In Wellington we are very good at venerating the comedians we’ve raised and gifted to the world. We are quick to remind people that without Wellington the world wouldn’t have Dai Henwood, Taika Waititi or Flight of the Conchords. They are inscribed on our cultural memory.
It’s interesting then, since we dwell so much on our city’s comedy past, that the comedy present and comedy future seem to be slipping by unnoticed. Just because something is underexposed does not make it underdeveloped. This city is home to some of the best, most daring, interesting and hilarious people in the country. And you probably haven’t heard of most of them.
What better time to change that than during the New Zealand International Comedy Festival — which is on at multiple venues until 18 May — where some of Wellington’s best and brightest humourists will be presenting their wares? To help introduce you to the local comedy scene, I sat down for a chat with four of Wellington’s funniest people, to find out who they are and what they do to make people laugh.
Jarrod Baker took quite a complex path to comedy. When he was a child he wanted to be “Indiana Jones. But it turned out that adventuring archaeologist was… Well, there’s not a lot of job openings.” He channelled his disappointment into dreams of acting. While studying theatre at Victoria University of Wellington he did a few open mic nights but his true path to comedy arrived through music. “A flatmate and I started a band,” Baker explains. “We were both comedians and it just turned out that the songs that we wrote were funny. We started off opening for actual bands. It was odd.” Before long the band, called Mrs. Peacock, was a hit on the comedy scene.
“It was, I have to say, dramatically more successful than my solo stand-up stuff at that time. There’s something about musical comedy that’s easy. There’s a reason that nonmusical comedians talk somewhat disparagingly about it. ‘Oh you’ve got a guitar! Prop comic!’ But I think the musicality of it gives it an impact that it doesn’t quite have otherwise.”
In 2007, Mrs. Peacock won the Billy T Award — the most prestigious award for upandcoming comedians in New Zealand, but money issues — namely needing to earn some (“Putting on a comedy fest show is sometimes the opposite of paid work,” Baker explains) — has put the band on an extended hiatus. So Baker has returned to solo standup and says that “Now I’ve been doing it, on and off, for about 18 years, I’m starting to have idea of what I like and what I don’t like. I remember watching things like M*A*S*H repeatedly. It was funny but in an overall grim context. They really said something. That’s a real influence on where I’d like to get to. Comedy can be commentary. It’s not just making people laugh. This can be a transformative medium like any other art.
“Oh man,” he concludes, “I sound like a massive wanker.”
Baker’s show in this year’s festival is called We Are All Doomed: Songs for the End of the World, and is an examination, in song form, of the various theories from religious, scientific and cultural traditions as to how the world may end. “And then some odd shit that I’ve just kinda made up.”
Aspirations to rockstardom have driven more people to comedy than just Jarrod Baker. When Eamonn (an anagram for ‘No Name’, he pointed out, delighted) Marra was 21, he’d mock-interview himself as he was walking home about “the huge band I was in”.
Growing up in Christchurch, Marra was a heavy participant in the local music scene there: “My whole social life revolved around music. I was really into this idea of an artistic community, which is the most important thing to me, beyond any particular genre of arts, it’s this community that builds.”
And it’s a kind of community that Marra seems to have found here in Wellington: “In Christchurch, if you wanna do something, you have to do it on your own. It’s really hard but you push it and it happens. And then ten people come and it’s great but it wears you down fast.
“In Wellington, you wanna do something and you realise there’s either already a community of people doing it and you can join in with them and help out, or there are like 20 or 30 other people who also want this thing to happen and you work together. In Auckland, when you want something to happen you set up a promotions company.”
Marra’s stand-up comedy started as readings at poetry jams two years ago, and it shows. There’s an honesty and openness to his work that can be quite confrontational. Especially when he focuses on subjects as intimate as his own mental illness: “A way I’ve gotten through depression and anxiety is complete and open honesty about it. The show [Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, at the comedy fest] is kind of about looking at this journey I’ve taken. I was a really lonely, depressed guy.”
Marra’s roots in other performance modes mean that his shows eschew the normally confrontational relationship between audience and standup. “I really want a warm, direct connection to the audience. I never want to set up the ‘Eamonn Marra: Comedian’ Facebook page. Because I figure if you like my comedy you should just like me as a person and either ‘friend’ me or follow me on my personal page. If you like my comedy I probably like you, because, y’know, you like cool things.”
