Tom Sainsbury's new television comedy series is called Sextortion. In it, he stars as a conservative politician who is blackmailed over a sex tape that shows him enjoying some very particular and fetishistic rumpy-pumpy with a dominatrix rather than with his wife. This, as you can imagine, leads to some strife.
"My character, Darren Bellows, is the incompetent leader of a small political party that's all about family values and very right-wing," he explains. "A sex tape is released and it's about the fall-out from the scandal and who did it. So it's a mystery. Who released the tape and what do they want?"
Scandals of this nature have never been far from what Sainsbury describes as "the argy-bargy of politics" but you'll quickly spot loose similarities between the conceit of the show and the implosion of Colin Craig, the founding leader of the Conservative Party who resigned after allegations of inappropriate behaviour with a staffer surfaced in 2015.
But while Craig may have been the spark, Sainsbury turned to another small-party conservative leader for inspiration.
"When I took on the role the key to it was David Seymour's smile," he admits. "If you look at any of David's political billboards or photos, he's got a very particular smile going on. It's quite endearing but it also comes with a character."
Endearing? I've always found it a little unnerving.
"Unnerving but also kind of vacant," he laughs. "There doesn't seem to be much going on behind the eyes. There's an uncomfortableness he has in his skin."
This, Sainsbury says, is something he recognised - and used - from his own personal experience in dealing with social anxiety.
"There's been stages in my life where I've felt very self-conscious or uncomfortable in making an impact or being present," he says. "This character, Darren, is often in tricky social situations and I feel like they regularly crop up for me. I say the wrong thing and it's awkward. There's a big dollop of Tom Sainsbury in this character as well."
After years in comedy and theatre, it was Sainsbury's lo-fi and hilarious political parodies that made him an overnight sensation.
Shot selfie-style on his phone and posted on social media, these clips are so popular he can now be considered a political power-player, as amply demonstrated last week when he knew - and had a video ready to drop - of Paula Bennett's political bombshell well before the National Party leader Todd Muller had been advised of her shock retirement plans.
"It reminded me how small New Zealand really is," he answers when asked if he ever thought his comedy would see him moving with the country's highest political personalities. "But no, I never thought I'd know these people personally."
Paula announces her retirement from politics...Posted by Tom Sainsbury - Comedian and Snapchat Dude on Sunday, 28 June 2020
He and Bennett have clearly got good rapport but does knowing her affect his portrayal? Does he pull punches he otherwise wouldn't?
"When I first stated parodying politicians, they were just a representation of their ideals but the more I've delved into them or portrayed them, I'm reminded that they're humans," he explains. "With Paula, we don't agree politically but it's always fun. It's better for you to brush up against people with different ideas on politics and see the common humanity rather than just surrounding yourself in a bubble with people who think the same. It makes you a much more interesting person."
Yes she's smiley and seems quite cheery but some of her political ideas and views are fairly abhorrent so ... "How do you marry those two things together?" he asks, finishing the rambling question.
"That's a really good call," he says. "Face-to-face I haven't challenged her on any of those things, so I don't really know. I guess that's the next step of our friendship."
But that's enough politics. In the immortal words of hip-hop icons Salt & Pepa, let's talk about sex, baby.
"One of the directors of Sextortion is quite woke and said we shouldn't kink shame and I guess that was my journey as well," Sainsbury says when asked about his character's sexual proclivity and how the show chose to portray it. He says the main consideration was to keep Darren's kink legal and for it to be more about public shame.
"I presume the broad New Zealand attitude to sex is quite conservative and hush-hush. But there's something about the kinkiness of sex that the more uptight someone is in life, or in public, there seems to be some equation where they're more kinky behind the scenes," he says. "As long as no one's being hurt we should open our breadth of what's acceptable. But also - who cares what happens in someone's bedroom?"
Does society just need to loosen up?
"I think that is correct. Absolutely. That's correct," he says, before an admission. "In saying that, I'm quite prudish. If someone was really overtly sexual with me I'd clam up. Me personally, I can be very prudish."
It's a surprising admission considering his last stand-up show was called Sex Sells and that he appears stark naked in both Sextortion and the new season of Jemaine Clement's frightfully funny series, Wellington Paranormal.
"I know," he says almost apologetically. "I feel it's my own process of working through ... maybe I'm trying to force myself ... this is a tricky subject so ... I'm interested in it."
Giving up, he says," I haven't got a succinct answer for that but it is a good observation," then he laughs. "I don't know! I guess it's the journey I'm on."
Did Sextortion help him along in his journey in any way?
"The message I take away from it is being truthful will always win on the day. Regardless of how things turn out. Lies or hiding things never works out well," he says. "So in terms of kink and sexuality, your life is going to be so much better if you just embrace it."
He pauses for a second and says, "Well, you don't have to embrace it. Just accept it. Accept that's what you like."
He smiles and adds, "It's a much healthier way to live."
* Sextortion premieres Monday, July 13 on TVNZ OnDemand with new episodes weekly.