Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy

Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy

by Paul Horan, Philip Matthews

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A big, authoritative, hilarious illustrated account of New Zealand's funniest comedians.From the Kiwi Concert Party to The Topp Twins, Billy T. James to Rose Matafeo, Fred Dagg to Flight of the Conchords and Taika Waititi, New Zealanders have made each other laugh in ways distinctive to these islands. Funny As tells the story of comedy in this country through more than 300 pictures and an engaging text based on over 100 interviews with our best comedians. Published alongside a major TVNZ documentary series at a time when comedy has never been bigger, the book takes us inside the comedy clubs, cabarets and television studios where comedians work; it charts the rise of cartoons and skits, parody and stand-up; it introduces us to how New Zealand's funniest men and women have made sense (and nonsense) out of this country's changing culture and society. Funny As is the authoritative, hilarious story of New Zealand comedy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781776710447
Publisher: Auckland University Press
Publication date: 07/18/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 25 MB
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About the Author

Raised in Palmerston North, Paul Horan was a member of the late-80s comedy troupe Facial DBX which featured Jon Bridges and Jeremy Corbett. Paul went on to set up the Classic Comedy Club – New Zealand’s only venue dedicated solely to comedy – in 1998. Paul was also the co-founder of the New Zealand Comedy Festival (in 1992) and wrote for the television series Topp Twins III. Shifting to Australia in 2000, he was hired to set up the writer’s room for Rove. He has since become a senior producer and script consultant for shows such as Hamish and Andy’s Real Stories and The Mansion. He helped create The 7PM Project and most recently the ground-breaking comedy Problems for the ABC. Paul lives in Melbourne with his partner Greg; he returns to New Zealand often. Philip Matthews is a senior journalist, reviewer and editorial writer whose work has appeared in the NZ Listener, Metro, Sunday Star-Times, Landfall, The Press, The Wire, The Spinoff and a host of other publications during his 25 years in the business. For more than 10 years he was an award-winning film reviewer for the NZ Listener, with two stints as the magazine’s arts and books editor. He sporadically maintains a film blog and is more active than he would like to be on Twitter. He has never performed comedy and can barely remember jokes, but people tell him he’s funny. He lives in Christchurch with his wife and three daughters.

Read an Excerpt


Bloody laughter


Fuck 'em all, Fuck 'em all! The long and the short and the tall, Fuck all the sergeants and W.O.1s, Fuck all the corporals and their fucking sons; For we're saying goodbye to them all, As up the C.O.'s arse they crawl, You'll get no promotion This side of the ocean, So cheer up my lads Fuck 'em all!

– World War I song

It is impossible to pinpoint an exact moment when a New Zealand sense of humour emerged as independent of British or Australian humour. But the joyful irreverence and goading defiance of this song, collected by Les Cleveland for his brilliant book Dark Laughter, suggest that just as a distinct national identity is often assumed to have been formed during and after the bloodbath of World War I, so a New Zealand sense of what comedy does and how it works took shape around the same time. The comedy that developed was often anti-authoritarian – the 'fuck 'em all' directed at the army's officers in this case – as well as expressing a determination to have a good time even when things were looking grim.

World War I also shaped the structures of New Zealand comedy performance. Entertaining the troops depended on small groups that were portable and versatile. Performers needed to be able to sing, do monologues or small dramatic pieces and dance reasonably well on usually outdoor, improvised stages. Such self-reliant, multitalented small groups became a template for New Zealand comedy performance over the following hundred years. World War I even gave New Zealand its first comedy superstar in Pat Hanna. A Wellington signwriter and amateur performer, Hanna, born as George Patrick Hanna in Whitianga in 1888, came out of the war as a fully fledged comedy impresario.

The Digger Pierrots

One of the most important of the wartime groups was the Digger Pierrots, formed on the Western Front in 1917. Pierrot costumes were a common uniform that did not denote they were commedia dell'arte or even clowns; rather they were a troupe uniform popular with group acts, rather than individual music-hall or vaudeville performers. The group performed stripped-down, escapist entertainment described in publicity as 'Rollicking Foolery, odd nonsense and novel interludes'. The Digger Pierrots' shows also played with the meanings of manhood and womanhood. As a male troupe performing for a male audience, female impersonators were central to the entertainment. Meanwhile, Hanna began to develop his character Chic, the classic ordinary bloke who will do anything to get out of fighting or indeed any work at all. This rebellious, anti-army sentiment proved hugely popular and Chic became one of the few elements that the constantly innovating Hanna kept in his act.

