Book Review: Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy, by Paul Horan and Philip Matthews

Available in bookshops nationwide. The TV series is currently screening on Sunday evening and available on TVNZ OnDemand.

Funny_as_four_coversIn 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on quintessential joker Billy T. James they write: ‘This style of humour, often reliant on ethnic stereotypes, was long out of date by the time James debuted it on New Zealand television.’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.

funny as_topp twinsThe 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
ISBN 9781869409005

Book Review: Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand, by Chris Brickell

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_teenagersThe photograph on the cover of Chris Brickell’s Teenagers, which we learn inside is a New Year’s Eve party at Caroline Bay in 1962, is typical of the way many of us still see the quintessential New Zealand teenager: lanky, big-eared white baby boomer lads and soft-featured white baby boomer sheilas, living it up and looking cheeky. Because the ‘teenager’ as a phenomenon was first recognised in the post-war era, and the generation on whom the term was bestowed started celebrating their youth even before the war had ended, the image of what it is to be a young person in New Zealand seems as frozen in time as these cheeky faces: a 50s/60s mash-up of marching girls, milk bars and the Mazengarb report.

All of that is in Brickell’s book, along with a pretty comprehensive and never dry guide to the time’s socio-political factors, pressures and new freedoms. Given the ease with which baby boomers will talk about this sort of stuff, and their appetite for hearing it repeated back to them, it must have been tempting to give this sliver of time even more space. Key to Brickell’s success here, as in his excellent Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, is the balance he strikes between representing a plurality of experience while recognising common themes and behaviours over time.

It’s not untrue to say the book proves again that youth is youth and always will be, but that isn’t the only lesson here. It is the differences, not the similarities, which make Teenagers so engrossing. Brickell’s attention to those groups which fall outside of our received image of the past (see cover photograph) allows him to reveal a messier, more class-conscious New Zealand. Yes, there are stories of individuals revelling in teenage joy and discovery, but the various troubles of New Zealand’s teenagers often reflect all too neatly wider tensions around national security and identity.

The book is laid out chronologically, and the reader is drawn in to individual lives through diary excerpts, letters and oral accounts. Brickell only covers that time up until the 1960s, but it’s clear through the book’s closing chapter that the period of his own youth is just as fraught and storied as any which precede it. The book is rich with stories and diversions chosen with percipience, but there will always be more to say.

Reviewed by Jonny Potts

Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand
by Chris Brickell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408688

Book Reviews: Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke, & A Pleasure to be Here: The Best of Clarke & Dawe, by John Clarke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tinkering_the_complete_book_of_john_clarkeMuch of what is presented in these two collections of John Clarke’s work has been published in similar forms before, but that doesn’t make either of these books any less essential. Clarke, of course, died suddenly and prematurely this year at the impossibly-named Mt. Abrupt, and it’s reasonable to assume there will be some demand for a career-spanning go-to as we head into Christmas.

Text has chosen to present the project in two parts. Tinkering features a wide range of Clarke’s writing, from Fred Dagg radio scripts to the farnarkeling reports to later essays and reflections. A Pleasure to be Here acts as Tinkering’s indispensable addendum, drawing together some of the best of the Clarke & Dawe scripts. The brief mock-interviews which Clarke and Bryan Dawe presented weekly for decades make up a large part of Clarke’s legacy, and they would have dominated a single-volume treatment. (A Pleasure to be Here runs over a hundred pages longer than Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke.)

Daughter Lorin Clarke, on whose podcast John appeared as a comedy historian, writes in her introduction to Tinkering about witnessing her father’s creative process, which “reflected not much the industrial rigour of the factory as the natural rhythms of conversation. These little linguistic jokes proscribe any hierarchies or even formalities, suggesting a mutual adventure that might continue for some time”. That’s as good a distillation of the nature and the enduring appeal of Clarke’s work as you’ll get. More than any other satirist, he was constantly in conversation with his audience, encouraging us on a “mutual adventure”.

