Tara Ward reviews Funny As, a series that documents the history of New Zealand comedy, and manages to be a key part of that history in its own right.
Kiwi comedy has come a long way since Fred Dagg first fell out of a Land Rover, and new documentary series Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy is about to prove how far that really is. Over five episodes, Funny As tracks the development of comedy in Aotearoa, from the early days of John Clarke and Lynn of Tawa, to the giddy heights of Rose Matafeo’s 2018 win at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for her show Horndog. In fact, it’s worth watching the first episode just to hear Peter Williams enunciate the word “horndog” in a One News bulletin.
Matafeo’s win kicks the series off, and she’s the starting point for episode one’s dive into the ‘secret history’ of women’s comedy. The secret is out, and it’s a joy to see so many funny women jammed into one hour of primetime television. From Cal Wilson to Hanelle Harris, Justine Smith to Roseanne Liang, the Topp Twins to Laura Daniel to Madeleine Sami, the first thing Funny As does is remind us that New Zealand is blessed with an abundance of creative and intelligent women.
Funny As takes us back to the early days of Kiwi comedy, when Lynn of Tawa was performing in front of the Queen, the Topp Twins were busking activists, and there were barely any women on the stand-up circuit. There’s no shortage of shitty stories about how women were treated in the male-dominated comedy world, and it’s both heartbreaking and infuriating to hear Ginette McDonald speak about being offered a role in a 70s feminist TV comedy on the condition she lost two and a half stone, or Rosemary McLeod recalling the public abuse she faced over her work in The Listener.
“I had to be better than anyone else,” Vicki Walker of the 80s comedy collaborative Girl’s Gotta Eat says of her stand-up days. It’s a theme that runs through this episode of Funny As: women in comedy had to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously.
But if female comedians struggled to be heard in the past, they’re loud and clear in Funny As. We’re treated to a longer look at the work of the Topp Twins and Ginette McDonald, who each created iconic comic characters that are now part of New Zealand’s cultural history. Rose Matafeo and Michèle A’Court discuss how stand-up gives them a unique form of creative control, while Urzila Carlson talks about the impact of the #metoo movement. “It’s better being a woman in comedy at the moment,” she says, and reckons comedians need to adjust to the shift in audience expectations. “Change your shit, read the room.” God, I love Urzila.
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I especially loved how Funny As showed the power of women creating comedy on their own terms. It takes us back to glorious 80s classics Marching Girls and Gloss, the first New Zealand TV dramas to put women’s stories front and centre. It looks at the rise of digital web content like Baby Mama Club and Friday Night Bites, a format that encourages fresh comedy voices and multicultural perspectives to shine. There’s also a quick glimpse at the impact of gems like The Jacquie Brown Diaries, Funny Girls and The Breaker Upperers, all comedies with female characters who are complex and messy but still bloody funny.
Because above all, a documentary about comedy should be funny, and Funny As doesn’t disappoint. The interviewees are warm and witty, and the archival footage from ye olde comedy days is a treat. I learned a heap about comedy thanks to Funny As, and gained a new appreciation for the bravery and bloody-mindedness of these amazing women who kept getting up on that stage when everyone around them was telling them to get off.
I’d have loved for the entire series of Funny As to be about the women of New Zealand comedy. Their stories are compelling and important, and it feels like we just skimmed the surface. But it’s a cracking start to the series, a fast-paced, punchy watch that will knock plenty of nostalgic funny bones.
Funny As premieres tonight at 8.30PM on TVNZ1 and runs for five episodes.
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