Michele Hewitson interview: Jeremy Corbett

By Michele Hewitson

Comedy's Mr Nice Guy reveals his secret love of model aeroplanes

Comedian and 7 Days host Jeremy Corbett says he worries about how many chins he's got when he watches himself on television. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Comedian and 7 Days host Jeremy Corbett says he worries about how many chins he's got when he watches himself on television. Photo / Sarah Ivey

You know you're getting old when you go to see a comedian and the nominated interview time is 10 o'clock - in the morning - and the address is a very nice house in one of Mt Eden's nicer streets. It used to be that you went to interview comedians in seedy hotel rooms or bars, rather later in the day.

Jeremy Corbett is sometimes called, for some silly reason, the Godfather of New Zealand comedy - possibly because the comedians are getting old too; he has just turned 50.

A great golden dog bounds through the doorway when you knock and so you meet the dog, which is called Nugget, and Corbett's dear little girl, 2-year-old Charlie, and his gorgeous wife, Megan, and you admire the garden. He is big on clipped hedges and his are just so.

He gets a chap in to do them. He would. He can afford it.

Why, his whole life could be an advertisement for the rewards of the comic life.

He is, I insisted, the Richest Comedian in the Country. Except for Rhys Darby, of course, but he's internationally famous, after all.

Corbett is from Palmerston North; strangely, as has often been noted, a lot of funny people are. He claims he doesn't know any jokes about Palmerston North and says that it is a lovely place, nice and friendly, too, no doubt. I tried to get the second richest New Zealand comic to say that all New Zealand comedians hate Rhys Darby for being so successful, but of course he wouldn't. He said he's lovely and funny, but he says that about all other comedians, and Palmerston North.

He's a funny sort of comedian. He doesn't do angst. He once said that he thought he was inoffensive.

This is a funny, but not funny ha ha, thing for a comedian to say. He thought so too and now says that he has no idea why he would have said that and that he's sure he must have offended somebody, some time. He said this hopefully. I thought: Really? It's hard to imagine. If he's not the second richest comedian in New Zealand, he must be the nicest.

Is it a good thing to be a nice comedian? It seems to have worked for him. The reason for coming to see him is that the often very good and frequently amazingly rude TV show 7 Days celebrates its 100th episode on October 5 and nobody could be happier about this fact than he is. He said, cheerfully, "normally I kill a TV show!". And it's true, he does. So, yes, you do, I said.

"You didn't have to agree quite so quickly," he said. Yes, I did. I was remembering the thankfully short-lived Deal or No Deal, which had its throat cut despite featuring Millie Holmes as one of the golden-gowned, suitcase-opening girls. "There is that, yes. She was very quick at opening the case ... We were up against the Aussie one, too, of course. You can always retrospectively find reasons ..."

He once did a gig with Seinfeld's Jason Alexander who introduced him like this: "The next guy hosted a franchise that, around the world, has lasted for years and years, in every other country, and he managed to f*** it in one."

Guess what Jason Alexander was like. You guessed right. He was lovely and funny and friendly. I was beginning to think that all comedians are like Nugget who, on cue, wandered over right then and was lovely and friendly, if a bit pongy, and slobbered on my arm, which some people might find funny, I suppose.

Actually, the really weird thing about Jeremy Corbett is that he is a comedian who is now the most famous he's ever been - if being recognised on the streets of Timaru counts as famous - for not being funny. It was very, very nice, even for him, to see me because he said, and it was the very first thing he said, that he'd once been on the cover of the Weekend Herald's Canvas magazine and: "It was my first cover. And he [the deputy editor who happens to live at the same address as me] put a pie in my face! So they couldn't see who I was! It was my first cover! And they said they were going to dry clean my suit as well ..." They never did, but that was his fault for never sending in the invoice. He can probably just about afford the odd dry cleaning bill.

