In 2019, TVNZ screened a remarkable series on the history of New Zealand comedy. Paul Horan (the genius behind the documentary) and writer & journalist Philip Matthews produced a beautiful and comprehensive book as a companion to the series, and I was invited to write the Foreword.
It’s February 2019, and we’ve just pulled into Reefton. The nice woman at the motel gives us our keys and says, hang on, she almost forgot, Daisy left this for you. There’s a plate of whitebait fritters – still warm – nestled between slices of white bread, and another plate with ginger crunch, caramel slice and banana cake. These are the signs that tell you tonight is going to be a good show. Because all you ever need is for someone to be pleased that you turned up.
This was show number twelve of our stand-up comedy tour of twenty-seven towns – most of them small like Reefton (population 1,206 at last count), with a few cities like Whāngārei and Whanganui thrown in. Jeremy Elwood and I had taken to the road with Arts On Tour because, even though we’ve been living together for nineteen years, our jobs as comedians and writers mean we barely get to see each other in the normal run of things. So touring can be our way of hanging out together – just us, in a car, with our manager and friend Richard Carrington, and some of the best scenery you can find anywhere in the world, plus – in the South Island at least – daily access to cheese rolls.
We play tiny theatres, school and community halls, the odd pub and – in this instance – the Reefton Club, where, if you want an alcoholic beverage, you have to sign in. Our audiences range in age from high school student to superannuitant. In Geraldine, the organisers were the local kindergarten committee, and in Ōpōtiki it was the community’s librarians. In Putaruru, the town’s fire siren went off and I stopped the show to make sure the local volunteer fire brigade chief sitting down the front wasn’t holding the keys to the truck.
The first time I played Putaruru, it was 1992 and I was heavily pregnant with my daughter. I’m a grandmother now. I still tour like this for the company, and because I love whitebait fritter sandwiches and being in a room where someone might have the keys to the fire truck, and for the joy of playing tiny theatres lovingly cared for by their people.
Daisy has been bringing shows like ours to Reefton for more years than anyone can remember. But she remembers I was here with other comedians in 2009 – Justine Smith and Irene Pink. Now she mentions it, I recall we’d been anxious that night because the front row was largely made up of women who looked like our nanas, and we weren’t sure how warmly they would embrace the kind of comedy we’d usually do at a Queen Street comedy club. I suggested we imagine that, rather than being someone’s nana, they were actually retired West Coast sex workers and therefore likely to be up for any kind of nonsense. Reaching back, I seem to recall that at least one of them was so delighted with us, instead of applauding at the end, she banged her walking stick up and down with tremendous vigour. Pretty sure she was sitting at Daisy’s table on this return visit.
It is an extraordinary thing if you let yourself think about it. Not just the madness of walking into a room full of people you’ve never met and hoping to find the things that will make them laugh. But also that on this tour, here were two city people telling their stories about gun control, pay equity, gender equality and whale strandings to a bunch of complete strangers living quite different lives in very different places, and making them laugh together, at the same time, for the same reasons. And knowing at every single second of the forty-five minutes you are standing on stage in front of them if it is working, if that joke has landed, if the idea you have in your head has made it all the way to theirs, and how it makes them feel.
Comedy is, I think, the most direct relationship between performer and audience. There is no one standing between you and them – no scriptwriter, no director, no prop, no costume, no gatekeeper . . . Every time they laugh, it’s like you just shared a secret with each other. And then it’s gone, and you look for the next secret you can share.
Live comedy mostly exists in a single moment in time – in that split second between punchline and laughter. Ask a happy punter the day after a live show which gag they liked best, or what the show was ‘about’, and it’s a rare person who can re-create any moments, unless they were taking notes. Which would be weird. Each morning when you drive out of one town and head to the next, you understand you’re not leaving anything tangible behind (apart from the odd phone charger or some cheese past its best). There’s nothing anyone can point to and say, ‘See that? There was a comedy show there just before.’
Which is why I am so pleased you are holding this book in your hands. Not because it has jokes in it (there are probably some jokes in it) but because it maps where comedy has been in New Zealand. My own road started with theatre, then children’s TV, then sketch and character comedy, stand-up and storytelling. Other people’s roads wind their way through music, radio, cartoons and plays. Regardless of the route any of us have taken, this book records the moments when an idea has made the journey from one mind to another at the speed of laughter. ‘See there? That’s where comedy has been, and look where it might be going next.’
The week after we finished our tour of twenty-seven towns, I headed to WOMAD in New Plymouth. New Zealand’s version of the World of Music and Dance festival now includes a ‘World of Words’ – novelists, non-fiction writers, poets and comedians talking about or performing their work. My plane landed on Friday 15 March at noon, a hundred minutes before the massacre at two Christchurch mosques. The Prime Minister was on our flight. She held an extraordinary press conference at our hotel, then left for Wellington and then Christchurch.
You have to be somewhere when the worst thing happens, and WOMAD was a good and kind place to be – its kaupapa of inclusion and its celebration of diversity is the opposite of what that atrocity represents. My show was on Sunday night, one of the last performances in the programme. You wonder if you can do it, or should do it. And then you remember that that’s exactly your job – to bring levity in a time of gravity. Hundreds of people pack themselves tightly onto the lawn in front the stage, and you talk about the thing, and how you are feeling, and then you find the stories that make them laugh.
Just before the show starts, someone drops by backstage and brings fresh peaches and whole walnuts, and kind words. That’s how you know it’s going to be a great show. Because all you ever need is for someone to be pleased you turned up.