Nick Holm: how New Zealand comedy embraces being a bit s**t

While New Zealand comedy is often branded as self-deprecating, laconic and deadpan, media studies lecturer Nick Holm says the defining characteristic is that it’s a bit shit.

However, Holm points out that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of our most successful comedy actively embraces its own awfulness: rough edges, questionable content, and disarmingly odd behavior — from the Number 8 wire stylings of John Clarke and Billy T James, to current day favorites Flight of the Conchords and television show Wellington Paranormal.

Holm is a lecturer at Massey University, and has written on Fred Dagg, meme comedy and deadpan jokes.

He has curated a special collection of clips for NZ On Screen called ‘NZ Comedy is a Bit Shit… But in a Good Way’, which launched this week.

“The ‘bit shit’ is the way in which New Zealand comedy, especially since around the 1990s onwards, really leant into the limitations of what it means to make humor in New Zealand … when there wasn’t perhaps a lot of money floating around, a lot of resources,” Holm says.

“So rather than fight against the problems that creates, our comedians developed a very astute gift for really leaning into those problems and making them part of the show, making it a feature not a bug.”

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Flight of the Conchords: ‘international ambassadors’ for the New Zealand brand of humour.
photo: Supplied / HBO

It provokes the question of how much of the comedy is the audience laughing at the jokes, or laughing at the attempts, particularly when it’s an overseas audiences.

Holm used an episode from Flight of the Conchords to teach a Canadian graduate class about Kiwi humour: “We laughed at very different moments”.

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photo: supplied – Massey University

“Which made me suspect that possibly there’s a bit of mistranslation going on here, and maybe they don’t know that we’re doing it on purpose … there’s certainly a good chance that a large portion of them are regarding us as hilarious yokels who’ve made it onto the big screen, rather than the very wry, ironic comic geniuses that we are.”

While that ‘bit shit’-ness makes our comedy distinctive, he’s not implying we’re the only ones to do it.

Cult UK hit The Young Ones is a good example of a show that took its limitations by the hilt, he says.

The Young Ones “adopted an anarchic streak through every facet of the production”, including nonsense plots and terrible puppets.

“That sense of shitness that we see in a lot those shows at the turn of the century in New Zealand, like havoc and Ice TV and Back of the Y Masterpiece Theatre… that really took on the lessons of what you can do when you abandon any claims to sophistication.”

A publicity shot for Wellington Paranormal.

Wellington Paranormal
photo: supplied

Holm believes John Clarke’s comedy was a strong influence on both Australian and New Zealand comedy, weaving some common DNA through both industries.

And he notes that ‘bit shit’ comedy is hard to pull off.

“Clarke was an enormously smart, sophisticated observer of the people around him and the world he lived in, he wasn’t just having a laugh and putting it on, it was informed by a sense of purpose … a natural charisma and skill .”

Thinking about why we do comedy the way we do helps us understand it more and understand ourselves more. And importantly, Holm says, it’s worth thinking about the underlying context of what is being said and the context in which it is said.

“It’s much bigger than New Zealand – when comedy becomes ambiguous … when we wade into these ambiguities, this idea that comedy can be a disavow – a way of not meaning things, when it’s not clear if you’re joking or not. [There can be] an intentional cultivation of confusion, which is hilarious when you’re in on the joke, but can be quite upsetting when you’re not.

“Everything, potentially, is up for a joke.”

He’s recently been looking at humor in online spaces.

“Places like Twitter, Reddit, where often it’s difficult to tell if someone’s is trying to be funny or not, whether what they’re saying is a joke or whether they hold an abhorrent opinion.

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John Clarke as Fred Dagg on Country Calendar in 1974
photo: Screenshot / NZ on Screen

“It’s a funny, interesting thought exercise, but it’s also potentially a really worrying shift in online communication, given how much of our engagement happens in these online spaces, that we can’t actually tell whether someone is advocating disastrous politics, or whether they Or they can be joking and other people can think: ‘no, that’s a good point, I’ m very smooth you made it.”

“So these ambiguities can open up maybe some conversations we’re not comfortable having… celebrating a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding of other people, things can slip in under the guise of humor or even as humour.

“This is why I think these are important conversations to have… humor is a serious topic, and that’s the point.”


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