Jono and Ben's Laura Daniel is our favourite Funny Girl
It was on a whirlwind trip to South Korea that Laura Daniel learned the way to a Welshman's heart.
The comedian, a regular on Three's Jono and Ben, was en route to Seoul to interview Hugh Jackman and Taron Egerton, the stars of the critically acclaimed biopic Eddie The Eagle.
It was Daniel's first international press junket. Her seat was in business class and the champagne was free. At 26, Daniel maintains what she calls a student mentality; the luxurious experience was "the most baller thing" that had ever happened to her.
A veteran broadcaster on the flight told her not to get used to it.
Daniel tells me she has a history of getting itchy and sweaty under pressure, but facing down two of the most attractive men she'd ever met, there wasn't a raven lock out of place. She immediately proclaimed Egerton a "solid 10" on the scale of human hotness. And when she recited the 58-letter name of his hometown in Wales – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch – the pair shared a celebratory high-five. She had practised its pronunciation for much of the 12-hour flight.
Daniel's Rapunzel-esque tresses and faintly nasal voice are familiar to viewers of the Thursday night satirical chat show, and on both seasons of Funny Girls – "a sketch comedy show about a sketch comedy show", featuring Rose Matafeo and Kimberley Crossman, among others.
She performed her debut solo show, Pressure Makes Diamonds, at last year's New Zealand International Comedy Festival, to sold out audiences.
In her live performances, Daniel routinely lures audience members on stage, washing their hair while dancing dirty, or poking straws in a bottle of mouthwash to share.
Her uncanny ability to win over strangers apparently isn't curbed by their celebrity. In less than four minutes, Daniel somehow coaxed Jackman and Egerton to sing responses to her questions, mumble how much money they'd earned in the course of their careers (in Daniel's case, negative $40,000) and enact a script which instructed them to kiss her. On the lips. With tongue.
Shamelessness is central to Daniel's appeal, whether on screen or on stage.
Does she ever get embarrassed?
"It's always a mix of emotions, and embarrassment is definitely one in there," she says.
"Your biggest fear is looking stupid and no-one laughing."
Her most popular Jono and Ben interview was with rugby league legends Johnathan Thurston and Shaun Johnson. Daniel had a vague idea of the men's appeal beyond their strapping good looks, but that didn't discourage her from handing them laminated copies of a newspaper article that named her one of New Zealand's most eligible women. The clip has attracted more than three million views on Facebook.
The interview – the first of a flurry Daniel has conducted with sporting superstars – prompted some online commenters to compare her ironic banter with love-him-or-hate-him broadcaster Paul Henry's sexist comments about a female patron at a cafe last year.
If it was wrong for Henry to debate the merits of a woman's "titties" during a media interview, wasn't it similarly inappropriate for Daniel to grope Thurston's chiselled pecs?
Hardly, Daniel argued. Unlike the woman at the cafe, her interview subjects were in on the joke.
"When a man says stuff like that to a woman, there's just a huge history of, like, a power imbalance there, so it's just straight up inappropriate," she told Fairfax at the time.
"You find it funny because it is inappropriate, but also because there's no power imbalance. There isn't that same thing where for thousands of years men have been objectified."
Another risky gag has become infamous on the Kiwi comedy circuit. Daniel's character is crippled with menstrual cramps on stage, after assuring the audience she wouldn't be one of those female comedians who told period jokes.
She performed the sketch at last year's Billy T Award showcase, having been nominated for the prestigious award. Daniel was wearing white knee-length capri pants. Syringes of fake blood were hidden in the waistband.
"The audience were kind of on the edge of their seat – they didn't really know what was happening at first," remembers Lauren Whitney, associate director of the NZ International Comedy Festival, who was in the audience.
"Certainly, in the room that night, it just was a little bit magic."
Another comedian who has witnessed the sketch has a different opinion: "I remember thinking, 'Those pants are f...ed.'"
As a teenager in Palmerston North, Daniel had been a "nerdy drama kid" who re-enacted scenes from Titanic with friends on camera, parodying Celine Dion in front of a green screen made out of a blue sheet.
She played the drums in a three-piece Scottish pipe band called "Pipetallica". The group could only play three songs, Daniel recalls, but it was enough to win the Palmerston North Girls' High School annual talent quest.
Eventually, Daniel realised she just wanted to make people laugh. She applied to Unitec's performing and screen arts programme after graduating, and was rejected. Not content to spend her days prowling the perimeter of Palmy's Lido Aquatic Centre where she worked as a lifeguard, Daniel decided to relocate to Auckland anyway, moving into her dad's Freemans Bay house.
Daniel's parents had separated when she was a toddler, and she had only sporadic contact with her dad for more than a decade. Her primary school teacher mum raised Daniel and two elder brothers.
When Daniel was 16, she did a personal development course that convinced her to get in touch with her father, a former policeman who had gone on to teach English as a second language.
He flew to Wellington to meet his elder children. Today, Daniel says, everyone gets along.
She lived with her dad, who is from Rarotonga, for a year and was glad for the opportunity to get to know her younger brother and sister, who are adopted.
"They're half Samoan and half Maori," Daniel explains.
"When we'd go out as a family, people would think I was the adopted one – they look more like his kids than I do."
