Michele Hewitson interview: Jesse Mulligan

By Michele Hewitson

Being funny is a serious business for the blogger, food critic and Seven Sharp comedian

The thing he is most serious about is comedy. And good coffee. Photo / Richard Robinson
The thing he is most serious about is comedy. And good coffee. Photo / Richard Robinson

Jesse Mulligan, the Seven Sharp funny man, food critic and blogger and enthusiastic tweeter, is a funny sort of comedian. Boom, boom. Somebody has to make the bad jokes around here, and it won't be him.

Do people expect him to be funny all the time? Somebody has to ask the dumb questions too; the ones they already know the answers to.

The answer to that one was: "No, I don't think so. I'm quite a serious person really."

Of course I wasn't expecting him to be funny. Anyone who interviews comedians and expects them to be funny is doomed to disappointment. He didn't disappoint.

The thing he is most serious about (other than bad coffee, which makes him really rather cross) is comedy. "I'm probably quite serious about the business of getting it right. You know, the conversations about how we're going to make the show work and how we're going to get me into a space where I'm at my best and funniest is not a funny conversation.

It is quite a serious, technical conversation."

Yes, yes, but does he know any Len Brown jokes? Of course he doesn't. He doesn't do jokes, at least not in conversation because he says that's not where jokes happen. "The best jokes aren't the ones you tell like this anyway, are they?" I don't know. He's the comedian. "Ha, ha."

And also Twitter has ruined Len Brown jokes because you look at your news feed (apparently) and there are dozens of the things and you just go: "Yeah, yeah, yeah." As I don't do Twitter, he could tell me one of these jokes and it'd be new to me. "Really?" he said, as if the idea of somebody not tweeting was the funniest thing he'd ever heard.

He is also serious about sending emails which I call schmoozing and which he calls "complimenting". (He has sent me a few, and very kind they have been too, so it is unkind of me to call them schmoozing.) He does this because hardly anyone else does.

"The main thing is that nobody gets emails in New Zealand and journalists write these great things and comedians do great work on TV and nobody ever tells them about it, so I thought I'd make a point of letting someone know if I enjoyed it."

Does anyone ever email him, to compliment him? "Not very often!"

His great comic hero is Larry David, whom he has seen twice, once at the Eiffel Tower and once on a street in LA. He didn't say hello because he has read just about everything there is to read about Larry David and he once read that Larry David said that when people say hello, he wants to say: "Have you seen the show?"

We had a ridiculous argument about Larry David, who I maintain is a terrible man, a misanthrope, and who he maintains is a top chap. "I think he's a nice guy in real life." Oh, he is not. "He is." He's an awful man. "How do you know?" Because he says so. And so on. He says people have to like you before they laugh at your jokes, which I think is utter tosh and that Larry David is the proof, as is Steve Coogan. "But you're not laughing at Steve Coogan, you're laughing at Alan Partridge." I don't like him either. "Ha, ha. Yeah, well, they're characters. I'm talking about stand-ups, or radio people or TV people. I think you've got to like someone before you can laugh at a joke they're making." I think he's wrong. "Do you? I'll live with that."

He said this in an unhuffy way. You can't do stand-up if you are a sensitive sausage, and when you are on a show which is, as Seven Sharp was, widely panned before it even began. He wrote, on his blog (I can't figure out when he ever sleeps; he seems to always be working or blogging or tweeting or restaurant reviewing; and he and his fiancee have two young daughters) a piss-take of the criticism.

This took the form of a review of a restaurant, called Seven, which had yet to open but which was already the worst restaurant in the world. I thought its tone was a bit huffy, but he says not, of course.

He is a pretty laid-back sort of comedian. In my experience comedians wear an odd skin: thick and thin in fairly equal parts. He says he reads everything written about him. "I love reading feedback on my performance." Most performers do read their reviews, but they do not love it, and they certainly don't admit to reading their reviews. So, really? "Yeah, because you take it or leave it or value it according to what you think of the person who said it."

The other thing about comedians is the ego thing, which is often a rather large thing. He says ego is "the opposite to what you need [to be a comedian], because ego makes you fragile". The opposite of ego, he says, is "self-esteem. I don't think you have to have it, but it helps". He has it. "I think so. Two parents who love you and who always told you you did a great job, and a partner who loves you for the right reasons ... All that sort of stuff that makes you solid really helps when you have a tough few weeks. The start of the year was pretty tough."

