What does it take to be a successful comic? Well, being funny sure helps. But so, too, Dai Henwood tells Greg Dixon, does having a clear head and a brain for business

So much for Dai Henwood the funny guy.

The stylish and urbane joker who opens the door to his handsome Auckland home certainly looks like Dai Henwood the foul-mouthed comic, dresses like Dai Henwood the star of TV3's 7 Days, and sounds like Dai Henwood the MC of such prestigious events as the 2014 gala dinner of The Radio Frequency Users Association of New Zealand. But it turns out that the cultured fellow with the mellifluous tones who welcomes me in, the one with the neatly trimmed beard and the fastidiously styled steel-grey hair, is some other guy.

He is, I discover, a happily married father of one - a boy called Charlie. He's good with money, too, because, while he has a mortgage, he has investments as well. He has taste: there is good New Zealand art on his walls, chic chairs of leather and chrome and George Nelson bubble lights hanging from the ceilings. He's a sober fellow, hasn't had a drink all year. He's a model of middle-class concerns and consumption: he's worried about the housing development at the end of the street, is concerned about the quality of public transport, drives a discrete and practical middle-level station wagon and owns a Nespresso machine. He is interested in the world beyond his own, too; he's now a trustee of the Henwood Trust, a body set up by his mother to look into "effective strategies" for young offenders.

In a word, this other guy is sensible. He's also grounded, rational, intelligent. Dai Henwood, the funny man, on the other hand ...

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"7 Days has been doing big tours of rural New Zealand," the other guy tells me after we've sat down in Henwood's living room with coffee. "It is something that is quite charming but quite full-on at the same time. People - we'll narrow it down to gentlemen in high-visibility clothing - will call out to me in the street. They don't tend to yell, 'Hey, I really enjoy your show,' it's more, 'Hey, it's that f***ing faggot from TV! You're not funny, c***!" He laughs. "When you're walking with a 2-year-old, that can be quite confronting."

It is a peculiarity of television in general and New Zealand television in particular that we feel we know its stars. We read all about them in stories like this one, we see pictures of their nights out and their weddings (and occasionally their funerals) and we hear about them having kids, struggling with booze, getting divorced, winning awards and getting fired. So, if you've appeared on television (and on stage) as much as Henwood has in the 15 or so years he's been a comedian, then he will have to forgive us if we, well me and the gentlemen in the high-visibility gear, have made a few assumptions about him: Dai Henwood - isn't he that wild and crazy guy who likes a drink and swears like a #$% sailor?

It would seem that's a "yeah, nah". For a start, his "filth and swearing ratio" has dropped off a cliff since joining 7 Days. He hasn't had a drink all year because, since he got involved in the "Hello Sunday Morning" moderation campaign, he always goes on the wagon for three months when he's writing a new show. And then there's his age, he's no longer a 20-something on the long-defunct youth channel, C4.

"I've sort of matured as a person," he's offers maturely. "But then when road workers are driving past me and I'm with my 2-year-old, they're still like, 'Come and scull a couple of beers! I'm like, 'I'm just having an iceblock with my 2-year-old, mate!'"

"But those changes are one of the joys of the job. You've always got new things to write about, new angles. I've got these juxtapositions in my life, of how I'd look at something when I was 25 and how I look at it now I'm a 37-year-old homeowner in [the suburbs] with a 2-year-old and worries about a bloody development down the road!" He laughs, and so do I - even Mr Mature can't help swearing.

We have met on an auspicious day in the career of Dai Henwood, mature comedian. That morning he'd been named the funniest person on TV in TV Guide's "Best on the Box" awards, adding yet another trophy to the dozen or so gongs he's won for his comedy since 1998. And later that day - and rather more significantly for his career, one feels - he and his weekly co-stars Jeremy Corbett and Paul Ego would record the 175th episode of 7 Days.

It is hard to overstate the importance of 7 Days, both to Henwood's career and to New Zealand television. Since debuting on TV3 in 2009, the Friday night panel show has arguably saved New Zealand television comedy from the knacker's yard, not only because it's exposed the genuine breadth and depth of local stand-up talent to a much broader audience than those who go to Auckland's Classic Comedy Club or to comedy festival gigs. But also because it finally proved beyond reasonable doubt that "funny New Zealand television comedy" wasn't some sort of oxymoron to begin with. The show is also hugely important, Henwood jokes, because it saved Corbett and Ego from "the wilderness of More FM" - which we can all agree is God's work.

