Urzila Carlson: The comedian standing up for herself

Carroll du Chateau talks to TV comic Urzila Carlson about IQ tests, giraffes in her swimming pool and why she can’t afford to lose weight.

‘You get that laugh and it feels fantastic. You make them happy. People have come out after a hard day, it’s shit at home and you make them laugh.’ - Urzila Carlson. Photo / Sarah Ivey
‘You get that laugh and it feels fantastic. You make them happy. People have come out after a hard day, it’s shit at home and you make them laugh.’ - Urzila Carlson. Photo / Sarah Ivey

After an hour and a half of wisecracks I just have to ask Urzila Carlson how she does in IQ tests. Immediately she gives me that narrow-eyed, I-don't-want-to-be-stitched-up look. She's too smart to risk looking big-headed, so I promise to explain that I forced the information out of her. "It's 139 or something. I did okay in school," she says in that South African accent that gets her into trouble most days.

In other words, Urzila Carlson, the chubby, lesbian comedienne who makes a living by taking the piss out of herself, is pretty smart. She's also quite kind. As she says, she's not the type of comic who picks on the audience. "The show's all about me. It's a safe topic. I can't offend myself!

"People come to see the show, not be the show," she continues. "But if they beg for it, I'll give it to them. Yeahhh, die!"

Best of all she's funny in the flesh. Every other comedian I've interviewed turned out to be disappointingly quiet off-stage. At 37, Carlson's not as big as she makes out either and is extremely pretty with creamy skin, lovely white teeth and, most attractive of all, a smile playing at the corners of her lips, as she works herself up for yet another joke. Even I get one (of sorts): "You write like a psychopath," she giggles glancing at my speedwriting efforts.

She has had a semi-meteoric rise to fame in New Zealand. After winning a section of the Raw Talent comedy quest in 2008 she clicked with Auckland audiences - and our funny men. She's often the only woman on TV3's 7Days, where they treat her like one of the lads - even if she can't get a word in over the jockish madness. Then, after only three years in the business, she won New Zealand's Best Female Comedian in 2010 and the Billy T Award for Best Female Comedian 2011.

She has just completed a 15-day, 30-flight gig around the country with Jeremy Corbett, Simon McKinney, Alex Bubus, Gordon Southern and Felicity Drace, their manager.

"Six of us in a Thriftee van. They were sponsoring. It was classic."

So how does a South African graphic designer transform herself in to a New Zealand stand-up comedienne pretty much overnight?

Carlson left South Africa because she could not stand a society where the newspaper she was working on as a graphic designer was forbidden to publish an account of the school-yard rape of a 10-year-old girl by three 10-year-old boys.

Her then-partner's son was about to start school. "In the back of new entrants' homework books they have these school rules that say, 'you are not allowed to sexually violate a classmate, you are not allowed to take a gun to school ...' I'm like, 'they're 6 years old. How are you supposed to explain school rules like that to a kid?' I decided right then and there to emigrate. I didn't know where."

The next day she saw an advertisement in the paper calling for people to immigrate to New Zealand. Six months later she did.

Not that life in South Africa was all bad. The family lived on the Inqwelala game reserve, a few hours from Johannesburg and next to the Kruger National Park. The system sounds great if you've got the nerve for it. People buy an ordinary house on a reserve, Carlson explains. Then they get to enjoy the bush and the animals without having to care for them.

"I find it strange that people here have never seen lions in the wild. We had them out the back window."

There were around 80 co-owners on the farm, all with houses and many with pools. "We had a big, round, in-ground swimming pool," says Carlson. "And one night a giraffe came in for a drink, like all the lions, zebras and other animals, and somehow fell in. So they got a crane to help lift it out and, in the process, hurt its neck. So we had to put it down."

All of which, for Carlson, adds up to a great story for her comedy routine: "The night a giraffe drowned in our swimming pool."

The brutality of the South African culture is probably why Carlson's more worried about keeping her personal life private than most New Zealanders. She doesn't like talking about her parents and family and it took her a while to tell me the name of her partner. It's Julie.

"I don't think it's fair that they should be dragged into the social media and stuff like that because I decide to become a comedienne."