While Marra and Baker may both be aspiring musicians of a sort, Hayley Sproull wears her musician stripes with pride.
“I think I was a musician first,” she explains. “It’s not a secret aspiration; it’s simply fact. I didn’t practise an hour a day for nine years for nothing.”
Those nine years of practice have kept Toi Whakaaritrained Sproull — “In my mind, I am an actress. A funny actress. And I do take that very seriously” — in good stead. For her graduation solo performance piece at Toi, she created the character that would go on to star in her hit musical comedy solo show Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues — which just won the #FringeFave Award at the Wellington Fringe Festival.
While her work no doubt skews towards the comic, Sproull has trouble calling herself a comedian. “On official documents I put down ‘entertainer’, which could mean anything between actress and pole dancer. I think that’s pretty accurate.”
Like Baker, a lot of her comedy is performed as songs, but while Jarrod likes hidden meaning in his comedy, Sproull is a lot more brash. “Songs allow you to say things in a very black and white, crass manner and the simplest things become quite absurd when sung.”
As a theatre maker producing overtly comic work, especially in less traditionally theatrical situations, Sproull has often found her work caught between two worlds. “I get the impression that theatre makers find my work very comedic,” she says, “and comedians find it very theatrical.” The result of this overlap is nothing but a boon for audiences, as it makes Sproull’s work unique, dynamic and unmissable.
For this year’s comedy festival Sproull is reuniting with her comedy partner (and Vine sensation) Chris Parker after their smash hit, sellout show Outsiders’ Guide at last year’s festival, to make a work called Tighty Whiteys. “It’s about being a friend, and everything that entails” is how Sproull describes it. “It’s the shared awkward, anxious and intimate moments people encounter in a friendship that we are bringing to the stage. Come laugh at us, come laugh at yourself.”
Jonny Potts stands apart from the other three comedians because he didn’t follow a long route to knowing he wanted to do comedy. He didn’t have to stumble into it. Comedy was always the plan “from when I was 15 or so. It seemed like the best thing to do with your life.
“But I lost my nerve when I left school. Comedy just didn’t seem viable. I remember going to see improv in Wellington and stand-up at The Classic and thinking, ‘Well, you all seem to have this in hand.’”
But that was only a delay. While he was in England in 2011, he immersed himself in the alternative comedy scene over there and returned inspired. “I flew back to New Zealand on a Wednesday, wrote and codirected a 48HOURS film competition entry [Tea Jerker, a national finalist in the competition] that weekend, and did my first ever stand-up set on the Monday.” And he hasn’t really slowed down since earning three Best Comedy Award nominations at the Wellington Fringe Festival in as many years.
Potts’ comedy is cool (in both senses of the word) and cerebral, while never being smug or distant. Sometimes audiences have a little trouble tuning in. “Audiences understandably want instant gratification,“ he says, “so their criticism is generally of the ‘You suck’ variety. I tend to ignore that and just keep sucking.”
Twisting audience expectations, Potts stands proudly as an ‘alternative comedian’ “It’s a term I consciously embrace, even though that goes against the current wisdom. I must point out that what I do is not really anything new. A lot of New Zealand comedy is what you would call ‘alternative’. The UK model of the circuithoned pro doing panel shows is a very recent development here.”
Potts’ show in this year’s comedy fest is The Delusionaries. In it he’ll play three different characters: parenting expert Alan Legtit, lapsed soap opera star Richie Richardson, and Cool Youth Pastor.
“I’m trying to make it the best character comedy in the festival,” he says. “Each character defines himself through a different delusion, and is bolstered by a docile audience, which allows him to indulge that delusion. In this show, my smart audience and I laugh at those people.”
“Everyone’s stuff is different,” says Potts. “What’s heartening about Wellington right now is that people are being honest about producing the stuff they find funny.”
This is a city where the mainstream and the alternative can sit side by side. And the comedy festival is on! Now it’s your turn to find who you think the four funniest people in the city* are. Get out there.
(*That other people probably haven’t heard of.)[info]
Jarrod Baker’s We Are All Doomed: Songs for the End of the World is at the Cavern Club from 13 to 17 May.
Eamonn Marra’s Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is at Puppies from 5 to 8 May.
Hayley Sproull and Chris Parker’s Tighty Whiteys is at BATS from 6 to 10 May.
Jonny Potts’ The Delusionaries is at Puppies from 7 to 10 May.[/info]