Fresh from being recognised in the New Year’s Honours as the godmother of New Zealand’s stand-up scene, Michele A’Court is fizzing to be back in Wairarapa as part of a nationwide comedy. She spoke to NICK GRANT about the serious business of making people laugh for a living.
How much has performing in Wairarapa featured in the course of your three-decade career as a comedian?
I’ve been in and out of the place like a dog at a fair, to be honest. With gigs, and also with books – Yarns In Barns is one of the cosiest writers’ festivals in Aotearoa.
My last comedy gig there was in 2021 with two nights at the White Swan in Greytown for the July mid-Winter Christmas festival.
I still think about the pastries from the French Baker and sigh. Those gigs were shortly before Auckland’s really long, really soul-destroying 107-day lockdown, so those gigs remain a highlight of that year.
Is there anything especially distinctive about the kind of audiences you tend to attract here?
In cities I get a lot of wild young feminists who have listened to our podcast, “On The Rag.” I tend to get RNZ National listeners in places like Wairarapa – they’re smart, they read the news, and they tend not to hate it when women have opinions.
That’s a thing that happens in some other regions where they start with hating the PM and work their way down to me.
Sometimes it takes the nice RNZ listeners a minute to get used to me swearing because I don’t do that on the wireless, but I feel they appreciate the way I also round the vowels in those short words.
Any wild young feminists you have lying about would be gratefully received, too.
Do you tailor your material to local events and personalities?
I always want to acknowledge where we are, and what we know about each other.
The thing I love about stand-up is that there’s no script, no rules, and I get to talk about whatever I want to talk about in the moment.
I am the boss of me.
What kind of topics can your Carterton audience expect you to cover?
I never think expectations are a useful thing to bring to a comedy gig. Just your wallet, some hand sanitiser, maybe a hanky? Backstage, before the show, once I’ve seen what you all look like, I’ll make a plan of what I might talk about and then I will either stick to that plan, or I won’t. In general terms, maybe just expect to feel better at the end of the show than you did before it started.
Who else is performing with you on Saturday?
Pax Assadi is MCing the gig, the wonderfully anarchic David Correos will be there, plus Lianne Karaitiana, who is a Carterton local and brilliant. We are also bringing Sowmya Hiremath, Jak Mitchell and Daniel Boerman up from Wellington.
The pandemic has presumably been a real bugger when it comes to live gigs. How much has this aspect of your career been disrupted since covid kicked off?
I’ve been tearing out of the house at the end of every lockdown from 2020 onwards – with my mask on, obviously, and fully jabbed. There was a spectacular summer tour a year ago in that golden period between delta and omicron, and then I stayed home for a while. Financially, it has been devastating, but as well as it being the way I earn my living, I’ve also learnt how much gigging feeds my soul. So here I am.
Will there be any covid mitigations in place for tonight’s gig?
I don’t know what the venue plans to do but I have a strict no-French-kissing policy.
How are you finding being back on the road, despite covid community transmission being well out of the gate now?
It’s weird – I do this because I can’t bear not doing it. You mitigate the risks as much as possible. I test before I head out to a gig, test again afterwards, wear a mask on planes, keep up with my shots. The risk really hits you sometimes, so I do everything I can to keep safe.
Has receiving this honour changed things for you at all?
It has involved less curtseying than I was hoping for, but a small group of friends call me “Officer M” which is gratifying. I like to shout, “At ease!” There has been a delightful flurry of messages and letters from people I admire and respect, and I am trying to let all the good things they say actually sink it. I am definitely taking it as licence to be even louder about what I think, and to boost other loudmouths, too.
You were gonged in the latest New Year Honours with an ONZM [Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit] for services to entertainment and comedy. Was that a bit of a collision between odd and awesome?
It is undeniably awesome to have your work recognised, but kind of weird to be a stand-up comedian with an honour signed by the King. I do have very nice manners – my mother insisted on it just in case I was ever invited to Government House. Now that I’m going, I will definitely know which fork to use.
You were one of the key figures in establishing NZ’s modern comedy scene 30 years ago. How has it evolved since then?
It’s a professional industry now – you can make a living out of “stand-up plus stand-up-adjacent” endeavours. It’s still just a bunch of weirdos with a passion and few other notable skills or interests, but we have places to practice our craft now. And it’s much less lonely to be a woman in it – we get to work together, support each other, and audiences get a wider range of stories. As with all work that happens at night, it poses particular challenges for people who aren’t straight white men, but at least now we get to walk each other to our cars while we talk about what shit housewives we are.
What inspired you to take up comedy in the first place?
Storytelling and making people laugh were valued highly in my family so it started early. I watched Carol Burnett talk to her TV audience and I didn’t know what that was called, just that I wanted to do it.
I trained as a journalist – it was the storytelling part of journalism that appealed – then got a degree in English and Drama, and couldn’t choose between performing and writing. This way I get to do both.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
This is honestly much more than anyone would ever want to know about me. Some of it is news to me, too.
- Comedy showcase, 8pm, Saturday, January 21, Carterton Event Centre. Tickets: $40 [plus booking fees] from the centre’s website