He's on a mission to save our kids, and he's not afraid to p*** off some powerful people along the way. What's going on in Mike King's head?
Not long after Mike King landed at the airport in Whakatāne, a man turned to him and said: "Hey, I saw one of your shows in Rotorua years ago, in a pub."
"It was very funny," the man replied. "So funny."
"That's my audience," King said afterwards, resignedly. "My old audience."
From there, he picked up a rental car and drove to Edgecumbe, where a woman approached him, gave him a hug and said: "I didn't want to be a creep, but just wanted to say, 'You're doing an amazing job. You're amazing. Keep doin' it. Keep doin' it, doin' it. And we'll be helping out in the background.'"
These two encounters, 20 minutes apart, encapsulate the two most well-known public faces of Mike King: the anti-PC comedian and the guy who renounced that comedy in favour of trying to save our kids; two faces that are neatly separated by a come-to-Jesus moment in 2013, when he was invited to speak at a school in the Far North after a suicide cluster, where he realised comedy wasn't going to cut it and it was time to speak honestly about mental health. After the talk, when a gay student told him hearing people use homophobic language made him think, "What's the point of being here?" King, who had himself been using a wide selection of homophobic language on stage, on radio and on television, realised his words were killing people. That's when he decided to quit comedy for good.
Eight years on, those who recognise him for his mental health work far outweigh those who remember the comedy. During the day I spent with him in and around Whakatāne, I saw this first hand. Many, many people approached him unbidden, with messages of support, praise and offers of help: at the airport, on the plane, at multiple gas stations, outside the school, inside the school, in restaurants and other eateries, and on the street. His life is an endless series of hugs, handshakes and hongi, interrupted by an endless series of text messages and phone calls. We had been at Edgecumbe College only a few minutes when he showed me his phone, which had, in that time, registered 11 messages.
After his talk there, he cleared his messages, posed for some photos and walked to the car, by which time he had received another 13 messages. He showed me some of these messages. I can't repeat what they said but they included much human suffering and, if they are indicative of his typical day - and he says they are - it seems like too much for one person to deal with.
This is a day in the life of Mike King.
I had called him two weeks earlier, a week or so after he called Ashley Bloomfield a "nasty little man" who is "killing our kids" - comments for which he apologised almost immediately on social media, writing: "I was very tired and emotional this morning after spending several hours in A&E with a young person who attempted suicide."
When I first tried to call him, he didn't answer. He phoned back a few hours later, sounding exhausted. He had spent much of the day dealing with another mental health crisis. "She's an epidemic of f***in' loneliness out there, brother, for some people. Hopelessness and loneliness."
He said: "When you're sitting down talking to a young person who wants to die, like I have been today - I mean full on, having someone sobbing, going, 'There's nothing out there,' and you're giving everything, it's hard work, man. And it's not just hard on me. It's hard on my family. It's hard on everybody, you know. There's only so much of you to go around."
These are not unusual situations for King. Earlier this year, he said, he spent two hours looking for a young person in the middle of the night, found them unconscious in their car, dragged them out and took them to hospital.
He said well-meaning people sometimes tell him he needs to take better care of himself. To that, he says: "Are you going to step up to the plate and take over? You're not? Well, shut up. You're not helping."
To which they say: "You've got to think about yourself."
To which he says: "Yeah, but if I think about myself and because I was thinking about myself, a young person dies, I would feel like absolute s***."
The day we first spoke on the phone, he'd had a meeting with a businessman he says cares about him, and who supports both his charity and many others. "He said to me, 'You know you're really upsetting people. You look tired. Is there another way you can go about this without pissing people off' and blah blah blah. I look at him and I go, 'I don't care what people think about me. I don't give a s***. All I care about is the kids.'"
Here's a small taste of some things he said that might be relevant to the businessman's critique. All names and organisations have been removed, mostly for legal reasons, but sometimes just to protect people's feelings:
● "'I can't f***in' believe that just came out of your mouth, idiot.' I think, 'Are you f***in' s***ting me? See, this is the problem: You want them to be suicidal before you do anything about it. You're a f***in' idiot. You shouldn't be there. F*** off.' I'm just blunt: 'You're a f***in' idiot.'"
● "I don't care that you're a dickhead. I love your kids and I will never prejudice your kids. If something happens to you, I vow to look after your kids. You? F***, I wouldn't want to spit on you as I walk past, but your kids. You know what I mean? You're allowed to think like that."
