In the wake of Covid-19 the local stand-up comedy is blossoming.
Liz Wylie reports.
According to a recent study led by researcher Alan Gray of University College London, the act of laughing can make you more open to new people and can help you build relationships.
It is one of many studies that point to the beneficial effects of comedy on our mental and physical health which are especially important in 2020.
In the wake of New Zealand's Covid-19 lockdown, comedians have been out on the road in droves and Whanganui has been a popular stop for many of our best-loved performers.
A cavalcade of comedy stars including Ben Hurley, Raybon Khan, Li'i Alaimoana, Tofiga Fepulea'i, Cori Gonzales-Macuer and James Nokise have all performed here in recent weeks.
At the same time, comics from Whanganui, Manawatū and Taranaki have also been doing the rounds and local audiences are lapping up the laughs.
Julie Sandbrook is a Whanganui comedian and events organiser who goes by the name Lex.
She is on a mission to bring more local and visiting talent to the fore with regular Gag Nights at Drews Ave venue Porridge Watson.
Sandbrook is also aiming to bring some gender balance to the stage with her own performances and she encourages other women to share their funny sides.
On a rainy Guy Fawkes night, Palmerston North comedian Elaine Reilly is the first performer to take the stage at Gag Night.
Originally from Glasgow, she uses her Scottishness to good effect in her routine and the name of the venue inspires her to talk about boiled oats and the strange ways they are presented here in her adopted country.
"I ordered porridge in a restaurant and it was served with fruit and edible flowers on top.
"I couldn't believe it - flowers on porridge!"
Learning the Kiwi vernacular caused her some consternation when she first came to New Zealand and locals offered to introduce her to some "hard cases".
"In Glasgow, a hard case is someone who carries a switchblade. I had no desire to meet those people."
As Reilly delivers a story about a Jack Russell terrier named Barney and his amorous relationship with a cushion, a dog from the audience joins her on stage.
We later learn that the dog's name is Peter and although he is from Palmerston North, Reilly had not paid his owner – the dog simply felt like joining in.
Reilly later tells me she is a psychologist who got into comedy performance by joining an open mic night.
The beneficial effects of comedy on our mental health are numerous she says and as a performer, she has noticed how pronounced they are in 2020.
"I am noticing a heightened enthusiasm since Covid levels have eased," she says.
"Being out amongst others and laughing as a group is really appreciated now."
Reilly is followed by flat earth advocate Gerald Allen Yelson-Samuels who uses a plate, an inflated globe, a glass of water and audience volunteer Chris to demonstrate the indisputable truth about the shape of our planet and other things we didn't know.
The expatriate American is also based in Palmerston North where he conducts his research and produces his flat earth podcast Level Heads.
It was not possible to tell if he won any converts from the Whanganui audience but spherical beliefs are certainly challenged during his performance.
Next up is Massey student Tracey Adams who shares the news that she had just sat her final exam for the bachelor degree she has worked towards for six years.
Adams' banter is about the different categories of colleagues we encounter in our working lives.
Some she said, are fairly benign like microwave food – only becoming interesting when heated.
While demonstrating the things she would like to do to her more objectionable co-workers Adams was also interrupted by Peter the dog who protested loudly at her violence towards the cushion she was using as her prop.
The headliner of the night was Aucklander Brendon Green who specialises in "emotional honesty that sometimes worries my mother".
He has been delivering stand-up comedy for 10 years and it shows.
With perfect timing and poise, he delivers highly amusing personal anecdotes in an endearingly self-deprecating manner.
The audience is relaxed and appreciative as MC Lex delivers her own amusing anecdotes to round off the show and encourages them to come to the next Gag Night on December 3.
Porridge Watson owner Tony Sundman is delighted to have Gag Nights as part of the regular calendar at his venue.
"We aim for a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere that welcomes mixed age groups and the comedy nights are a great addition," he says.
Sandbrook performed her first stand up comedy gig on a spur of the moment she says.
"Wednesday night is my night off from caring for my kids and I like to make the most of the time by treating myself to a glass of wine while doing something entertaining.
"I was scrolling social media while watching Netflix and happened to see the ad for open mic night in Palmerston North.
"My dad had encouraged me since I was small to use my gift of being able to make people laugh so I decided to give it a go and asked dad to come and support me.
"I delivered six minutes of comedy that went over really well."
Fellow Whanganui comedian Kajun Brooking had a similar moment of inspiration when he decided to enter the Raw Comedy Quest at Lucky Bar + Kitchen earlier this year.
He credits his partner with giving him the encouragement and support he needed.
"She is an experienced performer herself and was in the Colonial Combat series that screened on Maori TV.
"She backed me from the start and that was all the inspiration I needed."
Although Brooking didn't win the competition, he was selected as a "wild card" entry for the Central North Island Raw Comedy final, in front of a sold-out crowd at the Globe Theatre in Palmerston North.
He now has a dozen performances to his credit and he and Sandbrook joined touring Wellington comedian Li'i Alaimoana for his show at the Royal Wanganui Opera House in September.
Lucky Bar + Kitchen owner Andrew Rennie has also enjoyed hosting comedians in a year that has been very tough for hospitality venues. He recently hosted shows by visiting comedians Raybon Kan and Jamie Patterson.
"People really enjoy getting out to experience a good laugh," Rennie says.
"One upside to the pandemic is that there is a lot of talent around because comedians can't tour overseas at the moment.
"Cori Gonzales-Macuer had to cancel a show here when Auckland had to go back to level 3 in August but I was able to get James Nokise at short notice and he was great."
Studies on the science of laughter - though still preliminary - suggest that it has tremendous benefits for our health and psychological well-being.
And while there are plenty of funny people around ready and willing to make us laugh it seems rude not to support them or even get behind the mic and join them.