Hanna joined the Digger Pierrots near the end of the war and a rapid series of name changes followed: they were the Famous Digger Pierrots or just the Famous Diggers. They re-formed in New Zealand after armistice to do a fundraising tour, before Hanna took full control of the group in 1920 when they settled into their final and most famous incarnation, Pat Hanna's Diggers. They toured constantly throughout New Zealand and Australia over the following decade. As the war became a memory, Hanna started to change both the line-ups and material. He added women performers, one of whom he married, and incorporated longer and more complex pieces of comic drama into the three-hour shows. Although he moved away from military material, he would always finish the show with a short, military-themed sketch. But without the simplistic demands of the men at the front, his material grew increasingly sophisticated.

Australian theatre academic Richard Fotheringham regarded some of this later material as very early, popular modernist theatre: 'Many of the dramatized sketches performed by Hanna's company ... were structured around a contrast between events as they occurred in the trenches and as they were portrayed in a utopian or dystopian fantasy, sometimes triggered by shell shock or a dream.'

At the end of the 1920s, Hanna sensed the rise of the movie industry and decided it was where his future lay. Diggers (1931) was the second 'talkie' made in Australia and is full of material from his live shows, including scenes featuring Chic. It was followed by Diggers in Blighty and Waltzing Matilda (both 1933). The films were not widely seen but the irrepressible Hanna toured the USA in 1934 to promote them, billing himself as the 'Down Under Will Rogers'. By this stage he had become thoroughly Australasian for publicity purposes. When he recorded his sketches, he scored a huge hit with 'The Gospel According to Cricket', a monologue involving a vicar intoning about the Ashes tours: 'They shall be slow in the field as a nail that is smitten with the rheumatism and they handle a cricket bat as an old lady with a frying pan.'

By 1939 Hanna, who was never the greatest of business minds, had turned his back on show business to earn money as an inventor. One of his ideas was the game batinton, promoted as a more 'flexible' version of badminton. Batinton did not take off, although an igniter for petrol grenades proved to be more successful. Hanna died in England in 1973.

Noel Ross: 'akin to genius'

Noel Ross, 1890–1917.

World War I turned the world upside down but for many New Zealanders it provided opportunities they would otherwise only have dreamed of. Dunedin-born journalist Noel Ross was wounded at Gallipoli fighting with the Canterbury Infantry Battalion. While recuperating in England he became a regular contributor to The Times after his father Malcolm Ross, the war correspondent for the Otago Daily Times, pulled a few strings. Known for his charming comedic touch, the younger Ross rapidly became a favourite with the editor of The Times. He was known for finding real, comedic moments in amongst what might have been grim scenes. He recalls, having been wounded at Gallipoli, waking up in a Cairo field hospital in the short story 'Abdul: an appreciation'. Here the hospital orderly jolts him awake giving his pale Otago physique an overly vigorous bed-bath because 'I had been wearing shorts at Anzac [Cove] and Abdul was trying to wash the sunburn off my knees'.

With his constitution weakened by his war wounds, Ross died in London in 1917 of typhoid fever, aged twenty-seven. He had been writing for barely a year. Telegrams from King George V and Rudyard Kipling were read out at his funeral. Lord Northcliffe, publisher of The Times, sent a message to his staff that said, 'We have had a very severe blow in the death of dear Noel Ross, who was akin to genius'. His main work House-Party Manual was published posthumously and well received. It now reads as an admirable attempt at P. G. Wodehouse-style writing that has moments of quite acerbic, polite outsider comedy. War gave Ross a chance and for a short time he developed an ardent following.

David Low and Ted Kavanagh: pricking British pomposity in World War II

New Zealand's role in World War II is extensively mapped in military history, but our role in keeping the British laughing is less well known. Two New Zealanders in particular were vital to that effort.

Sir David Low (1891–1963) was perhaps New Zealand's most famous cartoonist. Born in Dunedin but raised in Christchurch, Low was self-educated from the age of twelve. After a stint in Melbourne as the resident political cartoonist for The Bulletin, he went to London, where he started a twenty-year tenure at the Evening Standard in 1927. The Tory, Lord Beaverbrook-owned newspaper took him on knowing he was left-leaning, and almost immediately he started to focus on the rise of fascism across Europe, which he spotted before most other cartoonists and commentators. He was considered a master caricaturist and could capture a likeness that was both biting and hilarious. His Hitler was always pointedly wimpy and snivelling in contrast to the ideal Übermensch of the Third Reich. All of this was rendered in a fluid, almost lyrical style that made the increasingly dark news even more macabre. This did not go unnoticed. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels told the British foreign secretary that Low was undermining British–German relations. Low was apparently included in the Black Book – a list of people to be arrested should Germany invade Britain. When this list was revealed at the end of the war, Low quipped, 'That's alright, they were on my list too!'

It was not just fascists that Low skewered. He was just as critical of the lumbering, outmoded British response to Hitler's terrors. His most famous creation was Colonel Blimp, a pompous upper-class idiot who embodied everything that Low thought was wrong with the British establishment. When he died in 1963, shortly after finally accepting a knighthood, an obituary in the Guardian called Low 'The dominant cartoonist of the western world'.

Ted Kavanagh (1892–1958) was no less important. Now considered a key comedy innovator, Kavanagh has long been neglected in New Zealand. But in the words of Frank Muir he was 'the founding father of professional British script writing'.

Born into an Irish-Catholic family in Auckland, Kavanagh was in Edinburgh studying medicine when he started to get noticed for his sketch writing. His breakthrough came when he was employed by the BBC to write a radio show for one of the biggest names of the day, Tommy Handley. Their show It's That Man Again (also known as ITMA) was a huge hit and Kavanagh wrote almost every word of the 310 weekly half-hour programmes made between 1939 and 1949. The writing was so dense with jokes, puns and wordplay that Handley calculated there was a gag every twelve seconds. It produced a wealth of catchphrases – the most enduring was TTFN or 'ta ta for now' – and popularised 'I don't mind if I do'.

It's That Man Again was also the first popular BBC comedy that was proudly surreal. The romping plots followed Handley as he went from one preposterous job to another, firstly as Minister of Aggravation and Mysteries at the Office of Twerps, then Mayor of the seaside town Foaming-at-the-Mouth and eventually Governor of the South Sea island Tomtopia. Kavanagh's son, writer P. J. Kavanagh, credited ITMA with creating a new kind of radio:

'One thing ITMA can take credit for, a loosening of the bonds of the possible in radio, characters entering without preamble, for no reason at all, and disappearing as fast. The speed was new, easily accepted by the ear, it would have been more difficult to follow by the eye. It bred a new style of comedy.'

At its core, Kavanagh's comedy work was a satire of the officiousness and self-importance of the British governing class. Here is Tommy Handley in his office as His Washout the Mayor of Foaming-at-the-Mouth, telling us how good an actor he is:

Quiet! I starred in many films. I played the divot in 'The Good Earth' but was replaced later. Then the empty clothes-line in 'Gone With The Wind', and finished up with a good fat part of the frying pan in 'Mr Chips'.

Like Low's Colonel Blimp, Kavanagh saw a pomposity that could be deflated, an absurdity in the British way of life that perhaps the locals were less aware of. In 1943, when It's That Man Again was adapted into a feature film, it was promoted as 'the radio sensation with 20 million listeners'. At its peak everyone listened. King George VI was quoted as saying 'We always listen', and there was even a royal command performance at Windsor to celebrate the sixteenth birthday of Princess Elizabeth. The radio show came to an abrupt halt when Handley died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. While he never repeated his success, Kavanagh had paved the way for a new type of British comedy that in turn would have a huge impact back in New Zealand – The Goon Show.

High-flying Kiwis: the Kiwi Concert Party and WWII

Which New Zealand comedy act has sold the most tickets? The answer is incontrovertibly the Kiwi Concert Party. No doubt this will be eclipsed at some stage by the Flight of the Conchords (perhaps on the diamond jubilee 'Once more for the ladies' tour) but this act coming out of World War II sold an estimated three million tickets between 1945 and 1954.

Led for the most part by Terry Vaughan, the Kiwi Concert Party spent almost five years in the theatre of war, from Crete to North Africa to Syria and Lebanon to Italy. Like the Pierrots before them, they were known for constantly coming up with new material and writing on the road. The group was pulled together in the field and comprised around thirty mostly amateur soldiers. Tom Kirk-Burnnand, their first leader, chose not to compete with the professionals who were entertaining the troops on well-resourced tours. Instead he opted for different types of material that his team could pull off. That meant that, initially, the revues were not a million miles away from a scout gang show or a Country Women's Institute Christmas pantomime. They comprised group numbers, musical items punctuated by comedy skits, female impersonators and a bit of drama for the cultured. But the shows rapidly became more sophisticated as the skills of the musicians in the band and the performers on stage started to lift.

