Jul 29, 2014 Theatre
First published in the June 2014 issue of Metro. Photo by Garth Badger.
Back in 2012, Guy Williams turned up at a press conference where All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams announced he was departing to play rugby in Japan, and sang to him the Exponents’ song “I’ll Say Goodbye (Even Though I’m Blue)”. The clip was played on Jono and Ben at Ten and stands as perhaps the finest example of that thrilling era — now almost certainly over — known as, “Guy Williams screws with some All Blacks press conferences.”
That’s saying something, because the era also includes the moment when Williams uses his child double, Little Guy, to ask All Black Andrew Hore why he hates seals (Hore has been convicted for clubbing a seal to death). It also includes the moment at Auckland International Airport to welcome back the champion New Zealand Sevens team, when one of the players says: “Words can’t explain how we felt,” and Williams replies: “This is kind of a TV interview, so do you think you could get some words to explain it?”
Great moments, sure, but there’s something about Sonny Bill’s significance in our national conversation, and something about “important” All Blacks press conferences in general, that dramatically raised the stakes of that particular announcement, and therefore dramatically raised the stakes of any attempt to mess with it.
“Sonny, it’s Guy Williams here from Nelson,” he begins, “and I can’t speak for all New Zealand — but I do — when I say…”
He sings quietly at first, and badly: “I’ll say goodbye…” and remains seated, and you can’t be sure how far he’s going to take it or how it’s going to go down. Then he stands, Sonny Bill smiles and begins clapping to the beat, assistant coach Wayne Smith starts singing along, and there’s a release of tension. You laugh. Guy starts dancing poorly but sexily. Everyone’s enjoying it. Well, almost. It cuts to a shot of the hardcore rugby journos in the front row and they are absolutely stone-faced.
It starts to feel like it’s going on a bit too long. Williams gets down on one knee and builds to the big chorus. The smiles of the players and coaches are starting to strain. You are feeling really uncomfortable. Just as you reach the point where you feel like you can’t watch anymore, he says: “Okay, I’m sorry, I’ll stop,” drops his head and returns to his seat. “I am so sorry about that,” he says, and because he looks so disappointed in himself for what he’s done, the tension is released and it’s funny again.
He is neither disappointed in himself nor sorry, but you can’t know that from watching the clip. He says he hates the reverence accorded events like this one, in which people talk about sport under some dingy grandstand, and are listened to by journalists, as if it were the most important thing in the world. “There are certain things that need to be screwed with,” Williams says. “The All Blacks definitely need to be screwed with.”
On a Monday night in April, while the rest of the NZ International Comedy Festival raged around Queen St, Guy Williams opened his five-night festival run in front of an audience of about 100 people in the harshly lit Hawke Sea Scout Hall, at the end of a dark path off a dark carpark on a quiet residential Westmere street.
Last year his festival show was at the equally ludicrous Auckland Old Folks Association Hall just off K’ Rd. He didn’t realise until he arrived at the hall, which would later be populated by a fair number of teenagers, that it was a popular gathering spot for prostitutes: “The scariest prostitutes,” he says.
He vomited before the show, as he often does, and he felt uncomfortable having to do that in front of the prostitutes.
Williams says he chooses these shitty venues because they save both him and the audience money, and because they reduce the pressure on him to deliver a high-quality performance.
That’s a really strange thing to say, because audiences generally have low expectations only for comedians they don’t know, and everyone at a Guy Williams show, and nearly everyone else, knows Guy Williams, and Guy Williams knows that.
“I went to the Christchurch races earlier in the year and a guy hit me up,” Williams said, early in the gig. “I was in the corporate boxes, where the rich people are, and this guy down on the street was like: ‘Guy! Guy Williams! Guy! Check this out!’
“He points to a woman who’s just smashed off her face and he goes, ‘Do it! Do it!’ and she just goes, ‘Blaaaaaaaah’ and just shakes her boobs. And he’s just looking at me like, ‘Pretty good right? Pretty bloody good!’ And I’m like, ‘Good on ya, mate, good on ya’ [does thumbs up]. And then he goes, ‘That’s my sister!’
