The stand-up's series is her take on 1940s screwball, says Stephen Armstrong.
'We live in a world where a terrible action movie is still treated with more reverence than a terrible rom-com, which is ridiculous," Rose Matafeo sighs and shakes her head. "There is still this machismo element to pop culture references — like it's knowledge hoarded by men. But the most compelling stories are love stories. In an action film you always have a romantic plotline, but you never need a high-speed chase in the middle of Bridget Jones."
Matafeo, 29, is one of the most compelling and creative stand-ups of the past five years. Her superb 2018 show, Horndog, won the Edinburgh Comedy award with a blend of confessional personal history, broad slapstick, expertly dropped surprise endings and raw emotion (it's still available on iPlayer). She was the first person of colour, the first New Zealander and the fifth woman to win the highly valued gong; and when it comes to rom-coms she knows whereof she speaks.
Her 2017 Edinburgh show, Sassy Best Friend, was based on the shock realisation that her life was not that of a romantic lead but of her comedy pal — the Rosie O'Donnell/Joan Cusack/Carrie Fisher character rather than the Meg Ryan/Melanie Griffith one. So she wrote herself a rom-com and cast herself in the lead. The result, Starstruck, is an expertly crafted old-school screwball comedy, crackling with wit and sexual chemistry. It's so good, the BBC commissioned a second series before the first one was released.
Matafeo plays Jessie, a twentysomething two-job-juggling one-night-stand merchant, who accidentally sleeps with a famous film star, Tom, played with deadpan drollery by Nikesh Patel. Their awkward attempts to decide if this is a romance are thwarted by misunderstandings, vengeful would-be lovers, Tom's agent — played with deft flamboyance by Minnie Driver — and Jessie's expert self-sabotage. Matafeo's blend of nifty banter, drive, intelligence and pratfalls channels hints of Rosalind Russell at her finest. It would seem her life is absolutely that of a rom-com lead — if only she were living in the 1940s.
"I am 100 per cent a product of my generation in the way I speak, the references I have, the way I articulate a joke," she says over Zoom, scrunched up on a grey duvet. "But throughout my life I truly, genuinely have thought I was born in the wrong time. I hate saying that because it makes me sound like this idiot girl who wears rockabilly clothes and says things like, 'Vintage fashion not values'. But I have always been obsessed with the aesthetic of the past."
It's true she is a product of her generation. When watching her first Edinburgh show, Finally Dead, in 2016, there were gags I understood only because I have teenage daughters. By the time she delivered Horndog she had broadened her punchlines but still hit the sweetest spot for the under-30s.
My teenage daughters laughed so much at a Horndog routine about Matafeo taking a briefcase to school that they hit that moment that makes addicts out of comedy fans, when you laugh and the next joke hits before you can recover, and then the next joke hits and you laugh even harder — until it briefly occurs that you might suffocate and die unless the stand-up eases off.
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When they knew I was interviewing Matafeo, my daughters secreted themselves within earshot, resulting in a brief three-way exchange that pinpoints her appeal perfectly. We discuss her millennial terminology and how I only understood a punchline about a plane crash where she calls herself a "basic bitch" — a (usually white) woman with bland, mainstream cultural tastes — thanks to my parenthood. She has a joke in Horndog, she says, that riffs on this. "I say, 'I was a little basic bitch, a little BB,' then add 'little BB cream' and then 'little BB King'. I'm making the point that those are two references shooting off in two different directions, trying to hit two very different audiences."
I pause. See, I don't know what BB cream is, I say tentatively. "It's a light coverage make-up," she explains. "Your daughters will get that." Suddenly my phone pings with a text. It's my 19-year-old: "Funny how you asked her what BB cream was. I just had to google BB King." I tell Matafeo and she almost shouts with joy. "That is it! That is exactly it, isn't it, holy shit! Oh my God that makes me so happy ... "
This generation-spanning skill she credits to her status as a fully qualified nerd. "I would enter short story competitions and play contests and started after-school clubs when nobody asked me to ... all very Rushmore," she says with a shrug. The daughter of a Scottish/Croatian mum and a Samoan dad — "My mum's a teacher, and my dad I literally don't really know what he did: he'd go somewhere and he'd come back at a certain time, that's all I know" — she started performing aged 13 after the Auckland comedy festival ran a high school holiday programme teaching stand-up. At 16 she was doing open-night spots; at 17 writing for a comedy panel show; and at 23 she moved to the UK, partly because she was dating the stand-up James Acaster but mainly because she had pretty much done everything New Zealand had to offer her.
Along the way she developed a way of dropping in little political riffs that can sweetly project issues of race, gender and generation and making expert points through beautifully self-deprecating material. "In New Zealand we are so self-effacing that earnestness is almost never appropriate," she explains. "But in Horndog I did hit on things that affected me and hit them so hard that I was crying at the end of the show every night. And that's what makes this process so exhausting because what I say on stage is what I mean and feel."
Her skills don't end there. At this moment in her show, when she is on stage weeping, she delivers an astonishing gag that involves K-pop dance routines, an ode to teenage innocence and a spectacular callback to an earlier gag. That Matafeo could achieve all this at 26, then follow it with Starstruck, suggests nothing is beyond her. She might even convincingly slot a high-speed chase into a Bridget Jones movie.
Starstruck will be available to stream on TVNZ OnDemand from April 28.
Written by: Stephen Armstrong
Photographs by: Ivor Prickett
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