The best of New Zealand was beamed into millions of American homes via The Late Show host Stephen Colbert's antics here late last year. Documents have revealed new insight into the planning for his visit including suggestions to leverage off "unruly tourists" antics, problematic food his team wanted to bring in and the Prime Minister's stage-managed appearance on his show.
Stephen Colbert's love of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy proved the catalyst to get the popular US TV talkshow host to New Zealand.
The frontman for CBS' hugely popular The Late Show with Stephen Colbert visited our shores last October. The following month's coverage from his five-day trip was estimated to be worth the equivalent of $5 million in advertising to the New Zealand tourism industry.
An audience of more than three million tunes into every episode of The Late Show in the US, which Colbert is reportedly paid $22m a year to front. When he re-signed with CBS last year, David Nevins, chief creative officer of CBS Corp, described him as "one of the most entertaining, influential and relevant voices in America today".
He is also a self-proclaimed mega-fan of J.R.R Tolkien and his The Lord of The Rings works, can read Elvish (one of the languages devised by Tolkien), and even had a cameo in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
The taxpayer contributed $100,000 towards Colbert's visit late last year. Documents released by Tourism New Zealand under the Official Information Act reveal how much was leveraged off his passion for Tolkien in getting him to travel to the nation known by many overseas as Middle-earth.
The invitation to visit was made personally by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on The Late Show in late September, 2018.
Before Ardern's appearance, tourism officials and the Prime Minister's office were involved in talks over both the messages she should get across to Colbert, as well as potential gift ideas for him.
Ardern was urged by tourism bosses to push the message that she understood Colbert was a "huge" fan of The Lord of the Rings; that he was "probably aware that I'm lucky enough to hail from Middle-earth".
She was to convey the message that she had "spoken to my friends at the Hobbiton movie set" and that they would like to personally invite Colbert to New Zealand.
An invitation was created by an illustrator who had worked on both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit series.
He would be "bestowed the coveted honour" of becoming an "official" citizen of Hobbiton. He would also get lifetime access to Hobbiton, a personalised mug at the Green Dragon pub and, if he arrived on International Hobbit Day (September 2) he would be made mayor for the day.
The notes also included an offer from Ardern to Colbert that he would be "always welcome at my place for a cup of tea".
Correspondence from The Late Show bosses to tourism officials revealed Colbert had a "positive and enjoyable experience with the PM", was "flattered" by the offer, and wanted to take the trip up in March 2019.
In the weeks leading up to the crew's planned departure – which was eventually postponed because of the Christchurch mosque shootings on March 15 - a production staff member from The Late Show asked if Ardern's partner Clarke Gayford would be "available" to appear on camera.
"For example could we do a sit-down interview with her and then maybe a fun activity with the two of them?".
Dinner with the PM
TNZ officials sent Colbert's team a raft of activities to consider - but the full list was redacted in the documents provided to the Weekend Herald.
The documents stated Colbert could consider adding another destination to his schedule thanks to New Zealand "being so diverse and easy to get around".
"We're keen to find something very immersive and interactive that gives your team the most opportunity to add some humour while also looking great on camera," TNZ wrote.
By that stage Ardern had already agreed to host Colbert, including at her suburban Auckland house for a barbecue, as well as filming a scene depicting her picking him up from Auckland Airport and taking him for a drive.
TNZ and The Late Show were also in discussions around shoots in mountainous areas, including some with significant cultural importance.
On February 12, 2019, TNZ emailed the production team to say: "From a story perspective, this could work for [redacted] the land, or culture as there are Māori legends about the mountains and how they came to exist, though we would need to be culturally sensitive here so it may not work as well."
A staffer from The Late Show responded: "I think we could still have some fun around the Māori legends as well as be sensitive."
Other details discussed were around "legal/risk management", with the specifics redacted from the communications released to the Herald.
As the initial planned departure neared in mid-February, a member of The Late Show team asked for details around his Hobbiton citizenship ceremony, saying: "I would love to start getting some writers working on things."
At one location they also asked for a guide who "ideally" would "embody New Zealand".
'Unruly tourists', sheep and meat pies
Tourism officials also provided Colbert's team with information on an initiative launched in November 2018, titled the Tiaki Promise.