“And I’m like, ‘I’ve bloody made it.’ Because that’s basically been my quest in my life, to become a New Zealand shit-lebrity. This is the third year I’ve done one of these weird shows in weird halls and every year I pick a personality to kind of make fun of: a Drew Neemia or a Kimberley Crossman or someone like that. And I was thinking this year who the shitty celebrity I would pick on would be and I kind of realised it’s probably me. I literally have become everything that I hate.
It’s a gift to be able to say terrible things to people and have them not punch you in the face for it. But to have them love you for it is something else.
“I’ve completely sold out and it’s bloody good. If you haven’t sold out before, I would highly recommend it.”
Like much of what Guy Williams says, it’s hard to take this claim at face value. He has a motto: “Life’s a joke, feel the vibes,” which could mean basically anything, but which at least seems to suggest a lack of ambition. He likes to project the impression that he’s happy to sit back and lap up the relative fame and occasional rewards that come with being one of New Zealand’s leading shit-lebrities.
But he cares too much for that. He doesn’t just want to be popular; he wants to be good.
My first few emails to him were failed attempts to arrange a meeting, culminating in my receiving an underpunctuated email outburst: “I have no time I’m effed and my life is effed!”
Eventually he found a free half hour between his television, radio and corporate commitments. He suggested we meet in town at 12.30pm because he was supposed to be filming something at Botswana Butchery at 1pm, although he didn’t know what it was, only that it was for something he had never heard of, called The Orcas. I suggested we meet at a cafe two minutes’ walk from the restaurant. He replied: “Too far!”
When he turned up, a couple of minutes late, he was wearing shorts and was both taller and more relaxed than I expected. We sat outside, on the waterfront side of the restaurant. “I know what I want,” he said to the waiter, “steak and potatoes.”
He ate with purpose. When he talked, he spat, but unselfconsciously. At about 1.15pm, a dude came out and sat down at the table. He had apparently been waiting inside for Williams. The dude seemed maybe a bit passive aggressive but not too bad.
“I’m really pleased to be doing this for the Orcas and I totally know what those are,” Williams told him, for no obvious reason. The dude laughed, but not too hard.
The next time I met Guy Williams was at Grano on New North Rd, next to TV3. I texted him to say I was early. He texted back to say he was in the bathroom, which turned out to be his bathroom at home. He texted again 20 minutes later to apologise and say he was on his way: “I’m late everywhere I go,” he wrote. “I was told it was a sign of ADD.”
He arrived about 10 minutes later. After a while, he had to leave to go to TV3 and film something but he said he would only be about 20 minutes, so I could wait if I wanted.
He came back about 40 minutes later. We talked some more. He then suddenly realised he was supposed to be at a rehearsal for a corporate thing in south Auckland, for which he was an hour or two late. He got in his car and started driving. He wasn’t even out of New North Rd when his phone went and he had to go back to TV3 to film something else.
He never made it to the corporate thing.
The TV, the radio, the lucrative corporate gigs for Telecom, The Warriors, Big Boys Toys: it’s all so much more complicated than when he was at Victoria University, studying politics and arguing with Young ACT members in tutorials. Back then, he was all about the stand-up. The dispassionate vacuum of capitalism hadn’t yet begun to suck at his talent.
“I don’t know what my priority is,” he told me. “You’ve met a very confused person.”
His final show at this year’s comedy festival was at the Freemans Bay Community Hall. At one point, he noticed some people sitting at the back taking selfies. He said, “This isn’t TV; I can see you guys,” which is — verbatim — a line he had criticised only a few days before for being a thoughtless stand-up cliché. The crowd laughed at it anyway.
“I can’t believe you guys laughed at that classic comedy gag,” he said. “It’s like, where are you from?” he said, picking out a random man in the front row. Before the man could respond, he said, “Hamilton? Who’s your girlfriend? Your mum?”
The crowd loved it and laughed so hard it was ridiculous.
“If you guys laugh at that,” he said, “you’re a shit audience.” They loved that too; were near-apoplectic with laughter.
He appeared to have been disappointed in himself for the “This isn’t TV” line, and the Hamilton follow-up was deliberately even dumber — just a way to illustrate his disappointment — but the audience reaction suggested they not only took it at face value but loved it for that.
Because he was apparently disappointed with himself, his criticism of them was really self-criticism but, still, it was them he called shit. On some level, maybe on all levels, he believed they were shit, but for some reason, possibly because he appeared to also believe it of himself, they couldn’t have cared less.
