David McPhail's memoir includes a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued dissection of his years in the comedy limelight.
More than once in the past decade, some young stand-up comedian has asked me, "What does David McPhail think of us?" I've been lucky enough to work with McPhail a little, so they thought I might know. It occurs to me that just the asking of this question reveals a couple of important things.
First, it tells you McPhail's opinion matters to the current generation of comic performers. The modern style may have moved away from sketch and character comedy to solo stand-up, but McPhail is one of the undisputed godfathers of New Zealand comedy and the kids would like to know they have his blessing.
This latest crop may have been too young to watch McPhail in those groundbreaking shows of political and social satire - A Week of It in the 1970s and McPhail & Gadsby in the 80s - but somehow they know of them. Possibly it's cellular memory, passed on from parents who laughed so hard at the time that phrases like "Jeez, Wayne" got imprinted into their future kids' DNA.
The fact they ask me rather than him for his opinion reveals something else - a disconnection between different generations of comedy performers who don't get the chance to rub shoulders backstage or under hot studio lights. In fact, the dearth of locally made mainstream TV comedy means pretty much no one has rubbed shoulders with anyone for about 20 years. Imagine the skill, technique, experience and wisdom that haven't been allowed to be passed on.
Or, if you can't imagine it, read this memoir. Although it ranges wider than McPhail's television career - his full 65 years bookended by beautiful, evocative stories of his childhood in Christchurch and tales from his latest incarnation as a theatre practitioner - that chunk in the middle is a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued dissection of his years in the limelight.
It wasn't all brightly lit. His career was punctuated - sometimes punctured - by meetings in the dark and gloomy ninth-floor caves of TV executives, the "dull and duplicitous" suits who wouldn't know a decent comedy idea if it bit them. Given he is one of our TV comedy success stories, McPhail is uniquely placed to examine why there have been so few others - which he does, gloves off. We can be pleased he decided to write his memoir now - by usual standards, at 65 he's too young for this - while he's still a bit angry.
By no means is it all angry - although those currently in the entertainment industry might particularly enjoy those bits. And although there is an element of "setting the record straight" - here and there he apologises to people he may have injured along the way or restates his case in an old argument - ultimately this is the memoir of a contented man.
McPhail writes not only with the wit of a raconteur, he structures it that way, too. Many sentences begin, "But ...", "Perhaps ..." or "So ...", which owes less to prose than to a performer's way of ending one idea, then holding your attention as he takes a breath and launches into the next. It is a tribute to how well we know his voice that you can read it on the page.
There are new things to learn about him - his circuitous road to the spotlight, his late entrance into theatre, his unconventional career in a very conventional city with a much-loved family whose members, he says, "redeem him". This sounds odd until you peel it back and see that, for him, seeing his grown kids flourish in their chosen fields (television, theatre) tips a nod to his own courage and choices.
Which possibly answers a young comedian's question: "What does McPhail think of us?" Remarkably, his stories are very much like our stories (he just has more of them and tells them better), and it's a shame, though not his, we didn't have them sooner.
THE YEARS BEFORE MY DEATH: MEMORIES OF A COMIC LIFE, by David McPhail (Longacre, $39.99).