Jeremy Wellsby Felicity Monk
Felicity Monk eats media lunch with Jeremy Wells
'Ive worked myself into a right fluster while waiting for Jeremy "Newsboy" Wells to arrive. And no, ladies, it's not because he's a looker. I've seen him turn his tricks on Havoc, with that deadpan, piss-taking humour of his, often unleashed - subtly, mind - upon the unsuspecting. I'm wise to that technique of his, the one where he strokes his chin, nodding, smiling, encouraging the poor bastard, who is oblivious to the fact that he is being made to look the fool, to keep on talking. Having seen the first episode of Wells's Eating Media Lunch, in which talkback hosts were unknowingly duped, the thought now occurs to me that anyone in the media, including myself, is fair game.
The interview gets off to a wobbly start, with the interviewer extremely suspicious and the interviewee appearing as though his synapses aren't firing quite as they should. Over soup, salad and a limonata, Wells attempts to describe Eating Media Lunch, which he presents and co-creates (with Phil Smith and Paul Casserly). After a number of failed attempts - "How bad am I at explaining the show?" - he decides that he would like to run with the Listener's description. "If you can quote the Listener summary, it was just so good."
So here it is. Again. "Eating Media Lunch sets out not merely to comment on, but to parody, satirise and skewer the many ways that information is manipulated and presented by this thing called 'the media'." (TV Week, November 15)
Admittedly, it is a hard show to describe. It's a half hour of bits and pieces of interviews, pranks, talking to the experts, talking to the media, a "celebrity sharemarket index" and cartoonist Anthony Ellison's "media dog". It is funny, sharp, cynical and lightweight. There are some cracking one-liners - for example, a description of the Prime Minister's entrance into a press conference: "Like a southerly in slacks, Helen enters the room." And re-enactments of poignant historical moments - Wells tracing Muldoon's 1984 drunken stumble down the Beehive halls and he confides that, once out of view of the cameras, Muldoon did indeed lean on a wall and vomit "mostly fluids, and some bits of corn". All this delivered by the poker-faced, seemingly humourless but quite hilarious, powder-blue suit-wearing Wells.
"We wanted to call the show 'Shane's Cotton Wool Shenanigans', but the network didn't buy it. They wanted something with the word 'media' in it. I like 'Shane's Cotton Wool Shenanigans'."
Initially, he says, they had thought the show was going to be more serious. "But it is interesting, because it changes over time, where you think, for a while, this is going to be our show and you start making it and then it changes, and you see what works and what doesn't."
Wells isn't sure whose idea it was. "We kind of came together and found that we shared something. I'm not sure what that was that we shared."
And he doesn't really remember how it happened. "I just remember a lunch somewhere and then another lunch somewhere else, but I don't remember what we were talking about. Probably nothing to do with TV, to be honest. I'm the worst interview in the world. Sorry. I'll collect myself over my soup."
(So far, so good. There's been no chin stroking and very little nodding and smiling - or not so I've noticed, anyway. He seems far more preoccupied with gathering his thoughts than trying to make a monkey out of me.)
Wells was born in Auckland in 1977. His talent as a performer was obvious from a young age.
"We used to make home videos: Mossman, Mossman 2, Mossman 3, and One Thousand Ways to Kill Yourself. We had some quite good videos. Mossman," he explains, "was a man who was run over by a lawnmower and mulched into the ground - he's more like compost man, but we called him Mossman because of the alliteration."
Evidently, in each episode a disgruntled Mossman would emerge from the compost heap, vowing to take revenge on the person who had mown him down.
"And One Thousand Ways to Kill Yourself," he continues excitedly, "was like Jackass well before its time. Alistair [his childhood buddy] would be riding down Victoria Avenue with Double-Happies strapped to him and being exploded on his BMX. He rode his BMX off the sewer pipe and he jumped off his roof with his umbrella and we set fire to him. I was filming and he was the stuntman. I was a lot of the brains behind the ideas. We used to spend most Sunday afternoons making videos together. If we weren't going to buy a pack of B&H Special Filter and going down and smoking them at Wilson's Field, we would be making a video."
Surprisingly, Wells reckons he wasn't ever the "funny guy" in class.
"I wasn't the class clown or anything, I was quite geeky. I was like a - what are people like me called? - ah, goody-goods."
If this is to be believed, his goody-good phase was rather short-lived.
Bundled off to a Wanganui boarding school because his parents felt he was going down the "wrong track", he managed to last until his sixth-form year before being expelled for giving a cap of marijuana oil to a recovering drug addict at a Marton treatment centre. It is a long and entertaining story, but one, it must be noted, he feels very sorry about. "I really liked boarding school. God, boarding school was good. I was really upset to leave, actually."
At the end of his seventh-form year at St Paul's in Hamilton, Wells returned to Auckland to study journalism at AUT. Then, in early 1997, the final year of his degree, he started at student radio station bFM, writing and reading the news on Mikey Havoc's breakfast show. "We got to know each other," says Wells, "and I was very impressed. Very impressed." Lucky for him it seems that Havoc was, too, because a few months later he was invited to be a part of Havoc's new TV show. Good thing that, since the previous week AUT had asked him to leave for failing to attend the required number of lectures.
The first Havoc show originally aired on MTV in August 1997, and when the MTV channel was dropped a year later, the show was picked up by TV2.
It was a case of the strange little TV show that could, and Havoc and trusty sidekick Newsboy soon became household names - in student flats, anyway. "We never set out to have roles or anything like that," says Wells, "it just kind of happened that way, and it developed, and it was the nicest part about it. It grew, not like a tidy little plant, but more like a datura, you know, that sort of invaded your back garden. It grew - it was nice the way it just did that."
This is the first year since its inception that Havoc hasn't screened and rumour has it that Havoc has taken the show to TV3. Does this mean the end of the dynamic duo?
Wells truly hopes not. "I really like doing shows with Mike. He is a very clever guy. He is a genius, actually. This year, when we did It's in the Bag together [part of Auckland's AKO3 Festival], I stood behind him in a dress, a tangerine-orange dress, and I watched a guy perform superbly. He didn't have any prompts or any idea what he was going to do, he just went straight out there, all off the cuff, and did Selwyn proud. I was very proud to be a part of that. It was a scary experience, but it was Mike's greatest moment, I thought."
But would Robin survive without his Batman? Smithers without his Mr Burns? One Ronnie without the other? Newsboy without Havoc?
"I enjoy doing it by myself, it's fun. Of course I am nervous about it, it's scary, but you kind of have to get out of your comfort zone every now and then. It's good for you to put yourself into uncomfortable situations, not always, but sometimes, and this is sort of a bit like that. I'm excited."
The interview is over. He's off to do some "work on the show", and I'm nonchalantly scanning for hidden cameras all the way back to the office.
Eating Media Lunch, TV2, Tuesday, 9.30pm
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