Comedian Jesse Griffin says the teachers in his new improvised TV series Educators as "just as broken, twisted and strange as the rest of us".
1 Did you set out with Educators to push the boundaries as far as possible?
Originally it was just going to be a funny show about high school teachers. It's based on a late-night sketch show called Flashdunce that my wife Jackie van Beek and Jonny Brugh and I created for the Comedy Festival, but potential funders didn't get what the hook was until we spent a day shooting a proof of concept. TVNZ got really interested and said, "If anything, go further with it." That was great to hear from a network. That never happens. There was no further oversight - they just left us to it.
2 Why is it so shocking to see teachers behaving badly?
We have this idea that teachers are almost this other breed of people because we only see their public face, but teachers are real people with real world anxieties. They're just as broken and twisted and strange as the rest of us. The scene where the guidance counsellor asks the PE teacher where she can get some drugs for the weekend could have happened in any workplace.
3 How did you assemble such a great cast of actors?
Trying to get everyone in one school for a 10-day shoot during the holidays was a nightmare. We had our core cast and just put the feelers out to people like Madeleine Sami and Hayley Sproull to do guest roles. I bumped into Paul Glover who wanted to be in it and came up with the idea of being an adult student that goes back to school after his divorce to be closer to his daughter. I found the less I told the actors about what was happening in the scene the more interesting direction it would take.
4 Was it hard to edit?
Yes, it was a really interesting process. We selected the parts of the scenes that worked during the shoot and then went back and shot pick-ups over a couple of weekends to reverse engineer any resulting holes in the storyline.
5 Were you inspired by the improvisational style of What We Do in the Shadows ?
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Not specifically. The closest thing to what we've made would be Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm . They shoot in a similar way - they've got all the story-lines but they don't write any dialogue. They allow the scene to just breathe and find what it is.
6 Growing up in Dunedin, did you always want to be a comedian?
No, I went to drama school. There was very little homegrown comedy then. The first New Zealand comedy that I felt I could relate to was Funny Business with Willy de Witt. It had all these young bogan characters. The whole comedy industry has really matured with the Classic, the Comedy Festival and competitions like the Billy T providing a career pathway that didn't exist when Radar, Duncan Sarkies, Aaron Watson and I formed a comedy group at Otago University. We'd been doing live shows for years before we heard there was a comedy competition in Wellington and drove up for it. That's where we met people like Jemaine, Taika, Jo Randerson and Lee Baker. Shows like 7 Days and Jono and Ben were game changers because they gave people a chance to learn and grow.
7 You made your name with the Melbourne-based comedy trio The Four Noels - why Melbourne?
I went there to do a physical theatre school run by a sought-after practitioner called John Bolton who taught us to create our own theatre in different styles like clowning, masks, mime and melodrama. Three of us from that course formed a comedy group so we could keep doing what we'd learned. When you're constantly devising stuff, you have to find a good relationship with failure and embrace it as a positive thing because that's how you work out what isn't working. Once you get to that point it's quite liberating.
8 What was unique about The Four Noels' style?
We knew what was going to happen in a scene but on any given night something different would happen and we'd respond to that. That gave the performances a fresh feeling. People loved the work because it felt alive. Educators works the same way.
9 Improvisation seems to reap great results. Why isn't it used more?
Not everyone's willing to take that risk. You need a lot of experience. You have to be able to respond to where the scene's going. The key is finding the world you're going to play in – the parameters, the tone, the style - then you can jump in and go for it. All those years I spent devising comedy in a lonely community hall with two other guys; you're six weeks in and you've got nothing, someone's plinking on a ukulele and the other two are playing ping-pong but you don't leave until you find the little door that opens into that world.
10 Had you ever directed a TV show before?
No but I'd directed a Cure Kids comedy special and the charity song Feel Inside with Flight of the Conchords. Jemaine came up with the idea of asking kids what it's like to be sick and how to raise money. We organised a day at a primary school where they interviewed all these kids who came up with genius ideas like collecting a bowl of teeth for the tooth fairy. It was the fastest New Zealand single to go to number one, had millions of views on YouTube and raised a lot of money.
11 You did it again with the Cure Kids charity song Team Ball Player Thing for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. What was your role?
I co-wrote and co-directed it with Taika Waititi. He was in LA so he got a bunch of actors over there like Zoe Bell and Melanie Lynskey to sit round a table and come up with ideas for how to inspire the All Blacks. We extended it to make it look like all these other celebs and kids were popping up at the table with ideas. There's a great shot of Jerome Kaino dressed as a Viking with lightning coming out of his sword and Brodie Retallick releasing a dove.
12 Your wife Jackie van Beek plays a misguided counsellor in Educators . Do you find it hard to switch off from work at home?
We've got three kids aged 11, 10 and 7, so its not like we're at home chatting about comedy all the time; we're also driving them to swimming. We love being able to be a sounding board for each other's projects. We met in Melbourne when she did a show called My Brother and I Are Porn Stars with my friend Jonny Brugh. We all met in a bar and Jackie and I embraced for this unnatural amount of time. And that was it. We decided to get married two weeks later and have been together ever since. It's awesome.
• Educators , TVNZ On Demand, from Wednesday 8 May.