This year is the 20th anniversary of the New Zealand International Comedy Festival and my, how things have changed.

It might be called "international" because of the import factor, but this gala-night opening of 21 acts boasted locals with burgeoning careers overseas - Rhys Darby and The Boy With Tape on His Face (Sam Wills).

Among the rest were local household names - Dai Henwood, Ben Hurley, Ewen Gilmour, Steve Wrigley - because of small-screen ubiquity.

And add to that the import-exports: Wilson Dixon (the American country-singing alter ego of Jesse Griffin) and South African migrant Urzila Carlson, one of the best conventional stand-up turns of the night.


Since emerging a few years back, she's gone from novelty newbie with an accent to a commanding stage presence.

Her gala material came delivered with such relaxed confidence that her solo festival show comes warmly recommended.

Some of her aforementioned fellow 7 Days colleagues weren't quite as memorable, though Hurley's affectionate commentary on the Kiwi vernacular was as always spot on, and Henwood's energy made up for his scattershot musings.

His complaining about really annoying TV ads - not the really annoying TV ads he voices or appears in - was a curious spot of pot-kettle blackishness.

That other small-screen spruiker, Darby, neatly mocked his international profile and performances from festivals past.

The Boy with Tape on His Face brought another wonderfully inventive routine involving a couple of audience members and a spot of ballet.

It was brilliant and the most gentle of the many outbursts of audience participation.

Others included the comedy-magician Jarred Fell's invisible card trick on one startled soul, which was as clever as it was cringe-inducing.

Front-row "volunteers" also helped deliver the most tears-of-laughter moment of the night - Irishman Jason Byrne's mock hypnotic levitation act.

Yes, hard to describe afterwards but clearly anyone heading along to his own show should have their ribs reinforced and avoid sitting too close to the front.

A more refined absurdity came in British sketch comedy act Idiots of Ants, whose boot camp for expectant dads was a hoot and proof their scripted ensemble stuff, while clearly telly-inspired, translates neatly to the stage.

Fellow Brits Stephen K Amos and Janey Godley both pondered, respectively, their Anglo-Nigerian-ness and Glaswegian-ness to chatty, amusing effect.

But the UK's greatest contribution to the festival, on the early evidence, may well be Milton Jones with his languid, whimsical thoughts in a voice that might remind some of Winnie the Pooh.

The night also featured the festival's two big musical comedy acts - Aussies' Axis of Awesome and Ireland's Dead Cat Bounce. I thought both were pretty underwhelming. It was something to do with AoA's Wiggles-esque delivery and DCB's bad-rock-song-with-funny-lyric approach.

But lord knows we have little appreciation of musical comedy in these parts so they might be great.

Arguably more rock'n'roll was Aussie Steve Hughes, who might look like Ewen Gilmour's Sydneyside cousin but showed a wry philosophical bent under his roadie-like demeanour. Seek him out.

While helping the three-hour show feel like a jog rather than a marathon was American MC Greg Behrendt, who headlined his own gig on Saturday.

Pretty much an unknown quantity here, his freshness and upbeat persona helped make him one of the best gala hosts in recent memory. Especially with his own musings on being a middle-aged rock'n'roll metrosexual kind of guy with an endearing line to the locals, complimenting us that we hadn't lived up to our rep of being hard to make laugh.

"And I know. I've done gigs in front of the Dutch."

What: 2012 Comedy Gala
Where: ASB Theatre, Auckland
When: Friday, April 27