Comedian Raybon Kan thought he knew what the headline for this interview was going to be. Of course he did. He has always been a nerdy swot boy; a smarty pants who knows it all.
He was, briefly, I remind him, the smartest person in the country. He won a television show called Test the Nation, in 2003, and boy oh boy, was he smug about it, or he pretended to be, which amounts to the same thing.
He once told me, while trying and failing not to look smug about it, that the highest score he ever got in a Scrabble game was "about 600". He played all seven tiles in a single move, five times, in one game.
He pretended that he didn't want to talk about his Scrabble superiority "because it's embarrassing", which is rot, and that "then it leads other people to addiction". Really, it leads other people to think he's a big show-off.
He also feels the need to remind me (how could I have forgotten?) that he also won another telly show, in which he proved to be the best speller in the nation. People would come up to him on the street and ask him to spell hard words. Such as corollary. Bet he could do it, too. Goodness, he's clever.
I ask, in an annoyed way, whether winning a show that proclaimed him to be the smartest person on the planet was good for his career. Because, nobody likes a smart arse, do they? "I guess that was a funny thing, because obviously it was like a joke because I was a sort of stereotype of a brain box: a Chinese guy with glasses ... I think it gave me some sort of ..." You can wait all day for him to actually answer a question, so I finish it for him. A sort of ... smugness? "Oh! Totally. I could walk in to a pub quiz and it was like Clint Eastwood had walked in. Seriously! Everyone went quiet. They made no eye contact. It was like: 'Don't shoot at me, gunslinger!'."
If he says so. He inhabits some sort of fantasy world, as most, if not all comedians do. His comedic persona and the other person who inhabits the body and mind and the Armani jacket of Raybon Kan are probably pretty much the same. He says: "I'm human!" and "I have emotions!" and "I'm not a robot!" He also says that it is possible he's a Vulcan. I agree with one of those assessments. I ask about how Chinese he thinks he is.
He speaks Cantonese, but wouldn't feel confident about doing a show, or an interview, in Cantonese. He did an interview with a Chinese TV channel recently (in English, with subtitles) which his family watched. "They said: 'Hey! They described you as a comedian!'." I thought at the time he'd made that up, but by the end of a very long hour, I absolutely believe it. I askif his mother thinks he's funny. He says: "I really would doubt that."
He says he is "Chinese, up to a point". The main point is, "that whole reserved thing. Just not very out there expressing emotions."
He tried giving up being that Chinese funny guy and you can see that it might have become a bit boring, not to mention restricting, and did an experiment which involved writing a show which had not a mention of being Asian. "Because there was a feeling that, artistically, I didn't want to be seen as a one-trick pony, I didn't want to be put in a box ... but what I've discovered, and it's a journey, is that race never goes away."
He is, I think, serious about part of this answer but surely he isn't using "journey" in that ghastly way seriously? "It's a journey; it's a process, Michele. We're all on this journey together." I am on a solo journey of tearing my hair out.
He moans about everything. He always has. He used to write columns and moaned about how he hated writing columns; now he moans about missing writing columns. He's still at it. The beer is too warm; it's too dark; it is too strong. He isn't going to eat the wontons I ordered (as a joke it wasn't much worse than some of his - "race never sleeps", for one) because they were the "McNuggets" version of wontons. He moans to the photographer about the light.
He moans about my questions. He wants to do a "Property Press version of the interview" and I wanted to "snoop around the gutters". He moans to the photographer when I leave the table: "I don't even know why people agree to do this interview", as though I'd made him do it.
He complains that I write in "a picky font". I have no idea what a picky font is (exactly this, he'd no doubt say) but it gives him something else to complain about aside from me being like Germany: "You don't have boundaries", and how I was red lasers and trip wires and God knows what else.
