Jon Bridges to build a nation with laughter on The Project
Jon Stephen Bridges Jr is in the business of making people laugh.
He's spent more than 30 years telling jokes on stage and screen. He helped found The Classic comedy bar, a milestone in the history of stand-up in New Zealand. Most recently he's been the guiding hand behind our most successful comedy television show.
For his next act, however, he's getting serious. Bridges, 50, will produce The Project, a show slipping into the important 7pm weeknights slot left vacant by TV3 when it axed Story last year.
The Project promises a different take on the news via a panel of broadcast personalities and comedians. It's a Kiwi version of the hit Australian show starring Waleed Aly, Carrie Bickmore and Pete Helliar.
Bridges was offer the producer role by TV3 head of news Hal Crawford, who sat him down and told him he'd be mad to miss it. Already a big fan of the Aussie version, Bridges didn't take much convincing.
His whole career, he says, has basically been spent saying yes when opportunities are set before him. The Project was no exception.
It is, however, his biggest undertaking to date. There's a lot riding on The Project. There were actual protests outside MediaWorks' Auckland HQ when it cancelled Campbell Live in 2015, and more criticism when replacement show Story failed to fire.
The Project needs to rescue the 7pm slot for TV3. So how's Bridges feeling?
"Good! Excited! Frightened, a little bit," he says. "It's a big show."
Bridges was shoulder tapped for The Project because of his success on another comedy panel show.
He has produced 7 Days for TV3 since its first episode, back in 2009. In those early days, his team set themselves the "ridiculous" goal five years on air. This year the show will enter its ninth season. It shows no sign of slowing down, consistently rating as one of the country's most-watched programmes.
When the 7 Days team came back from their summer break, however, Bridges had to pack up his desk into a cardboard box and carry his belongings across the carpark to the main MediaWorks building.
"There were hugs and claps ... it was pretty hard. I've been there for seven years, it was pretty sad," he says.
The Project sits under MediaWorks' news umbrella, and will draw on the resources of Newshub.
It is, Bridges says, first and foremost a news show. Watching it should keep you up to date with what's happening in New Zealand as well as providing a laugh or two. He starts off calling The Project an "amalgamation" of news and comedy, but corrects himself - "juxtaposition" is a better word for what they're doing. Every night there will be stories that are told entirely straight-faced.
"It's not like you're laughing at the news - it can sound callous but it's not like that, the show has an extremely good heart," he says.
"You have to be really responsible and report [the news] well and respect the tenets of journalism very carefully, and you can do that in an entertaining way - you can absolutely do that in a way that entertains and you don't have to sacrifice that respect, but then you can have great laughs off the back of it."
MediaWorks has hired around 30 staff for Bridges' new team - a mixture of people who know how to put together a daily news show and people who know how to make it entertaining.
The news expertise will come from the likes of Newshub alumni Richard Wybrow (formerly of CNN), Kate Dunlop, Perlina Lau and Catherine Roper. Producer Raj Wakeling has come across the ditch from 7 News Australia, one of Australia's biggest news networks.
But perhaps the most important hires The Project has made are the three hosts. Their audition process was rigorous, involving "heaps of screentests and callbacks".
"We can buy the graphics, we can buy the package, we can buy the whole bible of the production, we can get them to come over and help us set up, but one thing we can't buy is the talent," Bridges says.
From the beginning of the auditions, Bridges had a kind of dream team in mind - and they were exactly who he ended up getting. Two of them - Jesse Mulligan and Josh Thompson - are 7 Days alumni, while Kanoa Lloyd comes via Newshub weather. A different fourth host, picked from a rotating roster, will join them every night on the show.
"In Kanoa's case, she just goes, she's just got this incredible charisma and warmth and brains and mana. As soon as anyone saw her in the screen tests, it was just like, if we can get her, she's the person, she's just a lock.
"Jesse: also a complete no-brainer. He's got so much comedy background, but also so much daily news background doing Radio New Zealand for the last couple of years. Everyone was like, if we can get Jesse it'll be incredible."
Bridges says he was conscious of not wanting to have Kiwi equivalents of the Australian Project's hosts - he just went for people who would balance each other.
"Sometimes when you put together a show you think quite explicitly about the balance of all sorts of things in your hosts, age, gender, race, to try and represent your audience. We didn't have to do that this time.
"We just got the three we wanted and went, 'Oh, that works well'."
It's a testament to New Zealand's talent pool that tryouts for The Project had to be so intense.
