In her new memoir, South African-born comedian Urzila Carlson tells of her childhood escape from her abusive father, the reasons she became a Kiwi and why she won't reveal the identity of her sperm donor.

1 Why did you decide to write a book?

The publisher asked me. I said, "Sure, how hard can it be?" I had a year to write it but I'm a procrastinator so what I actually did was get a hammer, rip out that wall and extend our dining room. My wife's dad did check it - he's a builder. I got so many projects done just so I didn't have to write this book. I ended up writing most of it in two weeks but first I had to talk to my family about some traumatic stuff that happened and ask if they were okay for me to put it in.

2 Did you find that family members had different memories of the same event?

Yeah, that was the hardest thing. I'd say what happened and my brother and sister would say, "That's not what happened" and then Mum would say, "This is what actually happened". But the process was good because it forced us to deal with some painful stuff. Dad got sick while I was writing it so I waited until he passed away to publish because I wanted to literally close the chapter on that.


3 What did happen that day you all escaped from your father?

I was about 6 or 7. Dad was drunk and he was looking for us with a gun. He actually fired some shots in the street. We ran out the back door to our neighbour's house and hid in a wardrobe. I can remember us three kids crouching on the high heeled shoes. Mum was in the other wardrobe. Dad came in looking but couldn't find us. Our neighbour said, "I'll help you look for them," but instead he snuck us into his car and drove us out of town lying on the floorboards with blankets over us.

4 You moved to another town. Did your dad come looking for you?

Yes. We had a restraining order against him and a police escort for the first month but nothing changed - he still came. One day we got home and he was there with one of his brothers but Mum was very honest with the neighbours about what was going on, so she called over the fence and the guy next door and his friends escorted Dad out.

5 Once you got away from your Dad, you describe a typical happy South African childhood. Was it similar to a New Zealand childhood?

It was in that we liked swimming and fishing but we also played in mine dumps and went hunting. When I was 8, my brother and I pinched a handgun from my uncle's sock drawer. We knew we'd get in trouble if we got caught but it was exhilarating as hell. We took it to the mine dump and let off a shot that hit the bike of an off duty cop cycling past. The bullet lodged in the frame just above the pedal. They never found out who did it but it's still a local legend.

6 Do you have an early memory of delivering a good joke?

I do. South Africa's a religious country - people go to church on Sunday and they don't get divorced. My teachers were always shocked when they found out my parents were divorced and would want to know why so Mum said, "Tell them your mother wanted to be a widow but your dad wouldn't drink the poison." I remember how hard my teacher laughed the day I said that. I thought, "Oh, I like this!"


7 Did you have an early wish to become a comedian?

I didn't even know comedy was a thing you could get paid for. I got a scholarship to study drama but we were so poor growing up I didn't want to repeat that. I ended up answering an ad for a typesetter at the local newspaper.

8 By the age of 24 you were the production manager for Africa's largest newspaper group with 13 newspapers and 6 magazines. How did the old guys cope with that?

A few went into early retirement, leathery skinned dudes that had been sitting there for years waiting for the top guy to pop off. It was that old school newspaper world - everyone's smoking at their desk and when 4pm comes they open the beers. In those days we used to cut the ads out - I still have my scalpel - put them through a wax machine, shoot a negative and make the plates.

Taking them digital, I ate a lot of s*** at first because I didn't want to offend anyone but then I realised I had to do what was best for the paper. I got rid of the clock in, clock out mentality. If we worked as a team and got the job done early, we'd go home early.

9 Why did you emigrate to New Zealand?

My house got burgled while I was in it, I had a smash and grab on my car at the traffic lights and an armed robbery at work. I opened the newspaper and saw an ad saying, 'Want to emigrate? Why not New Zealand?" so I went to an information night held by Immigration New Zealand. I found out they had a skill shortage in typesetting which gave me enough points. Three months later I was on a plane to Auckland.

10 Why did you leave the North Shore after less than a month?

Too many South Africans. Twice in the first week South Africans came up and said racist things like, "Did you leave because of the blacks?" I got really worked up about that. Why would you come to a new country for a fresh start and be that person?" So we moved out west. I haven't met any other South Africans like those dips*** since, so I must've just been unlucky.

11 Your first comedy gig was on a dare from a colleague. How have you built your career to the point where you can support your wife and two children as a full-time comedian?

It's been tough at times. In the darkest six weeks we just ate baked beans - no toast. But I love my job and living out west is affordable. I spend about five months a year in Australia doing the festivals. I do a TV show there called Have You Been Paying Attention? It's like 7 Days except easier because you've got a buzzer. 7 Days is like the skipping rope at school. You're waiting for your gap, it finally comes and you get smacked in the head. A taser would be good on 7 Days.

12 One thing you chose not to reveal in your memoir is the sperm donor for your two children. Why's that?

It really pisses me off when I get complete strangers coming up to me after a gig and asking where we got the sperm from. It's like asking a straight guy what style he used to knock up his wife, or a straight couple if they're having fertility problems. Aside from that I do love it when people come up and talk to me. It's what makes my job so amazing. Heaps of them say, "Can I have a hug?" I say, "Yes you can". I wish I could have a picnic at a park and hang out with all these people.

Rolling With The Punchlines by Urzila Carlson, Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99