Why making it as a comedian goes beyond a joke

By Rebecca Barry Hill

What do you get if you cross a designer with a cookbook author, a film-maker and a rock star? Answer: our next generation of comedians. The young stand-ups performing at this month’s New Zealand International Comedy Festival are a multi-talented bunch writes Rebecca Barry Hill.

Mo Kheir, Guy Williams and Rhys Mathewson. Photo / Natalie Slade
Mo Kheir, Guy Williams and Rhys Mathewson. Photo / Natalie Slade

ROSE MATAFEO

When she auditioned as a television host for U Live, Rose Matafeo wore a T-shirt with a cat looking at a moon.

"I like being uncool," she shrugs. Those who've seen the nominee for this year's prestigious Billy T Award host her show on TVNZ's digital music channel might disagree. But she was so convinced of it that she co-wrote and starred in the 2009 show A Guide to The Uncool with friend Heidi O'Loughlin, promising punters who turned up with Shania Twain CDs that she would kindly destroy them.

Now she's gearing up for the Melbourne Comedy Festival where she'll MC the ensemble show FanFiction, a panel discussion where fans rewrite the fate of their favourite characters. She'll come home for the New Zealand International Comedy Festival to perform her new show, Scout's Honour.

"Until comedy, I never really found something I had talent in," says the wide-eyed 20-year-old.

"I always did drama but my extra-curricular activities were watching TV and movies after school. I never did any sports or learned any musical instruments. I always wanted to be part of a club, Brownies or Girl Scouts, or even part of a sports team. I just lacked all of those qualities."

So she came up with the idea of creating a group for girls who didn't necessarily excel in sports or academia. Instead, they earn badges for such aspirational life skills as "making eye contact for at least a minute".

"I think a lot of my comedy is very self-deprecating. I really should be proud of these pathetic things."

Perhaps this explains why she calls herself the "worst Samoan ever created". Matafeo still lives in the Ponsonby house in which she was born. Her dad is Samoan, her mum Croatian and Scottish. Before she went to Auckland Girls' Grammar she was the only brown-skinned student at her school.

"My primary teachers would be like, 'teach us the sasa [Samoan dance]'. I'm like, 'are you kidding? I'm so white'."

To make up for her perceived lack of talent, she turned to pop culture, developing an obsession that would make her, quite possibly, the best pub quiz team-mate ever. While her classmates idolised sports stars, Matafeo worshipped Rock Hudson and Doris Day, immersed herself in screwball comedies and old musicals, and listened to the Bee Gees and 80s pop. "It's pretty strange, this 12-year-old who was really into A-ha."

Like-minded mates didn't emerge until high school, so she was something of an outsider.

"No one else was into Welcome Back Kotter and Gabe Kaplan. I used to watch the reruns on Prime and think it was totally normal. And contemporary."

Matafeo used to mimic her screen heroes, not recognising her own gift for humour until she joined the Class Comedians programme through high school. The quietest in the group, she shocked everyone when she won "best on the night" at the final Auckland Town Hall performance. Since then, she's performed regularly at the Classic Comedy Club. These days her heroes are more likely to be found on the small screen: Tina Fey and the Saturday Night Live crew. One day she'd love to write her own TV show. In the meantime, her day-job as a TV presenter has allowed her funny bone to shine.

Whereas her stage persona is deliberately uncomfortable, her style on the three-hour daily U Live show - where she interviews musicians, and often breaks into song - is relaxed, more like when she's with her mates.

"It seems to appeal to that youth audience, being at ease and totally being yourself. It does come from a genuine place. It is very fun and I do act ridiculous. Sometimes I do something and I'm like, 'do I forget I'm on TV and people are watching?'"

GUY WILLIAMS

"I'm a very cynical and critical person most of the time," says Guy Williams, plonking a Sonic The Hedgehog game on the table. "I always speak my mind and shoot from the hip."

