Tall stories and yarns
Perhaps the earliest comic tradition in New Zealand European communities was the yarn, an improbable anecdote told for amusement in the pub or the workplace. In sealing gangs, timber camps and other male-dominated communities, the best yarn-spinner was valued and admired. When the renowned British storyteller Rudyard Kipling visited in 1891 he rated New Zealand ‘a long way up on the scale of yarn power’.1
Out of the country’s migrant population and egalitarian tradition evolved a broad, self-mocking, anti-authoritarian strain of humour. Much Kiwi humour is also based on the immigrant experience and ethnic differences.
Almost every workplace, family and schoolyard has had its resident raconteurs and wits, or at least someone who was ‘a bit of a dag’.
‘The celebrated Charles R. Thatcher’
New Zealand’s first professional humorists appeared during the Otago gold rushes of the early 1860s. Hilarious farces were performed for rowdy diggers at Dunedin’s Princess Theatre, a crudely converted stable.
The best-known performer in this period was Charles Thatcher, who made three extended tours of New Zealand during the 1860s with his wife, the ballad singer Annie Vitelli.
Writing with wit
Jessie Mackay (1864–1938) was a prolific poet, journalist and social activist with a sharp sense of humour. Her best-known work is a parody of Tennyson’s ‘The charge of the light brigade’. In biting but historically accurate verse it mocks the large force of troops and volunteers who invaded Te Whiti’s pacifist settlement at Parihaka in 1881:
When can their glory fade? Oh!
The wild charge they made
New Zealand wondered
Whether each doughty soul
Paid for the pigs he stole
Noble Twelve Hundred!2
Thatcher sang original comic songs about local people and events, often written the same day they were performed. One reviewer said, ‘Every passing incident is laid hold of and embodied in verse… and is made the vehicle of administrating to the mirth and merriment of crowded audiences.’3
When Thatcher arrived in Auckland he found an open drain running down the main street, and regaled the residents with a new composition entitled ‘Beautiful Auckland’:
Auckland, town of shams and swells
Drains and mud and horrid smells …4
New Zealand university students have presented their own raucous and imaginative brand of humour since the late 19th century through capping (graduation) revues and student magazines.
In 1889 Otago University students began performing skits and songs at graduation ceremonies, but these grew so unruly that the university cancelled the ceremonies. In 1894 the students’ association launched its own capping revue, the first in New Zealand, satirising public figures and singing parodies of popular songs. It continued annually into the 21st century, having helped launch the careers of renowned wits such as David McPhail and Jon Gadsby.
A bit of a dag
Several local expressions refer to styles of Kiwi humour. ‘Taking the piss’ means to make fun of someone or something. Teasing or tricking somebody is known as ‘having them on’. ‘A dag’ is a funny person or incident. The term comes from the pieces of dried faeces and matted wool that dangle from a sheep’s hindquarters.
The Kiwi way
Actor and comedian Ginette McDonald (best-known for her character Lynn of Tawa) said, ‘New Zealand humour tends to be laconic, dry and self-effacing.’5 Stand-up comic Michèle A’Court agreed. ‘We don’t show off. We don’t want to look as if we’re trying too hard.’6 One classic self-deprecating Kiwi comic hero is the straight-talking farmer Fred Dagg, invented by John Clarke. As A’Court noted, ‘All his sons were called Trev because he couldn’t be arsed thinking of another name.’7
Amongst New Zealand’s best-known recent comedians are Billy T. James, born William Taitoko (Tainui), and the Topp Twins (Jools and Lynda Topp). Both acts have frequently depicted the triumph of underdogs over more polished and powerful figures in society. The same theme has animated the work of internationally successful comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie). In their self-titled television show they portrayed gauche Kiwis struggling to make it in New York. A mock travel poster in the office of their manager, Murray (Rhys Darby), said, ‘New Zealand. Don’t expect too much. You’ll love it.’