In Funny As, the book of a new TVNZ series of the same name, Paul Horan and Philip Matthews navigate the chop of New Zealand’s ambivalence towards its own comedy in a way that’s both sober and enthusiastic. They consider ‘New Zealand comedy’ to mean pretty much anything any New Zealander has done since WWI to make another person smile on purpose. The care they have so evidently taken in appraising how New Zealanders execute jokes and japes of every stripe makes this book immediately as essential as such a book can be.
When it comes to assessing the legends of the game, Horan and Matthews deploy a bluntness which is maybe one of the side effects of covering so much history with so few words. Instead of parroting easy, accepted assessments on our giants, they risk throwing in definitive, evaluative statements. Sometimes, they’re damning. The section covering folk legend Barry Crump acknowledges that he was ultimately revealed to be an ‘abusive, violent husband and absent father’ before ending: ‘New Zealand struggled with the information that its best-selling comic writer, yarn-spinner, heroic loner and popular joker was also a monster.’
Not ‘possibility’, or even ‘allegations’. ‘Information’. And that’s their last word on Crump: ‘monster’.
The authors’ ability to take a stand and remain clear-eyed about their subject is one way in which the book distinguishes itself. Talking about the influence of British TV comedians on quintessential joker Billy T. James they write: ‘This style of humour, often reliant on ethnic stereotypes, was long out of date by the time James debuted it on New Zealand television.’
Yes, true. So true in fact it can’t be meaningfully rebuked, and when placed in the context of this chapter, doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of James or sneer at his audience. In fact, the chapter on James deftly manages something that Matt Elliott’s biography Billy T: The Life and Times and Billy T James could not: it meaningfully surveys the comic’s place ‘Between Two Worlds’, engaging with the racial and social tensions around James’ work with seriousness, while never losing sight of what made James such an appealing and popular comedy star. Ultimately, James’s reputation is not undermined by such examination, but enhanced. He beams widely at us from under the famous yellow towel on one of the book’s four covers.
The other three covers are given to the Topp Twins, Flight of the Conchords and John Clarke. The politics of the Topps are foregrounded, with the words “punk” and “f*ck” deployed as readily as “yodel” and “rural childhood”. The shortish, vital chapter on ‘two women unafraid to express all that they were in a small society that many might have expected would shut them down’ serves them well. It will hopefully send some readers to the superb 2009 documentary Untouchable Girls.
The irony of Flight of the Conchords’ image being used to sell a book from a TVNZ series will not be lost on their fans. Theirs is already a story for the history books it seems. An unlikely one, to be sure, but it now apparently belongs to the whole bloody lot of us. And seeing posters I used to drink cheap wine under in dank Wellington flats lovingly reproduced in a coffee table book is just the price of growing up, I suppose. (Their friend and collaborator Taika Waititi, about as perfect a synthesis of New Zealand comedy as you could wish for, gets his own chapter.)
The recently departed John Clarke acts a kind of spiritual guide for the project, with Horan and Matthews stating early on that they have followed his ‘firm dictum that there is no such thing as a distinct New Zealand sense of humour’. Such observance to the teachings of Chairman Fred could have resulted in bloodlessness in the hands of some acolytes, but Clarke’s intelligence, passion and sense of fairness are qualities the writers evidently admire and seek to emulate.
A black and white still from Clarke’s appearance with Hudson and Halls is generously given two pages, and the caption informs that this picture is ‘[a]ll that remains’ of the event. It’s one of the many times when a sense of loss is invoked in the reader (OK, this reader) without any forceful tugging on the nostalgia strings.
If it’s nostalgia you’re after, though, just flick through the thing for the photographs and the reproductions of posters and flyers. Aside from Clarke, Hudson & Halls and the Conchords, there are also full-page reproductions of gorgeous Red Mole and Front Lawn posters, Rosemary McLeod cartoons from The Listener, theatre posters for Jean Betts’ Revenge of the Amazons and Roger Hall’s Glide Time, John Key on Letterman, Arthur Baysting as Neville Purvis and a promotional card for Debbie Dorday’s Auckland cabaret club, Burgundy’s. Yep. Because this book sees comedy as a broad church. Both Mika and David Low are here, and deserve to be. Children’s television, and youth television like Havoc and IceTV, are also given their due. When you think about it, they really are part of the story. Thank god we’re a small enough country that we can see how connected it all is. By canvassing everything that could come under the banner of ‘comedy’, Horan and Matthews have, perhaps unwittingly, gone against Clarke and made a case for a ‘distinct New Zealand sense of humour’. But it’s not entirely what we may have been conditioned to think it is. Instead of “self-deprecating” and “laconic”, how about we describe it as “inclusive”, “adaptable”, “intelligent” and “multi-lingual” a little more often?
Because so much has been included in this book, I’ll just say that if you think it’ll be in here it probably is: McPhail and Gadsby, the Hori books, Seven Days, commercial radio, Funny Business, ‘Melody Rules’, BLERTA, Jono and Ben, Allen Curnow, Hen’s Teeth, Back of the Y, the showbands, Lyn of Tawa (who gave us – get this for precise, economic writing – ‘a complete, imaginary folklore of New Zealand life at its most ordinary’), and Samoan comedy in New Zealand, which is given a chapter of its own. The book is so packed it begs to be called ‘definitive’, but anyone interested in comedy is going to be peeved something they like has been left out. Given the scope of the book, I would have liked to seen Jonathan and Dane, Binge Culture, the Fan Brigade, Mrs. Peacock and Joseph Harper get some space, but when Frickin’ Dangerous Bro, Jo Randerson, Snort, Tom Sainsbury and half the Aucklanders I follow on Twitter are all present and correct… well I’m hardly going to lodge a formal complaint.
We have reached a point where the story of our comedy has become one worth reading and telling. Horan and Matthews have written right up to the minute, and though Rose Matafeo’s success at Edinburgh in 2018 is a fitting peak to rest the flag in for now, it’s clear we’re going to continue finding new ways of knocking this comedy bastard off. If the TV series lives up to its tie-in product, it’ll be an absolute cracker. And if it doesn’t… well it’s always nice to see that ‘Where’d I get my bag?’ joke on the telly.
Reviewed by Jonny Potts
Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy
by Paul Horan and Philip Matthews
Published by Auckland University Press