The Billy T Award is possibly the most well-known award in New Zealand comedy. The winner receives the famous ‘yellow towel’, a small grant, and a lot of prestige. Every year, many up-and-coming comedians spend a significant amount of time and money preparing for this process. First they need to develop a written concept and then pitch that (and themselves) in a Dragons Den-type situation in Auckland. The ‘Dragons’ will generally contain a mixture of 3-6 people from different areas of the industry: promoters, experienced comics, and TV/media reps. The comedians then deliver a 6 minute set during one of two line-up shows with other aspiring nominees; there can be around 30 people at this point. Let’s note that this process ALWAYS happens in Auckland; now think about how many nominees over the years were living in other cities when they apply.
After these intensive couple of days, 5 nominees are chosen. They are given a one-hour show in the NZ International Comedy Festival. In theory, they then trot merrily off, write their show, perform it, and are judged on it (again in Auckland). But here things start to get a little bit harder… moving from 6 minutes to an hour of stand up comedy is no easy feat, doubly so if you have to work full-time, have a family, don’t have a venue where you can regularly perform, and more generally don’t have a local comedy community to support and guide you. Equally, the comics are producing and managing their own shows – writing isn’t easy when you are worried about ticket sales. Anyone beginning to see why most of the winners were living in Auckland at the time they won?
If you already have a 30 or 40 minute set under your belt you have a huge advantage. Generally, it takes a year to write a decent hour-long show – the nominees have about 6 months. If you live down South – you better consider moving: Christchurch has a good comedy community, but being in Auckland (or 2nd place Wellington) will give you a lot more opportunities to practise and refine your show.
This year, 3 of the nominees are from Wellington (one of whom promptly moved to Auckland) and 2 are currently based in Auckland. They all have different styles, backgrounds, and levels of experience. I had seen all of them at various points over the last year or so (some many times) and was intrigued as to how they were going to transform their material into a one-hour set. So, I went to see them all.
Here are my (brief) thoughts on each show. I have written these in the order I saw them. Also note that I saw them in Wellington when they were still fine-tuning their sets in preparation for judging in the final week of the Festival.
Patch Lambert – Terrordactyl
Within moments of the show starting, we get a glimpse of just how quick witted Lambert is, as he casually turns a random comment from an audience member into a brilliant segue to the beginning of his show. Lambert regales us with seemingly disconnected stories from his life, that is until you begin to notice the genius segues and callbacks, at which point you really begin to appreciate his talent. Every story and joke has a place, but sometimes it’s your job to spot exactly how. Lambert has such a genuine charisma that you leave not only with sore cheeks from all the laughter, but with a sense that he is now a good friend.
Li’i Alaimoana – Minority Rapport
This may win the title for the best named show, as Alaimoana builds a strong relationship with the audience right from the beginning. This allows him to take us to some very dark and brutally honest places, places which may seriously challenge some of your perceptions about a few things – prepare to feel at least a little bit of discomfort. I very much appreciated how Alaimoana set up of this part of the show; it could be considered a trigger warning but it was done with such subtlety I didn’t realise it was one until he was partway through the next bit of the set. Throughout he uses an effective combination of music and stand-up, moving from one to the other relatively effortlessly. The show wraps up with him reestablishing and reaffirming the rapport he built initially with his through some very clever crowd work and a light hearted game.
Paul Williams – Summertime Love
There is something strange about a millennial creating a show set in a time they weren’t even born, yet Williams manages to pull this off without too many overly kitsch references. The entire time we feel like we are immersed in a genuine reminiscence of his childhood in a show clearly designed to make the most of all his talents; his voice was so good I wondered several times if he was lip-synching. His comedic style is energetic and slightly self-deprecating, which easily wins over the audience. Occasional puns, callbacks and subtle political statements keep the audience chuckling right up until the brilliant final number of the show.
Angella Dravid – Down the Rabbit Hole
Angella Dravid is possibly the Queen of awkward comedy. Everything from her facial expressions to her exceptional timing creates a set full of jokes that simmer and then boil over into full belly-laughs. Her material is dark, at times very dark, and there are no warnings. Although one part of the set threw me initially, such is the way that Dravid continues to spin the tale by finding silver linings in the strangest of places that I was quickly won back over. I am left impressed not only by her comedic abilities but also by her strength.
Ray O’Leary – A Pessimist’s Guide to Optimism
Ray O’Leary’s comedic style is both self-deprecating and deadpan. As we journey through various philosophical topics, O’Leary manages to endear himself to the audience while simultaneously insulting us. He makes strong political statements in a quiet modest voice, but there is a strong conviction behind them. This is a show written by somebody who is clever, but who (tries) not to be too obvious about it. O’Leary knows when he does and does not need to explain a joke further, but at no point is the show ever dumbed down. Expect to think at least a little bit.
So who’s got the best shot at the award? I have no idea. Beyond being nominated based on their “proven comedic ability, talent, current form and potential” at the beginning of the process, it really isn’t clear what the final criteria are. We can’t know what the judges are looking for in any given year and with such a variety of styles on offer it could honestly be any one of them. So get to their shows, make up your own mind and place your bets for the announcement on May 21st.