When he’s not chasing Mongolian death worms and enjoying ‘angry music’, David Farrier is making movies on competitive tickling. Alan Perrott talks to TV’s eccentric star about abandoning convention, the abrupt ending of his medical studies and being ‘post-modern gay’.
Was it the sun on his face or the soft focus of his poo-smeared glasses?
Either way the escape route from his medical-school nightmare had become clear. It wasn't that the work was too hard, or that being a smart fish from a small pool means nothing in an ocean of genius, or even the way his fellow students sabotaged library books before he could take them out. No, it really was the poo on his glasses.
"Cutting into things ... " says David Farrier, "I was just awful at it and I'd had to dissect this rat, but I took a wrong turn, cut into the bowel and it squirted out on to my face and on to my glasses. So disgusting, that was a really horrible day."
With little alternative but to run away and hide he found himself a quiet spot in the Albert Park sun just as TV3's John Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld strolled past: "John in his suit and Carol looking magnificent as she always does ... they looked so calm and so happy which wasn't how I was feeling at all and I thought 'journalism is better than rat guts' so I went and enrolled at AUT."
That was 2002. Now, 13 years and several reinventions later, the 32-year-old is gearing up to co-host TV3's latest late night news show, Newsworthy, with Samantha Hayes, starting on Monday. Which isn't to imply the job is the result of any grand plan. Far from it: Farrier's life is a textbook example of going with the flow. Since graduating, he's come and gone from mainstream journalism, meeting almost all his favourite musicians in the process, while finding time to hunt death worms in inner Mongolia, field death threats from emos, out himself to the world and, as a result, get caught up in the world of competitive endurance tickling - and yes, that really is a thing.
"I just keep getting these weird opportunities," he says. "There hasn't been much conscious decision-making in my career choices, I wouldn't say I'm driven to do anything at all. But I do like the idea that you can get excited by things that maybe you're not meant to get excited by in the grown-up world, and so far that's worked really well for me."
If his attitude has done no harm to his career prospects, it's certainly threatened his relationship with his devoutly Baptist parents. So determined were they to set him on the right track they took a young Farrier out of the state system for a few years of homeschooling. But then all the signs pointed towards a Christian life - he was born on Christmas Day in 1982, grew up in Bethlehem, Tauranga and eventually worked with a bloke who's initials were JC. "And I was a really good Christian, I was into it ... but they [my parents] have been totally chilled, even if going from medicine to journalism is probably super-depressing for them."
He was hitting his Christian, sandal-wearing straps when he enrolled at Bethlehem "Excellence Through Christ" College. Ahead of the game academically, his social skills needed work - as in knowing when it was okay to laugh, share his thoughts or comment loudly on proceedings. Helpfully, his teachers employed anger and detentions to nudge him into line. "I remember Mrs Denny, my art teacher, she terrified me. She had this line 'If you're sorry you wouldn't have done it in the first place.' I've always loved that line so much, it misses the point entirely. But yeah, school was pretty full-on."
Farrier found easement in The X-Files and from 1993 he devoured every moment of every series and movie. But watching fantastical tales wasn't enough - it still isn't. More than anything he wants to see something unexplainable for himself. He almost joined Outreach, an evangelical student group that travelled the Pacific and always returned with tales of miracles. "They'd say they saw people healed by faith or legs that grew longer and as an X-Files obsessive I really wanted to see that leg grow longer too. But no, they were too intense for me."
Instead, he set his mind to doctoring (his father was a vet and his mother a veterinary nurse) while devoting his spare time to Mulder, Scully and gaming. Okay, mostly gaming and exclusively shoot 'em ups like Quake and Doom, which, as ever, spun off in another direction when an inquiry about the music that was playing led to his gaming mate lending him albums by Tool and Nine Inch Nails. He's been the world's straightest metaller ever since: "I've always been drawn to darker stuff, I guess. So I'll like horror over rom-coms, and I'll like metal over pop. I don't know what it is exactly, but with music the darker stuff, the angsty stuff, it makes me really happy. It's like a blowout valve in a way - pure escapism - and I'm not an angry person, but I love angry music on a very visceral level."
