A camera crew has descended on The Dog's Bollix in Newton on a Monday morning. Today, the bar is standing in for the local watering hole of Crawdon, a fictional small town in New Zealand. Hayley Sproull and Dean O'Gorman meet at the bar; Kimberly Crossman pours them a wine. The director yells cut, and Crossman funnels it back into the bottle.
Today is the first day of production for Golden Boy, one of five sitcom pilots set to debut as part of Three's upcoming Comedy Pilot Week. Over the course of the week, they will go head-to-head in the hopes of getting the green light for a full series.
Each of the five pilots, chosen out of 50 submissions earlier this year, capture an idiosyncracy of New Zealand identity. Though their premises are different, there's a thread of unmistakeably Kiwi humour connecting them all. In Golden Boy's case, it's sibling rivalry-meets-our country's idolisation of rugby; Sproull plays a journalist who leaves her failing career in the big city for her hometown, where she attempts to revitalise the local newspaper while living perpetually in the shadow of her All Black brother (James Rolleston).
"It's a comedy about this 26-year-old woman who is trying to feel important, yet she's kind of being swallowed up by the celebrity of her little brother," says director Jackie Van Beek. "She comes back with all her brilliant ideas, and she's trying to change a town that doesn't need or want to be changed."
Van Beek was brought on board by comedy super-producer Bronwyn Bakker (Jono and Ben, Funny Girls). The Breaker Upperers director says she can't recall the last time an opportunity like Comedy Pilot Week came around, and says the investment in local comedy is an exciting opportunity for New Zealand creators.
"There are a lot of people making great comedy, or making little pilots for great comedy, and I think it's really exciting that there is an opportunity for people to get them up on screen," she says. "There's so much talent around. I bump into people every day with funny ideas, and I'm like, 'man, that should be a series!'
"A pilot season is somewhat exciting because there is a kind of competitive element to it," she continues. "And I imagine a lot of people will be seeing them if they're on air."
Making comedy is hard enough in New Zealand, let alone assuring the content will find a platform and an audience. Comedy Pilot Week assures both – each is secured a rare primetime evening spot, with a strong potential lead-in audience from reality juggernaut The Block NZ.
Millen Baird, who has co-written and co-directed The Lonely Hearts Motel with his wife Siobhan Marshall, says that backing from a major network is "rare".
"You can make a ton of stuff, and then you've got to slog, go to the network, get a meeting, and then convince them," he says. "Whereas here, all you've had to do is pitch them a one-or-two pager, you get selected, then suddenly you've got a network that's fully behind you and willing to put a lot of money into publicity.
"It's a chance to just experiment and get in the sandbox and go for it," he continues. "I think it's a great idea, and a great initiative from Three. There are a lot of content creators out there who are making stuff, but here's a chance to make something for a TV3 audience and turn it into a series."
The day TimeOut visits The Lonely Hearts Motel, the crew are out in Howick, where they've descended on the local motel that will stand in for their titular premises. Baird and Marshall's pilot is centred on a sort of Fawlty Towers-esque motel in Palmerston North, run by a mother and son who live vicariously through their assorted guests.
"Siobhan and I were doing a play in Palmerston North, and I got an email from Kerry [Warkia], the producer, that TV3 had put out a request for proposals for comedy pilots," says Baird. "We were staying in this awesome motel in Palmy, and the owners had just won Lotto, and they were cool and quirky people.
"We pitched the idea based around that motel – not necessarily on the owners, but they were an inspiration. We had this idea of a badly run motel with a couple of owners who were more interested in their guests than running the motel; they found more meaning in their guests' lives than their own."
The first hitch when pitching for Comedy Pilot Week, says Baird, was settling on a New Zealand understanding of the word "sitcom".
"The toughest part has been just trying to up the gags-per-minute in terms of a mainstream sitcom," he says. "You look at the American model – your Big Bang Theorys and all that – and you try and translate that for New Zealand. Whether or not a New Zealand market is up for it is another thing."
Van Beek agrees. "The word sitcom is a bit frightening to any New Zealander trying to make one, so it was about trying to define 'sitcom,' and what kind of sitcom we wanted to make," she says.
"It's hard to interpret it because we haven't really done it very much here, so I'm excited to see the variation."
Speaking to Van Beek again on her last day in the edit suite, she is quietly confident about how it's turned out. She hopes it does well with viewers. But regardless of the outcome, she says any pilot going to series will be a win for everyone.
"New Zealand is such a small community that I'm sure I know most of the other creators in one way or another of the other pilots," she says. "I think of us all as one comedic family, so I'm excited to see what different members of the family have done.
"I really feel like any kind of New Zealand success is a success for all of us. With Rose Matafeo winning the Edinburgh comedy award, that feels like a win for New Zealand. I just feel it'll be so fantastic to have a great sitcom come out of this. That would be a real win; something that we can hopefully sell overseas, and to keep building our international profile as a nation of great comics and comedy makers."
Mean Mums - Sunday September 23, 8:30pm
When Jess's only daughter starts school, the young mother is thrown into a world of judgemental, passive-aggressive women who each believe their child is the brightest star of the bunch. And she hasn't even met the teachers yet.
Writer: Amanda Alison
Director: Mike Smith
Producer: South Pacific Pictures
Cast: Morgana O'Reilly, Anna Julienne, Aroha Rawson, Allan Henry
Sidelines - Monday September 24, 8:30pm
This quirky dramedy follows three unsatisfied suburban parents in their 30s, who are forced together every Saturday morning to watch their children's soccer team.
Writers: Nick Rado & Tarun Mohanbhai
Director: Cristobal Labos
Producers: Laugh Club New Zealand
Cast: Nick Rado, Tarun Mohanbhai, Cohen Holloway, Donna Brookbanks
The Lonely Hearts Motel - Monday September 24, 9pm
A mother and son run a bogan motel in Palmerston North, where they live vicariously through the lives of their assorted guests.
Writer/Directors: Millen Baird & Siobhan Marshall
Producer: Kerry Warkia
Director: Kiel McNaughton
Cast: Millen Baird, Ginette McDonald, Toby Sharpe & Angella Dravid
Golden Boy - Tuesday September 25, 8:30pm
Aspiring journalist Mitch returns from the big city, where her career failed to take off, to her hometown of Crawdon. There, she tries to revitalise the local newspaper as she struggles under the shadow of her superstar brother Tama, a brand-new All Black.
Writers: Alice Snedden, Nic Sampson, Eli Matthewson & Thomas Ward
Producer: Bronwyn Bakker
Director: Jackie Van Beek
Cast: Hayley Sproull, Dean O'Gorman, Kimberly Crossman, Angella Dravid
Mangere Vice - Wednesday September 26, 8:30pm
Mangere Vice follows the buddy cop-duo of Detective Robbie Kingi (Cohen Holloway) and his new partner Detective Povi Va'a (Iaheto Ah Hi), a preppy, upper class church boy from Epsom. When Povi is sent undercover to infiltrate the notorious Killer Whales gang, his lack of street knowledge may be the downfall of their investigation.
Creator: Bradley Walker
Writers: Damon Fepulea'I, Nick Rado; James Nokise, Jamaine Ross
Producer: Sarah Cook
Director: Damon Fepulea'i
Cast: Cohen Holloway, Iaheto Ah Hi, Rachel House, Ana Scotney
What: Comedy Pilot Week
When: Sunday September 23-Wednesday September 26
How to vote: Viewers are encouraged to join the conversation using the #ComedyPilotWeek hashtag across the Three Facebook page and Twitter. Reviews, ratings and fan feedback will all help decide which of these shows will be turned into a full series and return in 2019. The winner will be announced later this year.