Sausages love a vacuum. New Zealand in summer is the Big Dumb, a time to put aside thoughts and reckons and arguments, a time to forget deadlines and goals and targets, a time to merely sit back in the sun and watch the lazy sensual smoke rising from a barbecue grill.
But some of us watch that smoke with narrow-eyed intent. Some of us regard the whole barbecue scene as a set of codes of proper behaviour. In the absence of news, politics, and traffic jams, some of us eye the humble sausage as cause for concern, and a chance to perform that popular pastime in public life: shaming.
And so it was that a Wellington man who works in public relations took to the Twitter machine in the new year and made a passing remark about sausages, which went viral, and brought great shame on an Auckland man who plies his trade as a comedian.
It was at once a profound and meaningless incident. Profound, because it touched on etiquette at the great New Zealand barbecue; meaningless, because it touched on etiquette at the great New Zealand barbecue.
The protagonists are David Cormack and Guy Williams. They have known each other for about 10 years. "It isn't a massive friendship," said Cormack, and certainly the potential for it to develop now seems a bit stunted.
When they first met, both were performing stand-up comedy in Wellington, onstage at Indigo (now San Fran) on Cuba Street. It was a small, tightly knit scene, and when Cormack put on the barbecue in the summer of 2010 at his flat on Ellice Street, Mt Victoria, he invited a lot of local comedians.
Something happened at that barbecue. Williams, then a 23-year-old studying political science at Victoria University, was blissfully unaware of it, and remains sketchy about the details; Cormack, who specialises in crisis control in public relations, held onto the memory, nursed it over the years, and finally released it in the summer of 2021 in a tweet. He wrote: "A very successful NZ comedian once came to a BBQ at my place with Sizzlers, then ate everyone else's good sausages."
A very successful NZ comedian once came to a BBQ at my place with sizzlers, then ate everyone else's good sausages. https://t.co/Yi4CBiQt2e— David Cormack (@David_Cormack) January 2, 2021
Reaction was immediate. It went viral. Cormack said this week, "I didn't expect so many people to a) have opinions on who they thought it would be, and b) I didn't expect so many people to assume it would be Guy." Williams was rueful about that. "Yeah, that was quite shocking," he said this week. "It doesn't say much for my character."
Two other successful NZ comedians, Ben Hurley and Urzila Carson, went on Twitter to distance themselves as the Sizzler culprits. Williams eventually front-footed it by staging a kind of surrender and naming himself as the guilty party.
"I thought it was a bold move," said Cormack. "Good on him for owning it. That's what we advise our clients to do if they ever f**k up –get out in front of it and own the mistake, and he did."
I said, "Was his tweet a lesson in successful crisis management?"
"Yes," he said. "There are parallels that can be drawn although Guy might not see it as a crisis."
He was right: Williams did not see it as a crisis. But was it even a "mistake", as Cormack loftily claimed? Williams' perceived crime was twofold. One, he brought over a packet of Sizzlers, the cheapest sausage, ranked alongside the dear old cheerio as the sausage least likely to impress. Two, he feasted on other people's better quality sausages.
As a breach of etiquette, it's up there with the man who brings a bottle of Lion Red to a party, and then proceeds to guzzle imported craft beer by the crate. To be a bad host is one thing. To be a bad guest is even worse. It's anti-democratic, it rejects the New Zealand way of life, it mocks our deeply entrenched sense of fair play.
This was the narrative Cormack had created for Williams. It may also come to define Williams. I said to him: "You're a marked man. Any time you're at a barbecue, people are going to be looking at you and expecting the worst." He made a sound like an animal howling in pain, and said, "No. The issue here is that David needs to get a life, and move on. Don't get me wrong. He had a point. It's bad to turn up with crap and then proceed to eat luxury goods.
A raging discussion has been triggered here pic.twitter.com/vSKRGFg16g— Golriz Ghahraman (@golrizghahraman) January 2, 2021
"But I didn't know I was bringing crap. I didn't know fancy sausages existed. It just wasn't in my world. I still don't know much about sausages. I'm only now learning about the complexities of sausages. So back then I thought I was bringing sausages that people bring to barbecues. I thought all sausages looked the same."
This wasn't entirely true; he knew the difference between Sizzler Originals, and Sizzlers filled with cheese. Which had he brought to the party at Ellice St? Cormack said, "I feel they would almost certainly have been cheese. I think bringing the cheese Sizzlers indicates the person is saying, 'I've given this a little bit of thought and I want to go a little bit above the standard Sizzler to a slightly more gourmet Sizzler'."
