My final session for today was called What’s so funny?, a panel discussion of comedy in Aotearoa with James Nokise, Jackie van Beek and Chris Parker. It was meant to have been chaired by Jo Randerson, but she’d been “sentenced to Hamilton” and was unable to come.
Talking about comedy is a bit of an odd one. Because they’re all professional comedians, and because the topic was comedy, I kept expecting laughs. But, although there was the odd giggle here and there, and although they’re all very personable and are professional entertainers, the session didn’t quite gel. Perhaps it was the absence of the chair. A lot of the discussion was unstructured and was basically them talking about which shows they’d been in and what they were working on now and with whom. This was my first Writer’s Week session where my attention began to wander (admittedly it was my third in a row that afternoon and I was under-caffeinated). The session this morning with Mallory Ortberg talking about her writing had been a lot funnier.
Perhaps I am being unfair: after all, what have I come to a literary festival for if not to discover new artists and hear them talk about their lives and work? Maybe indie comedy just isn’t my scene. Certainly, since the advent of broadband and Netflix, I don’t watch nearly as much NZ TV as I used to, so I missed a lot of the references.
Still, it was interesting to hear about the creative process in all of their various roles: writing, performing, acting, improv, theatre, stand-up, TV, and film. They all spoke about the importance of collaboration, and of writing comedy that you personally feel is funny, rather than trying to pander to the market. Nokise, who does a lot of political comedy, spoke about finding the ridiculousness of serious situations (eg Nick Smith going swimming in the Manawatu).
It was heartening too to hear that people can make a living as professional comedians in Aotearoa these days; a welcome change from days of yore (even a few years ago). There was a funny moment when Parker related how he broke his foot just before the opening of one of his shows. His father told him “Richie McCaw won the rugby world cup with a broken foot, you can finish your gay autobiographical dance show.” Parker described himself as a comedy “addict”: “My tendency is to go for the cheap gag, because I want to be loved by everyone.”
The other thing that was a bit odd about this session was the explicit diversity line-up: the gay one, the Pacific Islander one, the woman. They each spoke to their respective ‘ism’ – and then that thing happened. That thing that so often happens in a room when a woman speaks up about sexism: the men immediately chimed in to prove how sexist they weren’t, by saying how they can’t believe sexism is even still a thing, and then sitting back, job done, unconscious of the power structures that helped them to where they are today. In fact, Parker even interrupted van Beek when she was speaking about sexism, and spoke over her to prove how not-sexist he is by listing lots of female comedians. He seemed completely unaware of his textbook mansplaining. It was even more stark because the equivalent thing didn’t happen when Parker spoke about homophobia or when Nokise spoke about racism.
Van Beek inadvertently summed this session up for me when she said “I can’t think of anything funny”. In essence I think I was the wrong audience – others who were there (including the reviewer for Radio New Zealand) – seemed to enjoy themselves more, and the comedy and theatre people in the audience seemed to get a lot out of it. It did inspire me to check out more home-grown comedy, though, starting with Funny Girls.
Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
What’s so funny? with James Nokise, Jackie van Beek and Chris Parker
3.30pm Friday, at Bats Theatre, part of NZ Festival Writer’s Week