It’s a gift to be able to say terrible things to people and have them not punch you in the face for it. But to have them love you for it is something else.
At a taping of Jono and Ben at Ten in April, he criticised his co-hosts after a failed take with guest John Leigh — Lionel Skeggins from Shortland Street. “Lionel, you were fantastic,” he said. “Jono and Ben, you were fucking appalling.”
This is the exact sort of line in the exact sort of tone he says all the time on that show, and it’s part of what makes it funny. But that line was never going to make it into the final cut because the take was already over. That one was just for fun.
A few days later, Ben says: “Jono said the other day that our show would be the show that Guy would probably hate the most out of anyone in New Zealand. He is our harshest critic.”
It’s such an outrageous thought: that when he pretends to hate on the show he works on, he’s not pretending. But it’s almost certainly right. “What he’s like on screen, he’s kind of like off screen,” Ben says. “He’s brutally honest. It takes a lot of getting used to. He’ll say, ‘No offence, but you’re really shit at that.’ That’s one of the things that makes him really good at what he does. He enjoys the confrontation.”
When Williams first met Charlotte Hobson, the woman who gave him his first job on television, working on The Jono Project, he berated her. “I didn’t berate her,” he says. “I just told her I didn’t think much of the show she put her heart and soul into.”
He’s not proud of having said that, especially now he has some understanding of the challenges in making television: “You don’t realise how much goes into a show until you get behind the curtain,” he says. “People criticise Jono and Ben at Ten for our crappy gags, but to achieve those crappy gags we’ve been working our arses off all week.”
“I think he definitely still ruffles feathers,” Hobson says. “I don’t think people necessarily forgive him for any kind of attacks he makes on people. He probably needs to be a little bit careful about that. I’m talking about face-to-face interactions. I’ve seen him say by mistake horrific things to people and not realise he’s being offensive, then he will apologise profusely to the point the person has come around to his side. He is genuinely apologetic. Then he might walk away and the person will still be a little bit offended.”
Williams says he was once watching clips of an old show called Pick Me MTV when Bronywnn Wilson — whom he didn’t then know, but who is now his boss on Jono and Ben at Ten — walked past. “She said, ‘Are you watching Pick Me MTV? I said, ‘Oh yeah, this show is bleak.’ She said, ‘I was the director and producer of this show.’”
On his radio show on The Edge, there is a regular segment called Wind Beneath Your Wings, a terrible, mawkish bit where the hosts take turns to chuck out Oprah-like self-motivational platitudes. It’s exactly the kind of thing you expect from commercial radio. It was Guy Williams’ idea.
“You’re building it up too much, babes,” Guy interrupted co-host Sharyn as she introduced it one day.
“Shut up!” she said. “You do this every day! It’s a positive segment. Don’t make it negative!” Sharyn’s Wind Beneath Your Wings for that day was: “Don’t be a dick.”
Williams says that Sharyn and the other co-host, Clint, can and do produce a slick, professional radio show. He sees his role as being different and disruptive. During an interview with a guest one time, he said: “Can you do that again without so many clichés?”
Comedian Rose Matafeo says: “Guy’s got this complete social inability to read a mood at times. He’s said things to people that are horrible but there’s nothing malicious about it. He will insult you three times in a conversation. He’ll just say the wrong thing.
“It’s horrible when you’re on one end, but when you’re watching it, it’s like all social constructs of small talk have flown out of the window and he’s just saying what he’s thinking. It’s just what he thinks, if it’s bad or good. I think it gets him into trouble.”
It’s also a big part of what makes him appealing — and his bosses at The Edge know it. In the press release to announce his appointment to the drive show earlier this year, they included this quote from him: “It has been my dream to work on The Edge radio station ever since last week when they told me I would be working on The Edge radio station. I’m super-excited to make my dream a reality.”
“Part of his humour has been to see the negative in life,” says Leon Wratt, programme director at The Edge. “That’s often the way comedians work in New Zealand — they take the piss out of stuff. That’s always there. You’ve got Sharyn, who’s a very positive person, and Guy, who can be a bit more negative. That’s where a lot of the entertainment comes out. It’s an important mix. If everybody believes in the same thing or agrees, you may as well just have one person in there. I wouldn’t want Guy to be something that isn’t him.”
Still, how long can a personality like Williams’ fit in an environment where he has to play with others? Having a negative host might be good for entertainment, but it’s maybe not that great for workplace relations.
