By GREG DIXON
It's one of those curiously personal things, comedy.
One fella's gag can make another fella gag. Or giggle. You never know until you tell it.
What is also true is that a joke, a good joke anyway, never exists in isolation.
It's always informed by something the teller and the listener have in common: situation, timing, pre-knowledge about the joker or the subject of the joke or a conscious or unconscious understanding of environment, language or culture. It can be blunt or subtle, but it should always be in some way communal.
The last is most certainly true of Maori comedy, the subject of tonight's Documentary New Zealand offering, The Last Laugh. But it cuts both ways.
"Humour and comedy is at the heart of our culture," says comedian and actor Rawiri Paratene.
There is a symbiosis then: comedy needs culture and culture needs comedy.
But what, this documentary asks as it opens, is your idea of Maori comedy? Predictably the answer from a range of New Zealanders is Billy T. James.
James unquestionably still casts a long shadow over Maori comedy. Like Fred Dagg, he's become a yardstick for those who have followed.
But was his humour, and that of all Maori comedians before and after, so very different from, say, so-called Pakeha humour?
It's a question that the documentary never quite answers, though it has some fun and laughs trying.
One feature can be the cast of characters in Maori comedy, according to comedian Pio Terei.
"There's the old Maori fella who's hardcase, the nanas, the cheeky kids," he says.
Another distinction is that Maori humour can often be turned inwards, be in-house, according to politician and winner of best smile, Winston Peters.
"[It can be] pitched against themselves, which a lot of outsiders don't understand."
Maori, others observe, also find humour in life, death, politics and practical jokes. But then so do all peoples.
Then there are the puns. "How do you catch a unique bird?" asks one cheeky kid. "Unique up on it."
One major discernible difference between Maori and other comedy is its history. Many of Maoridom's best known, older comedians, the documentary observes, found their way into humour through music.
Sir Howard Morrison, Prince Tui Teka and James came from the tradition of the Maori show bands that emerged in the 60s and led on, certainly in James' case, to the jokes becoming more important than the music.
But the documentary makes no attempt to compare Maori comedy's history with that of non-Maori - surely that's important, too, in understanding what might make Maori humour different?
The Last Laugh's most interesting topic is, in the end, James. While lauded by both Maori and Pakeha, the question is raised if ever so subtly about whether James was so widely popular because he pandered to Pakehas' more red-neck stereotypes of Maori.
Pakeha television producer Tony Holden doesn't think that's so: "Billy connected with people because he was prepared to take the mickey out of himself and his race. But, of course, his humour was very clever because Maori always won."
However, Holden, who produced some of James' programmes, does admit some Maori didn't like James' humour.
Canon Honi Kaa offers another view. He says Maori would laugh at James among themselves but if they were in a "mixed audience felt maybe you were being laughed at".
James' comedy was communal then. The question remains whether it was distinctly Maori.
* The Last Laugh, TV One 8.30pm
By GREG DIXON