Seven Sharp was supposed to be the worst show ever in the history of television, or of shows possibly. His feelings might have been hurt if he was a sensitive sausage. "It hurt my feelings a bit when Steve Braunias invited me to be his guest [as a speaker at a Wintec lunch] and made rude comments about me in his press release! So I sent him an email - not a schmoozy email. I said: 'It's a bit on the nose ..."' The bit on the nose was the tweet which read something like: At tomorrow's lunch there will be comedians, as well as Jesse Mulligan.

I should have said: What a rotter that Braunias is! But I was laughing too much. That was the funniest thing I'd heard all day. It's funny. "Too easy," he said. It's funny. "Yeah, it's a good line," he said, meaning it not at all. Is he sensitive? "I don't think so. No. I think I'm the opposite."

His fiancee, Victoria Dawson-Wheeler, trained as a psychologist (she now works for the Fred Hollows Foundation), and so of course I thought: Aha! Comedians are always complicated, angst-ridden creatures with hang-ups, everybody, especially psychologists, knows that. But he is a terrible let-down in that department. Where's his angst? He doesn't have any. "I don't think so. I try not to spend too much time on self-examination. I think it's boring for other people." I'd like to be able to say I think she's cured him, but I have a feeling he just is angst-free.

They are getting married next year. The wedding "possibly, probably" will be in a woman's mag. I was quite snooty about this but he says you can only be snooty about it if you object on principle, and he, obviously, doesn't. He used to be in PR.

He was (according to me) a right goody goody at school, in Hamilton, and he was a maths geek ("I don't know what that means") and left school early, after 6th form, to go to uni to do a law degree - but only because he didn't know what it was he wanted to be.

He fell into comedy in the usual, haphazard way of stand-up and radio and so to Seven Sharp via 7 Days and Would I Lie To You? He was supposed to be the host of the last one and a number of shows had been made, but not screened, when he was called to a meeting and told that he wasn't going to be the host, Paul Henry was, and they were going to reshoot the lot. I'd have thought anyone would have been in a terrible sulk about this, but he was as sunshiney as always. He thought it was brilliant that Henry was to be the host because more people would watch. As it turned out, they didn't, but it's the thought that counts.

He is a food critic for Metro magazine and he tries to write funny food reviews. He said, absolutely seriously, about coffee: "There's no excuse for drinking bad coffee in Auckland any more, is there?" I quite agreed. It ought to be illegal; bad coffee-makers should be hanged. He said: "What excuse is there for serving bad coffee, in this day and age?" Well, he is a foodie.

He's a great fan of the British food critic A.A. Gill, who has very rude things to say about vegetarians. ("People who get pleasure from not eating things.") Before the comic was a food critic he was a vegetarian, for 20 years. What a funny thing for a foodie to be, and even funnier to be a vego for 20 years and then to not be one. He was one because "I didn't think it was right to kill another being to provide sustenance for yourself if there was an alternative". I couldn't understand how you could hold such a view and then suddenly not. "Because I thought about it quite hard and decided I could probably do more good for the world." By eating meat? I thought he had told a joke - well, it made me laugh - but no, he was serious about this too. "By eating ethical and sustainable meat and supporting people who are doing the right thing."

Once he decides on a thing, he goes all out. He used to smoke 30 fags a day and then he just gave up. He was once given a formal warning at Club Med for smoking while snorkelling. I didn't think that was possible but apparently it is, if you put your mind to it. "Because if you're a smoker, smoking is number one, right? So you're going to go snorkelling, but obviously it's not going to get in the way of smoking." He decided to give up when, one morning, he woke up and found himself already smoking. "That was pretty freaky." It is also, surely, a joke. "No. It's not."

He may be an obsessive sort of character. He likes to do things properly. He analyses his comedy as though it is a mathematical problem. When he took up gardening, he got a gardening coach. Ditto cooking. He used to play only Neil Young songs on his guitar. "But I could play about 200 of them."

He is, I thought, either amazingly complicated, or really quite simple. "Yeah. Can't help you there," he said. Which, actually, was pretty funny.

- NZ Herald

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