Jeers to cheers - NZ comedy has a cracker year

By Jesse Mulligan

NZ comedy had a cracker year with Boy a box office hit, 7 Days wooing critics and audiences alike and record attendance at live Comedy Festival shows. Are we finally getting funny? Jesse Mulligan reports on the highs and lows of working in the joke factory.

Jesse Mulligan reports on the highs and lows of working in the joke factory. Photo / Supplied
Jesse Mulligan reports on the highs and lows of working in the joke factory. Photo / Supplied

I've met more strangers than usual this summer. They stop me in supermarkets, on buses, at weddings, and they tell me, "You're that guy from 7 Days!" And then, embarrassingly, they want to say thanks. Thanks for all the laughs, and for making them look forward to Friday nights, and for creating some New Zealand comedy that is actually funny.

Being quite a modest person, I usually feel obliged to concede that I'm not solely responsible for 7 Days' success. There are other comedians who make small contributions. And the crew: cameramen, directors and producers who each play a part. But yes, I eventually admit under some duress, as a semi-regular panellist and occasional writer it is essentially my show.

You can't blame a Kiwi comic for wanting to take a little credit. We've taken plenty of credit for the bad stuff over the years. It was tough enough having to say sorry to those poor sods who'd witnessed my own bad performances, but sometimes they'd expect me to apologise for other people's too.

Comedian Jeremy Elwood remembers the bad old days when "you'd tell someone you were a comedian and the first thing they'd do is share an anecdote about a terrible experience they'd had".

Ben Hurley, one of our biggest successes on the sometimes brutal English circuit, says the most common thing he encountered at home was ignorance.

"People would ask, 'What sorts of things do the audience throw at you?' They just assumed we performed behind chicken wire at rural sports bars in return for beer."

But over the last few years, things have changed. Nowadays, when people find out you're a comedian, the snorting and derision has been replaced by smiles and admiration. The change is as clear as the difference between telling someone you're a tow truck driver, and telling them you work for the SPCA.

Those negative anecdotes seem to have gone, says Elwood. "The first reaction now is almost always positive: it's 'our family watches 7 Days every week', or they went to an amazing show at the festival, or they really enjoyed the Comedy Gala."

This palpable shift in attitude - palpable to us comedians doing the palping - is due to us getting a few good runs on the board. 7 Days has been huge - a critically acclaimed ratings hit which is regular, reliable, yet still happily unpredictable. But there have been other successes too, some of them surprisingly free of my involvement.

The 2010 New Zealand International Comedy Festival put a record 103,000 bums on seats, many of them at local shows. Taika Waititi's comedy Boy overtook Once Were Warriors at the box office, showing that Kiwis like to laugh in the dark even more than they like to cry. And Flight of the Conchords have reached such stratospheric levels of international success and fame that they've now received the ultimate accolade from the Kiwi public: being taken for granted.

I first met Taika and the Conchords boys when they all represented Victoria in the 1995 University Comedy Competition. They were depressingly good even then, presenting a triumph of script and choreography which produced howls of laughter and loud extended applause breaks fromthe enraptured audience.

"Wouldn't like to follow them," the MC observed aloud to no one in particular, before wandering on stage and introducing the act who would, in fact, be following them, "Doing his second ever stand up comedy performance ... he looks a bit nervous ... representing the University of Waikato, Jesse Mulligan!"

I was nervous, a hazard of the job which hasn't entirely gone away in the subsequent years, but which I've got a little better at hiding. "Never let them see you sweat," as David Letterman puts it - a piece of advice which does get easier to employ, figuratively if not literally under the hot white spotlights of stage and screen.

That night I was a breathy, stumbling wreck, reading out new jokes I'd hurriedly written that day having mistakenly assumed I couldn't repeat any of my material from the previous week when I'd killed in the heats. I later learned repetition and refinement are key - the best practitioners have genuine moments of improvisation on stage, but these moments are backed up with tested, proven jokes that provide a background confidence to the free forming.

People can tell you these things, but you don't truly understand until you've learned them yourself. That's one reason New Zealand comedy has started to look so good lately: we've always had the talent, but after several years of international gigging and a healthy local stand-up industry, we're starting to see what happens when that talent combines with experience.

Scott Blanks is the owner of Auckland's The Classic Comedy Bar, a long time mentor of the local scene and the sort of person many a visiting Australian comedian wishes they had creating gigs back home.

"The amount of good local comedy currently on screen gives the appearance that everything has only just taken off, but what people are seeing now is actually just the latest evolution of more than 20 years of development," he says.

Blanks has been running gigs for all of that time but he believes the opening of The Classic in 1997 was "a watershed moment" for local comedy.

"All of a sudden, with a world class venue in town, comedians started believing in themselves more, and because of that the audience started believing in them too," says Blanks.

"Thirteen years later our comedians are good enough to perform anywhere in the world. And what we're seeing right now is television starting to exploit the depth of that local talent."

Ah, television. Where comedy traditionally went to die. When we heard a couple of years ago that TV3 had commissioned a topical panel show our hopes weren't high. Some of us could still remember a similar idea on Prime featuring, I think, Paul Holmes and Mike Hosking as team leaders, wrangling a handful of enthusiastic guests whose cacophonous banter created a 30-minute wall of sound from which no English word could be identified.

But TV3 filmed a pilot, and by all accounts it went down very well. A series was commissioned, auditions were held, ground rules established. Comedy industry insider Jon Bridges was installed as producer, along with staff from a hot young production company who were funny and knew what funny was.

Comedians were employed - proper comedians! Not just to host and lead teams but to contribute ideas. And the TV3 people seemed happy to have us lounging around on their furniture, kicking balls around their boardrooms. Word had it new TV3 exec Rachel Jean was sitting through three local shows a night during the comedy festival, and laughing in the right places. The stars seemed to be aligned.

The show debuted with good ratings and great reviews. We quickly learned that people weren't just watching it-they were loving it. And the joy our audience were feeling was matched on set, where comedians working on the showfelt (still feel) excited, blessed, and perhaps a little confused to be given the keys to the asylum.

7 Days is contributing to the rise and rise of New Zealand comedy, but it's also reflecting it. This is a great time to be a Kiwi comic, not least because our audiences seem to be having such a great time too.

JAMIE BOWEN

"I was doing a gig for a bunch of boozed up McDonalds managers in Melbourne, one of whom kept yelling, 'You suck' over and over again. I couldn't think of a come back so I went down and tongue kissed him. That shut him up. And thus was invented my trademark 'The Pash-Putdown'."

JUSTINE SMITH

"I'd only just started doing comedy, I was gigging at a terrible bar in Northcote and some guy yelled out, 'Did you drive here tonight?' I asked 'Why?' and he said 'Bend over and I'll drive you home.' It got a bigger laugh than anything I'd said all night so there wasn't much to do but walk off stage."

GUY WILLIAMS

"At a rowdy late show I casually mentioned, 'I've just moved up to Auckland.' A really drunk guy yelled out 'GO HOME!' Going for a quick response to shut him up I said, 'Where to?' He said, 'Wellington!' I went silent before I had to say: 'Lucky guess!' That got a huge laugh, then he said, 'No Guy, I'm your uncle!' the crowd went crazy. I spoke to him after the show, it wasn't my uncle - it's embarrassing to be outwitted by a man so drunk he can hardly stand up!"

BEN HURLEY

"In Palmerston North a woman yelled at me 'I can see your soul!' Who said it was the methamphetamine capital of New Zealand?"

- Herald on Sunday

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