Comedian Urzila Carlson talks about gender-bending life experiences, the delights of toilet humour and learning to man up.
A few weeks ago at an Auckland Art Gallery event filled with the great and the gaunt of our biggest city, Urzila Carlson stood out like a sore thumb. To be fair, it wasn't entirely the South African-born comedian's fault. She had tried to mooch at the side of the room. Unlike the rest of the crowd, she had eschewed a floral miniskirt or neon cocktail dress for a dark top and trousers. But the spotlight found her and, by the end of the night, she had been cajoled by the MC and an auctioneer, there to raise funds for breast cancer, to spend money and ham it up for the chichi crowd. "I knew I wasn't leaving without a T-shirt," says Carlson.
The attention didn't worry her because cancer is a cause close to her heart (she lost a kidney from a tumour on her adrenal gland years ago but fully recovered). And she is used to standing in a room, all eyes on her, willing her to be funny.
Since 2008, Carlson has made her living by walking on to stages around New Zealand and abroad to share the details of her life. Her style is low key, conversational, anecdotal. She deadpans, swears for effect and delivers it all in her laconic, East Rand, Johannesburg accent.
Her stand-up comedy keeps her on the road at festivals and corporate events for at least half the year. It puts her in our living rooms, on TV3's 7Days and in the pages of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly, in which she has a regular column. It's the reason she has won TV3's People's Choice Award two years in a row, been named Best Female Comedian five times by the New Zealand Comedy Guild and enjoyed four sold-out seasons at the NZ International Comedy Festival. And it's why she will perform her latest Comedy Festival routine in Auckland and Wellington next month.
The show is called Man Up, a term Carlson hadn't heard before she came to live in New Zealand in 2006. As a saying, she says it's like "a punch in the gut" but it makes a great title. Carlson came up with it on the road. At first, she suggested her friend Ben Hurley use it for one of his gigs because he's "such a masculine dude. But, the more we talked about it, the more I realised it would be a better name for me."
It's always the title that comes to Carlson first when she starts work on a new show. Once she has that, the Glen Eden, Auckland, resident "mind maps" the concept on a page, drawing a diagram of anecdotes and situations that could fit within it. Some of the content might have been tried before, some might have been rattling around in her head for a while and some is new. All of it is written, freehand, in a new notebook. Carlson refines the content, makes sure the storytelling has an arc and, once 25 pages have been filled, she knows she has a show.
So, does she write best first thing in the morning or late at night? "I write best on deadline," she exclaims, with the same short, husky giggle that punctuates almost every sentence. "Every festival, every time I write a new show, I think all the funny is out of my head, that it's gone forever. But the more you write, the more you have. And, while I'm writing, other stuff comes up for other shows."
For Man Up, the comedian has drawn, yet again, on recent events in her life, specifically that since she and her wife - yes, she has a wife - decided to have a baby, people have had funny peculiar and funny ha-ha, gender-bending reactions.
"I got married and had a kid - all the things that people do - but, when we said we were expecting a baby, people would look down at my stomach and I'd have to say, 'It's not me [having the baby]'," Carlson explains. "They were not sure which bracket to put me in. If you are actually having the baby, people open a treasure chest of baby stuff for you to have but, if you're the other parent, you get nothing. No one gave me anything."
Carlson revels in the awkwardness that being part of a same-sex couple brings in general, too, especially when it comes to "who does what". "When I meet a couple, especially a gay couple, I'm wondering if one does all the cooking or mows the lawns," she says. "Like everyone else, I want to know, 'Who's the daddy'?" Another giggle.
Using personal anecdotes to make people laugh is easy for the 39-year-old but walking the fine line between sharing family stories and exploiting family members is not. So Carlson has come up with rules she adheres to about what is and what isn't public fodder. "I'll talk about having a kid but I won't say her name," she explains. "I don't know what kind of human being she is going to turn out to be and it's hard enough being a kid. I chose this industry - or, rather, I fell into it - but my family didn't."
Carlson's mum, siblings and partner (again, she doesn't share names) are fair game and make regular appearances in her on-stage schtick. "If it's funny they don't really mind," she says. "My mum had a stroke when she gave birth to me and I talk about how one of her ears is lower than the other because of it. It makes it hard for her to wear sunnies."
Carlson pauses to chuckle. "When I first put it in the show, she thought it was so funny, even though we'd never talked about it. And now, in my Woman's Weekly column, she likes it if I drop in something about her.
"My mother will kill me for saying this," Carlson goes on to say, when asked to recall the funniest moment she's ever had. "But it was a time I went clothes shopping with her. When she and my sister laugh, they are really quiet. They laugh and laugh and then their lips go blue. As a child, we were always trying to make my sister laugh so hard that she'd pass out. Anyway, my mum had had shoulder surgery. So I went with her into the changing room to help her get dressed. I said to her, 'Look at us, I'm a grown-ass adult and I'm getting you dressed,' and she started laughing. There were heaps of people waiting outside the changing room and, as she laughed, a fart slipped out. The more she tried to stop, the more she laughed. It was the funniest thing."
Surprisingly, for someone who is such a natural storyteller and seems so calm and collected on stage and off, Carlson finds the moments before walking out to an audience terrifying. "It's pretty nerve-racking, whether the material has been tried before with other people or not. I stand on the side of the stage thinking, 'Why am I doing this again? I could have stayed with my day job.' To calm myself down, I tell myself to just chat to them, to walk out and start chatting."
So, her stage fright informs her delivery? "Yes, if I see it as chatting, I talk myself off the ledge," she says. "That's why I don't tell jokes. All of my stuff is storytelling; it's conversation, something factual I find really funny. My brain goes to a different place on stage. And, that way, if it's not working, I can go out of it and do something else. Because, believe me, if it's not working, it's not working, and we all want to get out of it quickly."
Performing around New Zealand has taught Carlson that audiences - and their collective tolerance - vary from town to town. "The South Island is just so happy to see you," she giggles. "I just did 10 nights in Christchurch and the people came out every night. On the 7Days tour, the South Island people were so supportive. Wellington is more arty, a kinder audience - they give you time to see where you are going with your act. Auckland is more, 'What have you got?' They're tough, which helps to prep you for overseas."
Which is where Carlson will be until her Auckland and Wellington performances - she has gigs at festivals in Melbourne, Adelaide and other Australian cities over the next month. Her family travels with her, the three of them setting up temporary home in a Melbourne apartment.
When asked what she admires in overseas comedy, Carlson admits she's a fan of mainstream American comedy. "Everyone thinks it sucks but I think it's great," she says. "Wanda Sykes is amazing. Her stuff about the racist dolphin is the funniest thing."
Man Up at Auckland's SkyCity Theatre, May 15 and 16, and Wellington's Hannah Playhouse May 2 and May 6-9.