cv_a_pleasure_to_be_here

We get to see the origins of that adventure in a set of essays Clarke wrote about his parents and other dear departed. In the essay on his late mother, he recalls seeing an actress in Palmerston North pretending to be drunk and singing ‘Making Whoopee’. The young Clarke was aware that he was “learning about something by seeing it exaggerated”. This would seem to have made an impression on him. He does, after all, spend lines in an essay nominally about his mother on an amdram lady called Bunty Norman. The “learning about” aspect of this seems significant. Clarke is aware he doesn’t know quite what’s going on, realises that the real thing is different from what is being presented, but treats the whole thing as a learning experience about that real thing. It’s not enough to say Clarke was a decent bloke who had respect for his audience (which is true): he also had a profound understanding of – and curiosity about – the interaction between audience and performer. In the Clarke and Dawe interviews especially, but also with Fred Dagg and The Games, Clarke is not so much a star performer as your co-conspirator. All the time, of course, he’s teaching you about something by exaggerating it.
But Clarke’s exaggeration is likely several thousand shades subtler than Bunty Norman’s. There are many moments in Tinkering where Clarke’s sly, playful humour achieves a state you can only really call “beautiful” or “perfect”; for example, when he describes David Lange as “a man who only shaves because it provides him with an audience”. What a line. If Oscar Wilde had said it (and he would have been happy to) it would be on desk calendars and coffee mugs. But it’s for more than a well-turned phrase or three that you should buy this book. In those moments when you can sense Clarke burning to really make a point, he does so with measured, clear-eyed conviction. Here he is on ‘The New Zealand Sense of Humour’:

“…said to be laconic, understated and self-deprecating. Even if true this is not very helpful. As the same claim is not unreasonably made for the humour of the Scots, the Irish, the English, the Australians, the Russians, the Canadians and the ancient Greeks among others.”

Here he is writing in 2008, at the height of the Global Financial Crisis, in a piece he frames as advice from his recently deceased father:

“You can’t have companies borrowing these huge amounts and not have the bloke come round at some stage and say ‘We’ll have the money now, thanks.’ The whole house of cards will go over. You watch.

And I’ll tell you another thing. The world is being destroyed by greed… And this environmental disaster we’ve got on our hands. What’s caused all this? Greed. Same thing. Capitalism.”

And, of course, the ‘Howard Apology’. In John Clarke and Ross Stevenson’s The Games, the actor John Howard gave the apology that the Prime Minister John Howard was incapable or unwilling to give. In Clarke and Stevenson’s imagined present, John Howard uses the opportunity of having the world’s eyes on Australia for the 2000 Olympic Games to apologise to the country’s indigenous people. After acknowledging that his forebears “destroyed” the Aboriginal world, and that the country has allowed social and racial differences “to become fault lines” he concludes:

“I speak for all Australians in expressing a profound sorrow to the Aboriginal people. I am sorry. We are sorry. Let the world know and understand, that it is with this sorrow, that we as a nation will grow and seek a better, a fairer and a wiser future. Thank you.”

The force of ‘The Howard Apology’ has only grown in the seventeen years since broadcast. Much satire is temporal in nature, as Clarke himself acknowledged, and inevitably not all the pieces collected here land as well as this. This would seem to be the key obstacle facing A Pleasure to be Here, which takes in Clarke & Dawe pieces all the way back to 1989. It’s a fair bet not everyone picking up this book is going to remember all the newsworthy moments of Alan Bond, Tim Fischer and Kevin Andrews, and so it’s remarkable that the book succeeds as well as it does. Clarke and Dawe’s familiar cadences bubble up from every page, and reading the interviews en masse is hypnotising. The form is strong enough that the interviews become timeless meditations on the frustratingly opaque and pompous nature of public language. They’re absurd, but often very silly.

Clarke’s only novel, The Tournament, is very enjoyable but maybe a little unfulfilling as a total piece. Even The Games is remembered more for individual scenes which read more like sketches than essential elements of a wider story. The Clarke & Dawe interviews, along with some of the Fred Dagg television material, remain the epitome of his work. He really was at his best in short form comedy, which makes him a great candidate for anthology. These books are a treat and a delight. I was familiar with a good deal of this material before picking either of them up, but was seduced by Clarke’s voice into that mutual adventure all over again. Presumably, Tinkering and A Pleasure to be Here have been released now so you can buy them both for your parents this Christmas. Given the quality of work compiled here, it’d be rude not to go and do just that. But get your own copies as well.

Reviewed by Jonny Potts

Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke
by John Clarke
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925603194

A Pleasure to be Here: The Best of Clarke and Dawe 1989-2017
by John Clarke
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925603200