Comedian Rose Matafeo tells Greg Bruce why her life isn’t always a barrel of laughs.

Failure is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a great stand-up comedy career. You do quite badly for a fairly long period, steadily getting better, to the point where you've finally got a show you can call successful, then that show ends, then you launch a new one. It also fails, but not quite as badly as the first time, and so on, until you retire.

Rose Matafeo's show at last year's Auckland comedy festival, Finally Dead, was a massive hit, garnering gushing reviews from serious critics, like this one, from Metro: " ... some kind of genre-transcending comedy theatre masterpiece about death from somebody who should still be figuring out what to do about life".

There are few creative endeavours where you have to fail so publicly, and so often, in order to succeed. You can't perfect a stand-up show in your bedroom because your bedroom can't give you feedback on what jokes are working. But Finally Dead came out almost fully formed in 2015, a thing of beauty, and tore Auckland apart.

A year later, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in March and April this year, the same show garnered a two-star review from Melbourne's Herald Sun: "... she doggedly shoehorns so much disparate material into her routine that the result is a confusing, ultimately dull mishmash of voiceovers, ads for fictional soft drinks and breath mints, songs, impersonations and some tap dancing".

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One person's genre-transcendence is another's dull mishmash, but the same tabloid newspaper that burned Matafeo to the ground gave a 3.5 star review to irrelevant relic Rodney Rude, beloved of primary school children and racists in the 1980s. What's good is not necessarily the same as what's popular.

"Melbourne was hard," she says, "because it was the first time I'd done a month of a solo show ... It was very up and down. Good week bad week, really bad week, good week. And even when it was going good, it was exhausting. Comedians who do festivals, it's like a marathon, you have to take good care of yourself."

Matafeo moved to London last year and her flatmate there, Nish Kumar, one of Britain's most talented and acclaimed comedians, says, "Something has to have not quite added up correctly for you to want to go on stage and entertain strangers. Something has not been wired correctly that you require that level of affirmation."

She's got so many skills within comedy. I've seen her do improv and seen her do sketch on Jono and Ben, she interviews people, she's been on panel shows. Yeah, she's pretty amazing.

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For the first two weeks in Melbourne, Matafeo felt sick in her stomach from 2pm in the afternoon until her show at 7pm. Her heart rate was up really high an hour before the show. Physically she finds stand-up to be so high-stress that she thinks maybe she shouldn't be doing it.

"I think all stand-ups feel that thing of like, why are you even listening to me right now? What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? I feel that more than others. I think some people feel this is what they want to do and their thoughts are important and they need to share them, and to a certain extent I must feel like that because that's why I'm doing it, but also I'm like: this is crazy, why do people want to come see me talk and why do I want to put myself out there?"

Why does she keep doing it? "I don't know," she says. "I have no other thing to do at the moment, I don't know what else to do so I'm forced to do this stuff. Sometimes I feel like the amount of nerves it creates for me outweighs the fact that I should do it."

At 24, she is young to be a successful comedian, but she has always been precocious. Matafeo started doing stand-up while still at Auckland Girls Grammar School, where she was head girl, and she won New Zealand's most prestigious comedy award, the Billy T, when she was 21.

She has been a presenter on TVNZ's groundbreaking, now-defunct, interactive show U Live, a writer and performer on Jono and Ben at Ten, on the cast of 7 Days, one of the driving forces behind TV3's excellent sketch comedy hit Funny Girls, a regular performer with the city's brilliant improv group Snort and one of the most sought-after comedians in the country.

Her parents were Rastafarians. She describes her childhood as quite relaxed. She and her older brothers had a lot of freedom.

"My parents are really creative. My brothers are really creative. My dad's a real talented artist, so's my mum, but then they had to pursue other things to have a family and make money for a family ... My whole family is creative, which is real cool. When I was younger, it was like, 'What am I going to leave for the world?"

In her late teens and early 20s, she and Guy Williams were the young and reasonably unlikely poster couple of New Zealand comedy. Williams describes her as his "first normal friend".

Photo / Dean Purcell
Photo / Dean Purcell

"She's very naturally funny," he says of her. "My theory is that people with mixed race genes are genetically superior. That's why I'm glad my mum's from Canada. There's something about people from mixed-race backgrounds that makes them better.

"She has so many natural comedic voices, she's so good at acting. She's just very naturally gifted and perceptive. It's like being a basketball player and being born both physically large and athletically agile."

Matafeo doesn't really like talking about that relationship or about relationships in general. She is in a relationship with English comedy genius James Acaster, one of Britain's best stand-ups, and who also doesn't like talking about their relationship.

Of their initial attraction, Acaster says: "I really got on with her and I really liked her stand-up and it's just from there really. It's just like when anyone meets anyone really."

He does like talking about her comedy though: "She's a really great performer, a really expressive performer. I really like the writing in it as well. You can tell she's been writing for a long time. The jokes are really good. The full range. She's really good at mastering all of it, which is quite rare. I think a lot of us are quite good at certain aspects of stand-up but she's really good at the performance and the writing, she can put on a good solo show and also do a really good short set, which is rare. She's got so many skills within comedy. I've seen her do improv and seen her do sketch on Jono and Ben, she interviews people, she's been on panel shows. Yeah, she's pretty amazing."

When Matafeo moved to London last year, it was in part to develop her comedy, particularly her stand-up - in an environment where opportunities are considerably denser and bigger than they are here - and it was in part to be closer to Acaster. He lives not far from the Shepherd's Bush flat she shares with Kumar.

