Chris Schulz is the deputy head of entertainment for the New Zealand Herald.

Josh Thomson is New Zealand's funniest man - he just doesn't know it yet

We’re looking back on some of our favourite big reads from TimeOut this year. Today, we revisit Chris Schulz's interview with comic Josh Thomson.
Josh Thomson is quickly rising through New Zealand's comedy ranks, and next year makes his big screen lead debut in feature film Gary of the Pacific. Photo/Jason Oxenham
Josh Thomson is quickly rising through New Zealand's comedy ranks, and next year makes his big screen lead debut in feature film Gary of the Pacific. Photo/Jason Oxenham

Josh Thomson is stuffed into a red hot dog onesie that's at least two sizes too small. A hamburger hat filled with fake lettuce and cheese threatens to swallow his head, and a giant slice of pizza is stuck to his chest.

It looks like a fast food fight broke out on his body.

"This is the peak of my career - getting dressed up in a frankfurter leotard," Thomson says while hiking the stretchy fabric up and snapping it over his buttocks, which are threatening to escape out of a gap in the back.

Everyone crammed into this makeshift film set in a Unitec lecture room on a rainy Sunday afternoon - writers, producers, directors, and co-star Dave Fane - are doubled over with laughter at the sight of him, before cameras have even rolled on his scene.

Kiwi comedian Josh Thomson on the set of Gary and the Pacific. Photo/Supplied
Kiwi comedian Josh Thomson on the set of Gary and the Pacific. Photo/Supplied

Thomson, a 35-year-old actor and comic from Timaru, has scored his first lead role, a movie made by production house The Downlow Concept, where he works full-time as an editor, writer, director and creative producer.

In Gary of the Pacific, Thomson plays a bumbling real estate agent who accidentally becomes chief of a Pacific Island. The catch? The island is sinking. Shot mostly in Rarotonga, it's due for release early next year.

The general feeling is that Thomson, a 7 Days regular with a string of supporting roles to his name, is ready for bigger things. Under-rated? He might be the definition of the word.

"He's the greatest comic actor in New Zealand," says Downlow's Jarrod Holt, one of the three creators of Gary of the Pacific. "We think he's a worldwide star who just hasn't been discovered by other people yet."

Thomson's 7 Days cohorts agree. "Thomo is hilarious whether or not he is trying to be funny," says Dai Henwood, a sentiment echoed by Paul Ego: "He has no idea he's funny. I mean, he has no idea about anything, but he seems particularly oblivious to that."

Despite the praise, the reaction from those around him on set, and a Herald journalist trailing him for several weeks, Thomson can't understand the fuss.

The man dressed up as a hot dog doesn't understand why everyone's laughing. He doesn't think he's funny.

Josh Thomson, a rising star of New Zealand comedy, will star in his first feature film Gary of the Pacific early next year. Photo/Jason Oxenham
Josh Thomson, a rising star of New Zealand comedy, will star in his first feature film Gary of the Pacific early next year. Photo/Jason Oxenham

If you're still struggling to put a name to Thomson's face, there's a good reason for that. He's been, "You know, that guy," for about a decade.

He's the one sculling Fresh Up after working out in a sauna. He's the sleazy lawyer in the excellent TV comedy, Hounds. He's the hopeless cop in the Terry Teo reboot. The meandering surrealist on 7 Days. The uncouth diner on web series Critic and the Pig. The guy pretending to vacuum the floor in that ASB ad.

They're not main roles. Some aren't even big ones. The ad jobs, including a particularly memorable one for Cash Converters, were taken to help pay Thomson's mortgage on his Ranui home, where he lives with his wife and sometimes co-star, Liz Thomson.

Josh Thomson as a police officer in the recent Terry Teo reboot.
Josh Thomson as a police officer in the recent Terry Teo reboot.

But Thomson has turned each role he's had into something memorable. Whether it's his timing, wit, one-liners, awkward pauses, physical gags, arched eyebrows, or occasional gross-out sense of humour, he steals scenes in everything he's in.

Fiona Copland, Gary of the Pacific's producer, thinks it's Thomson's stillness that makes him so watchable. "He's very grounded. He's unbelievably vulnerable and, at the same time, very secure. You trust him, and you empathise with him."