At the end of the war, the Kiwis reconstituted in New Zealand and embarked on two tours of more than fifty dates in 1945 and 1946. Comedy was very much at the heart of it, as member Eddie Hegan wrote in his autobiography.

We now had so many comedians in the show it was a battle for existence! Dick [Marcroft], Stan [Wineera], Ernie Fish. ... Red Moore, Wally Procter, Bill Bain and even Terry [Vaughan] himself, all were in comedy. ... The shows were so comedy packed that no one man could have possibly handled it.

All-powerful theatre impresarios the J. C. Williamson organisation toured the Kiwis through Australia, where a season of 857 performances at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne broke all records. They then spent a year in Sydney at the cavernous Empire Theatre, selling 850,000 tickets in each city. This, along with many tours to other Australian centres and an epic New Zealand tour in 1951, made them household names.

It's intriguing to note that in what seems to be a remnant of the egalitarian military set-up, all thirty-five performers were paid the same. And whereas Pat Hanna had quickly moved his material on from a predominantly military focus after World War I, the Kiwis remained true to their early shows. They seem to have catered to a greater need for nostalgia in the immediate years after the war. Their final show was at His Majesty's Theatre in Auckland on 16 January 1954.

This Kiwi Concert Party format had an undoubted impact on the showbands that became popular in the late 1950s. Although showbands had been around for some time, the success of the Kiwi Concert Party in particular was noticed by alert promoters who saw all-round entertainers doing shows in a format most New Zealanders were familiar with. That led to the next big news in New Zealand entertainment: the Howard Morrison Quartet.


Comedy and writers


If anyone ever wanted to apply extra pressure to an already stressed writer, they could simply ask him or her to be funny. Comic writing is both mysteriously difficult to do well and marginalised as less important than serious writing by many gatekeepers of arts and culture. New Zealand, with its distrust of the frivolous and the impractical, is no exception. But over the past century, some of New Zealand's best-loved and most widely read writers have also been its funniest. And those writers have both reinforced and challenged national stereotypes, myths and attitudes.

The blokes

It seems fitting that the first recognisably New Zealand comic voice on the page came from the writer who invented the Kiwi bloke soon after the trauma of World War I. Long before Barry Crump, there was Frank S. Anthony, the first writer to use 'the New Zealand vernacular, its expression and rhythms, in stories', as Gordon McLauchlan wrote when he made Anthony's 'Wood-Splitting with Gus' (1923) the opening story in his excellent anthology of New Zealand humorous writing, The Acid Test (1981). Two decades earlier, when Auckland University academic J. C. Reid compiled the first anthology of local humorous writing, The Kiwi Laughs (1961), he wrote that Anthony's 'unaffected naturalness and distinctive cadences' anticipated the styles of Frank Sargeson and Roderick Finlayson.


Excerpted from "Funny As."
by .
Copyright © 2019 Paul Horan and Philip Matthews.
Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Michele A'Court,
1. Bloody laughter: war and the birth of New Zealand comedy,
2. Comedy and writers: blokes, bastards and outbreaks of beauty,
3. Lessons in comedy: universities and capping revues,
4. 'Bold and blue': female impersonators, cabaret and variety,
5. Comedians and politicians: 'stuff that doesn't really matter',
6. Comedy and theatre: million-dollar ideas,
7. Directors on the edge: comedy on screen,
8. The start of it: TV comedy up to the 1980s,
9. John Clarke: the man from the audience,
10. Billy T. James: between two worlds,
11. The Topp Twins: only in New Zealand,
12. The Front Lawn: sons of the suburbs,
13. Live comedy in the 1980s and 1990s: looking for a place to stand (up),
14. Breaking the rules: TV in the 1990s and beyond,
15. Naked in the house of spirits: Samoan comedy,
16. Live comedy in the twenty-first century: the new establishment,
17. Kin folk: Flight of the Conchords,
18. Taika Waititi: a Maori in space,
19. Rose and other names: a new comedy generation,
Illustration credits,

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