Jesse Mulligan is not a jerk. He arrived at Takapuna's terribly named new eatery, Artwok, around five minutes after his booking time on a Tuesday night and apologised for being late. The 40-year-old's pretty face and dad bod were complemented by a slim-fit white shirt, blazer and flawless brown brogues, and his familiar foxy grey locks seemed to have spread slightly since his Seven Sharp days. Far more noticeable than any of his considerable physical endowments, though, was the air he brought with him, of casual and unaffected entitlement to the bounty of the universe.
He had come directly from from acting as MC at a corporate event for Canon in Northcote, at which people had cheered when his name was announced, and at which his catalogue of office-related humour, mostly penned late the night before, had hit home. "Do you still do faxes?" he asked. "Who's in the fax team? Why aren't they here? Were they waiting to be invited by fax?"
Canon's fax range not only still exists, it turns out, but covers work groups of all sizes.
Mulligan had booked the table at Artwok under the name Bruce, presumably to keep his anonymity, but there was no indication any of the wait staff knew who he was or had any idea that his opinion on their restaurant would be published in the pages of Viva a few weeks later and could have a significant impact on its financial wellbeing.
He was at Artwok as a restaurant critic, having come from his gig as an MC, and before that from his daily gig as an afternoon radio presenter for Radio New Zealand, where he replaced Simon Mercep last year. Later, he would go home to his wife and three children under 5, including 6-week-old Felix, who he would provide with a late-night feed before getting himself to bed.
To say he's inescapable if you live in Auckland is to undersell him. In some ways, he is Auckland.
Mulligan was once a presenter on Seven Sharp, one of the most celebrated televisual disasters in recent history, which informed the following joke that he only recently stopped using at corporate gigs:
"Hi, it's nice to meet you. Your CEO called me up a few months ago and said, 'We want you to do this event. It's going to be the 27th of July, it's going to kick off at 7pm.' I said, 'Sure, sounds good. I can check my diary.' And she said, 'Don't play hard to get. Everyone in New Zealand knows you've got no place to be weeknights at 7pm anymore.'"
Mulligan says Phil Gifford once told him that people won't laugh at you until they like you and that's advice he has always held on to. His friend and former 7 Days producer Jon Bridges says likeability is a massive part of any comedian's arsenal and is an important part of why Mulligan's comedy works.
The "no place to be at 7pm" joke is perfectly engineered to engender likeability. There's the self-deprecating punchline, obviously, but there's also the nearly invisible, "Hi, it's nice to meet you," at the beginning, and the casual, folksy, "Sure, sounds good," midway through. In just a few sentences, this one joke establishes Mulligan as polite, friendly, agreeable, able to laugh at himself, and, in large part because of all this, successful as heck.
But likeability alone is not enough. As Bridges says, he also "has the sort of face you can watch".
Mulligan has a face for radio, television, PR, women's magazine spreads, stand-up comedy, public appearances, pretty much anything else you need it for, and whatever's left over. His eyes are warm and deep, and his smile is intoxicating. He carries his non-threatening middle-age thickness sexily.
One former colleague says women in her office used to go gaga over Mulligan. "He was like catnip," she says. When asked whether that was about the way he looked or something else, she says, "The way he looked."
But what Bridges is talking about is something else, something more ineffable, something more like charisma: "He's got a great stillness as a performer. He doesn't have a lot of extra movement or words, just a lovely stillness. It makes you concentrate on what is important."
He's also, says Bridges, "a lovely guy".
Former colleague Ali Mau says working with Jesse was the thing that kept her going for a long time during the dark days of Seven Sharp.
"He's just a model workmate," she says. "He's really supportive of women in the workplace.
He would never reject or belittle or take credit for a female idea. He's very evolved."
Mulligan is walking evidence of the fact that nice guys finish first, which, not coincidentally, is a theory he espoused in a speech to the Wintec Media Arts graduating class last year.
Diana Wichtel, a writer Mulligan cites as a major influence, once wrote of John Campbell that his gushing niceness is a way of controlling the conversation. Reflecting on that quote in a tribute to Campbell on The Spinoff last year, Mulligan wrote: "I think she had something there."