I was trying to find out whether, after so many years in the business of comedy (there's no point asking how many) he'd made any money, enough, say, to have bought a house. So: Did he own a house? "I do indeed. Well, I don't necessarily want to go into that. I have property interests. I have controlling interests in some property. I don't own a farm."
That's not an answer; it's a punchline. (He's Chinese. He doesn't own a farm. Boom boom. The Crafar deal.) So in this house he might or might not own, somewhere in Wellington, he won't say where, at whatever age he is (somewhere between "Justin Bieber and Simon Cowell. I'm double Bieber. Let's leave it at that." That would make him 36, which really would be living in fantasyland): Does anyone else live there? A partner, say?
Given that he claims that he's created a house that looks like a hotel room, he might not have a partner. "You're so nosy! What do people usually do? Do people just say: 'I don't want to talk about that?'." They usually just answer the question. I wish I'd never asked. I say that if he does have a partner, she has my utmost sympathy, and I mean it.
He says: "Ha! Actually, I kind of agree with you. But here's my defence ... a lot of things like that are unhealthy anyway." What things? "I think a lot of people stay together for fear-related reasons, or just to, you know, make minor savings on appliances."
There is probably an answer in there somewhere, but who knows? If it is true that his house is like a hotel, it might say something about him other than another punchline: 'I'm like an assassin. Always ready to move."
He says he doesn't want to think about why he lives this way and he used to think: "How can anyone not like this?" He makes it sound as though his house is completely impersonal. "That's a terrible thing to say!" So it is. "Yeah. I used to not understand why anyone would care. I think, maybe, if you're trying to write things you don't want to be staring out the window. You want your desk facing the wall."
He has never wanted children (asking made him shout: "What? Jesus Christ!") because, imagine the fretting: "I see it as a completely thankless task because you can only do it wrong. You know that total responsibility situation, I just think anything could happen." He has babysat but he worries. "I'm always thinking something terrible is going to happen."
Oh, he always thinks something terrible is going to happen. (It's like interviewing Chicken Licken.) "Yeah, I do. I don't understand how people can look forward to something ... The weirdest question I got asked was when someone said to me: 'What are you passionate about?' I never know what the word means. I certainly don't look forward to gigs."
Does he like being a comedian? "Comedy is not about fun!"
He might have enjoyed being famous because he used to be really rather famous. How might a German armed with a tripwire put the question? How about: is he as famous as he used to be? "Is that a yes, no, question? That's funny! I actually said this on stage. I don't know why it came out. I said: 'I used to be famous', and the audience laughed way too much. I like to think of it as being like a journey ... The journey of many steps ... I'm guessing, no."
Is he as funny as he used to be? He thinks so. He wouldn't be the first, or the last, comedian to turn up to an interview in character. But which character? He thinks it would be really funny to turn up as someone else altogether; another comedian: Ewen Gilmour. It takes me a while to get the gag: a send-up of an interview I did with Gilmour recently in which he fussed about having his jacket on for the pictures, and posed like mad until he was told to cut it out.
So we get mugging like mad (literally. He has mugs made to promote his shows and the latest is: The Official Mug of Non-Racism. Available only in white) while insisting his jacket be in the picture. I haven't yet caught on, so what is so good about this jacket? "Oh! You mean this thing from Armani? This is just something I threw on." How much did his Armani jacket cost? "I don't think about money. The thing about linen is that it creases nicely, like money." Has he got any money? "It's not about the money; it's about the planet."
In the end, I resort to giving him a piece of paper with two boxes drawn on it with Yes written next to one, and No next to the other. He draws a smiley face.
"What was the question?" he says. It was: will the headline be: Whatever happened to Raybon Kan? No.
I know exactly what happened to him because I interviewed him many years ago and he's just the same. So the headline could be: Is Raybon Kan still neurotic, angst-ridden, maddening, a world class moaner, and still, somehow, really rather endearing? Yes. Damn it.
Raybon Kan is Completely Uncalled For: NZ Comedy Festival, May 11, 12.