by Paul Horan & Philip Matthews
The recent TV series of the same name was a treat – we got to see so many fellow Kiwis who worked to bring local humour into our lives by means of live shows and media. How good it was to see again some classic clips remembered from the days of comedians such as John Clarke, Billy T James, Murray Ball and more.
Now there’s the book, which is even more welcome because, though we don’t get the clips, it gives a wider coverage of the subject and it’s there to pick up and refer to when we wish.
The 366 pages contain a wealth of information on those who have entertained us from the start of the 20th century to the present.
The early decades, covering the 2 World Wars, overwhelmingly favoured male comedy writers, cartoonists and performers. In times of war, perhaps necessarily, male entertainers dressed as women. Following that, female impersonators and institutions such as the university capping show carried on the tradition.
As welcome as this history is, the woman reader can’t help but wince repeatedly at the reminder of these overwhelmingly male-dominated times. Even after the 1970s when a few women infiltrate the ranks the trend continues and any list is monopolized by men. Women comedians and writers have had a hard job to convince male decision-makers, let alone audiences, that they too can be funny. And it’s surely a fair comment to say that the boys’ comedy club has not been quick to include them.
It is, then, good to see that the two male authors of this book have recognized this fact and acknowledged the contributions of some of our female producers of humour – including among others Rosemary McLeod and Diane Wichtel with their satire, Jean Betts and Alison Quigan with their stage plays, and so many wonderful actresses who have made us laugh along with their comedy characters.
It’s hard to imagine now, but the arrival of television in the early 1960s didn’t prove an immediate source of work for local comedians; from the ‘seventies we were beginning to see home-made programmes, including the first Kiwi sitcom, Buck House. Remember that? Though many of our early shows now appear cringe-inducing, they provided a training ground for local writers and artists and laid the foundation for more to come.
Most of the book's 19 chapters are summaries of periods or specific media, or thematic explanations, and there are copious illustrations. A few chapters, though, are devoted to single performers – Billy T James, John Clarke, The Topp Twins, Flight of the Conchords, The Front Lawn, and Taika Waititi – arguably our most prominent and memorable to date.
Rather than singling out one image for the cover, it’s a wise marketing decision to give the buyer a choice of four different and colourful slipcovers – each of them a great improvement on the inappropriately dull black and white card cover it hides.
Authors: Paul Horan & Philip Matthews
Publisher: Auckland University Press