Oct 12, 2023 Theatre
Eli: I remember my first chat with Donna about Snort was at that cafe that’s not open anymore …
Donna: Our meeting relied on the fact that we all knew Kathleen Burns and she had told all of us that the other people were good people.
Eddy: Donna and I had met a little bit in Christchurch. And then I came to Auckland expecting to do no comedy ever again. “I’m going to move to the big city and be a normal man with a normal job.”
Eli: Donna, you did a show at the Court Theatre in Christchurch and you did Scared Scriptless [an improvisation night every Friday], and then you came up with the idea of doing Fridays at the Basement. I remember the original flyer was like, “There’s going to be live music, there’s going to this, there’s going to be that.” What was your original vision for the show?
Donna: I’d forgotten that it said ‘live music’. Maybe we had a DJ. I remember the original poster that my friend Leanne made. It was all that dotty, pop art kind of thing. Was it five bucks?
Eli: Five dollars, cash only.
Eddy: It was five dollars, cash only for years.
Donna: I knew that I didn’t want to do Theatresports and then, Eli, you were the one who was like, “What about this format?”
Eddy: We were going to do a different form every week. A different format and structure, but it was always going to be an improv format, and music after the show. And Eli was in charge of the first week and said, “Let’s try this ASSSSCAT [a long-running improv show] format.” Then it was my second week, and I had to come up with an improv format and I was like, “I like Eli’s idea.”
[Eli’s format idea, borrowed from ASSSSCAT, involved getting a word from a member of the audience, then riffing off it for an opening monologue and as the theme of the rest of the show.]
Eli: I saw that special that was Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and all these SNL people and I was like, “Oh, this is actually funny improv.” Week three, Kip Chapman was going to host and it was going to be a chat show and everyone was going to pre-decide their characters and stuff. And then we just didn’t do it.
Eddy: There was the coming-up-with-the-idea and then there was the getting-the-cast-together. I was living with Chris Parker, but I didn’t know that many people up here and I feel like both of you were more involved in getting the cast together.
Donna: Mainly Eli …
Eddy: So who was the original cast?
Donna: I remember being in the dojo and the doors swinging open and Eli walking in with all his followers behind him.
Eli: There was a weird drawing-in of three different parts of my life. And thinking about people’s friendships now, it’s crazy to think they didn’t know each other back then. Chris and Eddy from Christchurch. Laura [Daniel] and James [Roque] from Unitec. Then Guy Montgomery, who I’d been working with at U Live, and then like Nic [Sampson] and Joey [Joseph Moore] and Rose [Matafeo] were like a trio because they worked on Jono and Ben together.
Eddy: Some people knew each other vaguely, but it was quite a disparate group.
Eli: We put it out to acting Facebook groups and stand-up Facebook groups. I think some randoms turned up in the first workshops.
Eddy: We had those ‘How to Improv’ sessions, because other than about four people, no one, including the cast to this day, had done improv before.
Eli: And the first show was completely full. Who knows how — none of us were famous!
Donna: I remember thinking, “Who are these people?”
Eddy: Five dollars was still cheap in 2013.
Eli: And by Christmas that year we had 200 people in the Basement.
Eddy: The Basement comfortably fits 90 people, and we had 180 people in there and there was just no room for the show. There was a two-metre square on the main stage.
Donna: There were people at our feet.
Eddy: We were doing it over people’s legs, who were sitting on the ground. I remember the next year, there was a double bed as a prop on stage and all you could do was roll over on the bed because you couldn’t get to the front of the bed because the audience was too close. And then the Basement picked up on the fire risk and told us we had to sell tickets.
Donna: ’Cause we just put cash in an ice-cream container, eh?
Eddy: An ice-cream container with $1,000 in it, that would just sit around while we were there drinking. We negotiated to get the drinks paid for, didn’t we?
Eli: There was a Snort tab.
Eddy: The best deal we ever did!
Donna: They were going to take it away and everyone was like, “Oh, no no no.”
Eddy: Initially, we got a Snort tab, which was fairly generous for the six people, and we weren’t paying any venue fees so it was all cream. So when they tried to make us start paying for the bar, we offered a venue fee if we could keep the free beers.
Eli: In those early days when we were cool and young, the party after the show went on so long that it was paying for itself.
Donna: I remember one of the early reviews was like, “And then you might get to hang out with the stars of Snort.” And now we’re like, “My back hurts!”
Eddy: Was that the Metro review that called us the best date-night spot in Auckland? Go pay five dollars for your first date and sit on the floor of the Basement Theatre.
Eli: We rode that high for a long time, though — we’d bring it up almost every other show. This is Metro’s best first-date spot.
Eddy: We are still, to this day, using a 2014 review from The Pantograph Punch.
Donna: Do you think anyone went on a first date to Snort and now has gotten married?
Eli: Laura and Joseph.
Eddy: What are the iconic show moments from those early years?
Eli: There was a guy who’d come all the time and yell out ‘chode’ for every word, and then I saw him the other night because he came to one of our big Q Theatre shows. He’s now known as Chode Guy.
Eddy: The end of chode was when we did a Christmas show where we auctioned off the ability to give us a word. Matt Baker donated $70 and he gave the word ‘chode’. And the scenes were appalling — not at all funny. A real fizzer.