“I’ve never had much awareness of what my own personality is,” Williams says. “On radio, I’ve been told to be less of a cunt.”
Williams doesn’t think he’s very good on radio — “You’ve got to give me a year” — but in the only radio survey since he started on the show, it had its highest-ever rating and was also the top-rated drive show in the country. “We beat Newstalk ZB!” he says.
He grabbed a woman’s bag after catching her using her phone, then rifled through it as he climbed back on stage and ate her mints.
Asked why he thought Williams had been so successful, Wratt says: “I don’t think I’m ready to admit that. Guy’s very generous of spirit, an interesting person, enthusiastic, very self-motivated. That all works well in his favour. But it’s about the long-term, it’s not to be good for three or four or five or six months. You want to be good over a long period of time.”
What does it mean to be good on The Edge? And, more specifically, does “good” mean the same for Guy Williams as it means to Leon Wratt?
Ten minutes before the start of Williams’ final comedy festival show at the Freemans Bay Community Hall, the supply of self-service seats from the storage closet had been exhausted and people had started setting up trestle tables to sit on, probably unsafely. When the tables ran out too, the last of the 400-500 audience members stood. The security guard who had been hired for $100 hadn’t turned up. The strength of Williams’ low-budget comedy revolution was definitely not logistics.
It all went off well. At one point, he waded through the audience and grabbed a woman’s bag after catching her using her phone, then rifled through it as he climbed back on stage and ate her mints.
So much had changed from his opening show five nights before. Among others, a series of easy jokes about Jetstar, of which Williams had been quite embarrassed, had gone. What remained had been severely revised. A list of New Year’s resolutions he had read from a piece of paper on Monday was done from memory on Friday, with most of it cut. It was better.
There was a list of lifehacks: “Save time at home by crying at work.” / “Only need half a tomato? Put the other half in the fridge, then one week later throw it out.” / “Keep on losing your keys? Tie them to Mike McRoberts. That way, if you ever want to know where they are, they’re on TV3 at 6pm.”
Although the lifehacks had also been done on Monday, Friday’s version included the participation of a woman who had brought her 12-year-old son and whose job was to judge each proposed lifehack by playing one of two audio stings on Williams’ laptop (“Life successfully hacked!” / “Life not hacked!”) while he assailed her for her ineptitude and poor parenting skills.
Williams believes in the “erosion process” of comedy: repeating and refining material at gig after gig, trying to improve his delivery, stripping gags back until they are as pure as possible.
He had wanted to do 30 consecutive shows at this year’s festival. “That’s how you improve,” he says. “I regret I didn’t, but it would have been a logistical nightmare.”
His work schedule: daily from 8am-12.30pm on Jono and Ben at Ten and 12.30pm-7pm on The Edge. On Thursdays, when Jono and Ben is recorded, he’s at TV3 until 10pm and on weekends he usually also does additional Jono and Ben.
In June, he will begin spending time — who knows when? — working on The Edge TV, a new music television channel being launched by MediaWorks. Once a week, on average, he does a comedy gig, which takes about three hours all up.
According to the book Be a Great Stand-Up from the useful Teach Yourself publishing imprint, the most important thing in a stand-up career is perseverance.
“If you keep performing,” it advises, “you will get better. If you keep performing, you will come up with new ideas. If you keep at it, people will offer you strange, often lucrative, jobs that you could never have imagined.”
It never says what you should do once those strange, lucrative jobs occupy all your time and also make you one of the most popular and recognisable comedians in your country and also its sexiest man, according to one of its worst magazines.
Williams says he had hoped the radio and TV stuff would feed his stand-up, but at the moment he thinks it’s all the other way.
Ambitous comedians overseas often perform multiple stand-up gigs each night: English comic Alexei Sayle reportedly did seven sets a night when he was coming up. That is to say, he was performing nearly as often every week as Guy Williams performs every year.
When he started in comedy, Williams was inspired by some edgy, unusual comedians on the Wellington scene — people who would often bomb but would bomb fantastically. His comedy heroes are mostly people out of the mainstream: Stewart Lee, Mitch Hedberg, Daniel Kitson. Given all that, it seems odd that so much of his time is spent doing broad comedy for a TV show he says he hates possibly more than anyone else in the country, and a radio show for people who like terrible music.
