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Meet New Zealand's professional piss-taker Tom Sainsbury

Tom Sainsbury. Photo/Ken Downie.

Billy T Award nominee Tom Sainsbury moves his satirical observations from Snapchat to the stage.

In medieval times, being a jester could seriously limit your life expectancy. But New Zealand in the 21st century is far less punitive – for which professional piss-taker Tom Sainsbury is quite grateful.

His delight in parodying people’s agendas and affectations is evident in his popular Snapchat videos, posted daily to his Facebook page (nearly 47,000 followers, and rising steadily). National leader “Soimon Brudges” and his deputy Paula Bennett are favoured targets, as are the foibles of everyday Kiwis.

The worst that happens to this jester, though, is when people take his work further than he intended. “Sometimes people react with such vitriol and hatred for the people I’m satirising, both politicians and the ordinary people. I’m like, ‘This isn’t the spirit with which I created it!’” he says. “A lovely middle-aged woman, somewhere in Invercargill, posted, ‘I don’t think it’s nice to make fun of people, regardless of who they are.’ I thought, ‘Well, that’s all I do!’”

And he’ll keep doing it. Tom Foolery, his stand-up show in Wellington and Auckland at this year’s NZ International Comedy Festival (2-26 May), riffs on the idea of a modern-day court jester. Sainsbury will skewer falseness in many guises: people who engage in virtue signalling, adopt consciously quirky behaviours, or stand up at a writer’s festival event to “ask a question” but then rant about their own work.

“I’ve got this constant push and pull between being naughty and saying the wrong thing, and playing nice,” says Sainsbury, who’s been nominated for the festival’s Billy T award, given annually to an emerging performer. “I’m always having to make sure my own thoughts are clear on where the line is.”

Since graduating from the University of Auckland (BA in English Literature and Theatre), the prolific Matamata-born writer and performer has written dozens of plays, and was Playmarket’s Young Playwright of the Year four times. Other highlights include co-creating the awkwardly comedic web series Stake Out and Bachelor Pad with comedy partner Chris Parker, and doing political satire for Australia’s Comedy Central TV channel.

Also during the festival, he, Parker, Kura Forrester (a fellow Billy T nominee) and Brynley Stent will stage Mincing, which Sainsbury describes as “King Lear set in a small-town New Zealand butchery”. Sainsbury features, too, in the Last Laughs line-up on the festival’s closing night.

Sainsbury still writes roughly three plays a year. “Comedy is this train that’s taken off and I’m riding with it, but my heart lies in drama and thriller as genres.” He’s also working on a screenplay for a “horror with funny bits” with production company Chillbox, after winning the 48Hours film competition twice. “The prizes are really good for making a classy short film, but we’re like, let’s go the next step up and make a low-budget feature film.”

First, there’s a stand-up show to perform. “I don’t really get nervous any more. Maybe it’s hard to sit down, and I have to keep moving, but in the last few minutes I just want to get on stage and say the first line.” Fakers and phonies, beware.

Tom Foolery shows 14-25 May in Auckland and Wellington.

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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