Donna: As is often the way with those words. But $70 went to Auckland City Mission for that.
Eli: That’s worth 15 minutes of bad improv.
Eddy: That was you, the City Mission stuff. We probably donated thousands and thousands of dollars.
Donna: We are so good!
Eli: We are the kindest, most generous people in the world.
Eddy: Metro, make sure you print that! The thing that struck me as quite cool during those early years of Snort was this thing that started happening from about a year-and-a-half in where people just started getting jobs out of Snort. Snort became this little cabal where you’d start with that job where you’d just watch the news all day.
Eli: You’d watch TV all day, see what funny thing happened on Shortland Street …
Eddy: … and then eventually you’d be a part-time writer. It became a road map.
Eli: You got brought in, you write some sketches for Jono and Ben, and then you become a professional television presenter.
Eddy: You become a beloved New Zealand comedian.
Donna: When Rose left and Laura took over the female job at Jono and Ben —
Eddy: The one woman at Jono and Ben.
Eli: Yeah, it’s been pretty unbelievable, that route in. We’re very lucky that Snort was able to provide that for so many people. I think it’s also one of the reasons that certain people in the wider comedy community resent Snort a little bit, because it’s like a clique that helps each other out. But also I feel like doing Snort, most of us will also like doing stand-up and writing our own plays — it’s not just the fact that we were in this group, it’s the fact that this group was a hub of people who just hustled and worked as hard as we could.
Eddy: And we never paid anyone. Like, we never paid ourselves for the shows, because we were trying to build something together that benefited everyone. We would save the money all year and then go to the Melbourne Comedy Festival and be able to fund everyone’s trip to perform and see shows. I always liked that ethos that was driving why we did it. I think that helped to build the community, or build the cabal.
Donna: I just had a flashback of having to go to the bank to deposit that money. It’d be like four weeks’ worth. They’d say, “What do you want me to give you as a reference?” and I’d be like, “Snort?” And they’d be like, “Okaaaaaaaaay.”
Eli: Donna, when you started this, you had the name and already gave it to Basement, but did you think of any other names? I feel like an improv show is such a hard thing to come up with a name for and I see lots overseas that have long-winded, kind of annoying names. I think Snort is pretty perfect.
Donna: I love it as well. My mum actually wrote a list of names and she was like, “What about these for your little improv show?” And ‘Snort’ was on it. So Mum came up with the name.
Eli: Get your mum on the last show!
Donna: Love that!
Eddy: How do you think comedy has changed since 2013?
Donna: Especially when you’re talking about women. I was thinking this the other day because Abby Howells was Billy T’ed and Guy had just been Fredded. Have we had someone from Snort either win the Billy or the Fred every year for a while?
Eddy: Yeah, I think every year. Seven of the last nine Billy T award-winners and four of the last five Fred winners. [The Billy T Award is given each year to an outstanding emerging performer and The Fred Award to the best New Zealand show at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival.]
Eli: It’s a pretty incredible legacy. It has a lot to do with, I think, having that community of people around you. And before Snort, there was FanFiction Comedy — some of the same people and a similar crew of comedy and Heidi O’Loughlin — a big shout-out for bringing people together to make stand-up shows for dorks and for dweebs and not throwing your big dick energy around.
Donna: Eli, you’re one of those winners. [He won The Fred Award in 2021.]
Eli: Yeah, I never would have the level of skill that I have without doing Snort. Performing every week, doing these festivals. Even just doing Snort monologues is incredible training for stand-up. On U Late, we would do a bit of improv, just before we started Snort. There was the format that Nic Sampson did as a live show on U Late, ‘Kiwi Heroes’, where people would dress up as legends and get interviewed. We were very fortunate to be on a network that no one was watching. Me and Joe would do Peter Jackson and Sir Richard Taylor. Nic used to do Captain Cook, and Rose did Jean Batten. A very fortuitous part of Snort starting was that I was meant to take over hosting U Late in September because Tim Lambourne was going to move overseas. Then U closed in August. If that hadn’t happened, the week we did Snort for the first time, I wouldn’t have been able to do it and Guy wouldn’t have been able to do it, because we would have been hosting. I don’t know if Snort would have had the same cast.
Donna: When you look at improv now in Auckland, you’ve got Bull Rush, Casual First Date, Love Lamp — they’ve all got these different formats but they’re more long-form, in terms of how Snort is also long-form, compared to, like, Theatresports. Like, Whammy Bar is what the Basement used to be. It’s pretty cool.
Eddy: Looking back at the past 10 years, what are you most proud of? What do you hope the final show is?
Donna: The thing I’m most proud of is that Snort created this community of really close friends who are doing incredible things career-wise, but also just really amazing, good, kind, people. And from there that’s branched out into a wider community aspect where improv is cool now and there’s all these young people popping up and doing shows all over the place.
Eli: I’m really proud of how we’ve been able to facilitate so many people’s journeys into having an actually legitimate career in comedy. Also, just getting people into the buzz of doing an improv show. Think about all these shows last week at Q and coming off stage and over half the cast was new-ish people to the company … and seeing other people get the high of coming off stage from a good improv show, and then remembering all the highs we’ve had over the years, especially in those early stages. When we were in Edinburgh last year, it really reminded me — nothing feels like having a good Snort.