Brilliant Billy: 20 years on

By Susan Pepperell

It is 20 years today since the giggling and much-loved Billy T. James died, leaving a yawning gap in mainstream Kiwi comedy.
Photo / Listener
It is 20 years today since the giggling and much-loved Billy T. James died, leaving a yawning gap in mainstream Kiwi comedy. Photo / Listener

Peter Rowley was giving an after-dinner speech when he got the news that his mate, Billy T. James, was dead.

It was at Wellington Rugby's annual awards; he told the audience, news that reduced many of them to tears.

"There were a lot of hard, really hard, rugby players there. It wasn't just 'bugger' and get on with it, it was everyone crying and hugging each other. It was very moving and a testament to the effect he had."

William James TeWehi Taitoko was 42 when he died, his transplanted heart giving up just fewer than two years after the operation. Suddenly the gags, the infectious giggle, the outrageous characters were gone.

Twenty years have passed since the loss of a comedian and performer with a talent so exceptional that New Zealanders loved him in a way they have not loved anyone since.

The jokes this comedian and consummate entertainer told weren't subtle, nor were they new and on paper not that funny. But it was impossible not to laugh when Billy T.

came on the telly in a black singlet, yellow towel draped around his neck, to deliver his Te News segment with lines like: "Well known entertainer Ray Woolf was invited to the birthday party of another well-known entertainer, Howard Morrison OBE. Anyway, he was the only Pakeha there. Ray said they ended up playing pin the tail on the honky."

Funniest person who ever lived, according to one of his 154,994 Facebook fans. Ask round the comedy and entertainment circuit why no one has come close to equalling his fan base and the reasons are varied:attitudes have changed, James had less competition and was in the right place at the right time, TV opportunities have dried up, or the right talent isn't around.

Rowley, Billy T.'s sketch comedy fall guy and co-writer for several television series, puts it more simply. "He's our Elvis, you can't replace Elvis."

"No one's come close," says fellow comedian Jon Gadsby. "It's alchemy, a very special mixture. Pio Terei has elements of it but he's not quite the same."

Comedian and writer Oscar Kightley nominates Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords as another Kiwi comedian who has enjoyed massive success.

"But there'll never be another Billy T. He existed at a time it was crucial for him to exist and we shouldn't compare him to anyone. "Everyone adds their own thing. Rhys Darby, Dai Henwood, everyone has their own stamp. It's just that Billy's stamp was massive."

Rowley says James' timing was right and New Zealand audiences were ready for him.

"After the 1981 Springbok tour the country was racially divided and there was a very nasty feeling around. Billy managed to put his arms around our multi-cultural society and say 'we live in a beautiful country, let's have a laugh at ourselves'."

Gadsby, of iconic Kiwi sketch show McPhail and Gadsby, points out James had been around for years with varying success but in 1985 "it was like a lightbulb suddenly went on". "Some of it was the right place at the right time, the 80s was such a decade of social change for New Zealand. But some of it was an attitudinal change. The place was ripe for a Maori taking the piss out of a Maori."

Despite the growth in comedy clubs, the 30 or so people who today are able to earn a living as standup comedians, an annual comedy festival that runs for two sell-out weeks and wildly successful television comedy shows, Billy T. remains the standard to whom all others aspire but have, to date, not quite reached. Some argue that today's society is not exactly conducive to great comedy. There may be abundant fodder in the prevailing wind of political correctness, but Auckland University senior marketing lecturer Mike Lee says it has led to greater caution by everyone, including comedians.

"The PC thing influences absolutely everything we do." Being PC in Billy's time, says Ian Mune, who directed Billy in Came a Hot Friday, meant a woman working for the postal service was fired for answering the phone by saying "kia ora". "It's a different time now, comedy has to reinvent itself at different points. Today's comedians have enormous respect for Billy but they don't do Billy comedy."

Rowley laments the fact that sketch comedy has lost favour. "Billy and I would make general observational comedy, the trend nowadays is not for that. But TV3, bless their cotton socks, seem to be the only ones keeping comedy alive."

Gadsby is of the same mind. He says comedy is pretty much non-existent on TV and that it's almost impossible to get the networks to screen or commission it. He laments the lack of political satire and says sketch shows are needed because they are how people learn their craft.

"It comes down to network bravery, sadly.They must be wading around the floor kicking aside proposals myself and David McPhail had submitted for comedy shows, it's a great pity really."

Kightley insists the opposite is true, although he says TV is no longer the gate it used to be. "Comedy now is very cool. The idea of what constitutes it has stretched and there's a plethora of flavours out there." He says You Tube is partly responsible but "television is still powerful and an awesome window. There are more avenues opening up onTV for comedians, it's not tokenism."

At the most positive end of the spectrum is Jane Wrightson, CEO of funding agency NewZealand on Air. She says funding for television comedies in the past five years has been "nothing short of astounding". And she can certainly point to a long list: The Jono Project, Wanna-Ben, Pulp Sport, Radiradirah, Jaquie Brown Diaries, Eating Media Lunch ... The most recent and obvious success story is 7 Days, TV3's news-based competitive comedy show which helps pay the bills for at least seven comedians a week.

Wrightson says 7 Days came out of a clear strategy by TV3 to "do something with Friday nights", traditionally a difficult programming time. Because the show garners huge audiences Wrightson says it provides the opportunity for more risky comedy at 10pm.

