Urzila Carlson is spoiling for a fight

On the Radio: South African expat Urzila Carlson loves making New Zealand laugh.
On the Radio: South African expat Urzila Carlson loves making New Zealand laugh.

Unlikely as it might sound, Urzila Carlson wants to follow in the footsteps of Jaime Ridge. The South African comedian says she would like to take part in a televised charity boxing match, fighting the woman she is often mistaken for - National MP Paula Bennett.

"Can you picture it?" Carlson laughs, over coffee in an Auckland cafe. "The two of us would dress the same, in one of her outfits with the short jacket that's too colourful and too small, our hair's done the same, we'll both have too much make-up on and we'll beat the s--- out of each other."

She's joking. Probably. But while Bennett can breathe a sigh of relief - for now - her National party colleague Nikki Kaye might want to watch her back. Carlson will be taking part in this month's Great Auckland Pride debate, teaming up with Labour's Jacinda Ardern against a team lead by Kaye to discuss the merits of the marriage equality bill. Proceeds will go to charity organisation Rainbow Youth.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE: National MP Paula Bennett.
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE: National MP Paula Bennett.

"As far as politics goes, I'll have the odd debate, I love it," she says. "I have to be careful not to be popped on to somebody else's soap box [but] if I truly believe in something then I will back it. And I truly believe they should make [marriage] equal. I don't see why not."

Since immigrating to New Zealand in 2006 Carlson has forged a successful comedic career, performing stand-up gigs on tours around the country and becoming a regular guest on popular panel television show 7 Days. This week she debuts in The Radio, the new comedy from her 7 Days colleagues Paul Ego and Jeremy Corbett. They star as two breakfast radio hosts with Carlson playing their hapless receptionist.

"They told me about the part and I said ‘So basically I'm just playing myself?' because everyone teases me because I don't know any of the New Zealand celebrities. I put my foot in it quite a lot or I just look like a complete ignorant fool. So with the show, these celebrities come in and I've no idea who they are and, trust me, 90 percent of the time I'm not faking it."

She says Ego and Corbett are "brilliant" to work with. "They bounce off each other really well and they've worked together for so many years they're almost like a married couple. But a funny one." The six-part series mostly improvised from script outlines, performed in front of a studio audience and Carlson says they would film three or four different versions of each scene.

"There were quite a few takes where we could not pull our s--- together, where we could not stop laughing. Both of them [Ego and Corbett] can just give me a look and I'll lose my s---."

The Radio will premiere after the return of 7 Days, the hugely popular show that has added fuel to the New Zealand comedy scene's fire. Last November and December, Carlson joined her team mates on the 7 Days Live national tour, visiting regional centres around the country. She says the comedians always get a warm welcome.

"I think we sold out in every centre except for one where we had like seven tickets left, so it was really good," she says. "In Invercargill and Dunedin, we got rugby tackled in the street, so that's always good. People get a bit overzealous. Most people, like 99 percent of them are great, but then you get that one percent that will jump on your back while you're walking in the street."

How does she cope with that?

"You just brace yourself and thank god you've got good strong legs."

Touring the country with 7 Days and her own stand-up shows has afforded the South African expat the chance to get acquainted with her adopted home country. "I've seen more of New Zealand than my partner who's a Kiwi," she laughs. Carlson has lived in Auckland since leaving South Africa but she says it's not the only place she could see herself settling down in.

"I travel so much anyway that it doesn't really matter where my base is because I'm not there very often. I love Auckland, don't get me wrong, because everything's here. But if I had to move out I'd go to Napier or Nelson. They're just beautiful. And also because they're so relaxed, whenever you're there. I've only ever had great gigs and great experiences there."

Her extensive knowledge of New Zealand's finer points is a far cry from when she first arrived. It was by chance that Carlson ended up here, after seeing a newspaper advertisement about immigration. At that point, she jokes, all she knew about the country was "the rugby team that did a funny dance before they played."

She says she wanted to leave South Africa for a better life. "I just didn't feel safe and I didn't like it. I'd been living in the States, I kind of knew there was better, there was different. I thought, I don't want to look over my shoulder. That's why I left."

She didn't do much research before arriving, other than watching an immigration DVD given to her by a friend who also told her "the difference between New Zealand and South Africa is New Zealand has a bigger range of bread. And I thought ‘sweet, good enough for me'."

Now, more than eight years on she sounds completely content with her life. "I feel relaxed and I don't feel that panic feeling the whole time. I'm happy. I've got a Kiwi partner and we've just bought a house."

Her partner is expecting a baby in May, right around this year's New Zealand International Comedy Festival when Carslon will be performing her new stand-up show The Long Flight to Freedom. She says as a couple they are "on the same page... we always have a good time" but her funny side isn't always appreciated. "Sometimes I try and make jokes when my partner's getting frustrated wtih something and she's like ‘can you turn that s--- off for a minute," she laughs. "I do get in trouble for it sometimes."

As for her professional ambitions, Carlson - who incidentally was last month named one of Sunday Star-Times's 2013 People of Influence and Effect - hopes this year brings more of the same success she enjoyed in 2012.

"I was really busy, most of the shows I did sold out and honestly, could you hope for more? I want to do the same this year. Tour the s--- out of it and have a successful comedy festival again. That would be my goal."

She'd also like her own TV show. She jokes about becoming "the Oprah of New Zealand - same weight issues, two dogs sitting off camera and a partner that won't commit" and creating a Kiwi version of Saturday Night Live.

"That would be great," she says, warming to the idea. "Like a Tina Fey kind of thing. She ripped the s--- out of Sarah Palin; I could do the same with Paula Bennett. I think there's room for something like that. Because New Zealanders are so laidback and love to have a laugh at themselves, so I can see something like that working."

Whether Bennett will be laughing is another story.

7 Days, Friday, 9.30pm; The Radio, Friday, 10pm, TV3

This year's Comedy Festival programme will be officially launched on February 27.

Sunday Star Times