NZ Today, a spin-off from the popular Jono and Ben segment starring Guy Williams. Image: supplied

Review: Guy Williams finally gets out from under Jono and Ben on NZ Today

The lanky sidekick from Jono and Ben journeys around New Zealand trying to solve small town problems. Does he succeed?

Guy Williams, hardly a shy, retiring type, has been screaming out for his own vehicle for years. A loud, lanky, fearless comic, he’s spent nearly a decade in MediaWorks purgatory, sat off to the side on a high stool while Jono Pryor and Ben Boyce basked in the spotlight. His segments were markedly different in style and tone to much of the rest of Jono and Ben, a show which functioned as the closest thing New Zealand has ever had to a Saturday Night Live. Williams would yuck it up on the main stage, and participate in the glossy, topical sketches and pranks. Yet when given space to do his own thing, he ran hard in another direction.

The Guy Time segment saw him explain his take – sometimes grounded in reality, sometimes in a genuine misunderstanding – on a popular issue. Guy Williams Show saw him do a rinky dink chat show with his family for company, them lovely, him obnoxious. These weird, lo-fi bits led inexorably to a more fully-realised piece, one which saw him head out into the provinces and interact with everyday people, examining bits of small town lore, playing the role of a bemused loudmouth Aucklander.

It was called ‘New Zealand Today’, and has now been blown out into a TV half hour, a blank slate onto which he can finally project his entire comedic id, unmediated by the requirements of the bigger show into which he folded himself.

The first episode (of eight) of New Zealand Today airs tonight, and it’s a pretty electric half hour, one which suggests he should have been given this shot at least three years earlier. The conceit is this: he’s a wannabe journalist (half-accurate – he’s long been a columnist and an occasionally-cogent media critic) travelling to small towns to solve lingering mysteries.

It’s part Nathan For You, in the extravagance of the solutions, part Back of the Y in the maximalism of his performance. It’s also entirely Guy Williams, in all his flawed genius.

Start with the flawed. The first segment is a journey to Hāwera, to relitigate the blackface incident of late last year. It’s at times uncomfortable, this white saviour coming from the big city to tell these hick losers how they’re doing it wrong. “You’ll probably take the piss out of our town,” a councillor says guardedly, and he’s right to be concerned. Williams struggles to find anyone as exercised about the incident as him, and pleads with a Māori dude to stop using the N word. It’s altogether tense.

And yet, for all the flawed, there’s more genius. No one in New Zealand comedy is more willing to walk into danger – social, conversational, physical – than Guy Williams. Boldly rocking up to people on the street and yelling “It’s Guy Williams from the television!” gets extremely good results. He’s riotously famous, more than you think, but also extremely approachable, and has a true gift for prompting unguarded responses from people. The friendship he develops with an older religious woman is oddly touching, and the climactic ending on his final morning has a joyous visual chaos to it which stays with you.

The second section is more uncomplicatedly great. He heads off in search of a coffin a Wanganui woman made to eventually be buried in, but was stolen and never recovered. She is an absolute peach, in wraparound Dirty Dogs, with the kind of vernacular that made Neighbours at War one of New Zealand’s greatest-ever shows.

Williams canvasses the town for clues, asking people what their end-of-life plans are, as you do. “I’m getting burnt, G,” says a dude in tino rangatiratanga sunglasses. Williams eventually lights on a solution I won’t spoil, but has a level of escalation and deft direction and production which shows what the series will be capable of at its best.

The first episode of New Zealand Today is an almost too-pacy debut which adroitly deploys Williams’ many comic gifts, while exposing some of his blind spots. Yet in a local comedy environment which has dealt in well-executed but relatively safe formats for some years now, this is a welcome blast of something new. He easily carries the half hour, but what might be the most compelling thing about the show is less Williams himself than what he draws out of those he encounters.

Contrary to some rumours, New Zealanders are funny as hell, and the best moments of New Zealand Today are when he’s out in the field, no script in sight, running with the people and figuring it out as he goes along.

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