The Basement Theatre in NZ
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Here Are All the Māori Comedians

The question here isn’t, and has never been, in regards to where we are. The question should be: where are you looking for us?

There’s something in the Indigenous experience, and perhaps in the experiences of all marginalised peoples, that makes us naturally, incredibly funny.

In a world where our existence is challenged and our tino rangatiratanga is encroached upon, our humour persists. That’s because joy is resistance. In our shared humour we relish in an understanding that doesn’t need to be explained, or toned down, or diluted. 


I’ve been a comic in Aotearoa professionally for almost four years, and in that time I’ve managed to surmise a couple of things. 

In 2021, I performed for the first time in the NZ International Comedy Fest as a member of Bull Rush, an improv group I still perform with. I remember going to the closing night event with my improv buddies and looking around the room. It wasn’t entirely white: The Frickin Dangerous Bro boys, Pax Assadi, Jamaine Ross and James Roque were all there. And Angella Dravid and James Nokise were also present. At the time, I was one of only three Samoan performers in the festival. 

If you’ve been on any Facebook comment thread or internet hellhole forum about New Zealand TV recently, you’d be aware that a lot of our programming, apparently, has fallen victim to the plague of “going woke”. And for many brown comedians, like myself, this means a small but significant increase in work. 

Many of us find ourselves being ushered into spaces to make things appear more colourful and inclusive. But in doing so we are loaded with the burden of being tokenised. Frankly, it’s exhausting. And harmful. It can feel like we’re simply there to shroud the reality of bias against our people. Being a token in any space hides a structural disengagement with the entirety of our culture, our whakapapa, our laughter and our pain. By being here, on this stage, surely my presence signifies the end of racism in the New Zealand comedy industry, right? 


Not quite. 

For a long time (and not just in Aotearoa) the term “audiences'' has been synonymous with “white people.”

The New Zealand Comedy Industry has always skewed towards a pākehā lens. 

Our nation’s most famous comic, William James Te Wehi Taitoko, changed his name to ‘Billy T James’ because the pronunciation was easier for Australians. That name was rearranged and anglicised for the ease of pākehā ears and has since adorned our nation's most coveted comedy award, an act towards assimilation, so as not to deter his white audience.

Over the decades, many revered comedians of colour have bent their personas to appease pākehā for career benefit, and in doing so fed into harm towards our communities. Some of Taitoko’s own work is often a talking point in the portrayal of Māori identity for its part in enforcing harmful stereotypes.

Racism, of course, is fuelled by normalisation in the media like this. One needs only to look towards bro’Town’s Jeff Da Maori and Summer Heights High’s Jonah Takalua for their roles in proliferating harmful stereotypes and anti-Indigenous racism.

For a long time (and not just in Aotearoa) the term “audiences'' has been synonymous with “white people”. And the people that regularly come to comedy events – or the ones held by the central industry – are predominantly pākehā. 


“Comedy” in Aotearoa is viewed as a “white thing” by a lot of brown communities. There are multiple exceptions but there seems to be minimal representation for our communities in the most visible spaces. As a brown comedian who does improv comedy almost every Friday night, I comfortably say that brown audiences have not yet recognised their place in our audiences. And understandably so. Representation can foster a hostile environment when it reduces the vastness of our community into a token or caricature. In some cases, it can foster the longevity of the stereotype. 

And it is an exhausting conversation topic, particularly for the underrepresented. In the turning tide of “diversity-hire” culture, people of marginalised communities are burdened with responsibilities far beyond the call of our actual jobs. As my friend and collaborator Joel McCarthy once said after a particularly challenging call: “It’s fucking exhausting having to pioneer everything”. 

It is exhausting trying to figure out how to make a living in this industry while doing right by ourselves and by the people we stand with. These structures that coerce us into assimilating into (and making allowances for) pākehā culture are exhausting and, sometimes, dangerous. They can be dangerous to us who risk token elevation as a model minority, and to our communities, who continue to experience the very real and very relentless structural problems that cause collective harm. 


For some time now the New Zealand comedy industry has found itself pondering questions that many other institutions in this modern age also find themselves pondering. 

As we look at the massively evident disparity in representation, we’re forced to grapple with the intersections of our society and the way it uplifts a specific type of person above most others. 

But if tokenized Māori and Pasifika are being hired for being palatable to a white sensibility, then what good does this really do for our communities? And if we signify to our communities that whiteness is aspirational, then what message are we sending? To fight for a single chair? The smallest chair at the table; the littlest token of funding; a gestural hui. If we operate from the assumption that our communities enjoy laughing, our scope becomes so much wider. 

Many of our most successful comedians are creating online. Creators like Janaye Henry, Kura Turuwhenua, Timprovise and Charde Heremaia are meeting our audiences where they are. They ask the obvious question: If spaces like the theatre and the comedy club are inaccessible (both financially and geographically), then why not provide laughter in their homes? 

For decades, the comedy industry has clung to television as its path of ascension, but as the digital age shifts away from terrestrial television, so too do the audiences. Audiences want entertainment that speaks to their reality, that reflects themselves honestly. It’s increasingly hard to do that on a platform where the viewership, and the funding, is gradually being taken away. Not to say these people don’t draw audiences – Kura sold out her shows last year in the NZ Comedy Fest, and Tim sold an 80% house at Q Rangatira for a live record of his podcast “Honest To Who?”.


But in a system that depends upon bums-on-seats, the hundreds of thousands of global audience members that are viewing and engaging with online content apparently don’t speak to someone’s comedic credibility. 

In cinema, television, and international media there has been some increased visibility for Māori, Pasifika and POC comedians, as well as comedians from all backgrounds. Bubbah on Taskmaster; Courtney Dawson on Celebrity Treasure Island; Kalyani Nagarajan in Raised By Refugees. And that’s just off the top of my head. But there are still significant (and obvious) milestones still to be reached. The industry may be improving, but there is a long – and necessary – way to go. And while these new opportunities are being embraced, the people tackling them have not appeared out of nowhere. They have been honing their skills, working, standing in the face of an industry that largely ignores them or asks them to play a specific role and That Role Only.

In an essay written in 2019, Guy Williams posed the question: “where are all the Māori comedians?” What you’re reading here is my attempt at responding to this pātai. In response to it, I find myself asking questions in return: Where are you looking for us? What efforts are you making to look for Indigenous Pacific comedians? In free backyard shows put on by comedians from our South Auckland communities? In the performing arts buildings in East Coast schools? In the under-resourced high school arts programmes? In brown arts collectives working by, and for, our communities? We are here. You will find us here. 


And for all we are doing to build our community, away from the pressures of stereotyping, tokenism and assimilation, we are not without challenges for funding. 

The question here isn’t, and has never been, in regards to where we are. The question should be: where are you looking for us? Or where do you want us to be for you to acknowledge us? For funders to acknowledge our craft? And for those of us working in this industry: who do we have to be for our work to be acknowledged? 

When the New Zealand Comedy Industry is mostly centralised in one building in the heart of the Auckland CBD, the type of audience that gets drawn to these shows begins to narrow significantly. Whiteness, as a pervasive attitude, can feel unsafe for a lot of people. Colonial Patriarchy is another structure rooted in whiteness, and when we see a line up dominated by male comics who appease colonial and patriarchal tastes, we ought to ask if our venues are environments that welcome a full spectrum of talent and audience. 

If you ask me where all the Māori comedians are, I will tell you that they are here, in Aotearoa. Whether or not we are acknowledged and supported is, of course, another question.

Bailey Poching is a comedian, actor and writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau.