Funny Girls: the NZ comedy revolution

The cast of Funny Girls, season 2.
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The cast of Funny Girls, season 2.

"Don't like it? Don't blame it on us being women. Blame it on us being un-funny," says Rose Matafeo. "Those are the tweets I want to get."

Should it still be a thing in 2016 that a major network is producing an (almost) primetime comedy half-hour almost entirely populated by women? That is, though, the official hook for TV3's sort-of sketch show Funny Girls, which returns on Friday night for its second season.

"People put pressure on a show like this: 'you are representing all women in comedy, all women who've done comedy, and all women who hope to do comedy, so if you mess this up, you're pushing the movement back, guys'," says Matafeo, hitting her stride. "Nothing can flourish under that pressure."

Rose Matafeo: office lover.
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Rose Matafeo: office lover.

READ MORE:
*TV Review: Funny Girls
*Rose Matafeo discusses being a Funny Girl
*Comedy show Funny Girls aiming to break the mould

And also... "You know, female comedy isn't a genre of comedy. Most male comedians are referred to as a comedian, but most female comedians are referred to as female comedians."

Actually, Funny Girls wasn't really conceived as so much a purely female gig as one for a new generation of New Zealand comedians who would otherwise be making you your next flat white. They're a young group - early 20s to early 30s - an extended family tree with links to drama workshops and Christchurch school playgrounds but essentially rooted in Auckland's Basement Theatre, where every Friday night at 10pm (ish) a group of 12 of them hold their regular improv gig, SNORT.

Jackie van Beek as Pauline: she had to have a perm.
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Jackie van Beek as Pauline: she had to have a perm.

Funny Girls' real innovation is giving them all work by adopting of the American concept of a writer's room: a hub of bright young things paid to sit around a table and throw around ideas. 

The New Zealand version hasn't been accompanied by an American sense of grandeur. The eight to 12 writers - depending on whose count you go on - cluster in a small office space inside a converted Pacific Island chapel in industrial Eden Terrace, an annex to Mediaworks' headquarters which originally housing the sketch comedy show Pulp Sport, and their range of dress-up costumes. 

"I like office environments," says Matafeo. "[But] ad agencies get foozball tables and thinking rooms and beanbags and bars. And we're literally trying to write a whole show in a normal, normal office, the most  normal non-creative space you could think of. My main point is ad agencies should go f-- themselves. Or offer their office spaces to stupid comedians."

Brynley Stent: pleased to be in gainful employment.
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Brynley Stent: pleased to be in gainful employment.

The foozball-table-less chapel is home to both Funny Girls and Jono and Ben - and thus, by extension, the employment and hopes of a generation of comedians that Funny Girls cast member and established comic Jackie van Beek calls "the Mediaworks set". None are actually on staff at the broadcaster, but some are now in employment gainful enough that they can consider themselves full-time writers. Brynley Stent, one of the youngest of that group at the age of 22, talks engagingly about hoping comedy writing can become a full-time gig and the assorted uncertainties of never quite knowing what the next gig will be or how to pay for her groceries.

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The producer of both shows, Bronwyn Bakker, talks enviously about one writer who was hired to the American show Saturday Night Live, didn't write a single gag that made it to air in two years, but stayed on staff as they nurtured his work. There's nowhere near such luxury here, but there is a sense of trying to bring on young talent. She says: "Nobody else was developing writers."

It's in 34-year-old Bakker's slight form that Mediaworks' clear decision to invest in local comedy over local drama is vested. The network asked her to conceive a new comedy concept and pitch it back to them, and scout all the talent. Bakker says she saw some good comic voices who weren't given the time (read money) to write properly. "It was more like there was nothing like this on New Zealand TV than making a stand about it being an all-female show."

Kim Crossman on set.
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Kim Crossman on set.

New writers were tested on Jono and Ben, and those who cut it - like Sunday Star-Times columnist Alice Snedden - were given gigs on the more tightly-budgeted Funny Girls.

Two decades ago, says van Beek, the oldest cast member at just 40, she was experimenting in the same way in the Wellington theatre scene with contemporaries such as Jonny Brugh and Bret McKenzie, but she always had a day job to sustain it. "It was inconceivable back then to think at that age I could have a fulltime job in television... so yeah, I feel jealous."

When season one broadcast, Matafeo was on holiday in Rome, checking twitter for social media reaction as she took a guided tour of the Sistine Chapel with her mother. She remembers the reaction being fairly positive, enough to generate hope of a second season. 

"One season of a show isn't enough to develop someone," says Bakker. "You're making mistakes. You don't mean to, but of course you do." She asked everyone involved to submit a paper on what had worked and what hadn't from season one before they began again.

The six episodes which begin airing on Friday were written fast: in less than five weeks, tailored around the New Zealand International Comedy Festival in April, when just about everyone in the room was writing and performing in their own show. "It's weird," says Matafeo. "We will write together, act in it, and at nighttimes we get together. It's very strange: there are days where we have spent every hour of the day together."

She liked the pace: it forced everyone to work together and shelve their egos. Cramming into a three-month stint home in New Zealand from her home in London, touring around with a collapsible coffin as her main stage prop, became head writer. "I love whiteboards and lists and excel spreadsheets and progress documents. But I try not to slip into head girl mode." Bakker, who is cheerful and friendly but appears to hide a steely interior, says she read the scripts, ticked everything that made her laugh, and sent them back if she had less than three ticks per page.

It was shot even quicker (but with time allowed for improvisations), with season one director Johnny Barker replaced by Madeleine Sami, making it easier, says Bakker, to do the abortion gags and so forth and with what van Beek says was a "lovely atmosphere".
 
​The show itself is a mixture of straight sketch comedy wrapped around a 30 Rock-style meta-show about a group of female comedians making a sketch comedy show, but suffering at the hands of faceless male executives in suits and a deeply clueless female producer named Pauline (played by Jackie van Beek). 

Matafeo describes the show within the show as "like sneaking carrots into a spaghetti bolognese", but for Bakker, it was a deliberate safeguard. "I don't think," she says, "the New Zealand audience is ready for a straight sketch show. But if they get to know the characters and invest in them and stay to the end, its a device to hook people in."

It also means that if a sketch fails, there's a safety net. It's an understandable compromise when you're dealing with such a small potential audience from the outset. van Beek says her anecdotal experience is that city types, whatever their age, enjoyed it, or at least told her they did, but rural people watched in bemusement and didn't find it funny. "None of us knew how it was going to work," says van Beek. "I was surprised at how well it worked and the audience seemed to kinda swallow it... I thought they would say we want it to just be a sketch show or just be a narrative drama."

For season two, she had two requests: a love interest for Pauline (she thought it would be hilarious) and for Pauline to have a really awful perm (just because). It took two hours in the make-up chair every time, so didn't survive past episode one, but looks duly horrendous.

Former Shortland Streeter Kim Crossman is filming her final scenes for this season, some sort of musical number in a poky downtown bar where the only space to conduct an interview is right outside the gents' toilets. She flies back to the US tomorrow, after a three-week stint home solely for the purpose of filming Funny Girls. A natural politician,  she talks about being "honoured" to be included in the core cast. 

Crossman is trying to broaden her image and her appeal beyond the soap poppet look, to the extent that she's done some small stand-up gigs in the US. So as well as being a leg up for younger comics, Funny Girls is a calling card for her to get overseas work.

Her American agent is regularly using youtube links to her season one sketches - particularly a prison skit - to pitch her for comic roles. "Does it stand up?" she says. "I think it is impressive that we have been able to do it in such a short period and a significantly lower budget... so I think that it definitely stands up," she says, mentioning a couple of season one sketches which appear to have been subsequently closely mimicked by the US network Comedy Central.

"It is easily translatable, the topics are relatable .. it's not just period jokes. It presents women as three dimensional and flawed and we're putting it on television."

In the US, she relates, networks are happily buying up female-led comedies, but her theory is that New Zealand lacks much of a tradition of setpiece comedy so was always likely to trail behind the trend. "I don't think its intentional," she says. 

So for van Beek, the fact the show is mainly female is important. "I believe New Zealand audiences need to get used to seeing women on screen more, especially funny ones," she says. "We don't see it that often, not in New Zealand. I remember going along to Bridesmaids and the joyous relief I felt walking out of that cinema, I felt we had hit a turning point.. maybe I'd had a couple of beers but I loved that movie."

Funny Girls, TV3, 10pm, Friday September 30.

 - Sunday Star Times

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