In a briefing on the scheme – which was introduced by the New Zealand tourism industry – it explained: "The goal is to remind people to travel responsibly as they enjoy what our country has to offer, making it clear what behaviours are expected, from putting rubbish in the bin to driving safely, to showing care and consideration for all."
A follow-up email suggested he could cover off the Tiaki Promise by potentially leveraging off some of the hysteria created by a British family – dubbed by media "The Unruly Tourists" – who made headlines for their wild antics during an ill-fated Kiwi holiday in the summer of 2018-19.
"To make it more comedic, there was a very poorly behaving family of tourists in January ... that caused a media storm," Colbert's team were told. "Could Stephen pretend to do some naughty things that are then corrected?".
At the height of the travellers' notoriety, Auckland mayor Phil Goff labelled them a "bunch of a***holes".
Aspects of Kiwiana The Late Show wanted to learn about included food, slang and what parts of American culture Kiwis were big fans of.
In response, Tourism New Zealand said we were big fans of true crime shows, that Kiwis followed US TV shows, that "all the classic rom coms we watch are American", but as a nation we were "largely non-religious now" and "God is never mentioned in politics".
When asked for other facts about New Zealand, TNZ mentioned our country becoming nuclear-free in 1984, that "there are 9 sheep per each person in New Zealand, making it the highest ratio in the world", that of "all the population in the country, only 5 per cent is human. The rest are animals, making it the highest animal to humans ratio in the world", and that there were more Scottish pipe bands per capita here than in Scotland.
The topic of food was covered off in the discussions between tourism officials and the crew at The Late Show.
A partially redacted section of the documents revealed a food Colbert's team wanted to take into New Zealand might be "potentially problematic", adding: "As you may have heard, NZ has quite strict controls around bringing food in."
The Late Show also asked tourism officials if they could provide a list of foods in the "vein of spaghetti on toast ... we love that area so much".
The response included the fact some Kiwis "put canned spaghetti on pizza", that dips made out of powdered soup mixed with reduced cream and served with potato chips were a "staple at any party", and that we liked mince on toast, sausage sizzles, pies, mussel fritters and sausage rolls.
A link to an article on widely used Kiwi slang – including terms such as "Yeah . . . Nah", "Jafa", "Dunny" and "Munted" – was also sent back to the States.
"We cannot support the trip at this time"
But unfathomable tragedy was to ultimately put a halt to the trip.
Shortly after 1.30pm on March 15, 2019, gunfire rang out at two Christchurch mosques; events of the dark day in our history changed New Zealand forever.
Kiwis were left numb as news bulletins throughout the afternoon updated the country on the massacre, which would eventually see 51 Muslim worshippers die while attending Friday prayer.
More than 14,500km away in New York the news had also left those working on Colbert's show – including those preparing to leave on the pre-planned trip – in shock.
Several hours after the incident unfolded, The Late Show wrote to Tourism NZ officials to say they were "watching the horrible news out of Christchurch". They also flagged they were aware that changes, or even a cancellation, to the trip could occur.
"Unfortunately we understand these tragedies all too well here in the US," the email ended.
Discussions were still continuing about the trip – including contact over required artwork and hospitality. One response from The Late Show stated: "Hard to think about silly dinner reservations knowing what New Zealanders are going through right now. So senseless and heartbreaking."
The following day Tourism NZ wrote of its appreciation of the support, saying what had occurred was "truly horrific . . . events like this just don't happen in New Zealand".
In an email to The Late Show, sent at 10.26pm on Sunday, March 17, Tourism NZ formally notified The Late Show of the decision to postpone Colbert's trip to New Zealand.
"We are a nation who find ourselves in shock, grief and reeling with the devastating impact of Friday's events," the email read. "This has never happened here in the history of New Zealand.
"While we understand your kind intention to change the tone of the show and showcase the parts of New Zealand that Stephen loves, the timing is not appropriate to tell that story. It is the firm direction of the Prime Minister that we cannot support the trip at this time."
"He will be greeted with even more love"
The postponement saw The Late Show scrambling to cancel the pending departure of some of its production team, who were en route to Los Angeles for a connecting flight to New Zealand.
Tourism NZ hosted the crew for dinner in LA, while Colbert dedicated the start of his next show to New Zealand, and talked about how the trip had been put on the back burner, but pledged that he would take up Ardern's invitation at a later date.