● "Politicians come and go. Bureaucrats stay the same. My mission is to drive change inside these institutions that are full of crusty old white men and women that think they're right about everything. They've done no research. They haven't spoken to a human being in the last 30 years."
● "You've mistaken me for someone who gives a f***."
● "Some f***in' ponytail-wearer."
● "I rang them up. I said, 'If you f***in' carry on this s***, I'm going to get my lawyers on your ass."
During his talk at Edgecumbe College, he told students there are two types of people when it comes to rejection. Type A says: "Every day I come into the lunchroom and you guys are all sitting in your groups and you're all looking at me and you're making fun of me. You never invite me to sit down. I'm a good person if you just get to know me. It's not fair. I'm a good person. it's not fair."
He said: "I'm not type A; I'm type B: 'You don't like me? F*** you.'"
Both type A and type B people want the same thing, he said - love and connection - and both are scared of rejection but while society supports type As, it labels type Bs bad people and bullies.
"That s*** has to stop," he said. "I'm not a bad person. I'm not a bully. I have rejection issues and this is how I protect myself. For my whole life I've been walking around telling myself I'm not good enough. Other people are looking at me. Other people are making fun of me. So I walk into rooms with big smiles on my face but I am looking for any sign of rejection - any sign of rejection - and if I see a hint of rejection in your eyes, brother, I've got to reject you before you can reject me. Then, if anyone comes to me and says:
'Oh, I hear the bro rejects you.'
'Nah, man. I f***in' rejected him, bro!'"
Later, he told me: "I always care what people think about me. Everyone cares about what people think about them and the only two people that actually in the whole f***in' world don't care what people think about them are Donald Trump and Mike Hosking. That's it. That's it. Everyone else cares. and if you say you don't, you're a liar. But you have to protect yourself. And when I say, 'I don't give a f*** what people think,' I have to get into that mode, otherwise I'm going to turn, like I'm looking for revenge. So it's more designed to keep them safe than me."
At his talks, he asks the confident people to put up their hands. Usually a few hands go up. Then he redefines the threshold for confidence as enjoying meeting new and interesting people. At that point, most of the hands go up.
"Me?" he says. "I hate meeting new and interesting people. Why? I have rejection issues and I don't like who I become when I feel like someone is rejecting me."
Growing up, he, says, he felt dumb and not good enough. "I was a kid craving for attention. Just wanted attention. 'Please give me attention.'"
He tells a story about his younger brother, who was good-looking and talented, and hit puberty two years before him. One day, they were going to be playing on the same rugby team. When his father found out, he said, "'What are you going to f*** up his game for? Just stick in your own team.'
"I know he didn't mean it in a bad way," King says. "My dad's my best mate. Before he died, we sat there and he went through a whole lot of memories: pictures and all kinds of things. I have a very selective memory. I don't remember any of the wonderful moments he was telling me about but I saw the tears running down his face, so I knew they were true stories. That's what happens when you've got self-esteem issues: Everything you take is relevant to how you think."
I asked about his own parenting - if he'd seen a change in his own kids over the period he'd devoted his life to youth mental health. "Yeah," he said. "They're very resentful. That's a fact. We're all s*** parents, man. I know a bit about mental health. Do you think my kids talk to me about their mental health? Hell no."
In 2013, when he was driving home after his talk at the school in the Far North, he knew he faced a choice: He could carry on down what he calls the, "Suck my dick path", doing comedy he no longer believed in, which he knew was hurting people, or he could devote his time to doing what he'd just done. By the time he got home, two more schools had invited him to speak, then there were two more, then two more, and so on. And so the decision was made.
He and his wife sold everything, moved to a rented place in Papatoetoe and ended up $35,000 in debt. He was desperate to return to comedy to pay the bills, but his wife said, "We don't do that anymore."
For a while, he survived on checks from his voiceover work with The Appliance Shed. Three times a year, a check would arrive for $14,000. "Every day, the conversation was, 'When's the next Appliance Shed?'" He made extra money playing poker, at which he says he always won the exact amount he needed to cover the bills. "I would need - desperately - $30,000," he says. "I would win $30,000."
For years he scraped by, then, three or four years ago, everything changed:
"All of a sudden, they just went, 'Okay, you've passed the test.'"
I asked who he meant by "they".
He said: "I don't know."
