'I'm half Maori and half Scottish. One half of me wants to get pissed and the other half doesn't want to pay for it. He he he he he." It was the giggle that did it. The cheeky look, the half grin, the quick look left and right before the big brown eyes widened as the punchline came. Those things made you laugh, but it was that infectious Billy T James cackle that finished you off.
By the way, William James Taitoko was not joking when he said he was half Scottish. Apparently, the Maori side of the family originally came from the King Country, but on his mother's side he was descended from the Campbell clan in Scotland. Back in 1981, when he got a TV show of his own, he told the Listener with a laugh, "I've been to some of the reunions in the King Country. It's a pretty unusual sight seeing Maori guys wearing kilts."
Perhaps it was the mixed ancestry that placed Billy T James as the guy in the middle, who could cheerfully take the proverbial out of both sides in the New Zealand race debate. As he said during the "Kill a White" controversy, "What about a half-caste like me? What do I do? Stab myself?"
In a monologue he talks of comparing the way Caucasian people do things and the way Maori do. He said it was especially fun to check out the different ways the kids acted. "A Caucasian kid comes up and says, 'Gidday Billy. Can I have your autograph?' A Maori kid will come up and say, 'Gidday Billy. Give me two dollars.'"
He was making these kinds of cracks at the time the Maoritanga renaissance was under way and it did offend some but not many. Billy told the Listener that, at that stage of his career, he had had only one Maori guy question his material.
"He said: 'What'd you tell that joke for?' I said: 'Which one? The one about the Indians?' 'No.' 'Aw. The Irish one?' 'No, no.' 'What? The Scotsman?' He just sort of forgot it."
Stand-up comedy and cabaret, face to face with a live audience, was how he preferred to perform. He felt more comfortable with the first TV show, Radio Times, when it was recorded before a live audience at Auckland's Maidment Theatre. In The Billy T James Show, he sat with the audience clustered around him.
The entertainment gene runs through James' family. His father was in a dance band and the young Billy performed in his own bands at high school in Whangarei. He cut his teeth with the last of the big showbands, the Maori Volcanics, joining in 1973 and touring with them in Australia, Britain and Northern Ireland and to US bases in Germany and Bermuda.
"There couldn't have been a better apprenticeship," he claimed. "So many Maori entertainers started that way. John Rowles was in a showband. Ricky May, Frankie Stevens. You get the grounding and you also make a lot of contacts overseas." And you get ideas.
As a comedian from a Maori background, Mike King salutes Billy T as the country's first real comedy act that picked up a lot from places like the English northern club circuit he did with the Volcanics. "What a lot of people don't realise is Billy T James was doing a lot of Billy Connolly. There wasn't the internet then. There wasn't the proliferation of video technology. You had to see these things live. Billy had done the showband tour. He'd seen these people all over the world. He'd hear some stuff over there, so he'd come back and give it to people here." Giving James full credit for his pioneering role, King adds that there is no such thing as "original comedy".
Billy T James could do great live stand-up comedy, he could sing, play a variety of instruments and, of course, he starred in the film Came a Hot Friday, but it was the TV routines that earned him his biggest following.
With a black singlet and a yellow towel slung around his neck, Billy would read Te News in the heaviest Maori accent he could muster. "Kia ora, kia ora. In court an elec ... an elec... a sparky was charged with battery. He spent the night in a dry cell. He he he he. The Maori entertainer Billy T James appeared before the race relations conch ... consh ... Hiwi Tauroa after receiving heaps of complaints about his new record, I'm Dreaming of a White Mistress."
In cold black and white on a page perhaps the words don't look that hilarious, but his delivery is guaranteed to drag a chuckle out of the driest audience.
His mischievous grin, a rising inflection in his voice, the addition of a couple
of words like "cuzzie" and "fullas" and even the weakest joke draws a laugh.
Do a quick search on YouTube where his TV comedy will never die and, although perhaps a little dated, the skits will still get you smiling.
One genuinely funny visual gag in Te News featured James saying, "Now over to Derek Fox to wrap up the news." The camera cut to Fox, the then-host of Te Karere, straight-faced and dressed in a black singlet with a brown towel around his neck, who simply picked up his news script and wrapped it in fish-and-chip paper.
Billy's most memorable skit, though, was a spoof of the Lands for Bags TV ad. The ads always ended with someone uttering the cheesy line, "Where did I get the bag? Lands for Bags, of course." In the Billy T James take-off, he goes, "Where did I get the bag? I stole it, of course. He he he he."
In the mid 80s, his health began to suffer and in 1988 he had a heart transplant. In a June 1990 Listener feature entitled "The Return of Billy the Kid", announcing James' new TV3 sitcom, writer Tony Reid introduced it saying, "Billy T James has a new heart, a new show and new life." It was not to be. Shortly after, he suffered a heart attack; he died in August 1991, aged only 42. If Billy T James had at times been controversial in life, he became the centre of even more uproar after his death.
A family feud broke out over funeral arrangements when a group of relatives took his body from his Muriwai home to a Waikato marae, against the wishes of his widow, Lyn. Billy T was buried on the sacred mountain, Taupiri. Well, not all of Billy, it seems. It may sound like black comedy, but it was more than 12 years after he died that an embarrassed Auckland District Health Board finally returned his heart to his relatives. To be precise, the board returned both his original heart and the transplant that had failed him, and they were finally buried with him in 2003.
It seems the name of Billy T James will never quite fade away. His trademark yellow towel is the trophy in the Billy T James Award for the country's best comedian. James also made history last year by becoming the first posthumous No 1 on the New Zealand album charts. The Comic Genius of Billy T James, a 1985 collection of his greatest hits, was re-released as a CD and DVD and sold like hotcakes, beating Kings of Leon and Amy Winehouse for the top spot. Not bad for someone who died 18 years ago.
Billy T James, the embodiment of New Zealand humour.