Holt says Thomson's rise has been incremental. "It doesn't feel like he's suddenly been thrust into the spotlight. He's just accumulating these great roles. Everything's been so consistently funny ... There's no one in New Zealand at that level."

Thomson has been trying to be funny since the age of 6, when he started making adults laugh by imitating the way they spoke. Growing up, and bored with life in Timaru, he says it was a challenge for him, one he took to with gusto.

"At primary school, I remember making a teacher laugh. It was at a pet day. I just imitated something my parents said, and he lost it. It was so good. It was really funny, being able to make an adult laugh. You just imitated them, going, 'Aww, these gutters need cleaning, the council won't do that'. All the parents would laugh [and] my friends would go, 'What are you doing?"'





But Thomson didn't want to be a comedian. He wanted to be an actor. So he pursued exactly that. "I would stick out in the school plays. I'd get quite weird parts and go to town on them. I did a particularly good lion in The Wizard of Oz. I could sing like an opera singer. People remembered that. People would go, 'You're the guy who sings like a 40-year-old Italian'."

After moving to Auckland in 2003, he started working with The Downlow Concept, recording a short-lived mock radio show at George FM, before filming two 48-Hour Film Festival shorts with them. Both are brilliant. In 2006 mockumentary Brown Peril: The Tim Porch Story, Thomson plays an arrogant badminton star suffering severe athlete's foot. In 2010 winner Only Son, he's a shy metal-worker trying to win over a girl's heart while being awkwardly haunted by his dead dad.


Support roles kept coming. Hounds, Critic and the Pig, 7 Days, Short Poppies, Step Dave, Terry Teo, The Barefoot Bandits, Coverband. The ads. The short films. The stand-up comedy. The voice-over work. All that material, yet Thomson hasn't had much in the way of recognition. But that's changing. Gary of the Pacific was written specifically for him by The Downlow's team of Nigel McCulloch, Hutchings and Holt. Currently being edited, it has a release date of March. And, in the last few weeks, he's auditioned for a Netflix show.

All this means Thomson is starting to get recognised when he's out and about. People may not instantly know his name, but they know his face - even if they can't connect it to something they've seen him in. It's led to some awkward moments in public.

"Someone walked around a corner, looked at me and went, 'Ha! Peow!', then looked completely embarrassed and walked away. What does that mean? It doesn't make any sense," Thomson says. "I'll be at a supermarket and someone will yell out something really vile I've said on 7 Days, and I'll be next to a lady with a pram."

Actor and comedian Josh Thomson, a man of many ties. Photo/Jason Oxenham
Actor and comedian Josh Thomson, a man of many ties. Photo/Jason Oxenham

Thomson is trying to order some chicken, and it's stressing him out. "I normally order everything and figure it out later," he says, trying to choose a meal off the menu at Boy & Bird. "Maybe I should get some sauces or something."

In person, Thomson is pretty much the same guy you see on screen. He's funny, shy, humble and a little awkward. Pushing the fries on his plate to one side while sipping on sparkling water, he admits he's on a low-carb diet. From The Critic and the Pig, in which he reviews upscale restaurants, to TVNZ web series The Boardroom, where he sizes up a plate of four doughnuts around a table of five people, much of Thomson's comedy comes back to food. He knows it, and he's a little wary of playing to type.

"I don't want to be the food guy, but you get a lot of laughs out of it. I am big. Someone's gotta talk about it. It might as well be me."

Liz, Josh's wife, sighs when she hears this. She doesn't like his habit of using himself, or his size, as a punchline.

"I know that's part of his repertoire but I don't really love that stuff. It's his job to be funny, so if that's what he wants to do, then whatever. He's amazing and wonderful and I wouldn't want anyone else putting him down."

The pair met at an acting workshop but it took three months for him to agree to go on a date with her. "He was too busy ... and he thought we were just mates." They married in 2014.

She says Thomson does have a serious side. "Just try playing a board game with him." He's also "a ridiculously addicted fix-it person. He feels sorry for things if they're broken. He has to do it properly. He goes crazy researching things. If there's something wrong with his car he won't take it to a mechanic, he will read every manual that he can find online."

He has his irritating habits. He leaves his socks under the sofa. But, Liz says, if you confront him about it, "he'll have some really great comeback and you'll just laugh and feel really annoyed".

Josh Thomson as sleazy lawyer Lance from Hounds.
Josh Thomson as sleazy lawyer Lance from Hounds.

His socks off, his feet up. It's not a picture of a leading man. Thomson doesn't act like one, and he doesn't sound like one.

Throughout our meal, he constantly talks himself down. "I'm not a very good joke writer," he says at one point. "I don't really know what people find funny about me," he says at another. "I don't really do comedy." Finally: "I'll never be the lead in a movie again."

His friends say it's an attribute that makes him even funnier. Radio host Vaughan Smith, Thomson's Critic and the Pig co-star, says he reminds him of "the funny kid in class".

"He's very real, down-to-earth and honest. He's also full of self-doubt despite his proven track record. He says something hilarious but loses his confidence halfway through and whispers the last half."

Jon Bridges, a producer on 7 Days, believes Thomson's more intelligent than most realise. "He's such an outrageously skilful actor, that he can act like he's hilarious, and it's very hard to tell the difference. He's got the whole country thinking he's one of our funniest New Zealanders. And that's the sign of a real genius."





Back on the set of Gary of the Pacific, I try to find Thomson to ask him if he's just acting being funny. But he's nowhere to be seen. The film's lead actor has gone missing. Ten minutes pass. Then 20. Half an hour goes by, and he's still absent. I wander outside, look around, then give up and get ready to leave.

As I'm walking through the carpark, I spot him. Thomson's red spandex-clad backside is poking out from the back of a car as he furiously rummages through the boot.

What's he looking for? His pants. "I've lost them," he says, perplexed. "I can't find them anywhere." Yes, this comedian has lost his trousers. He might have to keep the hot dog outfit on for the drive home. He's not acting. And he's just answered my question.

Josh Thomson, left, during an episode of 7 Days.
Josh Thomson, left, during an episode of 7 Days.

It's a stormy Thursday night, and a crowd of 60 is gathered at the 7 Days studio in Parnell. They're tucking into Subway sandwiches and beers before tonight's live taping. Aussie big-wig Rove McManus is temporarily taking over from Jeremy Corbett as the show's host.

It's the first time Corbett has been away from his role in seven years, and Thomson is nervous. He's always nervous before a show, but tonight he's especially so.

"I hope I don't crash and burn tonight," he texts me. "The odds are high."

Thomson's worried because his comedic style is at odds with those of the rest of the night's cast, who deliver caustic one-liners that seem pre-determined to deliver maximum laughs. His jokes are more high-risk. Thomson just starts talking, then seems to make it up as he goes along. Sometimes there's a punchline, sometimes not. But that's part of the fun. Even if a gag's not working, he saves things by awkwardly whispering the end of it, as if even he's embarrassed by it.

But he lands some of the night's biggest laughs with his bonkers stories. One joke, feigning enthusiasm for his non-existent parsnip garden, recurs throughout the show. He aims a zinger at Henwood's posh taste in food. It's so good McManus repeats it, just a few moments later. And during the segment "Yes Prime Minister", he serenades Education Minister Hekia Parata by inserting her name into The Lion King's Hakuna Matata.

Josh Thomson is all smiles. Photo/Jason Oxenham
Josh Thomson is all smiles. Photo/Jason Oxenham

The night culminates with a standing ovation for Thomson. But it hasn't always been this way. He's quick to rattle off Facebook comments he used to get from 7 Days viewers who didn't appreciate his style when he first started on the show, things like, "my whole family sighs", "I won't even tape an episode if he's on", or, "Josh is an embarrassment, to be honest. Nothing funny comes out of his gob (but probably is a nice guy privately)'."

Thomson's response to that last one? "It's the nicest burn I think I've ever had. [It got] two likes."

Like the bigger roles Thomson's now getting, that reaction is starting to change.

"Over time it feels like they have come around," Thomson says after the show. "One woman I met the other day said, 'I used to hate you on the show. Then I realised you don't have a punchline or a joke. There was actually nothing to get. Now you're my favourite'."

He's winning them over, one joke at a time. If only he could find his pants.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 22 Feb 2017 01:28:36 Processing Time: 19ms