April 2020

14 Apr Funny As. The Story of New Zealand Comedy – Foreword

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.

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14 Apr An Unforgettable Summer – Paihia 1979

This piece was commissioned by Stuff and published 30 December 2019


It is the early days of 1979 and my mother and I are in Paihia. We are on the deck of a rented holiday house, a bucket of shucked oysters sitting between us, fetching them out with forks and squirting them with lemons. The oysters taste of sea and sunshine, and we are curious to know how many we can eat before we don’t want any more. Eventually, decorum makes us put the plastic tub – the size of a large paint tin – back in the fridge for a bit. Good manners always won out over greed with my mother – I would have hoovered the lot. It still occurs to me on a daily basis that I should be more like her.


As we sit slurping oysters in the hot, hot sun I am thinking, in that dramatic way 17-year-olds think, that I am between two lives. High school is done, and when this holiday is over I will leave the home I was born in and move to Wellington to study – a soft landing with my older brother already there, but still.


Now, of course, I realise that my mother was also between two lives – her nest is about to be emptied, and twenty years of dedicated mothering are reaching an end. Decades later, she would tell me that after she and my father dropped me off at my student hostel, she cried all the way home to Levin. But there’s not a whiff of that during these glorious days up north. Just us (my Dad has sailed off on a fishing trip) and our books, and wandering down to the sea where she sits or paddles a bit and watches me swim.


We’d bought the oysters down there on the beach from a local fisher. We’d also stopped by the bottle store for a cask of something that proclaimed itself “Dry White Wine” and didn’t bother with further details, which is how wine worked in 1970s New Zealand. Sitting in the sun with my mother, drinking wine, was evidence of the adult life I was heading towards. That I was sitting in the sun with my mother rather than on a road trip with a bunch of wild teenagers up to all kinds of nonsense was evidence of the childhood I hadn’t quite let go.


Paihia was new to us. Every summer, our little family would pile into the car and drive to a rented house somewhere, but this was the furthest north we’d ever been. These beaches were a revelation – I didn’t know you were allowed to have so many colours in one place, right by the water. At home, Waitārere was iron sand and tussock, shades of brown and grey. A grand spot for digging up toheroa, certainly, and for gliding on skimming boards and crashing head first into roiling dark waves – but this “up north” aesthetic of grassy lawns down to the shoreline and magnificent Pohutukawa trees leaning over the water – green, gold, red, blue – seemed to me … Exotic.


“It’s so exotic here,” I say to my mother between sips of cask wine and stabs at oysters and she doesn’t correct me because she knows that by “exotic” I mean “sophisticated” and “different and more glamorous than you get at home”. The wrong word entirely to describe native trees and coastline, but she decides – for both our sakes, I guess – that this holiday is not an English lesson. She smiles and agrees it is just lovely, darling.


A year ago she said, “They tell me I might have one last good summer”. We did our best to make it so. Picnics outdoors at the nursing home. One day, a friend from her book club brought oysters. My brother and I took her for ice creams on the beach we loved for its Pohutukawa and stretches of lawn. She left us in June, before the winter got too hard.


I don’t remember how many days we had in Paihia in 1979 (when each day is similarly perfect, they are hard to count) and I also don’t remember making any kind of effort to imprint an image in my memory of my mother that summer, but it is there. A yellow sun lounger, a classic bathing suit (when my mother wore them, they weren’t “togs”), her Lady Tea Planter’s Hat (a straw version of a pith helmet which would have looked ridiculous on anyone except her, though even so it was a close run thing), a book on her lap (always), and a long, thin cigar-coloured cigarette in an elegant hand (a brand which other people kept for special occasions but favoured by my mother then for everyday use). That same hand would reach out – not too often – for the white wine on the table between us, and she would sigh, and stretch, and settle back in. Long days with nothing to do, just be. This was my mother, between two lives, happy.


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14 Apr On Storming Out of a Florist Shop

First published in Your Weekend 6.7.19


I stormed out of a florist shop last week. That’s a weird place to storm out of – all those soft fragrances and cheerful colours, and me turning on my angry heels and stomping out the door. I wouldn’t recommend it. It feels about as ineffectual as ending a call on a mobile phone with a vicious stab of one finger.


I had explained I was looking for table decorations for the cocktail party we’re holding for my mother’s end-of-life celebration.


Here’s the thing with me right now. Almost all of the time I function really well – host shows, get the washing on, and fill out forms for notifications of death with a level of sang froid  that makes me wonder if I’m doing grief wrong. I’ll even set aside time for a good cry and… nothing happens.


And then at other times, like on the phone to WINZ to cancel her Super, my voice strangles and my face screws up. Grief is a wet stray dog who turns up uninvited and shakes itself all over your neat composure.


Which was the state I was heading into with the two florists when grief turned to rage. Picture The Simpsons’ Patty and Selma (honestly, they were  dead ringers) ticking off a list of the many reasons my request was ridiculous, offering half-hearted solutions, quoting a price that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an invoice for a royal wedding, and ultimately suggesting I buy some of their jars and shove some flowers in myself.


To be fair, my dial is set to eleven most days. I’ve been told I’m less fun than usual. Voices have been raised and someone has been slamming doors. It’s all a bit messy and bears little relation to the sentiments on sympathy cards.


When I’m out in the world I feel like there’s a sign over my head saying, “Grieving”. A friend sent me a message saying they’d seen me at an airport and I looked like I needed a hug. Though anyone who didn’t know me might think I just look terse. Maybe that’s what Patty and Selma read.