She arrived in New Zealand in 2006, got herself a graphic design job with Ogilvy advertising in Parnell, split with her South African partner ("she stayed on the North Shore with all the others") and met Julie. Now she and her sister and two young nephews live next door to each other in Blockhouse Bay and her mum comes over for six months every year on a grandparents' visa. "We're waiting for her residency to come through".

"I got my citizenship last week," says Carlson. "My letter had an oath to the Queen on it. My ancestors must be rolling in their graves. I can sing the national anthem - flat - in Maori and in English."

Two years later Carlson was about to change jobs when she decided to toss it all aside and become a stand-up.

Well it wasn't quite like that, she explains. "We worked in clusters doing horrendous hours, sometimes 15 hours a day. And we laughed all the time. I had the radio right by me and I'd play a tune as different people walked in."

As a leaving present her pod-mates gave her a coffee machine to fuel her caffeine habit and an invitation to perform at the Classic's Open Mic night where newcomers get to stand up and have a go at making the audience laugh.

"This guy at Ogilvy, Leon Fisk, made up this fake contract for me as a going-away present. I was booked to perform for five minutes and they'd reserved a table to come and watch."

None of them realised that Carlson's gig was part of the Comedy Festival's Raw Talent Comedy Quest until later.

"I was terrified, but determined to do it," she says. "That first gig was the worst of my life. My leg trembled all the time and I couldn't stop it. I nearly bent the mic stand I held on to it so hard!"

But already she was hooked. As she says, it's terrifying getting up there, but the adrenalin rush once the first laugh's out, is exhilarating, exciting, addictive. "Okay, I'm rolling on to it ... You get that laugh and it feels fantastic. You make them happy. People have come out after a hard day, it's shit at home and you make them laugh."

The feedback was great too. Her advertising workmates who'd laughed at her, and with her, for months were right. "When I finished Brendan Lovegrove [who had emceed the show] asked me how long I'd been doing it. When I said it was my first show he said 'you just have to carry on'.

"Scott, the owner of the club called to say he'd been quoting my material all night, and 'congratulations, you're through to the next round'."

Three years on Lovegrove remembers "Urzila showed an energy and comic nous I'd not seen before. She had natural ability. She'd prepared her material. And she was fearless. I've never seen a new comic get so good so quickly, including during the six years I was in England. She's hilarious on and off stage."

But back then she needed to be sure that other people, who didn't know her, found her funny too. "So I didn't tell anybody, just went along to check. And people still laughed!"

Much of this wouldn't have happened if Carlson had stayed in South Africa where she was an award-winning, well-established graphic artist.

"People in South Africa would have thought I was insane if I'd left my job to do comedy, she says, describing a country that's more serious and conservative than New Zealand and where she probably had aunts and uncles who might be embarrassed by their large niece getting up and making jokes about being a "lesbiterian".

"Even here, if you'd told me then that in three and a half years I'd be doing stand-up comedy full time I'd have said 'you're out of your f***ing mind!"'

The anonymity helped, especially at first. "Here I'm just some foreign chick. It's the same dynamic that lets people walk around in togs in Thailand - that 'nobody knows me so what the hell' factor."

Is the New Zealand comedy scene especially difficult? Why are there so few women, especially in stand-up? "I don't think there's any discrimination," she says. "If you're funny you're funny! The thing is, men are braver, they can take it. Actually I don't know if they're braver or dumber."

"Because it's really hard. You have to have a really thick skin. You have to take a punch. Audiences are ruthless. It's hard to stick with it, it's easier to give comedy up than give up your day job up. They're all bare-knuckled gigs, there's no mercy, it's rough as guts."

Although she refuses to poke fun at her audiences for gags, Carlson uses her own life mercilessly. She describes herself as a "lesbiterian" and jokes about the perils of being a fat girl. "Now I can't lose weight - I've got too much material to lose."

Not that she's escaped South Africa by coming here. Auckland's North Shore especially, is thick with her former fellow citizens. The problem was "flushing them out", says Carlson. "I don't know if they were too cheap or too scared to go out at night. Anyhow, I put together a show in Afrikaans. It worked great, really good."

So what was the routine that made them laugh hardest?

"I examined the differences between growing up in South Africa and New Zealand," she says. "In South Africa our approach is completely different. The safety aspect comes first. So you take everything into consideration. Everyone's been affected by crime, unemployment's up to 55 per cent, everybody's got guns, there are worms in the drinking water.