This has both got him into trouble and worked in his favour. Williams, 24, writes and stars in TV3's The Jono Project and 7 Days, shows in which he can put his cutting humour to use. He also pens gags for channel Four's kids' show, Sticky TV, his favourite segment being "Walter's Advice", where one of the hosts gives genuine counsel in a light-hearted way.

"I'm living the dream at the moment because children have very low expectations."

Williams is best known, however, for a hoax in which he posed as a pro-whaling lobbyist. Paul Henry interviewed him on the Breakfast show, and didn't appear to twig to the deception. The stunt polarised viewers, embarrassing the network and highlighting the sometimes tricky task of gauging an interviewee's sincerity - and right to have a say. Williams says he simply wanted to point out that "the loonies" get too much of a say.

"I went to class with a million of right-wing loonies who I'd argue with every day. So it was really easy just to mimic them. I had nothing to lose."

Williams calls the stunt the highlight of his career but says it also taught him some valuable lessons and caused him to tone down his tendency to mock. His mother, for one, wasn't impressed. Henry fans have been quick to berate him, too.

"It was quite an attention-seeking thing to do. But I've never shied away from blatantly going for publicity."

That tenacity to get to the nub of an issue also led him to blow his TV budget, flying to Wellington for The Jono Project. Williams made like a 60 Minutes reporter and door-knocked the infamous Ken Eastwood, who, according to a hand-painted sign on a fence in Rangiriri, owed someone $300.

Williams says his show, On The Verge Of Nothing, at this year's Comedy Festival won't court controversy or put anyone on the spot, other than himself. Last year he got a phone call from his high school in Nelson asking if he'd talk to the students about success, from the perspective of someone who "had achieved or was on the verge of success".

"I wanted to explain I'm on verge of nothing. I go from contract to contract. It's funny how people perceive you if you can get on the TV for five minutes. The reality is, I'm just some dude playing Sonic on Nintendo Wii most of the time."

Williams now has four years' comedy experience and is this year nominated for a Billy T Award, which recognises outstanding comedy talent. After doing his first stand-up gig in New Plymouth, he kept it up at Wellington's San Francisco Bath House and the Fringe Bar, moving to Auckland two years ago to pursue comedy.

Charismatic, with a booming voice, Williams says he's nothing like that on stage. Demetri Martin and the late Mitch Hedberg, comics known for their absurd delivery, are influences.

"I don't know if I really set out to or not, but my delivery became quite disjointed. The only way I could deliver jokes was by rote-learning them. I'm not a natural actor. So I developed this awkward persona. People could see I was shaking if had the microphone in one hand. It really worked for me and immediately I got cheap sympathy. It's very observational and I think that's good as well, because so many comedians are very confident. The usual comedy persona is very cocky and usually swilling a beer, so I wanted to be the opposite of that."

RHYS MATHEWSON

When Rhys Mathewson turned 21 he decided it was time to figure the world out. So he did what anyone would do. He turned to Wikipedia.

"I can tell you heaps about the President of Albania in the mid-30s but not a lot about politics," he says of the material for his upcoming Comedy Festival show, Rhys Mathewson Versus The World.

"I'm trying to make it observational but I'd rather just talk about myself."

Despite eschewing magazines and books in his quest for knowledge, the stand-up has somehow managed to make a foray into each of them too. Last year Mathewson was elected co-editor of the University of Auckland's student rag, Craccum, with his mate, Spencer Dowson. He also continued to write his tongue-in-cheek column, "Rhys's Pieces", covering the ups and downs of student life. It was a full-time gig, which, ironically, led to him dropping out of his BA to focus on the magazine - and his burgeoning stand-up career.

"We did jokes all year as opposed to doing political commentary. There's only so many ways you can write a dick joke and I exhausted them all."