I appreciate none of this makes me special. People die every day – 151,600 in fact. I googled it. That’s the kind of thing I do now. It’s like the whole population of Tauranga disappearing on a daily basis. Which makes my experience both unremarkable, but also worth a mention. There are a lot of people like me at airports and in florist shops.


I found another florist. They’re going to find my mother’s favourite mauve roses and arrange them prettily in bottles and deliver them to the party so I don’t need to think about that detail on the day. I suspect someone in that shop knows what this is like.


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14 Apr Donna A’Court – 23 April 1934 to 11 June 2019

This column was published in “Your Weekend” on 22.6.19


More than almost anything else, my mother loved words. Reading them, saying them, using them correctly. Donna kept The Oxford Guide to English Usage beside her armchair like a theologian might keep a Bible Concordance in easy reach.


She would have made a fierce subeditor for any publication. Countless times over the years, I have printed a piece of writing and walked it round to her place – her flat is downstairs from us – and made green tea while she looked it over. “That’s lovely, darling, but if you’re going to use the Oxford comma here, you will need to use it there, too. Otherwise, very good.”


Donna made the occasional appearance in these columns. “Don’t write about me too often,” she’d say, “or they’ll think you are short of ideas.” It was an elegant modesty typical of her. As is the neat file she kept of those particular pieces.


Donna died last week, and she is the only idea in my head. She died exactly as she wanted to – peacefully, with me sitting beside her. I moved into her room in the nursing home for her last five days. She had often said she wasn’t afraid of dying, but she was afraid of pain, and it was my job to keep things smooth for her. The sentence I am most proud of creating, ever, was in the wee small hours of her last day when I called for the nurse and told him, “This is the shape her body makes when she is in pain – Midazolam, please.”


The great gift that death brings those left behind is other people’s kindness. Donna was admired and respected and adored – her book club, the libraries committee, her yoga pals, school friends who have known her since she was six – so they tell my brother and me wonderful things about her. That she was elegant, and gracious, and wickedly funny. Our friends who knew her less, or not at all, also find kind words to say. Everyone gets the chance to be their best selves.


She has planned a cocktail party to celebrate her life – Donna’s Launch, she calls it – and I am writing her eulogy for someone else to read. Together, my mother and I made a list of the things she is proud of, the things that have brought her joy, and the people she has loved. The lists are long. I am already heartbroken that I won’t be able to print it and take it round to her door so she can check if infinitives have been unnecessarily split.


We had a long time to prepare for this, and all the words were said and heard but, even so, “bereft” is the word that floats untethered in my head.

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14 Apr Covid-19: Play/Pause

It has been a long time since I tidied up around here – I managed to break my website some time ago so couldn’t update gigs and so forth. But (thanks to @vivster81) it is all functioning again. So no more tumbleweeds rolling through these pages, but also (hilariously and ironically) I now have no gigs to update.


As it is for many people in lots of industries, Covid-19 has meant that pretty much every job I had booked for what was looking like a very busy year has… vanished. Writers’ festivals, comedy festivals, fringe festivals, little trips to places like Dunedin, Wellington, Ashburton, filming the “On The Rag” web series, and guest spots on The Project NZ… All gone. Feel free to nip over to my “Dates” page but it won’t take you long to scroll through what is now mostly a bit of radio, broadcast from the comfort of my bubble at home.


I’ve been a very happy self-employed freelancer for the last 27 years, and I probably sounded a bit smug when I talked about my “portfolio career” – that I had a whole range of clients and revenue streams that ranged from comedy to writing to voice work to corporate events, plus radio and TV, the combination of which offered, in practice, “job security”. What this virus has taught me is that my work wasn’t really that varied – mostly it was me standing in a room filled with people, talking. And we’re not allowed to do that right now. The latest hit to our media industry has also swept away opportunities for freelance writing, so… Yeah, I’m still in my pyjamas. Those leggings I bought at a Farmers sale a couple of years ago on the off-chance they’d ever be back in fashion have really come into their own.


While other people are using Lockdown to get creative and be productive – write that novel, learn a new language, launch a blog, train for a marathon, script a show – I find I’m frozen in survival mode. There is grief (for the way my life used to be) and anxiety (about what happens next). So I’m sitting with both of those emotional states and working my way through them. Taking a pause, I guess.


There are delightful things about pausing, right? Small things, done slowly. I like not setting an alarm. I love watching the birds in our garden who seem to gather closer now, for longer, and in larger groups. I’m making discoveries about myself – I always said sure, I’d exercise if I had the time, and that I also might cook. I am massively surprised that this turns out to be true. I ride my bike, and I make paella now. I have tidied drawers and put things in alphabetical order. I make little goals each day and feel good about getting them done. Like, really little. One day last week my goal was to go through my pens to see which ones still worked. Achieved. Picture of pens above.


I won’t see my grandchildren till we get back to Level 1. That could be a very long time. So each day I am making a video for them of a bedtime story. If you fancy a low-to-no production value version of “My Cat Likes To Hide In Boxes”, flick me an email.


Meantime, I’m going to catch up on posting some of my writing here – “Your Weekend” columns and the odd thing I’ve written recently for other publications. That’ll do until I feel like writing something new.


And a big shout out to anyone else who feels a bit stuck, or overwhelmed, or who feels like being very still because we’re not ready yet to reimagine who we are in this very different world. One of the things I learned when my mother died last June is that you can’t rush through the stages of grief – they take their own sweet time. I have a feeling that for lots of us, this is going to be the same.

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