On April 16, just over a month after the mosque attacks, a Tourism New Zealand official wrote that they were "pleased to share that the Stephen Colbert team are starting the wheels in motion to reschedule his trip to NZ later this year".
October was suggested for the rescheduled visit. A lot of the previous planning was gradually put back in place.
In a separate email, an official from TNZ wrote to Colbert's production team saying: "Thank you for your grace, humility and understanding of what's transpired these past few weeks. We're so lucky to have great partners like you to help us navigate times of crisis and it's sincerely recognised and appreciated by our entire organisation.
"Stephen's words touched the hearts of many New Zealanders and we're confident that when the show does come down he will be greeted with even more love."
Five months later and the timing of Colbert's trip was publicly confirmed during an episode of The Late Show which again featured a cameo from Ardern.
Documents provided by Tourism NZ reveal how stage-managed Ardern's appearance was, including a pre-approved script written by Colbert's team.
One notable change was made to the suggested script provided to Tourism NZ and the PM's office, on the request of Ardern.
After appearing on screen, and being asked by Colbert what she was doing, it was proposed that Ardern responded: "You said my name so I came out. Isn't that how these shows work? By the way, it's been almost a year since I invited you to New Zealand. Why haven't you dropped by yet?".
The request said Ardern felt "she needs a break in there between appearing and moving to it's been almost a year".
That change was agreed to, with Colbert ultimately saying on-air "fair point", after Ardern told him she was on screen after the host had said her name, before then asking why he had yet to visit.
By the time Ardern appeared, many of the logistics of the revised trip to New Zealand had been worked through.
"Sexiest" accent, spaghetti and Lorde
Tourism officials also kept Colbert's producers up to date with "a few noteworthy/random things" either happening in New Zealand or featuring Kiwis offshore.
The list included the Government's Wellbeing Budget, the Rugby World Cup in Japan - which it wrote was "equivalent to Super Bowl vibe" - that the New Zealand accent had been voted the "world's sexiest", and sending them a link to a story headed "Penguins break into Wellington sushi shop".
Just over a week before Colbert interviewed the PM in Auckland, The Late Show provided Tourism NZ and the Prime Minister's office with a list of the some of the questions he would ask.
Not all were provided, as producers said they didn't want to "give you all the questions, because there will be so much joy in her natural reaction to his questions and jokes".
The response sent back stated: "I literally laughed out loud reading this on the way to work ... hilarious!"
Colbert flew into New Zealand on October 11.
He spent five days in New Zealand filming and enjoying some of the best things New Zealand has to offer.
As well as spending time with Ardern, high-profile guests Colbert filmed with included ex-All Black Piri Weepu, former All Black Sevens captain DJ Forbes, Academy Award-winner Bret McKenzie, Xena: Warrior Princess star Lucy Lawless, and two-time Grammy Award-winner Lorde.
Lorde met Colbert at Ardern's house. Ardern also hosted a small barbecue, where Gayford made an appearance.
He met Sir Peter Jackson during his visit to the Hobbiton movie set, and highlights from a trip to the South Island included a helicopter flight over the Southern Alps and a bungy jump off the 47m high Kawarau Bridge near Queenstown.
He also indulged in spaghetti, having some in a "toastie pie" when he met with Lawless and McKenzie in Wellington; before they introduced him to a sausage sizzle and Marmite on toast.
An "incredible" return on investment
As the filming wrapped, discussions were held between tourism officials over the financial benefits from the pending coverage of Colbert's visit.
An official wrote that Tourism NZ's $100,000 spend was a "very small investment into a show of this calibre for us".
It was estimated the overall value of the exposure would be at least $5m. The official added it was "an incredible" return on investment.
Tourism NZ's contribution included $58,200 for accommodation, more than $19,000 for "attractions and activities", $14,500 for production expenses and $7900 for domestic travel.
Before departure, Colbert's team wrote to a Tourism NZ executive of their "deepest gratitude".
"You went above and beyond during the entire trip, with every detail and accommodation taken care of," a farewell email stated.
"We are so appreciative of your generous spirit and kindness. We have LOVED every minute and detail of our trip and know that's large in part due to you and all you've done to make this trip unforgettable for us."