Few New Zealand telly programmes survive more than a few seasons. So to be well into your seventh season, to have nailed 175 episodes, to still be going strong with no sign you're due for that knacker's yard, that is some kind of miracle for a local comedy - even to those who are making it.

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"Oh I'm very aware of the nature of TV, sea change can happen and it can happen very quickly," Henwood says. "To be honest, we all still have this weird surprise that we're still going sometimes because TV is such a fickle beast, like we saw with that X Factor thing, a bit of outrage and you're on the plane."

The secret of 7 Days' continued success, according to Henwood, is the ever-changing content, a good mix of guests from here and overseas and, of course, the continuing idiocy of others, not least our politicians. The show has also made a virtue of not playing too rough.

"We've found this really nice medium of taking the piss but not being mean," Henwood says. "You laugh at everything, but not that harshly."

To these elements, I'd add the onscreen chemistry of Corbett, Ego and Henwood. Each of the three stooges of local comedy - they've been making mischief together since 2000 - bring their unique brand of comedy to the show.

"I'm the lefty, loose, surreal guy," Henwood reckons, "Paul's the right-wing white guy from Devonport and Jeremy's your middle-of-the-road rich guy with a young wife."
However, the long and happy success of 7 Days carries with it one, not insignificant negative: the risk of overexposure. Which is partly why the new show that Henwood will bring to the Auckland and Wellington comedy festivals next month is his first in two years.

"I got into a cycle of doing a one-hour show every two years for a couple of reasons. Firstly I've found the quality of show is better. Secondly, the irony of being on 7 Days weekly in New Zealand - rather than a country with a bigger population - is that it's sometimes detrimental to your live audience. People feel like they've seen you every week. So if I've got $30 to go to comedy show, I might go see someone [I don't know] because Dai will be on the telly on Friday night. So I like to not saturate my audience, because I know there's a finite audience ... and I've always wanted to play the long game."

He cant remember what he said, but he can still remember the feeling. Henwood was just 5 years old when he first made someone laugh by talking. It gave him a buzz. It's still does. "I've always wanted to make people laugh. I honestly believe that good comics, the successful ones, have something in their DNA."

Possibly he should have discovered some rather more serious stuff in his DNA. He comes from highbrow folk after all. His mother, Carolyn, was a youth court judge for more than 20 years and was the first woman appointed as a district court judge in the Wellington region, while his father, Ray, who immigrated from Wales in 1962, worked as a science teacher before joining the DSIR.

However, showbiz was definitely in the blood. Both of Henwood's parents were founders (and continue to be councillors) of the Wellington's celebrated Circa Theatre and Ray, possibly best known to those of us of a certain age as Hugh in TV's Gliding On, has been a full-time professional stage and screen actor for decades.

"I watched so much theatre growing up," his son says. "I'd be at the theatre two nights a week. I grew up in rehearsal rooms. I guess the benefit of that I suppose was my view on the world was that it was 90 per cent gay, 10 per cent straight until I was about 15. Then I discovered, 'Oh nah, I've been living in a slightly different community!'"

It wasn't all luvvy stuff then either. The great-grandson of a famous Welsh player and the son of rugby fanatic, Henwood jnr was good at sport too, playing halfback in Wellington College's 2nd XV as well as age grade rugby for Wellington. However it was in theatre and film that he majored (along with Eastern religion) when he headed to Victoria University to do a bachelor of arts, though he actually had no intention of following his father into the rehearsal room.

"I loved theatre but it wasn't for me. Since I was young, it was stand-up. I remember a friend had a tape of Eddie Murphy's Delirious. I was so spellbound I think by the idea that someone could do that with no costumes, no set, just a microphone and talking. It was such a pared-back form of entertainment that it had me all through my teenage years. I remember in form two we had to write down what everyone in the class would be and about 70 per cent of people wrote down stand-up comedian for me when I was 12 years old."

Not long after his graduation and his turning 21, Henwood, like some sort of Kiwi-Welsh Dick Whittington, came to the Big Smoke, Auckland, to make his fortune. His father has said since he thought his boy "brave" for doing so.

"I was lucky that I was good at it," his boy says now, "and I think my parents saw I was good at it, and Dad saw that I was actually really working and treating it as a craft and trying to get better and better. But looking back, it is a job you must have to do because God knows why I chose it."

He gave himself five years to make it as a stand-up. He'd won a Billy T Award within four.
"Well that was actually the turning point, because the Billy T then was like $7000 - which, when you've been earning $150 a gig [was huge money]. It was right, 'get myself a computer, sort out my office situation, tuck some away, invest some in travelling'. That was the changing point."