Bridges says there were eight or nine comedians who could have capably filled Thompson's role - he was simply the pick of the bunch.
"We wanted one of New Zealand's best comedians, and we were really lucky to be able to get one. ... I think he was everyone's top wish."
Bridges, who now lives in Auckland's Three Kings with his wife and three-year-old son, has seen that talent pool develop throughout his career.
His first real foray into comedy was at Massey University in Palmerston North, when he followed a girl he fancied to auditions for the annual capping revue - a sketch show put on by students during graduation.
He got involved in capping revues ever year he was at Massey, working alongside future mainstays of New Zealand's comedy scene like 7 Days host Jeremy Corbett.
Bridges' work in the capping revues saw him headhunted for sketch show Away Laughing, which he wrote and acted for. The show debuted on TV3 in 1991.
"It was a great job, I couldn't believe I was earning $1400 a week straight out of university. I was so rich, it was amazing, I could not believe my luck," he says.
After two seasons on Away Laughing he toured the country with comedy troupe Facial DBX - composed mostly of people he'd worked with on the Massey capping revues - before moving to Auckland to do IceTV, a very 90s youth show that saw him tossing televisions of the roof of the TV3 building alongside Nathan Rarere and Petra Bagust.
It was during Bridges' time on IceTV that he, along other Facial DBX members, helped open The Classic comedy bar on Queen St. It was a bar for comedians to perform in funded by comedians, and Bridges credits it as crucial to developing New Zealand's comedy scene. Performing there enabled comedians to earn a living through comedy, he says.
Bridges' first stint as a producer came in 2002, when he said yes to producing season two of The Panel for TVNZ - a show that in many ways is a kind of precursor to The Project. It was Bridges first stint as a producer, and it didn't go well. "I managed to kill that show," he says.
Like The Project, The Panel saw a panel of notables discussing the day's news, and like The Project it was a Kiwi version of a popular Australian show.
Unlike the Aussie version, however, The Panel's panel was composed of actors and radio personalities instead of comedians.
"We didn't quite put 100 per cent of the right sort of people into the show, we had some pretty good people, but the Australian show had a really magical mix of really talented, mostly comedians on the show.
"We still didn't quite have the confidence in our comedians to put them on TV as much as we should."
Bridges would have to wait until 2009 for TV networks to have that confidence. It came with 7 Days - a show that relied on having a pool of professional, reliable and readily available comedians.
"If you're going to make a comedy panel show you need to put comedians in it," he says.
"That seems like a given but nobody had thought of it before in New Zealand - and that's only because there weren't really comedians before. It was really again the fact that the Classic had been there for a while and the talent was there that enabled it to happen."
Laughter is mysterious stuff.
Science split the atom a century ago, but it still hasn't figured out how to tell a good joke.
An American study in 2005 suggested laughter exists as a kind of social bonding. Sharing a laugh binds individuals; it turns "I" into "we".
7 Days, Bridges reckons, worked partly because its humour was so specific to New Zealand. The show's best jokes created a kind of communal warmth, a sense of shared nationhood. When you laughed at them, you knew that hundreds of thousands of other Kiwis were laughing too.
"I always think that's what gives you the laughs on 7 Days, just realising when you see a joke about something that 'that's a joke that includes me, it excludes the rest of the world and includes us', it confirms the community that you're involved in because you go, 'Nobody else is going to laugh about jandals', or whatever it is - that's a very Kiwiana example."
The Project, he hopes, will be the same. Every night, his team will curate a set of stories that no other country in the world would care about. "I think it's going to be a real milestone for New Zealand TV," he says.
Perhaps, he posits, New Zealand hasn't had a mature comedy scene until recently because having one is part of growing up as a nation. Older countries - the UK, America, even Australia - reached that point years ago, and we're just catching up.
"I think it goes hand-in-hand, you can't have a comedy scene without a nationhood, because otherwise there's no shared understanding to have jokes about. If you're laughing at international jokes it's not the same," he says.
Bridges thinks New Zealand's best loved comedians - people like David McPhail and Jon Gadsby, Billy T James, John Clarke and the Topp Twins - have been successful partly because they've contributed to our sense of national identity.
"I think part of the reason we cherish them is that they reminded us and taught us who we are, as opposed to the rest of the world. They teach us who we are. It's taken all of those people to get to where we are today," he says.
"Gosh, that got pretty serious, didn't it? We're talking about nationhood."