For a strange week in November, The Spinoff’s editor Duncan Greive was on the longlist to host Three’s new 7pm current affairs show The Project NZ. Here he gives a blow by blow of a botching.
“He’s a household name and needs no introduction – so why am I bothering? Ladies and gentlemen, would you please welcome to the show, Jamie Oliver!”
I looked up expectantly. Not at Jamie Oliver, who was not there, but at my wife. She looked puzzled. “That’s not your voice.”
“Yeah it is,” I replied defensively.
“No, it isn’t.”
“Oh God. You’re right,” I replied in terror. “What the fuck is my voice?”
I was a half hour away from auditioning for The Project NZ, a local version of the hugely popular Australian current affairs show, and practising on my poor wife. One of the mock scripts called for me to interview a mock Jamie Oliver, and I was lustily ripping into my mock host character. A natural mumbler, I was trying to overpower my instincts by projecting hard, but ended up affecting a tone something like a crap New Zealand Troy McClure in the process. But now I was stuck with it: what was my real voice? Where had it gone – and would it come back in time? It was at that moment that the pure folly of what I was about to do hit home for the first time.
The brief and tawdry saga had begun a week earlier, in mid-November. I was holed up in a neighbouring office, away from The Spinoff staff, trying to write some crappy review. My phone rang, an unknown number. It was a man. The man sounded healthy and in possession of all his faculties. But he said he was Jon Bridges, yes that Jon Bridges, and he was producing The Project NZ, a local version of the hugely popular Australian current affairs show. He wondered if I would like to audition. For the role of host.
This was deeply surreal to me. I had spent many years studiously preparing to not host a TV show, carefully doing nothing which might ready me for such a task so as to never give off the slightest signal that I might be good at it or want to do it. I had gone to journalism school, sure, but not done a single radio or television paper. I’d made sure that my occasional appearances on air were nervy or haphazard or otherwise flawed, and had reached the age of 37, when learning a new skill is essentially impossible.
Unfortunately all this had somehow passed Bridges by. He assured me that he knew who I was and what I had never done, but said that they still wanted me to give it a crack.
I was flabbergasted and frightened but also undeniably flattered. Maybe I was actually a wizard and true star, only waiting for this moment to arrive? Maybe I truly didn’t understand how talented I was, and the incredibly skilled scouts at TV3 (as it was then known) could see the gleaming potential lurking beneath this unremarkable exterior? These and other poisonous thoughts danced in my head as I signed a non-disclosure agreement and awaited further instructions with a growing sense of self-importance.
It was only later that another, less pompous thought would worm its way into my head: what if it was just a giant and genius troll of a television reviewer? That TV critic is always criticising. We’ll show him how hard this shit is! The two conflicting explanations went back and forth in my head, waging a pitched battle for primacy over the coming days.
An email arrived containing both mock scripts and a link to an episode of The Project. After I hit play, I realised how silly my growing attachment to the idea was. The show was relentlessly pacy, with none of long, drawn-out bullshitting which I favour as a conversational style. Dread set in, for the first of many times.
This was particularly pronounced thanks to the quality of the man I was meant to emulate. There are three key roles on The Project: newsreader, comedian and host. The host is essentially the straight person to the chaos which surrounds the news – a more sober analysis than provided by the loud comedians and charismatic anchor. In Australia the role is filled by Waleed Aly, a handsome and award-winning Muslim lawyer, academic and writer who can slide effortlessly from jocular banter to penetrating commentary.
He was also something of an outsider prior to casting. I too was an outsider, I thought – and while almost none of Aly’s other descriptors fit, I clung to ‘outsider’ as if it was the only thing they sought. A few days later I rose early, sent an email to my colleagues lying about a meeting, put on a suit, did that disgraceful rehearsal with my wife, and drove up to MediaWorks’ Flower Street HQ to see exactly how this ridiculousness would play out.
I was ushered down into a room with a half dozen or so really famous people, all dressed up and ready to crush it. My mind went into a kind of extended spasm, rendering me unable to recall their names or main gigs, despite having watched them on TV or listened to them on radio for much of my adult life. This made me look like both an asshole and an idiot simultaneously, a rare and coveted double.
Mercifully I wasn’t part of the opening four, because I was a sweaty, stammering wreck. So I watched from stage left as the pretend cast casually whipped off a near-perfect performance, complete with interviews with imaginary people and jokes they’d prepared earlier which were actually super funny. All with legit chemistry.
They came off stage beaming and glowing, and I was immediately told to go and sit up there and host and read an autocue for the first time. The next hour flashed past. I think we did four shows. I can’t be sure because I essentially blacked out after failing to be able to remember three names over and over again until they eventually caved and typed them into the autocue.