The meal at Artwok was long and occasionally enjoyable. Some of the food was deeply satisfying; some was not very good. There was candied kumara green tea icecream with Chinese candy floss.
Mulligan tested the wait staff with questions. Where are the oysters from? Te Matuku? Where's that? What is this ingredient? That one? It was all fairly uncomfortable because the wait staff's success rate was only slightly better than chance.
He wasn't cruel about it; in fact he was quite nice: "You've given me some good advice there," he said to one of them, just before making his extra-ordinarily large food order, which he later revealed would have been even larger, but his wife had told him not to be a glutton.
As dinner wore on, probably about the time we were finishing up the pork belly encased in flatbread, it felt a bit like Mulligan was starting to sink. His sentences trailed off, his enthusiasm for talking seemed to wane. Everything started to feel a bit uncomfortable.
In response to a question about negative restaurant reviews, he said: "Your only duty is to the truth, isn't it? To your own integrity."
This felt like the self-protection mechanism of a nice person in a job where you've sometimes got to be a jerk. Pushed on the question of whether a critic could ever truly remove his subjectivity from a negative review, he became a bit prickly: "I haven't got too much patience for that multiple-narrative, post-modern, 'everyone has their own truth' kind of idea," he said.
When I changed the subject and asked what he thought of himself, he first tried to avoid the question, then said: "I don't spend any time thinking about myself. I don't think it's a great way to get to sleep at night."
Simon Wilson, who edited Mulligan's monthly restaurant reviews at Metro for several years, says one of the things that surprised him about Mulligan is that "he's not naturally relaxed with people. He's actually awkward." Another acquaintance says Mulligan could sometimes be "abrupt".
Mulligan himself tells a story about when he was a teenager and he spent a New Year's Eve in the back seat of his brother's Holden reading Autobiography Of A Yogi, while everyone else was partying on the beach. "I've never felt awkward," he says, "but it's become clear to me over the years that people don't always find socialising with me as smooth as I do.
"At the time I didn't feel like I was acting 'weird', it was just a good book and I wanted to get to the end of it. Then there've been times, from age 9 through to 39, where I've caught wind of acquaintances and even friends making fun of me over stuff like this, and on those occasions I've been not just hurt but surprised. Like, 'When you guys were on the beach and I was in the car, you thought I was an outsider? This is a complete shock.'"
A few days after our dinner at Artwok, Mulligan sent me an email: "I always imagined dinner with a journalist as me being sparkling and hilarious, effortless dropping withering bons mots and deep, philosophical insights rather than lots of unfinished sentences and a 40-minute internal debate about whether to eat the last wonton."
When he started on the much-pilloried Seven Sharp, Mulligan "read every tweet," his wife Victoria says. Despite that, he says criticism doesn't much bother him. He spent 10 years as a breakfast host on commercial radio, during which time he once dressed as a chicken and stood on a Hamilton roundabout while people threw tomatoes at him.
"Commercial radio is quite good for you not really having much dignity anymore," he said.
When he ascended from the role of funny guy on 7 Days to the role of funny smart guy on Seven Sharp, it seemed like his time had come. Of the three presenters the show subsequently took down with it, it felt as though it had wronged him most, like he had the most to lose.
Ali Mau, who along with Greg Boyed made up the original cast, says Mulligan's ability to be good on Seven Sharp was undermined in part by TVNZ execs' inability to know what they wanted from the show or its contributors.
"I remember the EP telling us at a meeting, 'I give up. I'm completely out of ideas.' It was not necessarily her fault - she did her darnedest - but she was pushed by execs to do something different and nobody was saying what they wanted that different thing to be. It was a lack of a vision, really."
Mulligan's end on Seven Sharp was painful to watch. He says it was not the departure itself, but the lead-up to it that he found most difficult. "Wandering into an office of people - nice people- who regarded me with a mixture of awkwardness and pity, then having to front up on a show where, I suspect, the audience felt largely the same thing. When I left I felt a bit humiliated and a little bitter, but those feelings didn't last long and didn't affect my life or mood in any real way." Victoria says he's sensitive and takes a lot to heart, but that he was incredibly tough in the face of the onslaught of online cruelty that followed him and Seven Sharp throughout their too-brief union.
