Not content with being a leading comedic actor and full-time early childhood teacher, Karen O'Leary is about to take on the music world. Greg Bruce meets her in her studio.
Wellington's famous recording studio The Surgery occupies one of a series of decrepit-looking, windowless, brick, block and corrugated iron buildings down a long cracked driveway in Newtown. From the outside, it seems obviously to be an industrial meth-cooking operation and motorcycle gang headquarters. When I arrived at its front door just before Christmas, it was adorned with this handwritten sign: "LEE IS BLOODY CROOK, REAL BLOODY CROOK. PARTY IS BLOOMIN OFF! OH SH#T."
Inside, at a table groaning with beer, sat early childhood teacher Karen O'Leary, now better known as Officer Policewoman O'Leary in Jemaine Clement's hit television show Wellington Paranormal , and the hit movie from which it spun off, What We Do in the Shadows . With her at the table was her bandmate, early childhood teaching colleague, friend and former Head Like a Hole guitarist Tom Watson.
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Gesturing at the beer she and Watson were drinking, O'Leary said: "That's not ours - you can't be drinking beer when you're doing children's music."
The pair's band is called Fun and Funner and their business name is A Gay and A Guy. When I arrived they were making notes while listening to their recording of Sing Like a Ding Dong , one of the early songs from their forthcoming first album, Better Than Normal .
O'Leary quickly, correctly identified that Watson and I were wearing the same flannel shirt, which we had both bought from The Warehouse last year, for $10, although mine was red and his was blue. Watson and I discussed the good value and relatively high quality of the shirts. He told me he owned the red one also, but had chosen not to wear it today because it didn't go with his purple T-shirt. I told him I wished I'd bought the blue as well as the red because of the comparatively low price for the relatively large increase in wardrobe options.
O'Leary, who I was there to interview, said: "You could just talk to Tom if you want."
Sensing the need to bring her into the conversation, I asked if she owned any flannel from The Warehouse.
"I do," she said. "Of course. Tom and I always accidentally wear the same clothes to work."
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"It's true," he said.
"Flannelette shirts and AS Colour T-shirts," she said. She said the shop AS Colour offered a deal of five items for 120 bucks: "That can be two pairs of pants and three T-shirts. You've got a variety of looks there, eh? Mix and match."
O'Leary and Watson met at Adelaide Early Childhood Centre, where O'Leary is head teacher and where she has taught for 19 years, which is more or less her whole working life. Watson walked in one day with his daughter, who he was thinking about bringing to the centre. O'Leary asked what he did for work and he said he was a musician but because that didn't always pay the bills, he also did odd jobs, such as handyperson work.
"Do you mean like put up acoustic tiling?" she asked. She meant it as a joke because the centre had just received a grant for the installation of acoustic tiles.
When he came in the next week to start installing the acoustic tiling, she began secretly observing him. "Not in a creepy way," she says. "Just in a, 'Cause it's my job to make sure everything's going well' way, and every day he came, more and more children would go and just talk to him and watch what he was doing, and I was listening to what he was saying and I thought, 'Hang on a second. He's more than an acoustic tiler! He's an early childhood teacher!'
"So I said to Tom, 'You should become an early childhood teacher.' He said, 'Yep.' I said, 'Okay, great, can you work?' He said 'Yep.' I said, 'Well, you need to do your training.' He said, 'Yep.'
"So he did. So that's the story of how I met Tom."
Watson will be best man at O'Leary's wedding on the 29th of next month, leap day. "That just made sense," she said, "so I only have to buy a present every four years."
"You'll never make gold," Watson said.
"Oh true!" she said, "I'll never make my gold wedding. I'll still be at wood. That'll be as good as I get."
There was some debate about which anniversary was wood.
"Seven," she said, picking up her phone. "I feel like I'm actually right on that. I'm just going to check."
I said I had just celebrated my seventh anniversary, to which she replied, "Did you get some wood?" She said. "Ooh, don't answer that," paused for effect, then said, "Well, you can if you want to. Who's your partner? A woman or a man?"
"A woman," I said.
"Okay, maybe you didn't then."
She looked at Watson.
"You know what I'm talking about," she said.
"Yep," he said. "I do."
She and Watson seemed to share feelings, values, attitudes to work, ways of thinking, general life outlooks and senses of humour, but when we began talking about her personal life, she asked him to go away. They bickered, or possibly just quibbled, about the request.
He said, "I might have to go to the toilet." (The toilet adjoined the room in which we were talking.)
"What do you mean?" she said. "You can go to the toilet."
