• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Rose Matafeo: Rose Tinted

Rose Matafeo: You don’t want to go out and die on your arse every night.

Comedian Rose Matafeo’s winning brand of funny is all the better for its shades of sadness and uncertainty.

This must be what it feels like to do a stand-up set before a polite but indifferent audience. “Sorry, sorry,” sighs Rose Matafeo after a barrage of calls from her homeland finally rouses her. She can’t stop yawning with what sounds like jaw-dislocating savagery down the phone from London. My material obviously isn’t cutting it. I’m dying here.

Well, it’s early her end and we know she set her alarm for the wrong time because half an hour into our chat it goes off: “Sorry, sorry.” She’s jet-lagged from a trip to Italy to see a friend, an excursion she experienced with her trademark admixture of the verve of a successful young comedian taking on the world and the paralysing existential dread of some gloomy mid-20th-century French philosopher.

“I was on the train and my phone was out of battery, which was a really bad idea because you’re left with your own thoughts. So I’m just sitting on the train watching the beautiful Tuscan countryside and I was like, ‘This is so nice! I’m going to be dead soon.’ There was no way of enjoying a moment without understanding that I would not be experiencing it really soon.” She’s 24.

It can’t be helping her famously uneasy relationship with her own mortality to be schlepping a coffin with her everywhere she goes. It’s a flat-pack coffin (apparently Ikea doesn’t do those yet), but still. Her show in which it’s a prop, Finally Dead, debuted with a mordantly triumphant extended Auckland season at the 2015 NZ International Comedy Festival. “Every time I do the show again, I’m like, ‘I’m getting rid of the coffin. This is bullshit.’ Then before I left to come here, my nan was like, ‘You’ve got to take the coffin. It’s half the show.’ Dragging the coffin across the world – it’s like a weird sort of Passion Play.”

She does talk about stand-up as a sort of penance. The way she tells it, Finally Dead’s month-long run at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival earlier this year involved vastly more pain than pleasure. “I only really enjoyed the last week and one show in the middle. I’d be in the foyer of the hotel, just sitting in a resting mode. I measured my heart rate and it would be over 100 beats per minute. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, why am I doing this to my body?’” The reviews across the ditch were mixed.

Yet when we speak, she’s preparing to take all the lols that come with prematurely staging your own funeral at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

She knows what she’s in for. She’s done the Fringe, with fellow Kiwi comedian Guy Montgomery, and it was tough. “That was us just dipping our toes into it and doing half an hour each of stand-up in the Free Fringe, which means everyone can just show up.”

The venue was awful. In the end, she was culling the audience of angry old Scotsmen who couldn’t understand her accent. “I’d be like, ‘Hey, if you don’t really know who we are, you probably might not enjoy it.’ I managed to kick some old Scottish men out of our show. Because it was going to be f---ing awful up on stage.”

Rose Matafeo after winning the 2013 Billy T Award.

This time she’s got a proper venue, paying customers and her coffin. The comedy, now called Rose Matafeo is Finally Dead, is more a one-woman show than stand-up. That’s incredibly brave for a 24-year-old or anyone to do in Edinburgh or anywhere. I don’t know how she does it. “I don’t know either. I’ve been rethinking everything about it, to be honest.” On the plane from Italy, she was listening to Desert Island Discs with Judi Dench (did I mention Matafeo’s a bit of a nana?). “I heard her say that fear and anxiety are things that push her to do what she does. I was like, ‘That’s cool.’ The next question was, ‘Would you ever do a one-woman show?’ And she said, ‘God, no. Never, ever, ever.’ Judi Dench wouldn’t do something I’m trying to do. What am I doing?”

Fear and anxiety: Matafeo knows about those. She’s talked about depression on stage. “I still joke about how a counsellor said it was ‘very mild’ depression.” She’s bemused when interviewers take her gags over whether she’s really depressed or just a dick overly seriously. “It’s weird because what I said on stage about it was almost taken as a quote. It’s a different person saying that at the time, because you have to build this character.” Of course it’s all inspired by truth. “But stand-up is that kind of essence of your personality, simplifying very complex aspects of your personality so you can communicate it to an audience.”