After a year, she reapplied to drama school, landing a place on the waiting list, before finally being accepted at 19. The rejections resulted in tears at the time, Daniel says, but ultimately made her more determined to succeed.
"It makes you appreciate the whole thing a bit more if you have to work harder for it.
"That's what makes people right? How badly do you wanna do it?"
In her final year of drama school, Daniel was among the 19-strong cast of The Sex Show, a theatrical confessional extravaganza which gave audiences insight into the spectrum of Kiwis' sexual experiences.
Daniel groans slightly, cringing. It's something she's trying to forget.
On set, she befriended Ryan Richards, the bloke who would become her boyfriend. They have been together for four years, and are proud parents to a pet rabbit named Champ.
Richards, a moustachioed actor hailing from Mosgiel, is performing a two-man show with Hamish Parkinson at this year's comedy festival. Daniel will direct the show, whose title is unprintable but rhymes with Duck Toys. She's been listening in on rehearsals.
"They're a hot mess, but in a real good way," she says.
For her own comedy festival act, Daniel is collaborating with Joseph Moore to produce a Vector Arena-style pop concert, dubbed Two Hearts: Auckland World Tour. Moore, a fellow Funny Girls writer, is the mastermind of Up To, a music video laying bare the complexities of the booty call text message. It's Daniel's favourite sketch of season two.
After drama school, Daniel kept herself alive working as a lifeguard and being paid under the table at a "terrible" cafe. She was the lead in a Christchurch Court Theatre play (Why Are My Parents So Boring?) and toured the Auckland region with educational musicals, teaching schoolchildren about being safe on the internet through the power of song and dance.
It was a dark time, Daniel says, but Snort, the late-night improv ensemble she co-founded at the Basement Theatre in 2013, gave her something to look forward to on Fridays. The cast featured Daniel's drama school classmates; today, some are also her co-stars.
Daniel eventually tried her hand at stand-up at The Classic, the Auckland comedy club where almost every Kiwi comedian has cut their teeth. She landed a gig writing for and performing on TVNZ's Happy Hour, a short-lived variety show hosted by Temuera Morrison and Keisha Castle-Hughes.
At the time, Daniel saw it as her big break, although most of her sketches never made the final cut. She had resignedly taken a job in retail when Mediaworks producer Bronwynn Bakker started scouting for a female writer for a yoghurt commercial.
Daniel's Snort colleague Nic Sampson recommended her. Bakker met her for coffee.
"I got her to write up some ideas," the producer recalls.
"I asked for a couple and I think she sent me about 30."
Daniel's enthusiasm for dairy products struck a chord with Bakker, who cast her in an increasing number of Jono and Ben sketches. Then, in 2015, Daniel appeared in the first season of Funny Girls.
Today, Daniel is a writer on both shows, and has a regular segment on Jono and Ben. The third season of Funny Girls is in pre-production.
Her signatures are sketch characters and musical parodies, delivered deadpan and redolent of the stock "booze hag" or "basic bitch" personas. She knows they're not everyone's cup of tea.
"You've got the people who'll mute the show when I come on and then there'll be people who'll watch it for that bit," she says.
Lauren Whitney, who has been involved with the comedy festival for the past eight years, says Daniel's ability to be self-deprecating – but not self pitying – is a large part of her charm.
"She sort of says some of the stuff we think internally about ourselves. You really feel like she gets you."
Daniel puts it like this: "Sometimes if you look trashy and tragic – you're not worried about looking good – it's a bit more relatable."
Accustomed to bizarre stunts, Daniel doesn't bat a false eyelash when the Your Weekend photographer asks her to chew her way through a package of bubble gum, dutifully blowing bubbles for 30 minutes straight.
She does wince when I insist she hand me a used wad in lieu of a handy rubbish bin. There are some boundaries it's difficult to breach.
On one level, Daniel cares about what people think. She realises that a desire to be liked was what drew her to comedy in the first place.
Though colleagues have noted the majority of feedback Daniel receives online is positive, she is drawn to the trolls.
"A flaw of mine is that I can be quite sensitive to things," she says.
"If I feel like someone doesn't like me, it really messes with my head."
Occasionally she'll "clap back" – Millennial speak for a sassy comeback – or repost negative comments on her social media. Her main tactic, though, is to give increasingly fewer f...s.
"It can hold you back a bit if you worry too much about what people think of you... I don't think you can really do comedy if you're constantly concerned about pleasing other people, because you have to say things sometimes that not everyone's going to agree with."
"At the end of the day," she says,
"You've just gotta, like, not care about it."
Mostly, Daniel succeeds in leading audiences along the fine line between cringing and cracking up.
On the final run of her solo show, Daniel noticed an audience member who had "definitely been dragged along by his girlfriend".
Sitting near the back with his arms folded, the yo-pro had heckled the opening act. When Daniel finished her set, though, the bloke applauded, bellowing, "You got me."
Daniel's on-screen likeability translates to real life. She's had tweenage girls approach her at restaurants with their mums, saying they wanted to be comedians, too.
Bakker notes an authenticity underlying whatever character Daniel plays. She's the best friend viewers just haven't met yet.
"She's your go-to girl who's going to take you out, have a couple of glasses of wine, you can say whatever you want to her and she's not going to get offended," Bakker says.
"You're going to have fun with her."
- Your Weekend