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May 18, 2009 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

A History of Wellington Comedy


New Zealand has a history of non demonstrativeness, cultural modesty and a cringing shame towards any public satirical performance. Well, that was the traditional myth of why New Zealand didn’t have any truck with comedy. And this was actually true for a time, but that time was like ages ago, when there were touring vaudeville acts that roamed the world on boats powered by a dry fuel called coal. Of course, the “we” that we are talking about back then was a white colonial outpost balancing precariously on the heads of the Maori while using culture provided to us by the British as a pole. The actual creative content that we were producing was cloyingly sincere because when you’re a tiny southern colonial outpost, a zit on the ass cheek of the world, it’s important to advertise how totally sweet you are. If it wasn’t for that emo Katherine Mansfield, and her one hilarious story about the businessman torturing a fly, then we would have nothing comic emerging from a Wellingtonian from that era at all. See how cleverly I included Katherine Mansfield as a Wellingtonian, even though she was working and living in Britain during most of her creative life? I thought that was rather well done, as it makes the Wellington comedy scene seem older than it may indeed be. Choice! Speaking of old, during the 70s, the 1960s Satire boom had finally reached New Zealand, and occasionally you’d see something that was meant to be funny on TV Often, it was filmed at Avalon Studios. This is why Ginette McDonald got to be Lyn of Tawa instead of Lyn the Westie, it’s also one of the reasons why Wellington has had a reputation for having funny stuff going down on it. We were reported to have comedy, and people kept turning up wanting to have a go. That’s pretty much the birth of any comedy scene or culture Wellington has. This article is a kind of “look around the history and currency of Wellington Comedy.”

So small, so inclusive

A couple of years ago, Wellington beat out Ekatahuna to be New Zealand’s cultural capital. It’s been an uphill battle to keep our struggling creative industries alive ever since. Comedy, oft considered the bastard genre of entertainment has been something that we as a city have had to toy with. For you see, lads and ladies, Wellington’s comedy tradition is one that is largely tied into the other arts, comedy would occasionally piggy back on one of the mediums that were used for more serious endeavours. This is because Wellington is very small. There are many creative types crammed in here, and there is only so much time a city can have all of their creatives involved with a year of Shakespeare, or a season of Samuel Beckett. Peter Feeney [A Night with Beau Tyler, Black Sheep, those Memphis Meltdown ads] in a post performance discussion said that a performer can make a living in New Zealand, but has to keep doing as many different things as possible, and he’s pretty much on to it; that’s why I quoted him. This is an article. You must have noticed that we have a ridiculous number of theatres in the central city, right? By having these things scrambling for content, there is the potential for a diverse population of zany stuff and what have you. However, we’re still far too small as a city for people to be able to do just one thing in a vacuum. This excess of theatres and bars and paucity of people mean that there isn’t a great division between people like Feeney being stand ups, or being improvisers, serious actors or writers, and because the same groups mix with each other we see a great performative elasticity in this comic culture. Comedian/radio show guy Steve Wrigley did improv and directs, Jerome Chandrahasen acts (I’ve seen him), Dai Henwood made travel shows and as I discovered when I was rooting around the VUWSA archives for kindling, Raybon Kan used to write for Salient; I think that it is neat that he’s an Asian New Zealander.

Infobox: Psst… Raybon Kan is an Asian New Zealander, pass it on.

Everybody who is into the creative crap that we’re known for in Wellington will see pretty much most of what’s going on, or get a whiff of it from one of their mates. What this means is that it’s small enough that people with genuine talent get noticed really quickly. Recently, if you weren’t too tripped out on passionfruit flowers laced with angel dust you might have seen political science major Guy Williams becoming Dai Henwood’s protégé. Not so recently, in 1971, John Clarke was noticed doing a Sketch Revue here at Vic and then driven over to Avalon Studios in the Hutt, before being plonked on the tele. By 1973 his Fred Dagg character was a house hold name and then before the eighties he had taken off to Australia because “Australian broadcasting paid you enough to eat.” Dick.

