Coulrophobia is the word used to describe the surprisingly common fear of clowns. Whilst unaffected myself, I've always appreciated that a painted on smile disguising all other emotion can be a sinister thing.
Stephen Witt's clown is genuinely a creep. A neat side-parting, buttoned up collar and perfectly ironed grey trousers make up a character we're not quite sure what to make of. We laugh uncomfortably at his sneering attempts to chat up audience members, anecdotes of horrifically inappropriate behaviour, and sometimes just simply looking at his nostril-flaring face.
Underneath the clown is an incredibly intelligent, driven and thoughtful individual who is determined to fulfill his goal of being a comedian. Our chat was the longest of the nominees, and I chose to include the unabridged version as a chance to hear the method behind the madness.
What can we expect from your show?
Odd is my show and odd is what it is. It’s really quite odd. It is kind of easier to say what it won’t be, because if anything I want people to come not expecting anything - it’s kind of obscure. For everything that I’ve done in the eighteen months leading up to this – since I started doing standup – the feedback that I’ve got from everybody is that it’s an odd way of going about standup comedy.
How does that sit with you?
Oh I’m totally cool with that, yeah. I have an oddball look about me on stage and a queerness that people find intriguing. If anything it aids in my punch lines and at the end of the day that’s what counts. The odd look that I have contributes to every part of the act and there’s a lot of character driven material. There are not actually many punch lines - that’s kind of like the main point that I like to make. Well, that’s what I’ve realised – there’s not many punch lines.
There’s a lot of relatable stuff where I’m standing on stage going ‘Do you know what I mean?’ to people. Without saying it so they’re all sitting there with a curious look on their face. And they know it’s funny but they don’t actually know what part about it was funny – ‘What am I laughing at again?’ It’s not typical; it’s not traditional.
Is there anyone you’ve been inspired by in particular?
There is, Zach Galifianakis - I’m a big fan of his. A lot of people have seen him in movies but they haven’t actually watched his stand up. His stand up is really odd. He’ll get on stage and say ‘Hello, I’m Zach Galifianakis – I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly” and it’s about his own name. It’s the ridiculousness that people laugh at and for me, even hearing that opening line, was like: Oh wow, there’s so much you can get away with when you use ridiculousness as your theme -everything that people aren’t expecting.
Reggie Watts is another one for his improve and his style and how personal it is to him. Brendon Lovegrove is probably my main muse and motivation.
What was the first joke you ever wrote?
That’s a good question. The first joke that I wrote and was funny – because before that was just rubbish stuff – was a joke about going into Countdown and eyeing up the cucumbers, and there’s another guy there and he was eyeing up the dog rolls and I thought ‘Sheesh, calm down.’
It doesn’t make sense in this context because when I’m on stage I’m like sort of eyeing up the crowd and I say “I’m at Countdown, eyeing up the cucumbers…’ and they read that as “Eyeing them up? What do you mean? What are you planning on doing with the cucumber…?” And I go “There’s this other guy there eyeing up the dog rolls, and I’m like ‘Calm down’” and everyone’s like “Oh my goodness! What are you thinking?!” The obscureness is what makes people laugh.
How long ago was that? That you started writing?
That would have been for the Raw Comedy Quest finals, like eighteen months ago.
In that time would you say you’ve learnt loads?
Has it made it easier?
If anything it gets a lot harder. Well, it gets easier and harder. It gets easier because you have more experience – you have some hard knocks and rough gigs and that. At the same time it gets harder as you run out of personal shit to talk about after a while, that you know is funny and you can put that out there and make people laugh.
Then you’ve got to start pulling from everything around you – the world and whatever. You’ve got to make that funny, find your voice, and get a bit more specific about who you are – more consistency and that. There’s a lot of psychology behind it. I don’t want to geek out about the craft or anything but yeah – it gets harder in that sense. You realise there’s a lot more to being funny than just getting up and being an egg and telling weird stories.
It’s often said that comedians are crazy or there’s some part of them that’s crazy for wanting to do it – do you think that’s true?
Yeah I do. Based on me and other comedians that I’ve met. I’ve read a few articles about the psychosis of the comedian and how that contributes to their creativity. I totally agree with that. A lot of the comedians that I know are really normal, nice guys but there’s a odd part of them as well. Like a manic side to some of them and some of them have a real obscure way of looking at something you think is normal.