His talk at Edgecumbe College, as with all his talks, was based around what he describes as the biggest problem in mental health today: an overactive inner critic. He says kids are walking around beating themselves up, pretending they're fine. He aims to show, through the power of audience participation, that it's all a front, that everyone is struggling. He says: "No one has their s*** together."
At Edgecumbe College, he didn't talk about suicide. He says: "I never go in there and actively talk about suicide, but I'll answer questions. Kids can spot bulls*** from a million miles away."
At the end of the talk, everybody in the room received a sheet with his cellphone number on it, the same sheet he gives out every time he talks. He estimates more than a quarter of a million kids now have his cellphone number. He says: "Try getting that off John Kirwan [pause for laughter]. Just kidding: John Kirwan would give you my phone number."
This is his thing: making it easy for kids to speak to someone who can help them. That person is not him: "It's not my job to take this s*** on," he says. "My job is just to pathway, pathway, pathway. Find out what the issue is and then try and pathway them to the help they need."
He started Gumboot Friday to raise funds to make it easy for young people who need help but can't endure the long wait times in the public system. It's not a long-term solution, he says, but a bridge until the public system can take them. Users arriving at the Gumboot Friday site type in their location, choose from a list of counsellors in their area and click to contact that counsellor. The counsellor must get back to them within 48 hours and the wait time for an appointment, King says, is six days.
He showed me a spreadsheet displaying the numbers of new clients signing up for counselling through the site over the past three months: 340 in May, 446 in June, 448 in July. "They are new," he said. "On top of the existing clients." He says the organisation is currently spending between $70,000 and $80,000 a month on counselling.
I asked how he knows what he's doing is working.
He answered with a quote from the Australian movie The Castle: "Just the vibe! It's the vibe!" It seemed like he was joking, but I couldn't say for sure. He said: "We're adding some evaluation tools to what we do. Right now we've only got eight people. Yeah, honestly, it's just the kids. I'm not saying we're the answer to everything but I would definitely say we are part of the solution. We're not the only solution - we are part of the solution. The problem is the establishment thinks they are the only solution. And that's intellectual and academic arrogance. They do good work; we do good work. Why don't we all work together? Because they don't want to."
This was a few days before the Government's Mental Wellbeing Innovation Fund gave Gumboot Friday a $600,000 grant, from a total pool of $1.2 million. In a video on Facebook, King thanked the Prime Minister for the funding, which he said would cover 4285 counselling sessions, then he asked people to keep supporting Gumboot Friday, because, to cover demand for the next 12 months, they would need 31,000 more.
His own mental health is up and down. "Never perfect," he says. He never sleeps for more than two hours at a time, day or night. When he wakes in the night, he starts working on strategies and plans. The night before flying to Whakatāne, he'd been up planning a television ad for Gumboot Friday.
He said, " I've got 15 years left, tops. Tops! I went to the doctor the other day and she was like, 'Really? Seriously?'
"Yeah," he told her. "This is it."
She said he needed to start looking after himself better. He said: "Nah, I ain't got time for that s***. I spent my whole life relaxing and just having fun and wasting most of my life. I want to make a difference, man. I'm going to make a difference and the difference I can make is to change the s*** system."
He was eating a creamy bacon pie, outside the Edgecumbe Bakehouse Cafe, and talking about the meaning of the work he does.
He said: "The key to this is, 'Would you do this if there was no money in it?' And my answer is yes, I would. 'If there was no money in this, would you still be working to do your best?' Yes, I would. So that's the end of it. That's my standard. I know everyone can't live by that standard…"
He was interrupted by a young man in a high-vis vest and workboots.
"Hey cuz," King said, "How're you, bro?"
"Good bro. Yourself?"
"Yeah, excellent brother."
"Appreciate all the work you're doing," the man said
"Thank you, cuzzie," he said. "Appreciate that, man."
As his citation for New Zealander of the Year, 2019, says, he's a complex man. However, if you were trying to capture his essence in a single moment, a good start might be a handshake of appreciation from a stranger while eating a creamy bacon pie and talking to a journalist about mental health outside a bakery in a small provincial town, to which he's come to deliver a message of hope.
Where to get help
If you or someone is in danger, call 111.
If you need to talk, these free helplines operate 24/7.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Suicide crisis helpline: 0508 828 865
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757
Need to talk: Call or text 1737
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or text 234