"Yeah, but what if I walk through and you're saying something really personal?"
She said: "I wouldn't imagine it's going to be that personal, and I don't feel like there's anything I could say that you don't actually know anyway."
"I know!" he said. "Which makes it even weirder that I have to go away."
"You don't have to go away then!" she said. "You can sit down! God!"
He didn't though. He went to the toilet.
She said of him: "He's engaging, he's curious, he's interested, he is very, very funny and children respond to that. Children know people that are interested in what they've got to say and know how to engage with them, and if you can provide that, then that's the real platform for high-quality learning, in my opinion. I think sometimes as teachers in any sector we forget that sometimes, and we move into trying to be very serious about our work, and it is a serious job, but that doesn't mean you have to be serious to do it. There's this misconception that if you're having too much fun, then children are going to stop respecting you. I beg to differ."
The pair have been asked to create a workshop next year on the pedagogy of fun. In the meantime, they're working on an album including songs about poo, butterflies and a reimagining of well-known children's fighting toy Beyblades in a track they call Gay Blades .
The reigning queen of New Zealand pre-school music is Anika Moa, who just before Christmas released the third album in her Songs for Bubbas series. O'Leary doesn't see Moa as competition though - she sees her as working in a different demographic. She had recently talked to Moa, who was aware of O'Leary's band.
"I don't know if she was drunk or not," O'Leary says, "but she did say we could come on tour with her."
Together, it's possible they could create a musical juggernaut that influences an entire generation and beyond.
"She's the baby whispering person," O'Leary says, "And she's very good at that. We're going more for your 2-5s, even your 2-10s - and actually, your 2 to 50s because adults can enjoy our music too."
Watson said: "We wanted to make the best music we possibly could. The lyrical content is about themes that we deal with in our professional capacity, about fairness and...
"Poo," O'Leary said.
"Toilet training," Watson said.
"Toilet training - you don't call it that," she said.
"You don't?" Watson said.
"Toilet learning," O'Leary said. "You can't be trained to use the toilet. If you're not ready, you're not ready."
Early on in the interview, I had asked the duo if they would play one of their songs for me and they had refused, but maybe the beer they weren't drinking was starting to have an impact because towards the end of the interview, after going to the toilet, Watson brought in an electric guitar and, without saying a word, started strumming a bright, upbeat melody.
"What's that song?" O'Leary said, still sitting down at the table, looking slightly uncomfortable. For a tense moment, it seemed like she might not join in, but Watson continued strumming and suddenly she burst out with "THAT'S THE BEST PLACE FOR POO!" and then they were away, into what will likely become the country's biggest toilet learning hit of the year.
"Now don't do a poo on your mum
And don't do a poo on your dad
And don't do a poo on your baby
That would be really bad
You gotta poo in the whare paku
You gotta poo in the whare paku
You gotta poo poo poo
In the loo loo loo
Because that's the best place for poo.
There was another similarly themed verse and another chorus, and when the song finished, O'Leary said: "That's one of our songs about poo."
"Obviously it's quite a heteronormative song, which I'm a little bit disappointed about. It should have been, 'Don't do a poo on your mum / Don't do a poo on your other mum', but it just didn't have quite the same ring to it. That's probably why it's better to be straight. Makes better songs. Eh? Cause if you look at all the big hits, they're always a little bit straight, aren't they?"
The pair then played me a short taster of the hard-driving rock of Gay Blades : "Gay blades spinning round and round / Who will be the first to fall to the ground?" Earlier I had also heard recordings of the pure pop earworm Tippy Tippy Ballet Toes , and the sweet, moving Loveliness of Ladybirds . Musically, at least, the album defied easy categorisation.
"It's very eclectic," Watson said.
"We've gone multi-genre," O'Leary said, "Sometimes even within the same song, eh? Which is quite interesting and revolutionary."
"Deliberately?" I asked.
"No," Watson said.
"No," O'Leary said.
For the recording, the pair had brought in some musician friends - founding member of TrinityRoots, Riki Gooch; founding member of Fur Patrol, Andrew Bain; and founding member of Fat Freddy's Drop, Toby Laing - and had not given them much prep time.
Watson said: "We just got there on the day and were just like, 'These are the chords,' and they were interpreted by the musicians."
O' Leary said: "So they'd never heard the songs before. They were like, 'What's the chords?' [We said] 'Oh, it's C, G and F. It kinda goes like this,' and they were like, 'Oh, yeah, cool.'"