She's depressed, and has been since well before she moved to England. She's had therapy to help deal with it. Over the past year or so, she has started to deal with it on stage. Broadly, Finally Dead is about her fear of dying. She thinks about dying a lot. Sometimes, when she's up late at night, she'll have a wave of anxiety about dying that she describes as "a full existential thing", and "like I'm not going to wake up in the morning". "I have this bizarre theory that I'm going to die at 28 or something. Honestly, more and more, if I even make it to that age. I feel like saying it out loud. If it happens, I can say, 'I told you guys.' It's funny because you'd think that that's something that encourages people to live, you know. On one of the mirrors in my shows, it says, 'Live every day as if it's your last, aka very scared and anxious all the time,' and that's totally what I feel like."

The show, she says, "was born of an actual genuine obsession and anxiety that I have. But every time I think about it, I'm like, 'You're such a f***ing moron. You've got no problems and you're just going, 'Oh but maybe I'll die tomorrow'. You're experiencing no suffering right now, you're so privileged, and it just feels so stupid."

Photo / Dean Purcell
Photo / Dean Purcell

It feels like her depression may still be a difficult thing for her to accept or to understand. She sometimes plays it down. She repeatedly points out that she has mild depression, almost as if to apologise for it. Sometimes, she violently and angrily rebels against the idea that anything is wrong with her.

"I just think, maybe I'm just a misery guts. Maybe there's not even a mental illness and I'm just being a dick. I feel like that sometimes, like maybe I'm just an arsehole who's just a bitch.

"I feel like that most of the time, like 'Oh man, you're so f***ing downer', and that's not a problem, and Rose, you can't say 'Oh, you're mildly depressed and that's the reason why it is'. It's like, 'No, I'm just a dick.'"

This is all part of her work now. The opening set piece of her current show, Valley of the Lols, which debuted at the Auckland Comedy Festival in April, is a darkly funny set piece which ends when she takes off her top, while crying, to reveal the words "Fat bitch" written across her belly.

"I'm mildly depressed," she says, "but I do also think that I'm in a position where it's awesome if I can talk about that stuff, to normalise that or just get it in people's heads as well that that's actually completely normal. In New Zealand, there's a stigma to self-care, like, 'Mate you can't figure out your problems on your own? What the f*** are you doing man?'

"I feel in a small way, you may as well just talk about that, because it will help more people than piss people off. Also, I've got some sick jokes about it."

In New Zealand she has a strong public profile, popularity and all the baubles that come with that, including a good income. That life is available to her any time she wants to get on a plane and come back, as she did a few weeks ago, performing to forgiving audiences at the NZ International Comedy Festival in Auckland, and doing things like writing and starring in the second season of Funny Girls, which she's doing right now.

I feel in a small way, you may as well just talk about that [her depression], because it will help more people than piss people off. Also, I've got some sick jokes about it.

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Before she moved to London, she had saved enough cash that she didn't have to get a day job, but now that she doesn't have a day job, she isn't exactly sure what to do instead. She has a bit in her new show where she talks about roasting vegetables at home in the daytime because it helps fill up her time.

"I'm not one that should be left to my own thoughts and that's exactly what I am in London. I'm in my own head the whole time.

"I listen to a lot of podcasts to try to get out of my own head. Some days I can not leave the house. I go crazy because I'm like, I don't have a reason to leave the house."

She doesn't see the free time as particularly valuable for her career. "Comedy doesn't really exist in a void," she says. "Until you say it on stage, you actually have no idea if it's going to work or not."

A stand-up comedy stage is not a great place for fostering positive mental health, being, as it is, a place where people can be really mean to you, and where you can sometimes fail so badly that if you don't have a sure sense of yourself, you might grow to hate yourself, or at least not be particularly pleased with yourself. Matafeo feels this quite strongly: "Sometimes you're, like, 'What am I doing? This is ridiculous - I'm not funny and I'm not talented, I'm fooling people and people are going to find out, and also I look horrible and I am a bad person."

Still, in talking about the reasons she left New Zealand, she says part of it was the thought, "maybe I'm bigger than who I am living here".

In August this year, she will perform Finally Dead at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world's biggest and most important stand-up comedy festival. It's the first time she will have performed a solo show there, and it will possibly be a pivotal moment in her life.

Her internationally acclaimed stand-up comedian flatmate Kumar says that comedy people he knows, who don't know that he knows her, have been telling him how excited they are about her Edinburgh show. James Acaster, who admittedly is her boyfriend, also says there is a lot of buzz around the comedy world about her show.

Matafeo, though, recognises that she's a child in comedy terms and that getting better requires doing a lot of work. "It's a real hard thing you accept as a comedian, where you go, 'There's no way I can be as good at comedy now as I will be when I'm 30', and it's this weird self-awareness thing because you go, 'I have to do six more years of this before I get good? This is bullshit!'"

Ultimately, she wants to do something that endures after she's gone.

"I don't know many things about myself, like sure things ... But one thing I know is that I'll always want to make stuff. That's like a constant in my personality that I don't think is ever going to go away. That's what I kind of want to leave for this planet. That's what I want to do with my life."

Her public persona is so sunny, so upbeat, and her comedy so sharp and funny, that it's hard to believe she sometimes sits opposite a cognitive behavioural therapist, talking frankly and unselfconsciously about her depression and existential dread.

Maybe her performance at this year's Edinburgh Fringe will break her on to the world stage. Maybe it will just break her. Most likely, it will just be one more step along the road to getting better.

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