Story: Māori humor – te whakakata

Humour has always been an important part of Māori culture and features in myths, speeches and songs. Many of New Zealand’s best-known comedians, such as Billy T. James, have been Māori and included a Māori sensibility in their work.

Story by Mark Derby
Main image: Taranaki orator Ruka Broughton using humour in a formal whaikōrero (speech) on a marae

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Humour in traditional stories

Humour features in traditional Māori myths and stories. One example is the story of Kahungunu, ancestor of Ngāti Kahungunu iwi, who wanted to marry Rongomaiwahine. He caused a fight between her and her husband by farting. The couple blamed each other for the bad smell.

Humour in speech-making and song

Humour is often used in whaikōrero (speeches), partly to hold the audience’s attention. Sometimes speeches at tangihanga are funny. Many traditional songs have comic elements.

Māori humour in the 20th century

In the early 20th century most Pākehā had little to do with Māori, who mostly lived in rural areas. A stereotype of the simple-minded but good-natured Māori developed in some Pākehā books and cartoons. Despite its racist overtones, this stereotype was an influence on the routines of Māori show bands, which were popular during the 1950s and 1960s.

Some well-known performers came out of the show bands, including singer Howard Morrison and comedian Billy T. James. Other well-known Māori comedians who emerged in the later 20th century included Mike King and Pio Terei.

Māori humour in the 2000s

It is common for Māori to tell jokes and funny stories to each other while working in kāuta – the cooking house at marae, where food is prepared. In the early 2000s Te kāuta, hosted by Kingi Biddle, aimed to recreate this atmosphere in a Māori-language television chat show. Humour also features in literature and art, for example in the artworks of Michael Parekowhai.

One study of humour in the workplace has shown that Māori humour is different to Pākehā humour, in both content and style.

How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Māori humor – te whakakata', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 September 2013