Kiwi comic James Mustapic: "I want to provoke her again but I probably shouldn’t”

Up for the Billy T at this year's Comedy Festival, James Mustapic is one to watch. Tess Nichol spoke to him about his new show, old grudges, and getting away with being a bit naughty.

James Mustapic loves stirring up a bit of trouble. At 23, the stand-up comedian is already in the bad books of one, possibly two local D-list celebrities.

Over the phone with Metro, he sounds despairing, his schoolboyish voice pitching high with angst. He says he feels awful for hurting the feelings of television psychic Sue Nicholson and (maybe) former kids’ TV presenter Drew Neemia.

Not bad enough to rule out using either of them as material in future comedy shows, though. “I’m almost, like, I want to provoke her again but I probably shouldn’t,” he says, giggling nervously.

READ MORE: James Mustapic comedy review: Newcomer already absurdly confident

Mustapic drew Nicholson’s ire earlier this year when he joked on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp that she should win a best actress Oscar for her role as a TV psychic (Sensing Murder does not advertise itself as fictional). She wrote a couple of angry Facebook posts about the young comic, attracting scores of comments from outraged fans backing her up.

It was all a bit stressful. “I’m glad it happened because it’s quite good content, but I was also, like, ‘Oh my god, everyone’s so mad at me’.” He’s like a kid who isn’t sorry they did something naughty, only sad they got caught. “I get so scared — I was trying not to read the Facebook comments. But also I was, like, I probably should read them so that if there’s any really funny ones I could put them in my show.”

Additionally, he is certain former Sticky TV and Select Live presenter Drew Neemia hates him, too. Neemia (and his unknown whereabouts since fading from our screens) was gently but repeatedly mocked in episodes of Mustapic’s Repressed Memories video series, which ran on pop culture website The Spinoff and appeared on its short-lived TV show last year.

The fact his targets are small-time New Zealand celebrities is a reflection of the niche Mustapic’s work has operated in so far. Repressed Memories took gone-and-nearly-forgotten relics from local pop culture history and gave them new life in hilarious short videos poking fun at how terrible shows like Shortland Street, New Zealand Idol and Sticky TV seem with hindsight.

“It felt so important at the time,” he says of New Zealand Idol. “It was so exciting and so it’s quite funny that just so quickly no one cared and this person [the winner] is gone. Even though it is sad that they couldn’t make a career out of something that was so popular, it’s also just kind of funny.”

The tragi-comic nature of New Zealand pop culture is fertile ground for a clever comic, and Mustapic uses the material well, striking the right balance between teasing and affection. “I loved watching TV and all of those shows that were — I don’t know if they were popular or not, but I remember there were so many moments people just kind of forgot about and a lot of the people kind of disappeared and I remember talking to so many people and they’d be, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember that’.”

As a lonely teenager living in Dunedin, Mustapic would watch Shortland Street religiously, and recently started tuning in again after a three-year-long hiatus from the show. “It’s like going back to your old hometown after a few years and you’re, like, ‘What? This person’s pregnant?”

In May, he’s performing a new stand-up routine in the NZ International Comedy Festival, The Blair Witch Projector, and he’s up for the Billy T, New Zealand comedy’s top award for new talent. “It’s so nice,” he says of the nomination, “but also a lot of pressure. Last year when I did my show, I was just, like, having fun basically, just, ‘Oh, chuck this in’ and ‘Maybe this will be good’. I don’t think of myself as that competitive but, like, all of sudden I’m, like, ‘Argh, I need to do this work now’.”

The Spinoff founder and managing director Duncan Greive, who commissioned Repressed Memories, is unsurprised the young comic’s star continues to rise. “He’s got an amazing command of New Zealand-specific pop culture,” Greive says. “He’s extremely clever. When you have a room full of people looking at the exact same thing, he’ll find something in it which everyone else has missed or be able to put his finger precisely on what makes it funny.”

A natural introvert, Mustapic had had difficulty switching from the privacy of making videos to the very public nature of stand-up, but with age, a bit of experience and the recent tackling of some mental-health demons, he’s beginning to feel more confident on stage and able to actually enjoy himself during stand-up performances. “I do feel more confident and I do trust myself on stage that I won’t be terrible and I can have a bit more fun going with the flow, rather than trying to be perfect.”

James Mustapic is performing at Q Theatre's Vault until May 25.

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