Still, she finds it useful to give her demons an airing on stage. “What I experience is so small-scale compared with what [other] people experience. But even acknowledging that there is a scale and that most people are on that scale, I think it’s cool. If you talk about that stuff, you naturally feel less alone.”

She did see a counsellor when she was in New Zealand this year making the second series of TV3’s terrific Funny Girls. “Oh my gosh, I wish I hadn’t. I just cried the whole time.” The counsellor hardly got a word in. “We figured out the fee divided by the approximate amount of tissues I used turned out to be $8 a tissue.” I feel bad for laughing at this story. “No! My counselling sessions are absolute fodder for comedy.” So what does she think that was about? No idea. “I don’t even know why I booked a session. Everything is A-OK.”

Well, maybe being A-OK brings its own pressures. Last year she moved to London, to try her wings and to be closer to her boyfriend, acclaimed English master of the dry comic narrative James Acaster. There were the rigours of doing Finally Dead in Melbourne. While she was performing there, she was writing for Funny Girls, then dashing back to New Zealand to film it. “The bulk of the writing was done in five weeks. Every one of our writing team was performing in the comedy festival, so it was full on. We started shooting immediately after and it was all done and dusted.” That would rack up a few points on the stress-o-meter.

In a scene from her one-woman show Finally Dead.

Stand-up. There are few other art forms – and at its best it is an art – where you get second-by-long-second feedback on your adequacy as a human being as you do it. “It’s this constant struggle between wanting to impress and make an audience enjoy themselves, but also being true to some tiny bit of integrity that informs what your comedy is and what makes you unique. You don’t want to go out and die on your arse every night.” For the sake of your integrity. “I know! And then people are like, ‘What integrity? You’re a goddam comedian.’”

Happily, making the second series of Funny Girls went well. There have been some changes. The biting, feminist-y behind-the-scenes narrative about the making of a fictional show called Funny Girls that linked the sketches last time is a stronger element this season. A good call if it means seeing more of the wonderful Jackie van Beek’s clueless producer. “Pauline was such a highlight last year. We realised that character is just gold,” says Matafeo.

There are more women writing this time and Madeleine Sami, Matafeo’s mate and mentor, who directed her when she first did Finally Dead, is on board as a director. “It’s like a sitcom.” With luck it will be the first thing since The Jaquie Brown Diaries to make a dent in the lingering curse of Melody Rules.

It was also a chance to learn from comedians who are trained actors in pursuit of Matafeo’s ultimate goal: to win an Oscar. “I’ve got my heart set on it. I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I’ll win, like, a technical Oscar they do in the daytime and that nobody goes to.” Well, comedians – Bill Murray, Kristen Wiig – often make great straight actors. Most straight actors couldn’t do stand-up to save themselves. “Yeah, maybe it’s harder to make fun of yourself than it is to take yourself seriously. Maybe I need to learn how to start to take myself a lot more seriously, and then I can win an Oscar.”

No doubt she will if she sets her mind to it. It’s easy to forget how young Matafeo is because of her astonishing CV. She won her first comedy award at 15, won the Billy T Award in 2013 and was a pivotal part of the line-up on TVNZ’s brilliant anarchic, sadly canned youth show U Live. She writes and performs on Jono and Ben and is a stalwart of improv group and talent incubator Snort. She was a pivotal figure in the development of Funny Girls.

She’s also, as mentioned, a nana. She’s obsessed with tragic Old Hollywood legends (google “Rose Matafeo lip syncs to Judy Garland for some reason”). “I listen to Coast,” she confesses. People think she’s being ironic – but no. “I’ve won two ring-in competitions on Coast. I’ve won a cookbook and a set of DVDs. That’s how much I listen to it.”