What's the secret to being a successful comic? Well of course, there isn't one. But Henwood's story offers plenty of top tips for smart young things who want to tell jokes for a living.

His career has been well-planned and executed for starters, but there's been luck too. In the early years he crafted shows around a series of characters he'd written, including John D'Bank Teller and wrestler P-Funk Chainsaw - he figured such characters made for better comedy than a 22-year-old making jokes about bad dates - before moving his act toward straight stand-up. He was doing well. Then, in 2008, a guy called Andrew Szusterman from youth TV channel C4 saw Henwood at the Classic one Monday night and offered him a TV show. Suddenly he was doing better.

"I did this show called Insert Video Here ... and then Roll A Dai. [After that] I'd go down to Christchurch and suddenly I had lines down the block and people buying me beers."
Watching clips of these shows now (there are bits and pieces on YouTube), you can see why he had a reputation for being wild, crazy and rude as hell.

His, ahem, blue period, lasted until the early days of 7 Days; I recall sitting through the filming of episode back in 2010, and he was still pretty rude.

"I was very filthy as a comedian then," he says now, "but I've come right!"

His career hasn't been one seamless journey upwards to the green room of 7 Days, however. There have been potholes, not least his flirting with working overseas. Back in 2003 he lost big money - $40,000 or so all up - going to festivals in Melbourne and Edinburgh.

"In hindsight [Melbourne and Edinburgh] were a full investment in my career because I learned 'shit, I really want to do this'. I was living in Edinburgh with Flight of the Conchords and that was the exact year they were taking off and it's like, 'Shit, these guys are flying, they're nailing it. What am I doing?' I was cancelling shows in Edinburgh. Then I came back to New Zealand and found my niche over here. And when I got on TV it was, 'Wow, people are really coming to see me.' It was a shock."

His only real bump since 2008 has been his second DVD, Adapt or Dai, released in 2013. While his first DVD went gold, Adapt or Dai was an "absolute f***ing disaster and I lost, like, $25,000".

However, if there is a Henwood secret for comedy success - apart from knowing what's funny, of course - it's getting those dollars and cents in order. This is a guy who "made a very good run on Apple stock", which actually helped with the deposit on the home he and his wife, Jo Kelly, who works in public relations, bought around three years ago.

"How to succeed in freelance stuff is that you've got have a bit of a business head. Mum drilled that in to me really well. Mum's really good with money, really good with risk, when to take risks. So I've got a good financial head, which has helped. I've got bits and bobs invested ... a bit of a fall-back, here and there. But in Auckland, investments take a second seat [to the mortgage]."

Fame might famously buy 15 minutes. But if you're a comic standing in front of an audience, fame buys you nothing like as long, Henwood says - and
he ought to know, given he's become one of our country's most famous comics.

"The thing is, unlike any other art form, comedy, I believe, is the most honest. You can't fake laughing. You know whether you're dying on your arse or whether you're doing well from line to line. Even if you're on TV or even if you're world famous, that buys you about three minutes live."

So TV fame, while obviously important (7 Days gives him half his income, after all), comes first equal with being a shit-hot live comedian too, because at heart he's still that 5-year-old kid wanting to hear his words make people laugh.

"With 7 Days I can't do a lot of travel. But I did a couple of turns at the Sydney Comedy Store last year and walked out and nailed it. I found it really personally rewarding because I'm like walking on the stage, no one knows who I am. This is the test. It was the best feeling I've had as a comedian since like early on in my career because it was like 'wow, I am good at this'. Like it's not this weird TV thing, which at the back of my heart I knew ... "

For the business part of his brain, this is good news because 7 Days, like all TV shows, must come to end sometime. "The thing is, I love 7 Days but I am also really looking forward to what my next project will be and I'm in a bit of a catch-22, where I don't want to develop and get fully into my next project because I wouldn't have time to make it. So it's the sort of thing of pottering around with a few little things and maybe laying some plans. But luckily because we've been around for 175 eps now, Mediaworks are great and respect us.

"But you definitely keep your finger in the wind to see which way it is going ... "
Whatever happens next, you get the feeling he'll be all right. After all, Dai Henwood is a funny guy.

• Dai Henwood brings his show, Daigression, to Q Theatre in Auckland, May 12-16, and Wellington's San Fran, April 30-May 2 and May 5-9, as part of the 2015 NZ International Comedy Festival.