Apart from the stand-up, radio, television and writing, Mulligan has worked in PR and has done copywriting for brands. In a world where your job security is frequently threatened by Mike Hosking and you have a home in Grey Lynn, you need to be reasonably certain of a steady income. Five careers seems about right.
But even without the multi-layered security blanket of his many talents, it's hard to imagine he'd be too worried. Asked what he'd most like to do if he could do anything, he says, "I'm pretty happy with where I'm at now." Asked what he's most afraid of he says, "Aside from something happening to a member of the family, I can't think of anything."
Says one person who has worked closely with him, "There's a seam of iron running through him." This is a theme that runs through the comments of many who have dealt with him. He has jobs to do and be paid for - and he knows the importance of that.
"This is one of the few times you'll see me wearing a collar," Mulligan said, opening the glass door to his RNZ office one weekday lunchtime, although later in the day he would change his clothes and put on another collar, making a 100 per cent collar hit-rate for the day. Having said that, the rest of his outfit that lunchtime was cargo shorts and jandals. "John Campbell gives me shit about it," he said, waving a lazy hand across the ensemble.
His desk was not untidy, but was heavy with food and food-related paraphernalia: a bottle of Huffman's artisan hot sauce, a dispenser of Mrs Rogers Himalayan pink salt, a small package of coffee, a pepper grinder-sized coffee grinder in stainless steel. A clear glass jar, lined with drying green scum turned out to be the remnants of a kale-based smoothie.
He described the Himalayan salt as "essential": "Food needs salt and normal white salt is the white death," he said. "It's pure sodium with no minerals, so it's just tasteless with no nutrition." He said any meal, no matter how bad, could be fixed with salt and hot sauce.
For lunch, he separated out the contents of a clear plastic clip-top container: kale salad, baba ganoush and some sort of eggplant dish, which was then heated in the microwave.
"I've learned that if you eat a diverse vegetable diet, you don't need to worry about protein," he said. "Different vegetables have different amino acids and as long as you're eating everything ..." He didn't finish his sentence. It felt like the intro to a speech he might have given many times back in his vegetarian days, which ended not long before he began reviewing for Metro.
He described the making of the baba ganoush: he had painstakingly burned the eggplants on his barbecue the night before. Once they had collapsed, he had peeled and drained them, then pureed them with garlic and tahini. All for just one small element of this meal. "Dinner's always quite time-intensive at my house," he said.
He talks about having a happy balance in his life, but food permeates nearly everything he does. When he worked in PR, he focused on food; when he started a website, it was called Auckland Food Blog. His food reviewing has helped shape Auckland's gastronomic landscape. His weekly reviews in Viva are sharp and funny. Simon Wilson describes him as the most entertaining food writer in the country, not that it's something that needs saying. Nobody comes close.
His goal for the future, he says blandly and maybe even truthfully, is to keep doing much the same stuff he's doing at the moment, maybe with a bit more TV, but he doesn't appear to have any grand ambition. Three years ago though, just before the launch of Seven Sharp, things seemed different. In an interview then, with the Herald he discussed Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and how Stewart did funny stuff that was also important. "That's my aim, and a challenge," he said, "to do funny stuff and make sure it's interesting and true."
He tried, God knows he tried, at Seven Sharp. He couldn't understand why it wasn't working.
Every Friday, he would write and present a Daily Show-style segment called "Jesse's Wrap of the Week". It was not a hit.
"I'd write these what I thought were searing satires. I'd spend all day on it, I'd go to the graphics guy, do these amazing graphics, stand by this blue screen and do this presentation totally taking apart the week's news, really fresh, original jokes, all my
7 Days writing background. And it was like it wasn't being broadcast. I did that probably 30 weeks in a row on a Friday and it has never been brought up by one person since."
Ambition has its place, but it will only get you so far. In his speech to the Wintec Media Arts graduating class last year, he told students that the creative industries are full of jerks but if you're nice you will rise to the top.
He told students to email him for advice at any time. He gave them his email address and he told them to write at the top "Dear Jesse, I was at the Wintec graduation and I am not a jerk."