The 1970s and 1980s brought a wry irony to New Zealand popular culture. Much of it was produced by Roger Hall, who made New Zealand’s first television comedy show, In view of the circumstances, with Joe Musaphia in the late 1960s.
Hall then drew on his experience of working in New Zealand’s public service to write enormously successful plays such as Glide time (1976), which was first adapted for radio and then for television as the series Gliding on (1981–86). Another Hall play, Middle age spread (1977), became a feature film in 1979.
Fred and Lynn
Two comedians made profound comic impacts in the 1970s playing Kiwi characters of their own invention.
Sending up a suburban New Zealand accent, actor and mimic Ginette McDonald first presented her popular character Lynn of Tawa on stage in 1968 when she was just 16. She resurrected the character for television appearances, beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the 1990s.
John Clarke’s character, the gumbooted rural philosopher Fred Dagg, appeared on television’s Country calendar from 1973. Regular slots on radio followed, as well as stage shows, books and records. In 1977 Clarke left for Australia but his influence continued. One commentator states simply that, ‘Clarke invented humour in New Zealand … he came up with a comic language. Every attempt to be funny or real in a New Zealand way follows from here.’1
McPhail and Gadsby
The satirical current affairs television series A week of it, fronted by Christchurch actors David McPhail and Jon Gadsby, and featuring other comedians including Annie Whittle, the only woman on the show, screened from 1977 to 1979. With further shows like Real issues (1990) and More issues (1991), McPhail and Gadsby dominated local television comedy for 15 years.
Columns and cartoons
A close associate of McPhail and Gadsby was the satirist A. K. Grant. As well as writing for theatre and television, he wrote a column for the weekly New Zealand Listener, beginning in the 1970s and continuing for 15 years.
In 1982 he published ‘the story of New Zealand’s international insignificance’, The paua and the glory. It was illustrated by Tom Scott, an equally gifted satirical writer who enlivened his columns for the New Zealand Listener and later the Dominion Post with his own cartoons.
Another creator of popular satirical columns and cartoons whose work graced the Listener in the 1970s was Rosemary McLeod.
Billy T. James (William Taitoko)
Originally a musician and singer, Billy T. James began to perform sketches and stand-up comedy as well as songs on his own television show in 1981. He also made a memorable appearance as a Mexican-Māori bandit in the 1985 film Came a hot Friday (based on the Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel of the same name).
By the time of his death in 1991 James was the country’s most popular comedian. The Billy T Award, New Zealand’s most prestigious comedy award, was founded in 1997.
A feature-length documentary chronicling James’ life, Billy T: te movie, appeared in 2011.
Havoc and Newsboy
From the mid-1990s younger comedians such as Mikey Havoc ensured that local comedy featured regularly on New Zealand television. Havoc’s television show featured the character Newsboy (Jeremy Wells), who went on to front shows such as Eating media lunch and The unauthorised history of New Zealand.
New Zealand feature-film comedies released in this period include the riotous road movie Goodbye pork pie (1981); Footrot Flats: the dog’s tale (1986), an animated movie based on the popular cartoon strip of the same name; and the first three films from Peter Jackson – Bad taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989) and Braindead (1992). Jackson and Costa Botes also made a highly effective ‘mockumentary’ in 1995, Forgotten silver.
In 1997 Topless women talk about their lives appeared, written and directed by Harry Sinclair. This off-beat comedy drama was produced in improvised style on a shoestring budget, and poked fun at contemporary culture to widespread critical acclaim.