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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The challenging and unpredictable medium of stand-up comedy grew increasingly popular from around 2000.
As early as 1982 Bill McGechie (later Willy de Wit), Scott Blanks and others had performed weekly live stand-up shows in an Auckland pub. In 1997 Blanks opened the Classic Comedy Club in Auckland’s Queen Street as New Zealand’s first dedicated stand-up venue. Many would-be comedians cut their teeth at ‘the Classic’, including Rhys Darby, later to find international fame with Flight of the Conchords.
Well-known New Zealand stand-up performers include Mike King, Michèle A’Court, Ewen Gilmour, Philip Patston, Pinky Agnew, Raybon Kan, the Laughing Samoans (Eteuati Ete and Tofiga Fepulea’i) and Jacob Rajan.
Since 1995 an annual International Comedy Festival in New Zealand has showcased local and international stand-up.
One of the highest tributes a comedy act can receive is to have one of its catchphrases adopted by the public. Here are some of the Kiwi examples:
Fred Dagg: ‘Get in behind!’ (1970s)
McPhail and Gadsby’s A week of it: ‘Jeez, Wayne!’ (late 1970s)
bro’Town: ‘Shut up palagi!’ (2000s)
Flight of the Conchords: ‘It’s business time.’ (2000s)
A Listener reviewer described New Zealand television comedy in 2009 as ‘sometimes oxymoronic but mostly just moronic’.1 However, the most successful shows, such as the animated series bro’Town and The Jaquie Brown diaries (fronted by a celebrity-obsessed television reporter), have been critically acclaimed in New Zealand and overseas as hilarious and alarmingly true to life.
By 2012 Flight of the Conchords (Wellingtonians Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie) were arguably New Zealand’s most successful television comedians. They began with a live show in 2000 playing a pair of terminally uncool folk singers. They took this act to Europe and made an award-winning BBC radio series in 2004.
A television series, based on the duo’s efforts to find success in New York City, began screening in the US in 2007 and won them an international cult following. They appeared on the animated television comedy The Simpsons in 2010. Their appeal relies on their small-town naiveté in a sophisticated world. When asked if they’ve ever had a threesome, one earnestly replies, ‘Well, I’ve had some twosomes and lots of onesomes.’
Taika Waititi has said of his film Boy: ‘It’s colonial outpost humour: you’ve just got to laugh at awkward, crazy, painful stuff when you’ve been banished to the nether regions of the globe. Māori humour is quite self-deprecating … It is more true to life to see humour among really upsetting situations – laughing and crying at the same time – dealing with things by trying to see the flipside.’2
Since 2000 a string of New Zealand movies have used humour to great effect. Kombi nation (2002) draws on the Kiwi tradition of OE (overseas experience) in Europe. The tagline for Tongan ninja (2002) is, ‘Aren’t you sick of movies full of nothing but childish humour and mindless violence? Thought not.’
Stickmen (2003) is a contemporary urban comedy about unscrupulous pool players. Both this film and Sione’s wedding (2006) star Robbie Magasiva, one of a growing group of Pacific comedians. A sequel to Sione’s wedding appeared in 2012.
Taika Waititi’s first full-length feature, Eagle versus shark (2007), was co-written with Loren Horsley, who plays lead character Lily. Waititi followed this film with the semi-autobiographical Boy in 2010. Based on his own childhood experiences in a remote part of the East Coast of the North Island, the film found international acclaim.
Separation City, a comedy of modern marital ethics written by veteran humorist Tom Scott, was released in 2009, as was Untouchable girls, a feature documentary about comedic country-music-singing duo the Topp Twins.
Barnett, John, and Lesley Kaiser. The Penguin book of New Zealand jokes. Auckland: Penguin, 1996.
Elliott, Matt. Kiwi jokers: the rise and rise of New Zealand comedy. Auckland: HarperCollins, 1997.
Hoskins, Robert. Goldfield balladeer: the life and times of the celebrated Charles R. Thatcher. Auckland: Collins, 1977.
McLauchlan, Gordon, ed. The acid test: an anthology of New Zealand humorous writing. Auckland: Methuen, 1981.
McLauchlan, Gordon, ed. A history of New Zealand humour. Auckland: Penguin, 1989.
Reid, John Cowie. The Kiwi laughs: an anthology of New Zealand prose humour. Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1961.
Ricketts, Harry, and Hugh Roberts, eds. How you doing? A selection of New Zealand comic and satiric verse. Wellington: Lincoln University Press and Daphne Brasell Associates, 1998.