ReadingRoom

Book of the Week: Everyone’s a comedian

Te Radar reviews a history of Kiwi comedy which establishes that we’ve been laughing at ourselves since forever.

Comedic callousness! A sprawling glimpse at the history of New Zealand comedy and comedians containing snippets about anyone and anything however remotely connected to the genre - but which contains no bloody index! Heartless hilarity.

All over the country, the grimy little fingers of everyone who thought they were anyone in the (surprisingly) deep pool of Kiwi comedy will be fumbling to whatever section they think they might be mentioned in, only to fail to find themselves. Or in cases such as mine, to find themselves, then be disappointed by how little they are mentioned. The overwhelming feeling from most of the comedy fraternity will be: ‘Good god. Was I that unimportant?’

This is the book’s true success.

It’s a compliment to the writers and researchers of this glorious double bill (the book serves as the literary companion to the TV documentary series) that so many people receive such scant mention simply because there are so many, many people to mention.

There is about these islands a populace unafraid to stand on the stages of the world (and equally, if not more importantly on our provincial stages, and pages) and call a spade a bloody shovel, and then lay righteously about themselves with it, not only to cause mayhem and mirth, but to try to level the playing field.

But the best thing about the book is also the worst thing about the book. With so much material to draw on, there’s the realisation that a lot of our comedy history is utterly lost. The tragedy of our comedy, as the authors note in a section on film, is that ‘so much of our early (comedy) history was either ephemeral, or not thought important enough to keep’.

To be fair, that could sum up so much of New Zealand’s history.

It doesn’t help that we suffer an intergenerational comedic amnesia, so Funny As is a reminder of just how successful we’ve been. Who knew the biggest selling New Zealand comedy act sold around three million tickets between 1945 and 1954? Three million tickets! We’ve made entire TV series watched by fewer viewers than that. I should know, I’ve been in them (also unmentioned in the book). But the Kiwi Concert Party did, including a staggering 857 performances in a season in Melbourne. There’s so much trivia like this here that I’ll be continuing to bore people senseless with it for years. Isn’t that the mark of a great comedy compendium?

Not that it includes the time I thought it a grand idea to create an artificial womb crafted from clear plastic, fill it with three buckets of jelly, then gaffer myself inside it, for 40 minutes while the audience drifted in, settled down, and were then confronted by my rebirth, as I sprawled glistening and naked but for a fish (a red snapper if I recall) covering my loins. Well, cupping them in its empty stomach cavity to be more accurate. Comedy? Well I thought it was hilarious. And that’s really why we do it isn’t it?

I mean, is it for the late nights in lonely provincial motel rooms, eating cold chips, wondering how many other people have sat naked in these chairs? Or for the night four of you stand outside a theatre in Wellington, cocky comedy champions from Auckland, and nobody shows up for the show? Nobody. Or for the time you tour a show called Who’s the loser? which is greeted on its preview with huge applause and a review the following day that says simply: ‘Who’s the loser? The audience’, which in retrospect you have to admire as being genuinely funny.

But you all carry on anyway, because you don’t know any better and besides, you’re chasing the dragon of that first, euphoric, audience response and you’re doing it for you, not to be a part of a larger story, but it’s nice to be mentioned, and you feel for those who aren’t.

Funny As absolutely delivers on its subtitle: The story of New Zealand comedy. It delves into all of mirth’s myriad forms. Sure, there are the comedians. The familiar names of the past few decades feature in insightful chapters, but like a well-curated cabaret, no one outstays their welcome. Then there’s the poets and playwrights, novelists, cartoonists, critics, politicians, filmmakers, musicians, radio DJs, students, theatre troupes, satire and sitcom shows, children’s entertainers, and even chefs (for how could any history of comedy in this country not include Hudson and Halls).

It’s a rich history, despite the constant refrain from so many of our biggest names, that what they do ‘isn’t really comedy’. Only it is. It’s our form of comedy. We can be subtle, subversive, satirical, splatter-filled, flamboyant. Funny As has it all. It renders obsolete every comedy interviewer who’s asked at any stage in the past 50 years: ‘Are we finally starting to laugh at ourselves?’ We’ve been doing it for forever.

It’s a hefty tome. It’s lavish. It clips along at a rollicking pace. Dip in and out as you see fit. A great read for the bach. Or the toilet. Buy it for no other reason than to gaze at its wealth of pictures. It’s full of familiar faces, and of names and shows half-remembered, and people and places you’ve never heard of but wish you had. There’s show posters, cartoons, book and magazine covers, stage and screen stills, and more faces. So many faces.

Funny As is a catchy title. Very Kiwi. Very true. We were, and we are (despite what innumerable commenters on newspaper websites might argue). But there’s a wonderful phrase used by The Digger Pierrots, a troupe formed by troops on the Western front in 1917, to describe themselves, and which could also sum up our long and illustrious comedy journey: ‘Rollicking foolery, odd nonsense, and novel interludes.’

Long may it continue.

Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy by Philip Matthews and Paul Horan (Auckland University Press, $49.99)

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