There’s only a few weeks left until dozens of brilliant comedians from near and far take over Auckland’s stages as part of the NZ International Comedy Festival. By the end of the festival there will be a new recipient of the coveted Billy T Award, so to get into the swing of things we chatted to the talented bunch that makes up this year’s nominees.
Matt Stellingwerf has been on our radar for the past couple of festivals, which happens to be the entire length of his comedy career. Matt’s come an impressively long way in a short amount of time: he won Best Newcomer in 2013 and hasn’t looked back since. This year, his show will take audiences on an incredibly personal journey through some of the most volatile days of his life, yet Matt promises he’ll never stray from the relaxed style he’s become known for. He doesn’t even plan on standing up.
What can we expect from your show? How’s your writing going so far?
Really, really good. That sounded so desperate. No, I actually had the idea for my show after last year’s festival. My show follows a 12 day period where I fell in love after a one night stand – schoolboy error – then got my heart broken, then had an orgy – which just happened, it hadn’t happened to me before or again since. Then I got diagnosed with depression and then fell in love again. After that 12 day period I spent four days going for walks and I wrote half an hour of the show. It’s essentially remained unchanged since, I’ve just been adding bits. Thankfully, I did fall in love with someone because that gave me an ending to the show that would otherwise be really depressing. Luckily Miriam came along and gave me an ending to her show. My show! Not hers, that was a Freudian slip, wasn’t it? It’s gonna be really good, really personal, it’s chilled out, I’m doing most of it sitting down on a stool.
Okay, that’s interesting because it doesn’t sound like the subject matter is very chill.
Yeah, but I’m a naturally chilled out person I think, or even when things when things go disastrously wrong I’m still really low-key, as you’re probably getting now. I talk really slowly, everyone’s like, ‘You only have to write half as many jokes, because they take twice as long to tell’. At the time it wasn’t very low-key and chill but in retrospect it is hilariously daft and I’m the punchline as well. Which is great because there’s nothing funny about saying, ‘I had an orgy, I had a one night stand – I’m the man’. I am just an utter failure at all of them, which is great – it’s funny.
Was it therapeutic, creating something out of that time?
Yeah, ‘cause I went through those horrible 12 days and then in the days afterwards when I was writing everything I was like, ‘This is awesome’. It was a really quick turnaround from being horrific to having something to write about. When you do a lot of gigs and a lot of comedy you get bogged down with it. You end up either not writing jokes, or writing jokes about a funny audience member or: ‘Oh you know the thing about hotels?’ and the average person in the audience has never been heckled and hasn’t stayed in many hotels. It’s great to have other experiences, it’s the same as taking time off to go travelling, you just need something else to happen in your life to inspire comedy. Some people have their dad passing away or a horrific break up.
Those are such sad examples.
Comedians are miserable people. That’s the secret, this is a façade. It’s the Pagliacci the clown thing. No that sounds bad, we’re not miserable people. [Leans into the recorder] We are not miserable people! We’re really happy people! Please like us!
We did an interview with you a while ago where you said you didn’t have much of an on stage persona, you’re the same on stage and off. Has that changed at all?
I want this show to be a coming out for me being exactly what I want to be in the future. It’s slowly been a bit of a transition for me and it’s different topics to ones I’ve talked about before so hopefully it’s a coming out party for the Matt Stellingwerf comedian.
How did you get into comedy?
I was quite a late bloomer, I’ve only been doing it for two and a half years. I think I always wanted to do it but when I was growing up there was no Wikipedia and Google wasn’t really a thing. I did Class Comedians the other day and the kids were shocked that Facebook and YouTube didn’t exist when I was at school. They were like, ‘How did you talk to people and how did you watch videos?’ and I was like, ‘You got a dodgy email with an eight-line-long link taking you to see some leaked CIA video of the war in Iraq’. So you didn’t really know how you got to go from not doing it to being like the Billy Connelly VHS or record or whatever your parents had.
So I was in my mid-20s, I’d just finished university, me and my then girlfriend had just broken up, I moved into a new flat and I really wanted to try stand-up comedy, I’d always wanted to do it. I enrolled at the open mic night at The Classic and it went well, which was great because if hadn’t gone well – since I hadn’t considered a career in it – I could have just dropped it then and there.
I’m glad I didn’t start when I was 18. Well, I wish I did ‘cause I could be making so much money by now, if my success had continued at the same rate, but I think I would have struggled not having as much confidence and life experience and not having travelled a lot. One bad night could cripple you as a 17 or 18 year old. Now when things cripple me I write awesome jokes out of them and make money out of experiences. A lot of people might be reading this and thinking, ‘That wasn’t even a very traumatic experience; you had your heart broken after a one night stand? You’re an idiot,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, I am an idiot, I’m fully aware of that, which is why it’s funny’. You can find something funny in anything, given time and if you look at it the right way and hopefully this show will do that. Definitely, it will definitely do that.
What comedians do you look up to?
In terms of NZ comedians, Brendhan Lovegrove is my favourite, I think he’s the funniest comedian NZ’s ever had. There’s just something about the way he performs – he can do material for 20 years word-perfect every night but he can sell it every time and people love it. Overseas comedians: I’m a huge fan of Bill Burr and Louis CK, obviously, and Kyle Kinane. I’m also a massive fan of Stewart Lee in the UK, the amount of material he puts out is amazing. He writes six half hour episodes of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle and a two hour long show every year at the moment – that’s like 5 hours worth of TV worthy material every year and it’s brilliant. Not a lot of New Zealander’s have seen him but I really recommend his stuff.
Who’s the funniest person you know who’s not a comedian?
Not a comedian? Such people exist? My girlfriend Miriam is hilarious. She’s come up with punchlines to my jokes when I’m sitting there blankly. a few of them are in my show tonight. Other than her, my Mum and my Dad are awesome. They got me into comedy ‘cause they’re Brit comedy nuts, they’re Monty Python lovers.
Have you always found them funny?
Our family dinners revolve around taking the piss out of each other and they were better at it than me for a long time. Just yesterday I was at Class Comedians and I took a selfie of the kids and I on stage and all my friends liked it but my mum commented, ‘Oh my god, you look like a fat ginger Ricky Gervais’ on the photo. Then Justine Smith, who’s an amazing comedian commented, ‘Matt, please tell me this is your Mum’ and my Mum just goes, ‘Sure is!’ So that’s where it comes from I guess.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a comedian?
That’s a worrying thought. There are other things? I would probably be doing the other job I have at the moment: I’m a criminologist, that’s what I studied at uni. I’m actually planning on doing a criminology-comedy lecture show next year because I find it’s a topic that people are genuinely interested in when I tell them what I do. So yeah, I studied that at university, I did a BA and didn’t have a job so I did an MA and just kept going until I was a criminologist. It is something I want to go back and do, one of my lecturers proved that it is possible to be a hilarious teacher – it really engages people. It’s like doing one hour gigs a few times a day.
Matt Stellingwerf is performing Psychobabble from the 11th to the 16th of May at The Classic. You can find out more and book tickets here.