WORDS ANDY TAYLOR / PHOTOS BRYDIE THOMPSON + MIKE ROOKE
Anyone who’s watched Ben Hurley perform will tell you he’s a bloody funny guy, but he isn’t your typical Kiwi comic. He didn’t grow up using humour as a defence mechanism like so many others. “I really liked school, actually,” he says.
Has he always wanted to be a stand-up comedian? “At the end of fourth form, the school sent around these forms that we all had to fill out to check that we were taking the right subjects the following year for whatever you wanted to do as a career,” he recalls. “I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of authority, and I thought it was ridiculous that they were asking 13- and 14-year-olds what they wanted to do with their lives, so I put down ‘male model’. Then I crossed that out and put ‘comedian’, because that was the next most ridiculous thing that anyone could do. So ‘technically’, yes, I have always wanted to be a comedian. But I was living in a small-town in Taranaki at the time, so it wasn’t really an option.”
University, however, was, and Wellington beckoned, so off Ben went to study politics at Victoria. “They had an improv comedy club, and I met my best friend Vaughan King, who was an actor and comedian and started doing stand-up – and that kind of motivated me to do my first gig in 2001 at the Wellington Fringe Festival,” he says.
So much for the politics degree. “Yeah. It’s just what you do isn’t it, something academic? Stand-up is something you shouldn’t really do straight out of school because you just don’t have the life experience, so politics and international relations it was.
“Dai Henwood has a degree in Eastern religion, Jeremy Corbett has a computing degree and Jon Bridges has a philosophy degree – or something like that. And then there are people like Ewen Gilmour and Mike King, who came to comedy out of the workforce. Ewen was the funny guy at the factory and Mike was the funny guy on the ferry, and they just got pushed into it by their mates. So you kind of have these two schools, and I don’t really know if there’s a stylistic difference between the two or not, or whether it’s more about influences.”
For young Ben, the influences were the usual suspects: Billy Connolly, Jerry Seinfeld, Blackadder, Basil Fawlty. Humour was always appreciated in the Hurley household, and his father was a big fan of British comedy – although in those pre-internet days, you tended to like what you were given.
“It wasn’t like now, where you have every single comedian who has ever been at your fingertips,” says Ben. “There was a very limited range of stuff that we could see. If you were lucky, maybe the Montreal comedy festival or something like that, and the Kiwi show A Bit After Ten, which had the Corbett brothers on it. I was about 14 or 15 and I loved their running gags. They’d say, ‘Shall we do the Floyd gag?’ and then never, ever do the Floyd gag. And they had an open-mic section, where I saw some comedians who are good friends now. I still say to Jeremy, ‘Shall we do the Floyd gag?’ I’m probably the only one who remembers it, though.”
(The early-’90s A Bit After Ten can be found at nzonscreen.com and is well worth a watch. In addition to an outrageously young and clean-shaven Jeremy Corbett, it features the wonderful spectacle of contestants vying for the ‘grand’ prize of a 14-inch TV.)
After making a name for himself as a comic in New Zealand, Ben started gigging in the UK, and toured extensively in Europe and Asia. The winner of the two biggest comedy awards in New Zealand (the 2004 Oddfellows Billy T Award and the Fred Award in 2008), advocate of cricket as a way to achieve world peace (“No two cricketing nations have ever gone to war with each other – that’s a fact”), and one of the few Kiwis ever to be invited onto America’s prestigious Comedy Store TV show now calls Katikati home, but touring is something he knows an awful lot about. Google his name and it’s clear he spends more time on the road than a Fonterra truckie.
“I was in England for four years, gigging around the country five, six, seven and eight times a week, sometimes doing two shows a night, because the clubs are really full and lively over there, and doing it over and over again is how you learn your craft. Although I miss my family, I love being on the road, and I can’t imagine going to work at the same place every day. It’s hard to be away, but I guess I’m just hardwired to do it.”
Ben says there are regional differences in what people find funny, though they’re relatively subtle in New Zealand. “There are some places that are a bit more conservative than others, but that’s changing. And it all comes down to it being relatable. I mean, I can’t do a joke about Winston Peters in America or anywhere outside of New Zealand really, but even in New Zealand you have to keep it relatable. When Winston Peters left Tauranga as an MP, I made the joke that it was the first time a 70-year-old man had ever left Tauranga. And although that works really well in the North Island, in the South Island they just don’t know that many old people move to live in Tauranga. In the South Island they have their own version of that – it’s called Nelson.