Her old-school tastes were a sort of act of resistance. “I had really cool parents who listened to very cool music – hip-hop and reggae, dance music … The only way to push against that was to listen to my mum’s Burt Bacharach collection, her one CD of that.”

Nostalgia – maybe looking back is a way of putting a bit of distance between yourself and that treacherous present moment that’s speeding you towards oblivion. “I’ve always been obsessed with everything that has been.”

Her father is Samoan, her mother Croatian and Scottish. They do sound cool. She’s described herself, in Ab Fab terms, as Saffy to her mother’s Eddy. When we speak, her mother’s briefly back from Uganda, where she teaches. “She lives near a brothel in Kampala in a great city apartment. They pump music till 1.00am on a school night. She’s livin’ the life.”

In her comedy festival show Valley of the Lols in Auckland this year.

Matafeo once did a piece for Seven Sharp about being a bad Samoan. “I feel like a shit Samoan because my dad never spoke it to me and I was never surrounded by that at school, not till I went to Auckland Girls’. I wouldn’t say I’m white because people would say, ‘Well, you’ve got a Samoan last name and you’re not white.’ I can’t say I’m Samoan because I’m too white to be Samoan. I can never put my foot fully into one camp.”

She’s working on it. And that sort of background can make for good material. “Absolutely. In any difficult or awkward situation like that, there’s always humour to be mined. I do a lot more about that now. I didn’t really speak about myself or true stories back when I first started, because I didn’t have any stories to tell. Because I was, you know, 15.”

Well, she did have stories to tell, she just didn’t know it yet. Now her exotic identity is proving a point of difference in London. “I opened the other day by saying, ‘Hi, my name is Rose. I’m from New Zealand and I’m an unskilled migrant.’ That went down well. I hope.”

As well as trying to make it in the real world, she’s grappling with expectations back home. “A lot of the time in interviews, the framing of questions is like, ‘So you think you’ve got what it takes to make it big overseas?’ It’s almost a weird challenge: so you think you’re good enough to even try to reach any potential in your career? I think it’s very specific to creativity in New Zealand sometimes. Who are the people we’re really proud of? Steven Adams, Flight of the Conchords, Lorde … It’s like, ‘Oh cool, you just have to be in the NBA or get an HBO series or be a No 1 artist to be properly appreciated in New Zealand. Thanks, Lorde. Thanks, mate.’”

No pressure, then. “Why do I do it?” she wails. “At some point you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’m in a tuxedo with “Dead bitch” written in diamantes on the back. This is not normal.’”

Possibly she does it because it’s her passion, her penance, her drug of choice.

She talks about comedy as a sort of trance. That’s how she gets through those excruciating segments on Jono and Ben where she’s flown over to meet Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. Or to subject Amy Schumer and other bewildered celebrities to an interview in the form of a “speed date”. She wears a too-tight red dress, balances a prop cafe table on her knees and peppers them with unanswerable questions. “When we’d finish, it would almost be like crawling out of a hypnotist’s spell. My head would drop and I’d look up and be like, ‘Honestly, that’s not me, it’s just a character and I’m very, very sorry for every­thing I did in the last seven minutes.’”

As some joker once said: dying is easy, comedy is hard. After Edinburgh, she’d like to lose the coffin. Perhaps she could float it off into the river like a Viking funeral. “I could! Like, shoot an arrow, a flaming arrow. What’s another coffin in the Thames, really?”

As for the existential angst she carries around with her like some coffin she can never quite dispose of, her ex, Guy Williams, gave her some words to live by. “He has a catchphrase: ‘Life’s a joke, feel the vibe.’”

That puts it pretty succinctly. “On a good day, the essential absurdity of the human condition puts things in perspective. You have one good show in one month and you’re like, ‘It’s all worth it!’ and you delude yourself again. It’s like this high will last forever.”

FUNNY GIRLS, TV3, Friday, 10.05pm.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.