I disagreed, and said that Williams struck me as Original Sizzler kind of guy. Williams said that was right. "I really don't like the ones with cheese in them. It would have been the plain Original Sizzlers. It would have come from a dairy. I'd have stopped in, got the Sizzlers, and a bottle of something non-alcoholic because I don't drink alcohol."
And so Cormack had that wrong, and his version of events on Twitter, which suggested Williams acted knowingly and slyly at the party, was wrong, too. I asked him, "Did anyone eat the Sizzlers?" He said, "No. We found them next day on the counter, the white Formica counter, and that's part of why I remember it." He's probably right they were uneaten. It sounds like a party full of intolerable snobs.
'I think this is on him'
Where does this leave Williams now, in 2021? I asked him if he had any invitations to barbecues this summer. He said, "I'm lucky. Because of my horrible personality, I get invited to very few barbecues. But maybe it's not my horrible personality. Maybe it's my sausage bringing attitude. I don't know. But I think this is on him [Cormack]. That he would hold this against a 22-year-old and constantly bring it up - I think that says more about him than about me."
By "constantly", he meant he ran into Cormack last year, and that more or less the first thing Cormack said was to remind him of the Sizzler incident. Williams said, "He brought it up and I thought, 'This is the most ridiculous story.' But then he goes and puts it on Twitter. The insanity needs to end."
If Williams had deliberately set out to be disrespectful at the infamous barbecue in Mt Victoria, then his Sizzler choice and subsequent gobbling of pricier meats would rank, as Evelyn Waugh put it in Brideshead Revisited, "high in the catalogue of grave sins". But it seems he acted out of inexperience, as a naïf from Nelson who didn't know any better.
Cormack denied he had attempted to shame Williams. His tweet was just a bit of fun, a small amusing story. But it was interesting to hear Williams describe Cormack's sense of humour and style of comedy back when they were both performing at Indigo.
Williams said, "The most amazing irony of this whole thing is him bringing up this incident from 10 years ago, because as far as skeletons in the closet goes, he is on incredibly thin ice. If there's anyone from that time who'd like to forget when they were on the comedy scene, it would probably be him. I'm surprised he's bringing up petty grievances. Because he had a lot of jokes that probably wouldn't be acceptable in 2021. He was a shock comedian. He did a lot of jokes that were on the edge..."
Since their twentysomething days in Wellington, both men have gone on to find personal happiness (Cormack is married with a 2-year-old daughter, Williams is shacked up with Green MP Golriz Ghahraman) and professional success. They both lead blameless middle-class lives. Neither have very much to do with sausages. In fact Cormack recently gave away his eight-ring burner when he got his deck built.
I said, "You have a deck without a barbecue."
"That seems entirely pointless. You're standing around on your deck, and you can't even cook a sausage. Doesn't that feel like a void, an emptiness, a failing?"
"No, because I didn't enjoy barbecuing. I wasn't any good at it. I was always scared I would poison people, so I'd burn them."
"Did you burn the sausages during the puzzling incident of the Sizzlers?"
He replied, incredibly, "I wasn't even the one barbecuing. I was shunted from my position at the barbecue by another comedian who took over, and he cooked."
"But it was your house!" I said, or rather screamed.
"I guess I'm an accommodating human being like that."
"It's a nonsense. It's unfathomable. It's like," I said, and thought of the worst thing that came to mind, "an open relationship."
He said, coolly, "It takes all sorts to make up the world, Steve. Some of us can tolerate being shunted from their own barbecue and some can't."
I said, "Some people can tolerate a guest bringing Sizzlers, and not calling them out."
He denied he'd called Williams out – he hadn't named him in the tweet, and in any case it was just a bit of fun, a small amusing story ... I thought that was fair enough. And Williams, too, had taken it at least a little bit in jest.
But I was disappointed that both looked down from a great height on that staple of the great New Zealand barbecue, that feeder of families, that 54 per cent meat-filled stick of goodness, the dear old Sizzler.
Williams had said, "I won't bring Sizzlers to another barbecue as long as I live. I won't make the same mistake." I brooded on his words after our interview when I wandered out into the back yard, lit up my wood and coal-fired Weber, and cooked Original Sizzlers for dinner. They were excellent.
They were the taste of summer, enjoyed while the barbecue smoke rose in sensual little patterns over the trees and into the twilight.