For me personally I think I have a little bit of a split personality. With my friends I’m often just doing little ditties with them all the time that isn’t necessarily me- just for their entertainment. It’s like something about me I can’t help – I just know they’re going to enjoy it. That makes me think that I must relate to people that aren’t myself and I like to perform them all the time in real life.
You were talking before about good and bad gigs – what are the best and worst gigs that you’ve done?
My best gigs are the bigger gigs with a larger crowd; they seem to be a lot easier. The tough gigs are when there are four people and your mate’s jacked up the gig and you feel bad so you can’t pull out. You learn a lot. You can’t go out there and do what you’d normally do in front of 50 people. You have to take what you do and make it a lot more personal and a lot more intimate.
The tougher gig are smaller crowds, but at the same time you might get people heckling you which gets a bit rough as well. In a way I have an advantage – I don’t like to tell people this – but I’m a clown as well, a children’s entertainer.
Since starting clowning – about the same time I started comedy – I’ve done around about 500 shows. That’s a lot of stage time. I’m doing the same show every time for a birthday party or whatever and I get a lot of heckling with that, so I’ve learnt to deal with it unflinchingly. People could say: “You’ve got a small dick” you know, and you’ve got to come back with: “Yeah. Yeah I do. It’s embarrassing.” You have to, you can’t go: “Oh no, you do!” because then the parent would be like “Don’t say that to my kid!” You’ve got to take it on the chin and then the kid’s like: “Oh what…? Oh you’re all good then.” So when you do get a tough gig you spin it off in a positive way – you always learn something from it. Does that answer the question?
Yeah, that’s a brilliant answer. Who’s the funniest person you know who’s not a comedian?
My friend Justin Lane. He’s a clown – I don’t know if that counts as a comedian.
Are you friends with just all clowns? That sounds great!
Yes. Everybody I know is a clown!
He’s the guy who started the company I work for – he’s a brilliant clown. Clowning’s an art and he’s really good at it. He’s a really funny dude, he’s got sort of Islander roots, he comes from a Samoan family but he’s a full-fledged white guy. He’d carried that sense of humor with him and he’s a really funny dude in his own right. He’d make a brilliant standup but he’s never had the time to do it. I find him hilarious
Why clowning? How did you get into that?
Well I knew that it was going to integrate well with comedy.
So you wanted to do comedy first?
I wanted to do comedy first and the Raw Comedy Quest came about the same time as this job did. Even though it was my best friend who I was applying for the job with I told him to pick someone else if he thought they’d suit the role better – not to pick me because I’m his friend. He took that into consideration but in the end he thought I’d make a good clown.
I watched him perform and I thought what he was doing was an amazing thing. It’s not unicycles and juggling it’s a real conversational approach where you really get them laughing genuinely. Not by slipping over on a banana peel but by saying something that makes them laugh.
It’s a difficult thing with a kid – they laugh at burps and farts and people getting frights and stuff, real simple things. For you to actually get a joke going with a kid where they all of a sudden they realise you’re funny and joking with them, giving them a hard time, it’s really amazing. If you can do that with kids you can do that with anybody.
You’re going to make the best uncle ever!
Yeah. But comedy and clowning was a hand in hand thing – they both came into my life at the right time and they both helped each other develop.
Do you have any pre-show rituals that you do? I thought you might more than anyone… I don’t know why, as you’re a clown…?
I don’t really, to be honest.
Do you get nervous?
Not really, I get real nervous right before I’m about to go on. A wave of nerves hits me and then I go on. It depends - it’s weird. Most of the time now I’m quite relaxed. I’ve spent a lot of time in front of people performing and now it’s got to a point where I’m pretty okay as long as I’m prepared and everything.
Every now and again, for some reason if I’m doing new material, I’ll get really nervous.
But I always empty my pockets – that’s my ritual. Start recording with my phone in my back pocket and go on. Oh and I straighten my collar – I’m real anal about looking symmetrical. It’s a real big part of the shtick, I go on and people think ‘Who’s this queer?’ as soon as I see me. I mean that in the old sense of the word.
So it’s important that everything looks really straight edge and well combed over and often people will laugh before I’ve even got to the mic because of what I’m wearing and how I look. Looking good does half the work I think, in that regard.
What do you like about the other Billy T nominees' comedy?
That’s a really good question. I admire all of their styles; they’re all really good comedians and really well established.