Still, I suppose, as he's so accommodating, I'd better say that he's a bit funny on 7 Days, but mostly he's like a cat herder, of particularly foul-mouthed cats. He said of his character on the show that, "I guess he's me, but a more hosty me, I suppose." I thought he meant hosty as in travel hostess. He'd make a rather sweet trolley dolly. He'd give you extra lollies. "Oh, no! Well, a little bit I suppose. That's what I'm doing: Handing out the drugs; handing out the lines. I think in some ways I'm more of the guiding hand. The older, sort of more responsible one who's got to keep things running - which means I don't get to do as many gags as the others."

He doesn't mind. "I'm not as funny, anyway." He really does believe this. He thinks he doesn't have a brain which is "genuinely funny", by which he means that where other comedians are effortlessly funny, he has to work at it. Also, "I think I'm more analytical and science nerdy."

His hobby is making model aeroplanes, particularly World War II models because they have propellers and "we can make them spin". This is a terribly boring hobby for a comedian - almost as boring as stamp collecting, or golf. He was looking pretty sheepish, I have to say, at owning up to it. I asked what Megan thought of his planes and he said: "She loves them."

A little earlier Megan had walked by just as he was admitting to the model making and she laughed, very loud and for quite a long time. But that wasn't the reason for the sheepishness (and he doesn't think making model aeroplanes and making them have dog fights, with attendant dog-fighting noises, is boring, obviously.) He said: "This is going to go down a bad road."

This is because he keeps his model aeroplanes at a "beach house we go to". He means the beach house he owns. "Mmm." The beach house he owns is in Matarangi, in the Coromandel. The photographer, getting into the spirit of heckling the comedian, said: "Has it got a helipad?" He shouted: "It doesn't have a helipad and it isn't beachfront!"

I don't know why he's so sensitive about being successful. He says, by the way, the reason New Zealand comedians all get on well and are nice and lovely people is because there has never been much money in comedy in this country, and so no point in scrapping over gigs and so on.

He is certainly very nice and friendly. He has an easy manner and doesn't seem to have much of an ego for a performer. He is always going on about how fat he is and always going on diets and that he'll tell you this means he can't be terribly vain, either. He says he is, and that he worries about just how many chins he's got when he watches himself on the television.

He's not really much of a comedian these days, now he's the host. Being the host suits him perfectly, he says, because he gets to be recognised but there's no expectation that he'll be funny. "People say: 'That Paul [Ego] must be funny!"'

Is he funny? He doesn't really do jokes in interviews, but comedians seldom do. Still, you could say, without being offensive, that he is an odd sort of comedian. He has all that money ("the little bit of money that I do have!") because he was, first, some sort of computer nerd who did consulting and then he went into commercial radio and was with More FM for 18 years, which is a lifetime in radio.

He says that "radio was like the real food and stand-up was the soul food". I never know why people do stand-up comedy, it seems about the most terrifying thing anyone could voluntarily do. He says it's purely attention seeking and that's the reason there are so many more male stand up comedians than female. I'd asked why there were so few female comedians on 7 Days and he said the numbers simply reflected the numbers of female comedians. He said, "we have the odd token female on and then we edit them out", after which I'd better put: Joke!

We were, just by chance, drinking coffee out of 7 Days mugs. He claimed not to have noticed. He says he liked them so he pinched a box. I'm not sure I believe him. He has never had a wild streak. He wasn't a prefect at secondary school, but not because he was naughty; he was decreed too silly to be a prefect, which is something else altogether.

He said: 'I look for the good in people, Michele." The Godfather of New Zealand comedy? He was sounding more like the patron saint. Until he laughed remembering that night when Dave Fane managed to offend quite a number of people at a comedy roast with his jokes about Hitler, Jews and people with HIV. He wouldn't have done that. "No, but I'm more of a corporate boy. I do what I'm told. Hence," he said sounding slightly sarcastic for a saint, "this interview."

He said, the flatterer, that I was very funny and should be on 7 Days and that he'd have a word to the producer. Do you know,if it wasn't for the fact that he's the nicest comedian in the country I'd suspect that he was joking.

- NZ Herald

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