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Funny As is a hilarious and horrifying look at NZ's comedy history

Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy. Photo/Supplied

Five-part series Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy shows just how far our humour has come.

It turns out that trying to tell the story of New Zealand comedy is no laughing matter. There are no experts to turn to, no historians who have done their thesis on it. Archiving and indexing are largely, pardon the pun, a joke.

Nevertheless, the team behind Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy have scoured the TVNZ archives, put the call out for old VHS tapes and generally become comedy detectives to produce a five-part series.

Extra interview footage will also be available on NZ On Screen with more online content at TVNZ, and there’s an accompanying book.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

It’s been 18 months of research, says producer-director Paul Horan, because “the way that the legacy is dealt with is often ‘chuck it in a box in the corner’.” Frequently, tasty bits of footage, such as John Clarke at Downstage in 1973, were found as part of current-affairs reports or other shows.

“There are only four episodes of A Week of It left, but we did find a piece of it within an old Feltex Awards [show].”

The series itself is divided into five themes and revolves around interviews and archive material. It shows how the modern era of comedy came about and illustrates just how far we’ve come, from Ginette McDonald to Rose Matafeo, and John Clarke to How to Dad’s Jordan Watson.

“Comedy is a good lens to look at who we are, how racist we are, how confident we are and how sexist we’ve been, but also how we assert ourselves in the world,” says Horan.

The first episode, Women’s Comedy: A Secret History, tells that story in spades. McDonald recalls being told to lose weight for the sitcom All Things Being Equal, and writer Rosemary McLeod remembers being told by someone at the, ahem, Listener, that “girls don’t draw cartoons”. She went on to be a celebrated Listener cartoonist and columnist.

When put together like this, our comedy history begins to look quite mature. Early 20th-century comedy writers and satirists, as well as such troupes as the World War II-era Kiwi Concert Party, are collected in the book. Meanwhile, such comedians as Michele A’Court, Justine Smith, Jeremy Corbett and the members of Funny Business remember being inspired by Clarke, McDonald and Billy T James. Another tipping point was 7 Days.

The other episodes in the series look at how sketch and character-based comedy turned into stand-up; Māori and Pacific Island comedy; the use of music in comedy; and comedians in groups.

TVNZ 1, Sunday, 8.30pm

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.