"It's easier to have a bit more of a play." Hence The Jono Project, Wanna- Ben etc. "Some are creatively brilliant but don't rate as well we would like." Wrightson cites Madeleine Sami's Super City in that category. "It was terrific but didn't rate as well as it could."

"Yes 7 Days is a good idea," says Gadsby, but adds that it's only a start and needs to be backed up with a sitcom, a couple of sketch shows, and a political satire. "But I don't think anyone's interested." Not so, says Wrightson. She's desperate to fund one but says no one has come up with a decent proposition in a long while.

In the sitcom category New Zealand has only ever cracked it with Gliding On. Since then it's been a vertical drop to Melody Rules, which screened in 1993 and is now generally regarded as the worst sitcom of all time.

Wrightson says the mistake with Melody Rules was taking the American sitcom format and applying it to a New Zealand setting. "We can't emulate that, we have to find our own way. It has to be authentic which is easy to say and hard to do."

The best sitcoms come out of Britain and America. Australia, says Wrightson, has struggled but found a gem in Kath and Kim.

"When you think about it, that could have been made here." Only it wasn't. But we did make Bro' Town, the animated series that described itself as a "modern fairytale about five Auckland teenagers growing up in the big, bad city".

Wrightson describes it as culture based comedy; fresh, interesting and hitting all the right marks. Often it did, but as one source said: "Sometimes it made you laugh; sometimes it made you want to throw a bottle of Lion Red at the TV screen." And it's not exactly difficult to draw a line from a group of Pacific Islanders taking the piss out of themselves straight back to Billy T.

Kightley, who co-wrote and performed in Bro' Town, is happy to admit that. "I do remember as a youngster seeing his stuff, and thinking it would be cool to do that same thing for the Pacific Island community.

"I was a child of the 70s and loved John Clarke and McPhail and Gadsby and how they showed a mirror up to their community. Billy T. did that for Maori and the country loved that. He broke that barrier."

Kightley says Bro' Town couldn't have done what it did, if there hadn't been a Billy T.

"Everything is linked. The humour he showed has an effect in our minds." But Kightley says comedy's biggest story of the past decade is Flight of The Conchords and the phenomenal success of the show in the US.

His view is shared by Lee who says that for everything that Billy T. did in shaping our humour, there is no ignoring that today's media environment is a very different place.

"There was virtually no competition in Billy T.'s day. Now there is so much clutter, so many more competing comedians. What Flight of the Conchords achieved was proportionally so much harder because they have had to survive in a far more cluttered environment."

While some say the Conchords duo had to take their comedy to the US because the networks wouldn't give them a go here, Kightley has a different take. "That show couldn't have worked over here. It had to show New Zealanders out of the goldfish bowl here; only in a foreign environment could you see how hilarious they are.

"And that's the thing. Somewhere in New Zealand there are 10-year-olds at home watching them with dreams forming in their heads. We won't see the fruits of it for 10, 15 maybe 20 years. But it's coming."

Billy T: thanks for the giggles

Billy T. James: comedian, entertainer, actor.
Born: William James TeWehi Taitoko in 1949.
Died: August 7, 1991, age 42. Joined the Maori Volcanics showband in the 1970s honing his performing skills before going solo first in Australia, then New Zealand, with a mixture of impressions, cabaret singing and skits.
* Changed his name because it was "something the Aussies could pronounce".
* Became a household name in the mid-1980s through television variety show Radio Times, and his selftitled The Billy T James Show. Starred with Peter Rowley and Annie Whittle and best known for his trademark giggle, and wearing a black singlet with a towel draped round his neck while presenting Te News.
* Starred in the Ian Mune-directed film Came a Hot Friday in 1985. James played the Tainuia Kid, a Maori who believes he is a Mexican bandito.
*Awarded an MBE in 1986 for services to entertainment.
* Named entertainer of the decade in 1985 for years 1975-84.
* Had a heart transplant in 1989, returning to the stage a few months later in a variety special called Alive and Gigging. His health deteriorated rapidly following the show and he died of heart failure on August 7, 1991.
*He had wanted to be taken straight to Tainui's Taupiri mountain for burial, but family members took his body from his Muriwai home to a marae in Huntly and Ngaruawahia against the wishes of his wife.
*In 1997 an award named in his honour was presented for the first time. The Billy T. Award is regarded as New Zealand's most prestigious comedy award and is given to New Zealand comedians with outstanding potential. A number of tributes are planned to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Billy T. James.
* Marae Investigates, TV One today features a tribute and discussion on Billy T. at 10am.
* Billy T: Te Movie, a documentary directed by Ian Mune -premieres Hamilton August 15, then on general release from August 18.
* Billy T: Te Soundtrack released to coincide with documentary.
* Billy-screening TV One, 8.30pm, August 21, 1 biopic based on Billy's life starring Tainui Tukiwaho and Morgana O'Reilly.
* First DVD release of Came a Hot Friday this month.
*Billy T. James The Collection-DVD release of Billy's screen output.
*Alive & Gigging, Comedy Central, August29, 8.30pm
* The Billy T. James Show-repeats of the original shows Wednesdays, 8.30pm on Comedy Central from August 31.

- Herald on Sunday

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