Born with the less than showbiz name of William McGechie, Willy de Wit spent his school years at Auckland Grammar, where he learnt music and classical ballet, then left early to work in a garden centre. While serving as the lead singer of band Rhythm Method, he decided on a whim to enter a comedy competition hosted by his local bar, Retro, in 1983.
De Wit described his motivation to The Listener as coming "from the class clown thing. I thought, rather than getting caned for this I could make money from it.” Although he won, it was his meeting with fellow contestants Dean Butler, Ian Harcourt and Peter Murphy which kick-started his long career in making people laugh. Liking each others’ talents, they decided to form a group — Funny Business.
After starting off as a live comedy troupe, and winning regular full houses at Auckland's Windsor Castle, the quartet made a pilot show for TVNZ that never went to air. Kiwi comedy veteran Tony Holden was more enthusiastic about the result, and won funding for his company to make a Funny Business series in 1988.
Writing collaboratively, and with the show’s animations coming courtesy of Chris Knox, Funny Business quickly earned rave reviews, and inspired a national tour. Bruce Ansley of The Listener praised the show's "freshness and energy … It is part satire, part recognition humour, part stand-up comedy. There’s probably something in there to upset everyone… and there’s certainly something to make everyone laugh”. De Wit joked in a November 1988 Rip it Up interview of the team writing anonymous fan letters: "Dear TVNZ, we think Funny Business is the best show I’ve ever seen in my life.” Despite earning a reputation as a jester, de Wit proved he wasn’t all jokes by acting in 1988 short film Beyond Gravity.
Screening at 10pm, Funny Business made its name in poking fun at the ordinary, rather than branching into political satire as had contemporary Public Eye, or predecessor A Week of It. One more famous sketch saw de Wit leading a group of Mormons door to door, while another featured hoons hanging out on a beach with crates of beer. In both instances they claim they were mistaken for being the real deal. Recounting one incident where the cast had confused real-life Mormons, de Wit described “There we were all decked out in our Mormon gear … when they came around the corner. They kind of did a double take as if to say ‘oh, we thought we were doing this street.’”
After successful international shows at Montreal's Just for Laughs comedy festival and a long-delayed second season of Funny Business, which aired at the even later timeslot of 10.30pm, de Wit was called up by David McPhail, whom he had worked with briefly on sketch show McPhail and Gadsby in 1985. De Wit went on to join the ensemble on The Issues and More Issues. Although Funny Business was no longer a going concern, he would continue to work with many of the group, including with Dean Butler and Ian Harcourt on More Issues. This was despite de Wit’s initial verdict of an early Butler performance at the Retro, “thinking he’ll never work”.
As the 90s progressed de Wit found himself in a run of comedy shows including TV3's That Comedy Show (where his many roles included James Bond). That Comedy Show was nominated for Best Entertainment Programme in 1995, and in 1996 he shared the award for Best Performance in an Entertainment programme with Mark Wright, for the Christmas episode of sports panel show Sportsnight. The following year de Wit was part of the writing team that picked up the Best Script Comedy award for ensemble sketch show Comedy Central.
In 1998 he co-wrote and acted in Double Booking, alongside Kevin Smith and Theresa Healey. The half-hour tale was part of the Kiwi Comedy Playhouse series, with the plan that the highest rating episode would be chosen for a series. Although none eventuated, Booking's chief writer James Griffin was awarded Best Comedy Script at the 1999 NZ Television Awards. Griffin had worked with de Wit before — he was the script-editor on Funny Business.
In 1998 de Wit shifted into another branch of broadcasting: radio. For the next 12 years he hosted shows for Radio Hauraki alongside ex Funny Business collaborator Dean Butler. The pair left Hauraki's breakfast show in 2010.
In April 2016 de Wit suffered a stroke, which left him hospitalised. Despite this he maintained his sense of humour, asking for details from his hospital bed of how a recent TV commercial was doing.
Profile written by Simon Smith
'Willy de Wit' Speakers New Zealand website. Accessed 28 April 2016
Bruce Ansley, ‘All Joking Aside’ - The Listener, 15 October 1988, page 26
Denise Brittain, ‘De Wit and De Wisdom’ - The Listener, 1 June 1992
Frances Grant, ‘Saturday Night Laugh’ - The NZ Herald, 25 June 1998
Finlay MacDonald,‘Back in Business’ - The Listener, 11 March 1991, page 64
Alan Perrott, ‘Laughing Matters’ - The NZ Herald, 29 November 2008
Chad Taylor, ‘Sorry for Laughing: The Business of Being Funny’, Rip it Up, November 1988
Unknown Writer, ‘Former Radio DJ reportedly suffered stroke’. Stuff website. Loaded 15 April 2016 Accessed 28 April 2016
Unknown Writer, ‘Willy de Wit and Dean Butler depart Hauraki Breakfast’. Dan News website. Loaded 6 August 2010. Accessed 28 April 2016