Of the eventual cast trio, only Kanoa Lloyd was in the audition and, thanks to her poise, wit and warmth it was immediately obvious that she was The One. The rest – mostly auditioning to be comedians or guests – all seemed great. But I knew there were two more rounds of auditions – who knew what talent lurked within?
I stumbled out, blinking into the light, sure of two things: A) that I’d been bad, but not irredeemably so, and B) that against my better judgement and despite my manifest unsuitability, I enjoyed the chaos. Worse, I now wanted the job.
I went back to work and did some more lying, saying the suit was due to some corporate shilling I had to do – a very plausible lie. Then, just when I had resigned myself to having blown a job I had thought of as a joke then decided I wanted, I got a call from a producer. It was a decidedly mixed message: a callback to have another crack, but also an invitation to sit in on some other extra auditions, “to get you a bit more experience”. IE to stop you being such a shambles.
It was really doing my head in, all the seductive TV stuff. All the lights and cameras and whispering promise of FAME – it made me a bit weird. Unfortunately it wasn’t just my head – the process was doing my body in too. A few weeks earlier I had developed a neck problem, origins unknown, which slowly spread down my back and right arm. I was dosing up on painkillers and seeing every osteo/chiro/physio going. Nothing seemed to work, so my then-technique was to sit at some weird angle, lurching maybe 25 degrees to the left to relieve the tension.
I assume this looked excellent on camera.
As the second week came around, I developed these weird sores too, which I’ve never had before or since. They wept then crusted over and gave me a look I would describe as ‘pre-zombie’. Given the hours I was working, and the lies I was telling, I was operating under the assumption they were stress-related. Luckily they were hidden away around the middle of my face.
I did Monday’s audition alongside Josh Thomson, who seemed like he’d been called in on a whim, and wasn’t taking it super seriously. Perhaps as a result, he was electric – defying every convention of what current affairs television was supposed to feel like, rambling and obscure and only vaguely connected to the topic at hand. It was obvious that he would be incredible, but equally obvious that he was way too weird to be picked.
On the way home I was called by someone at the Herald. They had heard I was auditioning, had heard about how wide the net had been cast (very wide: hence me) and wanted me to confirm my participation. I mumbled some more lies, not very convincingly. So many lies, they were weighing on me.
The final audition came on a Wednesday. I dutifully reported into Flower St, with what was a starting to be a familiar mix of excitement and fear. My back was worse than ever, the sores multiplying. I was hanging by a thread, but loving it a bit.
I walked into the room and stopped dead. There was essentially everybody under 40 who has ever been on TV in either news or comedy. If a bomb had hit that room we’d have had to just stop making television. They were all very nice and accommodating, but also maybe nervous and confused by me. I don’t blame them – I was confused by me too. What was this injured, sore-ridden print jerk doing amongst the legends of the small screen?
We got into it. This time it was even pacier – no news, no correspondent pieces. Just pure fake interviews and fake banter. I was given an earpiece to wear, so the producers could gently remind me to point the right way and say the right thing.
I gave it a good crack. But Jesse Mulligan was there to audition for the host role, so y’know, it was essentially doomed. He’s so handsome and funny and unflappable – whereas I had those pesky sores, darting, nervous eyes and was supremely flappable. Mulligan aced the test, despite being unwell, before bunking off back to his RNZ slot. I sat in his still-warm seat and went through the motions, but knew the goose was cooked, the horse had bolted and chicken had come home to roost. Maybe not that last one, but you get the idea.
The following day, news broke in the Herald of some of the auditionees. All the mysterious suit wearers parading in and out of Flower St had obviously caught attention. I was on the list too, and had to explain to my colleagues that I wasn’t abandoning them – I was just doing it for a laugh!
Only, by then I wasn’t. Despite knowing that I was not suited to the role, and had no time on earth to spare to perform it, I had grown to love the bright lights and live mics.
Still, it was no surprise when, early in the new year, I got another call from Bridges. By then I was mercifully sore-free and quite relaxed, on me summer holidays. Bridges was apologetic and sweet, but confirmed what I already knew: that the job was not mine. This great moment was made better by occurring on speakerphone in the car as I drove up the Southern Motorway, with my wife and three daughters there to hear it.
I wasn’t mad though. By then the brain fog that the idea of making television had cast over me had mostly cleared. I was more than content to stay a grubby, faceless print hack. I thanked Bridges for the call, and felt excited later that day when I saw Lloyd, Mulligan and Thomson announced as hosts. This grew into a near-nauseating level of relief when I saw the promo, and imagined myself singing and/or dancing. I understood very deeply then that this was another world, made for a different species. It was not meant for grubs like me.
Today, as the show gears up to launch, I look back on the heady week when I dreamed of being a TV presenter with an indulgent fondness. It was dumb and weird but heaps of fun, and while I’m glad I got to peek through a window into how the television sausage is really made, I’m gladder still that no one made the mistake of putting me in the middle.
The Project begins tonight on Three at 7pm
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