The comedian and former city councillor, who has died at the age of 51, was a sort of do-gooder in a Westie way and genuinely funny. Michele Hewitson remembers the man she interviewed many times over the years.
The last time I interviewed the comedian Ewen Gilmour, in March 2012, he arrived laughing. He was laughing at me. Oh, that old joke. He'd been laughing at me since 2001, about an interview in which he told me he was retiring from comedy. He told me all about this retirement of his for about an hour, and I went away and wrote a column for this page all about this retirement of his. It was a plug for his "retirement" show, Ewen Gilmour's Last Stand, at that year's Laugh! Festival which I reviewed, wittily, I must have thought at the time, in the form of his obituary.
So when I read, yesterday, that he had died, suddenly, at the age of 51, I thought: Ewen Gilmour? It can't be true. But I didn't think it in the usual way. I thought: Oh, pull the other one, again, mate!
Which I'm pretty sure he'd have thought was funny -- you don't get to be a good comedian without having a keen enjoyment of the ridiculous -- although undoubtedly not as funny as the joke he'd have come up with.
In 2012 he was told -- or so he claimed -- that his doctor told him he was going to live for another 40 years and that his response to this bad news was: "Oh f***! I can't afford that." A quip which was judged to be the third-best quote of the year by some Massey University department which rates such things.
He was beaten to first place by Paula Bennett, which he might not have found quite so funny. He was, or pretended to be, fiercely competitive. He liked playing golf, especially when he won. He once told me, apropos of the retirement that wasn't, that he had a mate who was so good at golf that he would one day be the No1 golfer in the country. He beat this mate two games in a row and then refused to ever play him again. "He's going to be New Zealand's No1 ... and he knows he'll actually only be No2." This may or may not have been true.
So he was a golfing Leftie, Westie comedian who became a Leftie local body councillor, for the Waitakere City Council. That sounded like a prank and he went on looking like a Westie comedian, but he was a hard-working and respected councillor. He also became a marriage celebrant. That really did seem like a joke, or like just another gig, but he took it all absolutely seriously. He did, after all believe absolutely in love and marriage and I suspect he was a romantic. His wife, Cathy, died in 2011, from brain cancer. He had quit the council in 2007 to care for her.
He said, the first time we met, in 1999: "A comedian's just an ego with a punch line." I had taken him, and three other comedians out for what was supposed to be a long and drunken lunch. He had forgotten (perhaps) to wear any shoes. He had a tomato juice. Irene Pink had one glass of wine. He told her he hoped she wasn't driving. He was a nice man. In a 2012 interview he told me: "I think I'm nicer than my brand."
He had arrived at that interview a bit hot and sweaty. He'd just helped a woman push start her car. I know a former neighbour of his who said he was a very good neighbour, even if he did mow the lawns in his underpants.
His brand was his Westiness, which came down to the hair, really. He had very good hair. He was so vain about his hair, I complained, because he was banging on about losing it. He was fretting about its lack of "volume" at the time and worried it might not look good in the pictures. He said he was vain about it and he was losing it and it was a tragedy. "My mother who has always been after me, my whole life, to 'get a haircut, get a haircut' now says: 'Oh you can't cut your hair! That's your image!'" He'd end up, he said, bald except for a "long bit hanging down the back". That really would have been tragic. He said: "I'll have to leave it. What can I do? It's my image."
He claimed he was trapped in his image, and there might have been a grain of truth in that. But it was handy, too; he could also hide inside it, in public. At home, he was quieter. After Cathy died he was happiest being alone at home, in Port Waikato. He kept his motorbike in his bedroom, for ease of tinkering with at odd hours. He loved his motorbike, a Triumph Bonneville America and was, then, having a ring specially made: A mini-version of the bike, with tiny handlebars. I said it looked hell to wear because the handlebars would catch on things. He thought it was fabulous and said, a bit huffily that, well, I didn't have to wear it.
He loved his dog. He liked wearing only his underpants around home but possibly not quite as much as he enjoyed telling people that he did. He didn't have many close friends, he said. He told me he really thought of his motorbike as a friend. I'm inclined to believe that was true. He really had, he said, intended to retire from comedy when he conned me into writing that he was about to. He found being on the road lonely and he was disillusioned with the money, or the precariousness of the money. "Most people think I'm really rich and I would have thought I'd be a bit richer than I am, frankly."
But I don't think he cared terribly much about money. He claimed that comedy had saved him from ending up a bum, living under a bridge somewhere. This was bunkum. He was a hard-working and always professional comedian who had made a career out of pretending to be a slacker. That was a clever joke. He conceded that he had a strong work ethic. He was a stonemason and God knows what else -- he claimed to have had 54 jobs by the time he was 38 -- before he became a comedian.
He could turn his hand to just about anything. He did Dancing with the Stars, for heaven's sake! He told me he'd pump gas if he had to. It wouldn't be a comedown. "No. That'd be a salary." He worked hard at making people laugh which has to be a good thing to do. He was quite a bit more than an ego with a punchline. It mattered to him to be a good person. He was, in a weird sort of Westie way, a do-gooder. Nobody with a sense of humour would choose to sit through all of those council meetings unless they believed in the value of trying to do good.
He was lonely, of course, after Cathy died. He didn't much want to talk about her, to me, for strangers to read which was quite right, really. He said: "It's just one of those things that is really sad and unfortunate. She was a good person."
He was a private person, really. I only knew him through interviews, obviously, but I've been interviewing him for 15 years and I always enjoyed, and liked him. I used to review comedy too and he never held that against me. It also never stopped him from telling me how to write reviews.
He was good at being interviewed: he was always good and interesting company, and combative, which is what you want in an interview. The last thing he said to me, at the end of that last interview was: "I'm trying to think who's more full of shit: you or me." That still makes me laugh.
He was genuinely funny, which is the best obit you can give a comedian but I'm sorry to be writing a real one for him.
I would have liked to have interviewed him when he was 80.
It seems only right that he should have the last laugh, and the last line.
He'd no doubt appreciate that the last gag of his obituary is his own, and that it comes from the interview about his "retirement" from the comedy stage: "If I quit now, then I can say: 'Ah, yes. But you were never as good as me, were you?' They'll never get the chance to be!"
Friends Mourn Ewen
•"Came back into the country, the guy at Customs said, 'You miss New Zealand?' I said, 'Nah, she's a really tall blonde chick'."
Courtesy of fellow comedian Ben Hurley
•"He was my favourite councillor. He was a remarkable man and I will miss him."
Sir Bob Harvey, former Mayor of Waitakere
•"He was such a good man, with his own wicked Westie sense of humour."
Paula Bennett MP, Cabinet minister and fellow Westie
•"I will miss you and so will New Zealand. You were a rock star."
Urzila Carlson. Comedian
•"A true sweetheart and one of the originals from when we all first started out in comedy".
Taika Waititi. Movie Producer