A scholarly comic

by Bill Ralston / 01 August, 2009
A lawyer turned writer, AK Grant produced three decades' worth of sublime New Zealand satire, including 15 years at the <i>Listener.</i>

One name appears constantly throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s as one of the founding fathers of modern New Zealand humour and satire, Alan Keith Grant.

A September 1978 Listener profile by Helen Paske describes him as "a barrister by trade and a writer by inclination". His wit, it seems, was hereditary. Paske writes, "He was blessed with a father who showed flashes of humour. Grant senior was a schoolteacher - he taught his son until standard 5. 'I used to get strapped for things other kids would get away with, but he used to write my school reports and say things like: Could do better. Suspect unsatisfactory home background.'"

It was Grant's long-standing partnership with David McPhail and Jon Gadsby that possibly had the most impact on the public mind. His co-authorship of the running gag that was the Gluepot Tavern skit in A Week of It gave the country one of its first catchphrases: "Jeez, Wayne."

In 1979, one of the show's writers, Peter Hawes, wrote about the editorial process behind the programme's pre-production as it prepared for another six-part series.

"With absolutely no malice at all the characters of pleasant, hardworking politicians, sportspeople, clerics and other dignitaries will be maligned, impugned and damned. Between sips of the coffee - sometimes beer - between polite pauses while Gadsby wonders if it isn't time for an 11-minute production set on a back country run, lulled into contentment by the gurgles of an inexhaustible stream, a handful of ordinary chaps will, half a dozen times more, sit back and devise new ways to outrage the nation."

And outrage the nation they did. Frequently, the accusation of "bad taste" was levelled against the show and its authors. In 1993, Grant wrote: "Whenever I hear accusations of bad taste being thrown around, I know that somewhere a satirist is doing his duty." He insisted that bad taste is not just the lifeblood of comedy but what comedy is, because it involves using real or imaginary people's real or imaginary mis­fortunes to get a laugh. "Bad taste is just a matter of degree, and insecure people with taut sphincters place the Plimsoll line a good deal lower than those of us who try to paint it out altogether."

He cited, as an example, a poem in the Listener he did called In Memoriam:

God sent you a cancer, Mum,

Which ate you up in stages.

Now you're in Heaven with the saints,

And you'll be there for ages.

Grant claimed he was deluged with angry letters but he was unrepentant because, he reckoned, the point he was making was that a lot of In Memoriam verses are "so trite and banal as to be an insult to the memory of the dead". Besides, he also got a letter from a woman who said her mother was dying of cancer and had read the column and it was so funny it cheered her up.

Bad taste, it seems, is in the eye or ear of the beholder and woe betide the comedian if the beholder is a committed Christian. Grant recalled one 1980 McPhail and Gadsby show in which he was the writer that caused a storm of controversy. There was a scene where Jon Gadsby knelt to take communion in a church. The priest handed him the wine, Gadsby sipped it and handed it back saying, "You haven't got a chablis have you?" The uproar that followed that skit saw McPhail on television trying to justify the joke, and an internal Broadcasting Corporation of NZ inquiry after many clergymen and parishioners complained.

Grant compared comedy to a high-wire act because "you are aiming to provoke an involuntary reaction; you can't actually make anyone laugh on purpose. If they do laugh it is because they have been surprised into it". He maintained that's where bad taste came in. "It is kind of post-coital. People laugh at something despite themselves, and are later ashamed of their ejaculation." That is when the embarrassed start spluttering the words "bad taste".

As his last cunningly placed word in a 1993 piece, Grant quoted a sacked BBC scriptwriter who told the (UK) Listener "Jokes are evil, nasty and subversive. That is why people like them."

Grant died in April 2000 and today former colleague Bruce Ansley describes Grant's early role as making him "the significant figure in New Zealand humour. There was nobody like him. His humour was so lateral and so odd. You know, there is a limited number of jokes structures and Alan stepped outside those. His stuff always took you by surprise." Grant was a scholarly comic with a prodigious lawyer's memory.

It was his broad range, from the absurdly comic to cutting satire to sheer parody, that Ansley most admires. Unlike many comics, Grant was also capable of being consistently funny in person. "He was a great man to have lunch with. I remember one famous lunch party where Grant decided he would give the punchline and we would have to invent the jokes. He, of course, was very good at that. His famous joke, The Horse That Sat on a Grapefruit, could take anything up to an hour-and-three-quarters to tell."

Grant had a legendary reputation as a huge drinker, a problem that became serious later in life, but it never seems to have interfered with his equally large sense of humour. "He was just as funny when he was pissed," says Ansley. Nor did he become bitter or cynical, unlike some other humorists whose sense of humour seemed to atrophy with the years. "Age never withered him."

After his death in 2000 friends and fans established the AK Grant Memorial Trophy, to be awarded to the best speaker in celebrity debates held alternately at the Christchurch and Otago arts festivals. Fittingly, the first winner was his long-time collaborator, Tom Scott.

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