Skip to main content

Story: Humour

In the early days of European migration to New Zealand, rugged workers spun amusing, far-fetched yarns for workmates. By the 21st century, Kiwi humorists were tickling funny bones through every medium available, their style as dry, self-deprecating and anti-authoritarian as ever.

Story by Caroline Harker
Main image: David McPhail, Chris McVeigh and Jon Gadsby in 1970s television comedy A week of it

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Rough beginnings

New Zealand’s self-mocking, anti-authoritarian brand of humour may have arrived with the first Europeans – rough migrant workers who told comic yarns to entertain mates in the workplace or the pub. Much Kiwi humour is also based on the immigrant experience and ethnic differences.

Taking humour seriously

During the 1860s professional humorists appeared, including the well-known Charles Thatcher who toured New Zealand with his wife Annie Vitelli singing comic ballads. Student humour expressed itself through magazines and capping revues from the 1890s onwards, and in the 1900s New Zealanders began using cinema as a vehicle for humour. Rudall Hayward made a living travelling from town to town in the 1920s producing short comedy films that used locals as actors.

Laugh or you’ll cry

Humour thrived in troubled times. During the First World War Kiwi troops put together publications full of anti-imperial yarns, cartoons and songs.

From the depression of the 1930s and the Second World War emerged satirists such as A. R. D. Fairburn, Denis Glover and Allen Curnow.

The mixed 1960s

The 1960s and 1970s produced a lot of humorous literature that to modern audiences seems crude as well as obviously racist and sexist. However, some authors, such as Ronald Hugh Morrieson and Barry Crump, wrote about Kiwi life with wit and originality.

Roger Hall and Joe Musaphia made New Zealand’s first television comedy show, In view of the circumstances, in the late 1960s. Hall went on to become celebrated as a comedy scriptwriter.

The satirical 1970s

In the 1970s writers and illustrators including A. K. Grant, Rosemary McLeod and Tom Scott entertained with satirical columns and cartoons. Comic strips at the time included Burton Silver’s Bogor and Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats. The 1970s also saw Fred Dagg and Lynn of Tawa become household names – iconic Kiwi characters created by comedians John Clarke and Ginette McDonald respectively.

A week of it, New Zealand’s first satirical television skit show aired from 1977 to 1979. Since then many other successful home-grown television comedies have been produced.

Billy T. James and his legacy

Often considered New Zealand’s most popular comedian, Billy T. James began performing sketches, stand-up comedy and songs on his own television show in 1981. He died in 1991, and in 1997 New Zealand’s most prestigious comedy award was named after him – the Billy T Award.

Since then New Zealand stand-up comedy has blossomed. Many of New Zealand’s best known stand-up performers have been Billy T Award winners or nominees, including Mike King, Ewen Gilmour, Philip Patston, Raybon Kan and Rhys Darby. Other highly successful local comedians include Michèle A’Court, Jacob Rajan and the Laughing Samoans (Eteuati Ete and Tofiga Fepulea’i).

In 2012 New Zealand’s most successful comedy export was Flight of the Conchords (Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement).

How to cite this page:

Caroline Harker, 'Humour', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/humour (accessed 29 June 2017)

Story by Caroline Harker, published 5 Sep 2013