Individually I like Guy Montgomery for his improvised approach and I know a lot of his act is who he is. He’s that guy. It’s a really personal thing what he does on stage, he goes on stage and he performs exactly who he is. Obviously he’s got some things that are larger than life and himself that he’s got planned that he’s gonna do, but a lot of it’s off the cuff and it’s brilliant. I admire that about him – it takes a lot of courage to do that.
Jamaine’s a really good writer, he’s a solid writer and he writes some funny bits. This persona that he’s taken on is this stoner dude who’s really laid back about everything and he’s taken everything on board about himself and made that his focal point. He knows what people find funny about him. I like that about him, his writing and his self-analysis is really good.
Brendon, I haven’t seen a lot of to be honest. I’m always interested to watch him but I haven’t seen a lot of his stuff so I don’t really know how to break it down. Tim’s good. He’s got a quirkiness to him that people like. He’s an everyman’s sort of comedian and he’s got a spliff about everything and I like that about him.
What question do you wish you were asked more often?
Uh… Are you okay? Every comedian’s sad deep down. Nah, the question I wish I was asked more often is: ‘How are you challenging yourself?’ Which is real self-help sounding but that’s how I think people grow, by being in an uncomfortable position. This right here for me is an uncomfortable position, you know, I’ve never done this before.
It’s fine - I don’t blame you. But yeah: ‘How are you challenging yourself?’ and I think it’s always going to be the next step for whatever I’m doing, a challenge and I think you grow into that. I’d like people to ask me that more.
As soon as Stephen Witt took the floor I was certain it was going to be an interesting night. He appeared, in body and face, to be a mixture of Captain Kirk and the Four Square Guy – both epic in their own right. From the get go he was dry, but in an eighties TV show host kind of way; his entrance included a series of high fives and self-posturing. The energy was glorious, buzzing even, but the buzz ended on an audience member who really should not have been seated in the front row. Poor girl, I am sure she was terrified throughout the entire hour.
Stephen Witt’s approach is an odd one which is probably why his show is called Odd. Mike King has hailed this lad as ‘the future of New Zealand comedy’, now I would not usually condone listening to anything Mike King has to say about comedy, but you can trust me, and I say he is right.
He has the all the charm of the kiwi boy next door, and all the creepiness of the stalker in the Redhill bushes. If I saw him stalking from outside I would definitely invite him in for biscuits. He also has some pearler dad jokes that do not sink in straight away, so you have to be either really quick ,or really lame to get them. Witt also does some deliberately awkward audience interaction stuff, at least I reckoned it was deliberate.
Anyway, it was funny as and I must mention that Stephen Witt is a Billy T Award nominee. He is one of the chosen five who posses some ultra rad comedy talent that we are so lucky to have at this festival.
Stephen Witt’s show is not one that includes a heap of crassness or filth, but he does get a bit naughty and his facial expressions suggest a lot more than is…suggested.
Don’t miss out on this show, local comedy at the Basement Theatre is as good as it gets in Auckland, so get in now while the getting is reals good yo.
Billy T Nominee Stephen Witt's first hour-length show is very aptly named. It's one of the oddest things I've seen at the Festival. Absurd even. When we interviewed him a couple of months ago I thought he was potentially the most fascinating of all the nominees. He's clearly driven and talented, but he's also a bit of an enigma.
Stephen's on-stage persona is weird and very funny in a deeply awkward way. It's the kind of humour that I find myself laughing at more in retrospect, like a Monty Python film - it's so unexpected that you need a bit more time to get your head around it.
Witt has a very expressive face, he's a trained clown who purses his lips and falls into unexpected silences that make the audience shuffle and giggle nervously. I think, given a bigger audience, those nervous titters of laughter would have turned into full blown rumbles, because for me Stephen's show was the kind that united the audience in a collective feeling of unease, and the laughter that came from that was self-reflective. Stephen drew us out, made us laugh at ourselves for feeling so uncomfortable in a comedy show, and whenever the tension got too great he turned the spotlight back on himself.
It wasn't his creepy jokes that made me laugh, it was the offbeat, consistently surpising likeableness of his character that got me - his puns, his sometimes unpleasant confidences, his slight of hand tricks, his reaction to unexpected issues with the microphone stand or unhelpful responses from audience members, his toothy grin. He's obviously been adapting his show as he goes during the festival, removing some of the creepier material and exchanging it for a bit more light - it was refreshing to see, and it offered a glimpse of his future potential. Stephen Witt has real presence, and I think it's going to take him places.