Many traditional Māori myths and legends contain examples of humour and absurd situations. The trickster hero Māui tried a novel way to overcome the death goddess Hine-nui-te-pō. He crept towards the giant woman as she lay sleeping and attempted to enter her body through her vagina, in a reversal of birth. As he was disappearing between her thighs, the fantail accompanying him found the sight so hilarious that it laughed out loud. Hine-nui-te-pō woke up and crushed Māui between her massive legs, ensuring that the human race remains mortal.
Kahungunu was a legendary lover, and the founder of Ngāti Kahungunu, the large tribe that now bears his name. Arriving at the Māhia Peninsula, he hoped to win the favours of the high-born and beautiful Rongomaiwahine, although she was already married to the chief Tama-Takutai. Kahungunu ate a large meal of pāua (abalone), then lay down in the house that Rongomaiwahine and her husband shared with him. During the night the kina produced a succession of odorous farts, for which the married couple blamed each other and squabbled fiercely. Kahungunu soon succeeded in marrying Rongomaiwahine, who bore him four children.
In 1814 a group of missionaries and other travellers were welcomed at the Bay of Islands by local Māori. One woman evidently found the strangers hilarious. John Liddiard Nicholas reported, ‘We could easily perceive, from the effect her sallies [jokes] had on her companions … that the packaha, or white man, was the subject of some extraordinary remarks, and called forth the rarest specimens of her witty effusions. I do not doubt but her jokes upon us were indulged with a great deal of freedom, as all our movements excited the loudest bursts of laughter.’1
Māori have traditionally admired leaders, including religious and military figures, who can employ jokes and witty anecdotes in their oratory, often while also delivering hard truths. Anthropologist Joan Metge has said that joke-telling has been an integral part of whaikōrero (speech-making) because the audience for speeches on marae typically covers a wide range of ages and social status, and speeches can go on for a long time. Regularly inserting humour into speeches is a way to hold the audience’s attention and prevent them becoming bored and distracted.
Sometimes the singers who accompany a speaker will provide the comic element. Kuia in particular were known to compose ruri (ditties) to comment humorously on proceedings in the marae. A military surgeon, John Savage, who visited the Bay of Islands in 1805, reported that the local people found some of their songs so hilarious ‘as, in many instances, to occasion a total suspension of the performance, by the laughter of the audience’.2
Even at a tangihanga, while farewelling a departed friend or relative, an orator may include a funny anecdote or good-humoured put down. This may be most likely to happen on the last evening of a tangihanga, when laughter and levity can enable the loosening of spiritual bonds with the tūpāpaku (deceased person) and enable the wairua (spirit of the deceased) to depart.
The large Ngāti Porou tribe, based on the east coast of the North Island, enjoys a reputation for playing tricks, especially against non-Māori. A history of the tribe records that one elderly Ngāti Porou man asked for credit at a country store so that he and his work gang could produce a huge quantity of grass seed for sale. The storekeeper was delighted to have such a lucrative order and a large bill was run up. The old man then gave his name as Kawehe-ite-rekareka, his address as Haere oti atu and his local marae as Waingaromia. When the storekeeper tried to send the bill, he discovered that Kawehe-ite-rekareka meant ‘joyful parting’, ‘Haere oti atu’ meant ‘gone forever’ and ‘Waingaromia’ meant ‘out of sight’.1
Māori and Pākehā had little contact with each other in the early 20th century, and both peoples used humour to express their attitudes towards the other race.
For much of the 20th century non-Māori New Zealanders maintained a comic tradition of the simple-minded but good-humoured Māori. In 1910 Alfred Grace published a collection of comic sketches, the Hone Tiki dialogues, in which a mythical, clownish Māori comments in broken English on Pākehā customs. In many cartoons produced for publications such as the New Zealand Herald, Trevor Lloyd portrayed the ‘modern Māori’ as greedy, stupid and selfish.
These crude parodies had little to do with the traditions and forms of humour enjoyed by Māori themselves. However, limited contact and lack of mutual understanding between the races meant that, for much of the 20th century, this was the only ‘Māori humour’ known beyond Māori society. It influenced the routines of popular Māori performers such as the show bands of the 1950s and 1960s. Groups such as the Howard Morrison Quartet included the clichés of ‘Māori’ humour in their stage acts and recordings.
From the 1960s Māori increasingly published, performed and recorded examples of Māori humour that were not primarily aimed at confirming the stereotypes held by non-Māori. Although these works were mainly in the English language, they employed a more authentic Māori voice and often found humour in the contrast between traditional and modern culture. Hone Tuwhare’s 1972 poem ‘To a Maori figure cast in bronze outside the chief post office, Auckland’ is as bawdy and direct as a pub conversation. Short story writer Arapera Blank has described lipsticked urban Māori girls returning to their rural community, where their relations suggested they must like to eat raw meat.
From 1981 the performer Billy T. James, originally a musician in a showband, became perhaps the best-known humorist in the country. His trademark high-pitched giggle helped him exploit the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky Māori no-hoper with sly effectiveness, and his characters generally outwitted supposedly smarter superiors. Since then other Māori comedians such as Mike King and Pio Terei continued to mock racial stereotypes from a Māori perspective, and proved popular with audiences of all kinds.
‘Any time Māori get together, they’ll want to make each other laugh,’ says broadcaster Kingi Biddle.1 In 2012 Biddle presented the television programme Te kāuta, an informal Māori-language chat show. The programme is set in an old-fashioned kāuta, the cooking shed beside a meeting house where marae volunteers prepare meals while exchanging rude jokes, outrageous stories and light-hearted abuse.
The subjects discussed on Te kāuta range from traditional history and customs to personal memories and opinions, but always with a note of humour. In Māori society, both in the past and the present, humour naturally accompanies every type of activity. Humour can leaven a serious situation, or can defuse conflict.
The work of internationally recognised sculptor Michael Parekowhai is known for its quirky, witty and culturally subversive qualities. He has exhibited massive white elephants in the window of an Auckland art gallery, which he said was ‘a little reminiscent of grandma’s china cabinet’. Other Parekowhai artworks have included a set of 10 guitars – a nod to Māori performers and the popular song ‘Ten guitars’ – outsized pick-up sticks and a magnificently hand-carved grand piano. ‘Humour's a really important part of everyday life, especially with art. You gotta make them smile before you make them think.’2
A 2007 study of workplaces with a high proportion of Māori found that ‘Maori humour is fundamentally different from Pakeha, both in content (what the different groups find amusing or ‘get’) and style (the way the joke is told).’ For Māori much of the effectiveness of a good joke depends on how it is told. ‘Māori are physical – look at our haka. It engages the whole body, the whole expression. So the telling of a joke is in the eyes, the expression, the body language. Our best speakers don’t just tell a joke. They become the joke.’3