Famously, O'Leary became famous when famed casting director Tina Cleary, whose child attended her early childhood centre, made her go to an audition for a film that turned out to be What We Do in the Shadows. Despite her lack of acting background, it became immediately obvious she was New Zealand's naturally funniest early childhood teacher/actor.
Although she seemed mostly incapable during our interview of saying a complete sentence without making some sort of joke, she did talk entirely without humour, and for a good period, about subjects in and around education: Diversity, empathy, inclusion, music, play-based learning, fun.
She had clearly spent a good amount of time nourishing her anger towards single-sex schools, which she thinks are damaging, potentially dangerous, and particularly hard for kids that don't fit society's idea of what a boy or girl should be: "I still remember the two years I spent at intermediate when I had to wear a uniform, having to wear a skirt to intermediate and just feeling, for me, so out of place. So those children, if you're looking at spectrums and all that kind of stuff, if you're on the fringe of some stereotypical norm, how do you feel as valued?"
After 15 or 20 minutes of high-level earnestness along these lines, she caught herself: "It's getting very serious this interview, isn't it?" she said. "Sorry. It was supposed to be funny, but once you start talking to me about education, I get quite passionate. So you can just say, 'Holy moly, I thought this was going to be fun and then O'Leary got all boring and started talking about societal problems the whole time.' You can just make a joke about that."
I asked how much of her time was spent thinking about the sort of stuff she had just spent so long discussing before asking me to reduce it to a joke.
"Lots of my time," she said. "I think it's always there. I feel like I'm a multifaceted thinker, so things always exist in my subconscious and at certain times they come to the fore and then they come back again. Sometimes funniness and silliness are absolutely at the very front - mostly when I'm hanging out with Tom - but again funniness and silliness I feel has got a really serious value to it."
She has found it slightly disheartening that her views on early childhood education get heard now, just because of her "faux-celebrity status" as nationally recognised funny person, but said she also feels lucky to be able to raise awareness of what she thinks is important for education and for children.
One thing she thinks is particularly important is valuing difference: "The more different you are, the better, I say."
As a small child, she says, she was a "weirdo", shy and misanthropic. By the time she started school, though, she knew things were going to be all right. A message she now often passes on to parents worried about their kids is: the way they are doesn't necessarily equal the way they'll be for the rest of their lives.
Her own parents were always supportive, she says. She loves them. She says, "Someone once put in an article that I adored them. I never said that."
They sometimes give her feedback: "There have been a couple of things I've done where they're like, 'I don't know if I like that, Karen.'
"I did the mixtape on RNZ once and for whatever reason they didn't really like that. They didn't give me specifics: 'No I couldn't really listen to that darling. No.'
"It was like, 'Oh, okay. Sorry mum.'"
She said: "Generally they're very very supportive. Also, my family, we're known as a family who like to take the mickey out of each other."
"So do you avoid getting too deep with them about anything?"
"Deep?" she said "Like what about? Like, what, my feelings? That's a good question, Greg. Now you're getting quite deep yourself."
I said, "I know people like you who are very funny and often find it hard, particularly with people close to them, to get deep and meaningful, and just wondered if that was something you do with your family."
She entered character as a sort of stereotypical petulant, monosyllabic teen and stared at me, hard, for a couple of seconds. She said, "Nup." She said, "It's not." She said, "As if."
"Nah," she said, exiting character, "I love it. I'm going to ring my mum now." She picked up her phone and pretended to make a call: 'I'm feeling really... sad. And concerned... Oh, sorry, what? Yeah, ok, bye.'"
She put her phone down.
"She can't," she said, "She's busy talking to my dad about his feelings."
"It's very surreal," she says of her unlikely emergence from a suburban Wellington early childhood centre to become one of the country's foremost comedic actors.
"I think it all goes back to if you have positive relationships with other people, like I did with, even Tina Cleary for instance, and then with Jemaine and Taika - the relationships you build with people provide opportunities for doors to open. So if you work hard on making good relationships and building good relationships, then I really do feel that opportunities that are supposed to come to you will come."
Apart from the singing and the teaching and parenting and the pedagogy of fun workshop, she's got more acting projects coming up, including work in the second series of Jackie Van Beek's comedy series The Educators. She's also hopeful that Wellington Paranormal is going to sell overseas soon: "You never know what doors that's going to open," she says.
"So I'll just be ready to be at the door when it opens and say, 'Hello, I'm Karen and it's nice to meet you,' because if you say that nice thing when the door opens, then they might invite you in."
That's probably a good and valuable life lesson to pass on to your kids, but it's not necessarily more valuable than this: "Don't do a poo on your cat."