John Clarkes gallivanting off overseas was a step that many Wellington comedians do, Wrigley and Henwood are both Auckland-based now, and the bigger entertainment centers like Melbourne and London have robbed us of Raybon Kan and Ben Hurley. Sure, as a performer they give you more opportunities to display your throbbing comedic qualities to a wider variety of people, which means more opportunities to make money doing what you love, but as I said before. Dick. So while Wellington doesn’t support performers enough Wellington is a place to start creating a comic identity, learning to improvise, learning to make entertaining plays and so forth.

What have you to say Victoria University?

Until about six years ago, Victoria had vibrant tradition of sketch comedy and student plays, and many of the collectives and crews that went on to genius started here. Theatre Militia has an association with Vic, and So You’re A Man, came from here too. So You’re A Man featured Taika Waititi, Brett McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. The death of both the Vic Drama Club and the Capping Revues can’t be tied to one guy embezzling funds from the Drama Club, or the extreme raising of beer prices that killed off Student Culture after dark at the University, but these things didn’t help. Six years is pretty much two generations of undergraduate students at Victoria, and what we’ve seen in Vic during that time is that there are still great comic performers coming out of Victoria like Guy Williams, Matt Mulholland (New Zealand School of Music), and the Binge Culture Collective, the difference between now and six years ago is that they have branched off in very different avenues with out the same close unity that the University’s culture used to provide. And that’s the difference between now and then.

Infobox: Victoria University was actually named after a time travelling Victoria Beckham, who was searching for the fountain of youth. Instead she just shacked up with Hongi Hika, who was described as a gentle lover.

Live Comedy

Recently you may have noticed that the Blue Note, a venue known for having rather attractive T-Girls and awful karaoke has reinvented itself as the ‘Fringe Bar’, which is now a venue for comedy, until late at night when the few remaining queens drag themselves down to the bar and party heartily with the song styling’s of Raj from accounts. There’s a sentiment that Wellington as an audience stock has been just too small to cater for a venue aimed specifically at comedy, so this Fringe bar development is both scary and exciting as it’s a major indication that people have managed to convince at least one business that Wellington is able to support a full time comedy culture, instead of just one night a week at the San Francisco Bathhouse, plus the occasional performance in a theatre. The Fringe Bar has an aim to be Wellington’s version of the Classic, an iconic home for comedy in Wellington. This isn’t the first time that a great white shark of hope for Wellington’s comedy has emerged in the city, the Fringe Bar is another in a (small) line of experimental ventures; Fergus Aitken (True Stories and Other stuff that isn’t, Mr Fungus) , fondly recalled to me that in the 90s, the St James Cabaret, run by Santa Fe’s Garth Rosson was driving force in bringing comedy onto the Wellington stage with local comedians and bigger acts like Strassman (yes, he’s Rosson’s fault), to our attention as a city and as a culture. However, you might notice that the St James Cabaret is just not here no more.

Infobox: Iconic New Zealand comedian Michelle A’Court was the women’s rights officer of VUWSA. Thanks Michelle. Thank you for everything.

So what?

Well, Wellington has comedy in it, it always has comedy in it to some degree, but the International Comedy Festival is its final week, so right now it’s a really good time to actually get out of there and experience comedy. I don’t know how long the comedy buzz will last for, it’s hard to predict the future. Right now, the New Zealand media has been dishing out money to make comedy in a way that hasn’t been heard of before, so we probably have at least two years before TVNZ gets discouraged, panics, cuts funding and comedy goes back to being a small part of the nation’s cultural scene, rather than a main attraction. When that happens, we’ll see new comedians coming in and building themselves and their comedy style up with the inclusiveness of the Wellington performing arts scene, and maybe break through into mainstream consciousness again. God I hope so.

Yeah, the end.

Infobox: Nic: Hey Jackson, next week can I write about the Holocaust? Jackson: No, you’ve made a hash of this article and your life. Nic: That’s harsh but true.


About the Author ()

Nic Sando is a god amongst men, fifteen fathoms high he be, with strange and wyrd powers at his disposal. Only a fool won't harken his ears to the east when he hears The Sando man stumping his way.

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