"Here you have welfare. There, there's nothing. And if you've got no money to feed your kids and your only chance is growing something or stealing something you do it. I would."

It might sound sad and horrendous to politically-correct New Zealanders, but for people from South Africa, listening to Carlson is not just a reminder, but a way to let off steam. "In South Africa there's no recycling, no free range, no organic," says Carlson. "People are more focused on staying alive.

"We all have temporary classrooms made from asbestos. Here, if asbestos is found anywhere they'll lock down the suburb. In South Africa they'd say, 'we'll just put a lick of lead paint on that'."

She talks about how New Zealanders merge in traffic, beckoning each other in. You never see this in South Africa," she says, waggling her hand like a traffic cop. "There it's more aggressive, 'Just get in the frinking traffic'."

She even gets a little steely: One joke goes like this: "I've just got my citizenship," she tells the audience. "Are there any immigrants here? And when people put their hands up I say: 'oh yeah? Then get the f*** outta my country, you're stealing our jobs!'

"In other words," she points out, even New Zealanders are "casually racist. We just like to keep it at a socially acceptable level. And we all do it, so it's okay".

"I don't think New Zealanders realise how lucky we are. When things go wrong you have someone to complain to. In South Africa you have nowhere to go."

As she explains it, there are no councillors or officials to call when your car gets broken into or worms gush out of the kitchen tap. No police you can trust."

The most sobering thing is that she got burgled here, in Blockhouse Bay. "Someone stole my scooter off the porch three weeks ago."

At least she knows who to complain to.

One of her funniest routines describes how she managed to fit into an economy seat for the 36-hour flight to New Zealand. "I put my left cheek in first, then ram down my right cheek!" she says with such conviction I wince. "And that's me for the duration of the flight. I'm wedged. I pop over the seat like a Coke float."

Changing the TV remote, for biggies like her, was impossible. "It's pressed against my thigh! I can't possibly get my hand down there. For me to change channels I have to punch myself in the stomach really hard, and hope it [the stomach] will wobble over, and somehow hit the buttons ..."

Later I watch Carlson work with the funny men on 7Days. Even she, with her massive personality, physical bulk and serious smarts, finds it hard to get a word in, especially when the boys get on a sexist roll. The amazing thing is, she appears to be genuinely enjoying it.

As star comedian Brendan Lovegrove reminds me, TV comedy is a bit like an iceberg. "They take three to four hours to record 7Days before editing it down to 20 minutes. And to be performing regularly on 7Days after three years is an amazing achievement."

Lovegrove points out that Carlson has stepped up from her first material, which was mostly about her weight and being lesbian, to more substantial acts. "Now she has these elongated stories with short gags and long gags within them and brilliant punch lines. She's a great improviser as well."

7Days producer, Jon Bridges, also noticed Carlson from the beginning. "She came along to one of our audition shows and her delivery was so confident, calm and powerful. That kind of delivery works well on 7Days. It's a very competitive show. There's only 22 minutes and seven comedians trying to throw lines in. Urzila's a hot talent, it's just so wonderful for us to have her."

And yes, "she's used as often as everybody except the two team leaders," which is a great achievement in an arena where women can find it difficult.

"It's a respect thing," says Bridges. "If you can hold your own everyone respects you, but loves you too because if you're funny you make everyone else funny too. It's a strange game, everyone has a lot more fun when it's firing.

"Urzila's been a real revelation for us. No one's gone from zero to hero so fast."

Carlson's future looks rosy. She loves the job. "The other day I was talking to Ben Hurley," she says. "He was saying, 'we're so lucky we get paid to do this. Travel round, have a beer, make people laugh. And most days we only work 20 minutes'."

There's more work on 7Days. She's got a slot on TV3's upcoming comedy show, Jono and Ben at 10. There's plenty of corporate work. She was looking forward to the Winter Festival in Queenstown last month. She rates well in Australia, too.

And she's almost famous in Auckland. Just before we leave, a couple of cafe patrons pause at the door, then look back, eyes wide and shining with excitement. They've seen a telly star: "Oh look, there's Kim! I think it's Kim."

Somehow Carlson makes them feel great, even if they're not quite sure who she is. "Hi there," she smiles. "Tell Kim I said 'hi'."

- NZ Herald

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