuck, here’s what you should know.” 

That’s brilliant. That’s cultural conversation. And comedy accesses that stuff directly in a way that a lot of other arts don’t. 

So I don’t think I miss anything because now there are so many more things happening.

Ginette McDonald as Lyn of Tawa.

Finally, of all the moments, of all the hundreds of hours of footage and interviews, what’s the thing that you’re most proud of having in this documentary?

I think it could be Ginette McDonald. 

She had to be there at eight in the morning. She fucking hated me for it! 

But there’s a method in their madness. We tried to interview some of the big more important comedians earlier in the day, so they don’t have time to overthink what they’re saying. There are so many people that have been defending their legacy, which becomes quite hard to interview because people are talking their agenda. 

So you try and get those people early in the morning to get them a little bit off kilter, put a couple of coffees in them and off they go.

The Ginette McDonald interview was three hours long. We almost exhausted her. But in the end what you get is that portrait of someone who did something extraordinary. We’ve encapsulated that, and shown us the woman who gave us our accent – that Lyn of Tawa accent. A young woman being real and talking about some very dodgy material, and a young woman out there doing her stuff and then someone who survives through this industry.

A lot of these people are absolutely awesome, and this series was about being able to capture that and show an audience: “There you are.” 

And I hope she watches it and goes, “Oh, actually I’m quite good.” She probably won’t, but I know that we’ve not just captured this true comedy survivor, but also someone who has been a culture maker herself – someone who has truly altered the culture.

The final episode of Funny As drops tonight on TVNZ1, and you can watch all the episodes (including extras) on TVNZ on Demand. Horan appears in a live Funny As event for WORD Christchurch on 13 September at 8pm, with writer Philip Matthews and comedians David McPhail, Madeleine Sami and Justine Smith.

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