Over Easter this year, Williams took some time off and went to Melbourne to watch the comedy festival there. He didn’t perform, but he was reacquainted with the purity of stand-up.
With stand-up, more than with almost any other format, the comedian can create and deliver an original vision. There are no bosses, nobody to answer to, just one person, alone on a stage, answering only to himself. Nobody tells a stand-up to be less of a cunt, right?
But of course they do: It’s just that those people aren’t called “bosses”, they are called “people who didn’t come” and worse, “people who wish they didn’t come”.
There’s an American comedian and ventriloquist called Jeff Dunham. It’s less likely you know his name than that of his puppet skeleton Achmed the Dead Terrorist, and more particularly Achmed’s numbingly repetitive catchphrase: “Silence! I kill you!”
Dunham is critically despised but is one of the most popular comedians in the United States and therefore the world. In May, he played Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena, a venue that will this year also host concerts by Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Robbie Williams and The Rolling Stones. “Jeff Dunham is popular,” Williams says, “but I wouldn’t call him good.”
So is that the choice, popular or good? Not in comedy, at least, not as routinely as you might think. Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Steve Martin, Louis C.K., Flight of the Conchords… they all found a sweet spot where popular and good overlap.
But if Guy Williams is a good comedian, or if he wants to be one, why is he spending four hours every weekday co-hosting the drive show on The Edge with Sharyn and Clint? If he thinks the gags are crappy on Jono and Ben at Ten, how does he cope with the slick patter of his relentless upbeat co-hosts? It’s so difficult to imagine him co-hosting a show on The Edge, even as you listen to him do it, that you wonder how that happened.
Williams does a range of things he sometimes wishes he didn’t. Recently, he has been filmed being chased by a gyrocopter which was shooting him with paintball pellets, and he has hosted the Wild Bean Cafe awards, about which he says: “I don’t think they liked me.”
But he says: “I sometimes think, ‘What would somebody really good do in this situation? Like, if Jemaine Clement was doing this horrible corporate, would he be able to make it funny?’ And I think, ‘Yes he would.’
“No matter what the situation,” Williams says, “You should be able to make it funny.”
Rose Matafeo says: “It’s all very well when you’re starting out at 21 and have all these principles and then suddenly you think, ‘Oh shit, I’m doing that.’”
“It might not necessarily be where he wants to be in five years, but if you can infiltrate one pop medium that people listen to, and secretly seed better ideas than what was the tradition in that medium, that’s a win. The format is not necessarily suited to sophisticated comedy. Hopefully, it won’t change Guy, but Guy might change it.”
“It’s a far more optimistic view than I’m used to having,” she says, “but there is merit in trying to change people’s taste for things, make things better. People won’t be aware of it if you don’t have people who are different. It’s a long con, a plan to improve mainstream comedy for the better. Nothing is going to change unless somebody tries to change it.”
Guy Williams’ big break was winning a televised competition to be Dai Henwood’s protégé. Because it was for TV, it was more about publicity than advice. Still, Henwood is a relatively successful Kiwi comedian who is 10 years older than Williams and so maybe his experience of performing overseas could be considered instructional.
“I want to be Louis C.K. My goal is to be like Flight of the Conchords, like Michael Jordan.”
“I was living with Flight of the Conchords in Edinburgh,” Henwood says, “and I was doing the Edinburgh Festival and the Melbourne Festival at the same time the Conchords were coming through. They struck an amazing chord whereas I was having great shows, but by no means at that level.
“I didn’t take off over there. I didn’t necessarily go over there to establish myself but I would love to have got to the worldwide status the Conchords have. But life’s still young. I love the fact I’m earning money and can support a family and I’m telling jokes and I’ve got a great fan base. To me, that’s success.”
After Williams’ triumphant final show at the Freemans Bay Community Hall, while he was packing up his boxes and looking out from the stage across the empty room in which he had so recently been adored by hundreds, he said something completely different from everything he’d said to me earlier. His dream, he said, was to be the best comedian in the world.
“I want to be Louis C.K. My goal is to be like Flight of the Conchords, like Michael Jordan.”
I asked him why he hadn’t told me that earlier. “Because it’s embarrassing,” he said. “Nobody wants to admit that. But that’s everyone’s dream right? To be the best in the world at what they do?”
First published in Metro, June 2014.