The first comedy films
When the new medium of cinema reached New Zealand its comic potential was quickly exploited. The pioneering filmmaker Henry Hayward screened a comedy, Burglar and the girls, to Auckland audiences in 1905. During the 1920s his nephew Rudall Hayward survived by travelling from town to town making short comedy films such as The bloke from Freeman’s Bay and Tilly of Te Aroha using a standard script and local residents as actors.
Humour seems to thrive under adversity. When independent-minded New Zealand troops were transplanted to overseas battlefields in the First World War they responded to the discomforts of wartime with wry, anti-imperial humour. Publications produced by and for the troops, such as New Zealand at the front (1917) and the Kia ora cooee (1918), contained yarns, cartoons and songs, as subversive as their officers were willing to print.
‘Me and Gus’
The first writer to use the language of ordinary New Zealanders for comic effect was Frank Anthony, a wounded First World War veteran who later struggled to develop a dairy farm in Taranaki. His ‘Me and Gus’ stories are bleakly comic tales about the agricultural and romantic tribulations of a pair of novice farmers. Ten stories were published during 1923 and 1924 in the Auckland Weekly News and Christchurch’s Weekly Press.
A trickster’s tale
Ned Slattery (‘the Shiner’), the cunning New Zealand tramp made famous in John A. Lee’s novels, once told an Otago publican that he had no money but promised to pay for his whisky in stamps. The publican agreed, and after several glasses he demanded payment. The Shiner began stamping his foot rhythmically on the floor of the bar.
Politician and author John A. Lee began his writing career while serving in the First World War, contributing small items to the New Zealand forces’ newspaper. He later immortalised one of the wittiest and most distinctive characters in New Zealand folklore in his books Shining with the Shiner (1944) and Shiner Slattery (1964). These describe the real-life 19th-century swagman Ned ‘Shiner’ Slattery, who tramped New Zealand’s roads for 50 years from the 1870s, surviving by wit and cunning.
Satire and suffering
The depression of the 1930s and the Second World War produced a flood of writing by satirists such as A. R. D. (Rex) Fairburn, Denis Glover and Allen Curnow. Under the pen name Whim Wham, Curnow wrote short satirical poems every week in The Press and later the New Zealand Herald, from 1937 until 1988.
Mixing poetry with politics
In response to a 1939 press report that Spain’s dictatorial leader General Franco enjoyed the support of his people, Whim Wham (Allen Curnow) wrote a mocking poem:
The Spaniard found his Franco
A little rough at first
He didn’t know the kindly heart
Behind the shrapnel burst;
But goodness wins the battle
With evil in the end
And now the Fascist butcher
Becomes the Spaniard’s friend.1
When Englishman Roger Hall migrated to New Zealand in 1958 he concluded that ‘no-one seemed to laugh very much in those days … it was a solemn little country.’2 Within a few years, however, Hall had joined a Wellington satirical revue group, The Rubbishers, together with Con and Marei Bollinger and Jim Delahunty. The group used original songs, large homemade puppets and startlingly accurate impersonations to lampoon current political figures such as Keith Holyoake.
Hori and Loosehead
Much of the widely available humour in this period has been described as ‘racist, sexist, parochial and just plain bad’.3 In the mid-1950s the popular radio comedy show Radio roadhouse ran on national stations and featured a regular sketch called ‘Dad and Hori’ which made use of racial and other stereotypes.
Well-known comic characters in literature included another ‘Hori’, the slovenly and self-indulgent Māori narrator of a series of books written by the non-Māori W. Norman McCallum, including The half-gallon jar (1962). Hori’s Pākehā equivalent, the sports- and sex-obsessed Loosehead Len, was created by sports writer Phil Gifford in 1973.
Crump and Morrieson
Some writers of the 1960s and 1970s showed they could raise a laugh without resorting to crude clichés. Barry Crump converted his experiences as a deer culler and pig hunter into enormously popular semi-autobiographical novels such as A good keen man (1960), Hang on a minute mate (1961), One of us (1962), There and back (1963), and Gulf (1964). These books drew on the Kiwi tradition of yarning – relating and embroidering personal experiences for the purpose of entertainment.
Meanwhile, the distinctive and gifted Ronald Hugh Morrieson wrote four novels, The scarecrow (1963), Came a hot Friday (1964), Predicament (1975) and Pallet on the floor (1976), which have all been made into movies – a testament to their narrative strength and wild black humour. Although largely unappreciated in his own lifetime, Morrieson is now regarded as one of the finest and most individual humorous writers New Zealand has produced.