Music was what propelled him into journalism, and while studying at AUT in 2005 he got approval from TV3's Nightline to interview his idol, NiN frontman Trent Reznor, when they toured Australia. He paid his own way and he even borrowed his older brother's leather jacket to boost his rock credentials. But on landing in Sydney he got a call; Reznor was crook and wouldn't be available. No, that wasn't going to stand, and after much begging he got access to their soundcheck for a quick backstage chat. If his future employer mistook fanboy desperation for doggedness, everyone came away happy.
It's worth noting that only nine days before that memorable day, Farrier's first news story was published in the Bay of Plenty Times. It was on the spiritual medium Jeanette Wilson. Clearly, his raison d'etre - music and the supernatural - was set from the beginning.
Then when Nightline arts reporter Nickie Omer resigned, Farrier was approached about a month's trial. With free rein he got to chase whatever he thought was fun, including an April Fool's story about kids getting high from fermenting their own faeces. It was an interesting time for a mild-mannered man, with people approaching him in supermarkets and trolls peppering him with pointless online abuse - emos got upset over his treatment of the band My Chemical Romance. At the same time, Farrier had joined up with comedian Rhys Darby for the podcast and radioshow, The Cryptid Factor, which focused on their mutual interest in fantastical creatures, and eventually led to his first departure from TV3. Why not make the show real life and trek through the Gobi Desert in search of an enormous worm that spews acid? Cool.
So in 2009 a small team set off to find the Mongolian Death Worm. Much footage was shot and many kilometres were driven, but they ran out of money and the project remains parked in a hard drive. Still, Farrier came away a believer. If he didn't see a worm, he spoke to plenty of people who had. "I'm completely convinced, I just think it's extinct. The desert is much drier now and everyone who had seen one was in their 80s, one old man told us how a worm chased him into his gher (tent)."
Back in New Zealand Farrier began freelancing for TV3, a gig that saw him attending Michael Jackson's funeral and making a documentary on the national anthem. Then in July 2012 the news reporter became news himself when he met Grayson Coutts, son of America's Cup legend Russell Coutts. Word of their relationship had begun leaking on Twitter when he decided to pre-empt the gossip by talking to the Herald on Sunday's Spy column. He hoped front-footing the subject would stop awkward conversations about whether the rumours were true, and it gave him a platform to express his support for the Marriage Equality Bill which had just gone before Parliament.
"I'd always suspected there was a bit of gayness there, I was just late coming to it. I'd gone to a Christian school and there weren't any out gay people there, so it wasn't something that I ever had a chance to discover. So this was just life opening up a different door for me really. I'd still classify myself as bisexual; for me attraction is all about the person. But that labelling, that's a whole different debate. I've been told I'm letting the gay world down, I've even been called 'post-modern gay' which means you're gay but you don't want to talk about it or something. I realised New Zealand is still fairly homophobic."
Just ask right-wing blogger David Farrar, who was bombarded by spelling-challenged, religious activists keen to tell Farrier the error of his ways.
Then came the demands for Farrier's time: "I suddenly had an outrageous number of groups wanting me to sign on as some sort of gay ambassador. There was quite a bit of pressure to talk about it, but I just wasn't all that interested."
Partly this was to limit the discomfort being felt by his parents. With admirable understatement, Farrier acknowledges that in their eyes "anything a bit gay is frowned upon; we kind of agree to disagree". And to think they were still struggling to accept his decision to leave the church ...
Not to worry, he had other things to focus on after stumbling across an American group offering young men international flights, accommodation and money for taking part in tickling videos. Despite the obvious homoerotic overtones of the offer, his inquiries saw them Google his name and lash out with a series of increasingly homophobic replies that culminated in the claim he was conducting a "homosexual jihad". Rather than being put off, Farrier realised he had the makings of a documentary and then used Kickstarter to raise the $25,000 needed to fund it. Well, he had left TV3 once again - to appear in all six episodes of Rhys Darby's television series Short Poppies before travelling to Texas to see a woman who claimed to own a stuffed chupacabra.
He's proud of the result, which he says is even madder than expected, and though a rough cut has been completed it's transpired that the major player in this saga is particularly prone to legal threats. So an army of lawyers is already crawling over every second of footage before it can be screened.
But before that can happen he has his new show, Newsworthy to launch in the middle of a particularly difficult time for his TV3 employer.
As ever, he'll find his own path, not that it's one he thinks others should follow: "If my kids ever did what I've done, I'd get really angry with them."
Newsworthy screens weeknights from June 8 on TV3 at 10.30pm.