“In America, they don’t get the self-deprecating humour so much – that’s very much a UK thing. American comics are much more defined. It’s much more about the character – you’re the angry guy or the party girl or whatever – whereas in the UK, people just say funny things.”
Although the constant gigging and vibrant comedy scene in the UK was formative for Ben, he was also happy to come home with a new appreciation for Kiwiland. “After being in the UK, I came back to what has proven to be a bit of a renaissance in New Zealand comedy over the past 10 years or so,” he says. “And that largely comes down to the TV networks and the overseas success of people like Flight of the Conchords and Rhys Darby. That woke up the networks to the success of comedy and the need to give it some legs here and air some home-grown stand-up. Out of that we got 7 Days, which has been the most popular and longest-running comedy show in New Zealand history. So people get out now to see stand-up, and that’s great.”
Ben’s extensive gigging around the globe must also have honed his skills for dealing with those who get out to see stand-up and feel the need to chip in. “Yeah, I kind of encourage hecklers now, to a certain degree,” he says. “Well, I encourage interaction, at least. On my last tour [which sold out, by the way], for the first half of the show I pretty much just chatted to the crowd, and tried to keep it as fluid and interactive as possible. In New Zealand, the heckling is almost never nasty – it’s just drunk people wanting to be part of the show. I’ve done thousands of gigs, and I can count the times that heckling has been genuinely nasty on three or four fingers. But, then again, if they don’t shut up, I do start feeling bad for everyone else.”
In an industry known for driving ambition and raging egos, Ben has a refreshingly down-to-earth approach and concern for his audience and community. Last year, in response
to what he describes as a sense of helplessness about the state of things in the newly Trumped world, he put together a three-night festival at Auckland’s Classic Comedy & Bar. Called Comedy in Action, it raised money for charity while showcasing some top Kiwi talent.
“It was just a reaction to what I saw as the whole futility of people commenting on injustice on social media,” he says. “Liking a post actually changes nothing, so instead I wanted to do something that would have an actual effect – and make people laugh.”
Now he’s at it again, and is busy organising the second annual Mount Comedy Festival, which he’ll host in January. Ben says this year’s event is going to be even bigger and even better than the last. “Tauranga is New Zealand’s fifth-biggest city and I just thought there was a real need for it. There wasn’t really anything going on comedy-wise in the area; there was the odd thing going on with people coming through to play Baycourt, but no regular event. Last time, we had three nights with one show each night, but this year we’re expanding things over five days. We’re also going to do some matinee shows with family-friendly comedy.”
Ben says the support has been amazing. “I mean, it is the place to be, because everyone loves the Mount, so it’s something that people want to be involved in and a lot of people have come on board with – like UNO, for example. But it does really seem like this is a thing that has found its time.”
Ben makes it sound like it’s all just fallen into place, but with scheduling, promotion and venues, not to mention getting the right mix of performers, producing something of this scale is anything but easy. “I really made it the best I could, and it is a great line-up,” says Ben. “We’ve got Wilson Dixon [aka Kiwi comedian Jesse Griffin] headlining, who is, um, ‘technically’ from America; the great Josh Thomson; Justine Smith, who was on the line-up last year and so loved that we brought her back again; newish comedian Hayley Sproull, who’s a 7 Days regular; Brendhan Lovegrove, who will be hosting a new-acts competition, so if any locals want to test the water, this is their chance; and Te Radar, who will do his one-man show Eating the Dog. So yeah, something for everyone.”
This internationally known performer is bringing something for everyone to our neck of the woods because it’s now his neck of the woods, too. After growing up in Taranaki and living in Wellington, Auckland and the UK, Ben calls a little piece of paradise in the Western Bay home – a lifestyle block between Katikati and Waihi Beach with “some sheep, some chickens, some kiwifruit”. Where does he find time to manage that, with all he has going on? “Fortunately, my wife is the property manager,” he says.
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, why here? “I don’t really know,” says Ben. “I just like it here. It has a real lifestyle thing going on: it’s a great place to bring up kids, it’s beautiful, it’s not a million miles away from everywhere else. I mean, I love Taranaki as well, but unfortunately it’s just a little bit too isolated. So here kind of has it all: the best of both worlds – the best of all worlds.”
Ben’s not a typical comedian, no. But for his originality and the fact that he not only makes us laugh but also makes us think, he’s definitely one of our best. And you know what? He might just be onto something about the cricket.