There's a lot happening this year, too, with a Rhys Mathewson cookbook in the offing. In what could be seen as both a compliment and an affront depending on your sense of humour, publishing house Penguin contacted him on Facebook and asked if he'd be interested in writing a book about "awful things for people to eat", says Mathewson. "Really revolting stuff. Fatty and greasy and salty. For dudes who don't look after themselves but for the average human would turn their stomach.

"I said, 'does this mean I'm going to get to eat some very bad food and have an excuse to? Sign me up!"'

Mathewson spent most of January concocting (and sampling) blokey recipes, such as his "pie with pies inside".

In June he will move to London, where he hopes to sharpen up his stand-up skills by taking as many gigs as possible. Until then he'll continue mentoring the high school students who are part of the Class Comedians programme.

"I'm running the programme this year. It's about teaching kids that comedy is a viable option. I always wanted to be an actor but I suck at acting. Then I found comedy. So it's all about character comedy, writing one-liners, and giving students the foundations. Then if you want to do Monday nights at the Classic, you know how to write a joke."

Mathewson took part in the programme himself, under the tutelage of well known comedian Jan Maree. He graduated in 2006 with his first stand-up set where he was so nervous he felt his knees literally knock together.

"As a kid I was always going 'hey, look at me, look at me, look at me'. I found the easiest way to do that was to stand in a room where I'm the only one being lit."

The experience was enough to turn him into a "comedy geek" who quips he's heard just about every joke ever written in New Zealand. And in 2010, at the age of 19, he became the youngest recipient of the Billy T Award. Throughout his six-year career, he's appeared on TV3's 7 Days, AotearoHa, Would I Lie to You? and The Comedy Convoy.

Mathewson is a fan of 7 Days regular Steve Wrigley and British comedian Daniel Kitson, who he says break down the humour, "pointing out where the laughs are coming from and why; and really playing with it and stretching out the pauses. And getting the audience to laugh at the fact that there was no laugh or the other way around.

"I like the story-telling and the deconstruction. Because comedy is a very weird thing. It's like you're the chairman of the party, where no one else is allowed to talk."

MO KHEIR

Mo Kheir has an annoying problem. He's good at too many things. After completing a Master of Architecture degree last year and deciding he hated architecture, he landed his dream job as brand manager for men's fashion label I Love Ugly, a role that uses his design and business skills.

"I didn't want to spend two years on one design, one building, one process," says the 23-year-old. "I like to work fast."

It might as well be his personal philosophy. Giving stand-up comedy a go was on his bucket list. So he entered last year's National Raw Comedy Competition for amateur comics, and won.

Kheir also fronts a hip-hop/rock band called the Wild. After they sent their song Revolution to a New York blog, the song wound up on the soundtrack to the TV series 90210. Within weeks they were courting interest from label scouts in the US, Canada and Australia.

"At the beginning of year I wanted to do music as a hobby but within three months it had become a side job because of how serious it got."

Kheir is now having to juggle his passions - a full-time job, his upcoming gigs for the NZ International Comedy Festival and the possibility of a music career. If that takes off, Kheir is circumspect; he'll just have to make things work. It helps that his manager, Ashley Page, takes care of both the music and comedy side of his career, and that he can cross-pollinate the music with his work in fashion.

"Look at Supreme," he says, of the US streetwear label. "It's had exponential growth. [Hip-hop stars] Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future are wearing it and endorsing it.

"The timing's amazing. Everything is just starting to feed in and help each other. It doesn't seem like too much work."

Yet it was hard yakka that got him where he is now. Determined not to fall into the growing pool of graduates struggling to find a job, Kheir says he worked seven days a week and had no social life to speak of while at university.

Can a swot be funny? Yes, says Kheir, because to succeed in stand-up "you literally have to sculpt your set. If I forget something on stage, normally I've planned that. It's ironic but it's very serious getting a laugh."

After his Raw win last year, Kheir was asked to perform a similar set for the televised comedy show, AotearoHa: Next Big Things.

"A lot of comedians perform a set for a year but I didn't want to do that. I felt I'd moved past that style. But they were like, 'we want you to do the stuff you won the competition with. We'll pay you $450 a minute'. I was like, 'so what do you want me to do?"'

His Comedy Festival show, Mo And His Delusions, is a mix of story-telling and observational humour - but nothing personal. There'll be no mention of growing up in Oman, before his family moved to New Zealand when Kheir was 7. His father wrote his PhD here, and helped to set up the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Auckland. Nor will he touch on his Sudanese roots, or how life was hard when he first arrived Downunder.

"I really stood out in school. For the first few years I didn't really fit in but then it got better. Being black became cool. Overnight."

Instead we can expect to see him appear on a TV set-inspired stage, playing the Prince of Congo, with an entourage of bodyguards and a "trigger pad, loaded with audience laughter. I'm planning on some jokes not being funny and testing the boundaries of what's politically correct."

TOM FURNISS

A bear goes to a fancy dress party as a human and gets mauled to death ... that's a typically surreal thought that goes through Tom Furniss' mind on a daily basis. And it's enough to get him the sack.

"My boss is always saying he wants to fire me, so I go and do my own stuff," says the writer and comedian, another nominee for this year's Billy T Award. His day job is working as assistant to Hollywood producer (and Lucy Lawless' husband), Rob Tapert, on the remake of the 1981 horror, The Evil Dead. There's not much room for comedy on the job. But there are similarities.

"For me, comedy is just all story-telling - and that's what they're doing there."

He's always spinning a yarn. He's just penned a new show based on Home & Away, in which veteran characters Alf and Colleen get it on. Like his friend Rose Matafeo, he'll take the show to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

His gig at the New Zealand festival is based on stories about his life. At 23, you might wonder how much experience he could pack into a one-hour gig. But The Free Ice Cream Show is part-memoir, part-surrealism, and will address some of his own vexing questions about life.

"I'll talk about childhood things: getting beaten up, which was a cool experience; stealing condoms with a childhood friend from Kmart. I'll also weave throughout my own tragic short stories and show some short films."

When he's not penning tales for his stand-up, he's writing films and short stories, usually with an eye to the dark and bizarre. His winning entry for last year's 48-Hour Film Festival - which he wrote, produced and starred in - was about a day in the life of "child jumpers", roaming vigilantes who leap-frog over unsuspecting kids. He and his team mates hoped to use the prize money for their next project, a feature film Furniss took just seven days to write. They then travelled to the Coromandel to shoot it in about the same time.

"People were telling us beforehand it's impossible and we were like, 'nah, it's not impossible, you just haven't done it right'. And it is impossible, I think."

Furniss has since finished four feature film scripts and a TV pilot. He looks back on his first attempt - about a man returning to New Zealand from London to face his demons - in horrified embarrassment, conceding it's all been a learning experience. So has his screen career. After studying film at university, he went to Los Angeles to intern on film sets, returning to do the same back home on The Legend Of The Seeker. That led to a six-month stint on Spartacus, and now, the horror. Furniss balances his emailing and coffee-making duties with shooting the behind-the-scenes footage and soaking up the "invaluable conversations" at his disposal. Although his creative output is not as macabre.

"I like characters you'll probably never meet but you can still imagine they're out there. The TV shows I like are Garth Marenghi's Darkplace [a British comedy-horror], The Mighty Boosh, films like Eagle Vs Shark and Boy. They nail the right level of comedy and heart. Film can be funny but it has to have that thing where you feel sorry for the people. You've got to have empathy. It's the same with comedy. Comedians may completely disagree with this but it's about making people like you rather than being funny a lot of the time."

That helps to keeps him honest and humble on stage. "I think audiences are quite supportive. When you don't know what you're doing they're like, 'c'mon mate'. But when you get out there with a little bit of arrogance, they sniff it out."

* This year is the 20th anniversary of The New Zealand International Comedy Festival. It runs from April 27-May 20 in Auckland and Wellington.

- NZ Herald

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