For 25 years, Leigh Hart has been a fixture of New Zealand television comedy. He has never quite crossed over into the kind of prime time ubiquity of the 7 Days crew, but has operated with a creative freedom few can match.
He got his start playing a character named "That Guy" on Sports Cafe, a chat show which is underappreciated for the crucial role it played in proving surreal comedy could attract large audiences, and thus paved the way for the likes of Havoc, Back of the Y and Pulp Sport. Hart was spotted at a party by Marc Ellis and became an emergency ringer who never left. He had a weekly slot that developed some bits which have etched themselves into the minds of generations of late-night TV viewers, including Speed Cooking – the product of a hangover and a deadline.
From that platform he created Moon TV, a sketch show made up of a number of series which functioned as loving satires of contemporary television tropes, including reality police show Speedo Cops, shambolic morning TV in the Late Night Big Breakfast (which would go on to become multiple full-length series) and Shortland St-but-make-it-a-curry-house in Naan Doctors.
From the first season, the template was set, and for 20 years now he has played with different aspects of that very specific micro-genre, while also getting involved in advertising (a still-running bit for Hellers), cricket commentary (through the also very innovative Alternative Commentary Collective) and radio (Bhuja, for Hauraki). This has driven a devout group of fans, which follow him wherever he goes, whose understanding of this country and its character has been shaped, for better or worse, by Hart's acutely observed comedy.
This has all been reasonably well-documented by TV critics, myself included. But I think along the way we have missed a parallel career that is equally noteworthy, if not more so. That one is not Leigh Hart, comedian, but Leigh Hart, entrepreneur. I had Hart on my media podcast The Fold this week, to do a rare out-of-character interview in which we focused on the thinking and strategy that underpins his creative career – one I think has lessons relevant to anyone working in media, and beyond.
Lesson 1: Don't be afraid to start something you know nothing about
When Hart was at school studying film and television his classmates held down the usual part-time jobs. Hart started a newspaper called – what else? – Moon. "It was full of typos. It was just the most horrendous thing," he recalls. He did everything, from writing, to layout to ad sales ("I would pretty much bully some little old woman in the cafe to put a $50 ad in").
It worked though and ran for 16 issues. But its benefits have run well beyond the immediate financial reward of the era. His chutzpah in making a newspaper was what persuaded John Harris at Greenstone Pictures to give him his first job in TV a few years later. More than that, though, the newspaper essentially laid the groundwork for the rest of his career, with many of the characters who would go on to become crucial to Moon TV originally appearing in Moon, the newspaper.
Why? The experience taught Hart the rudiments of small business and made him unafraid to do it again a few years later when the chance to create a show appeared. The treasure trove of IP and job opportunities were a welcome bonus.
Lesson 2: If you make it yourself, you retain control
One of New Zealand's best streaming platforms is also one of its most obscure. Its name is Moonflix ("I'm just waiting for Netflix to sue us I get some publicity"), its tagline is a modest "the world's greatest comedy", and it contains a near-complete archive of every piece of television Hart has ever made. For audiences, it's a kind of living museum of one person's television taonga – an individual version of the kind of national streaming service Chris Schulz wrote about recently. For Hart, there's the satisfaction of having it all in one place, a catalogue raisonné showing all his work.
More than that, it points to something which separates Hart from many other creatives in that because the vast bulk of his work was funded outside the NZ on Air system, he owns it right through, from the IP to the product. This allowed him to create Leigh Hart's Big Isolation Lockdown, a wholesome clip show made in level four with his wife and kids. It means he can post all his work to YouTube, where some clips have millions of views and generate ancillary income. It also means he can mine any part of it to create a new show, or sell to channels across the world, without asking permission.
Why? Hart is not alone in doing this – Joe Daymond, Hanelle Harris and Taika Waititi all have their own production companies and work on both sides of the camera. Six60 do a similar thing in music. And it's very much not for everyone. Doing the whole thing – from ideation to production to sales – is really hard. But Hart's career and particularly his creative use of his back catalogue show the future value it can create.
Lesson 3: There's more than one way to get something funded
"I think I got Autotrader to sponsor the first one on Sky," says Hart of the debut season of Moon TV. For the privilege, the used car weekly paid just $6000. Even adjusting for inflation based on the 20 years which have elapsed since that's still less than $10,000.
To make that budget work, Hart was very much the auteur of the show, scripting, cutting, producing – and selling, with a few close friends along to do what he couldn't. And while he has periodically received NZ on Air funding over the years, he prefers to figure out alternative paths to the screen.
"I would go to TVNZ and say, 'I've got some sponsors that are really keen for me to do another series.'" They would offer slots on Duke and TVNZ2, then Hart would go to sponsors and say that TVNZ had approached him to make a show "and they're looking for sponsors". It's deeply unconventional, and potentially not entirely ethical, but it worked.
Why? NZ on Air is a decentralised public broadcaster, and for all its faults it works pretty well. But it can make creatives feel like it's the only game in town – whereas Hart's career shows that for those willing to take big risks (and work with small budgets), you can achieve a lot.
Lesson 4: If you're working with a client, get as close to them as you can
For decades, Hart has been the face of Hellers' meat products, essentially playing a mildly toned-down version of his hapless everyman-at-the-barbecue persona. It's one of the longest-running talent-client relationships on New Zealand television, as Hart acknowledges. "I've become the Briscoes guy of smallgoods".
He's still there despite the original agency which made him pitchman being long gone. "They've gone through about three or four agencies since I've been there. I'm still there. That's very rare."
Why? Whenever there are intermediaries, there are vulnerabilities. New people tend to want to rearrange the furniture even if it's working, so Hart's close relationship with the people behind Hellers meant he survived multiple regime changes – and had a steady stream of corporate income which allowed him to keep being weird and make things on the cheap elsewhere.
Lesson 5: If you don't have a sponsor, make a product
This one might be specific to Hart, but maybe the broader lesson is to think laterally about your operating model. It came from watching the crowd at events like the Wellington Sevens and seeing a steady stream of speedo cops or hamstermen and being a little frustrated at the gap between the consistent cultural impact of his characters and the here-then-gone nature of income from TV series.
Hart wanted to create a steadier financial basis and was riffing on what that might be. "For some reason, I was sitting in the office," he says. "I thought I might start a beer brand." It became Wakachangi, a somewhat tense name which looks like it has te reo origins, but doesn't – though that fits very authentically with the confident but ultimately idiotic bloke characters which people all his series. Initially, contract-brewed by Cassels in Christchurch, which turned it round in a matter of weeks, it's now a staple of the McAshins brewery in Stoke.
Yet the beer was a mere warm up for the next product, Snakachangi. The chips have become a wildly successful new entrant in a saturated category, and one flavour was recently named the country's best by The Spinoff's acknowledged authority on the subject, Madeleine Chapman. The manufacturer initially thought they would be weird hybrids, like Marmite and jelly. "It's gonna be wacky, because your shows are wacky," Hart recalls the manufacturer thinking.
Hart says that misunderstands what he's been doing this whole time – "the shows are actually within a format, where we're just putting a twist on a reality TV show. We're just putting a twist on a breakfast show." The twist was the copy and presentation, not the flavours. And the rest is fast-moving consumer goods history.
Why? The real genius of the beer and chips was less about the products than understanding his relationship with his audience, and the increasingly deeply blurred line between content and marketing. His shows have been filled with fake infomercials for years – think his brilliant creative partner Jason Hoyte in a turtleneck – only now the fake ads are for real products. And his audience can express its fandom not just by quoting their favourite sketches, but by showing up to a party with food and beverage from their idol.