Actor, columnist and cartoonist Joe Musaphia once juggled running a Wellington fish and chip shop with writing stage and TV scripts. His CV is eclectic to say the least — he moved between two worlds: everyday working New Zealand and his great love, the theatre.
Musaphia was born in London in 1935 to Cockney parents of Portuguese ancestry; his family tree includes Spanish and Jewish relatives. When he was three his family made a move to Australia where they lived for eight years, before crossing the Tasman and settling in Christchurch. Musaphia attended Christchurch Boys' High. He loved art classes and read widely but left aged 15 with no School Certificate subjects.
He worked as a shop assistant, then signed on as an apprentice motor mechanic. Musaphia was restless and showbusiness was in his blood — his dad used to play piano for silent films, and his grandfather was one half of a song and dance team in London. He took up art classes again and moved from fixing cars into the world of commercial art. During a trip back to London in his 20s, Musaphia started cartooning. When he returned to Christchurch his cartoons appeared regularly in weekly current affairs magazine The Listener.
In 1960 he attended a Unity Theatre production of John Osborne’s pivotal ‘kitchen sink’ drama Look Back In Anger, and left the theatre buzzing. He quickly wrote Free, his first one act play which begins with three men sitting in the dark, commenting on the play they are about to witness. Musaphia sent the script to New Zealand Players’ Workshop director Richard Campion who liked it immediately.
In 1961 Campion directed Free in a double bill with James K Baxter’s Three Women of the Sea. Musaphia successfully applied for a State Literary Fund grant and moved to Wellington to join Stagecraft Theatre and learn his craft as an actor. Musaphia helped build Stagecraft’s new theatre and wrote, directed and acted in its first production, Free. He plugged away at his writing, producing many radio plays, some of which were picked up by the BBC and German radio. “I was so prolific I had to start writing under pseudonyms”.
In the mid 60s he performed in a national tour of musical hit Oh! What a Lovely War, and wrote the script and lyrics for Aotearoa's first musical comedy film Don’t Let it Get You (featuring Howard Morrison). Director John O'Shea approached Musaphia, even though he'd never written a screenplay. "I must confess here, I don't like the final product, I just don't like the movie at all." he said in this extended interview for Funny As (2019). "I just think I just sank beneath it. I learnt the hard way that a screenwriter has to be second best to the director, the photographer, and the editor."
In March 1967 Musaphia made the jump to TV. For two years he wrote and presented for children’s show Joe’s World, which featured studio interviews and pre-shot stories, all infused with comedy. The series also starred Peter Harcourt and Ray Henwood. He considered Joe's World an apprenticeship in making television. "I loved Charlie Chaplin and I wanted to be as Chaplin-esque as I possibly could ... You could be a bit cheeky with kids, and kids like it." Musaphia recalls one guest — a police officer — who was so nervous, he became the first person in New Zealand to use the "f word" on live to air television. "I remember the cameraman shaking because he was laughing so much."
In 1969 Musaphia and fellow playwright Roger Hall were invited onto an exciting new project, writing the first New Zealand TV sketch show, In View of the Circumstances. Musaphia also featured as an actor. He told the New Zealand Television Weekly he was nervous about its reception, as "we have got subjects that no one else has touched...”
The team had "complete freedom" to write whatever they wanted. "We were paid peanuts but we had a ball," he told Funny As in 2019. "We really loved it ... I mean, to go down the Basin Reserve and take the mickey out of a cricket match was just wonderful." The experiment was declared a success: In View of the Circumstances ran for two series and in 1971 won a Feltex Award for joint Best Programme (with Gallery).
In 1970 Musaphia and Hall were invited to Japan as part of the world fair Expo ‘70 team, collaborating on a production for the Kiwi pavilion. By now, Musaphia had started a family and found the low pay rate for TV work hard to stomach. He was always quick to take the initiative so he bought a fish and chip shop in Miramar. For two years he squeezed in his writing before opening the shop for business. He’d often joke about his manuscripts "smelling like cooking oil". Hall recalls his friend’s dedication: "...I thought if Joe can write a play in a shop, what excuses do I have?”
Musaphia and Hall joined forces again, writing for Australian TV comedy series Noel Ferrier's Australia A-Z, which collected a Logie Award for Best Comedy in 1971. Three years later, the pair went on to write two episodes for New Zealand's first sitcom Buck House, which was about university students in a dilapidated Wellington flat. The series left a sour taste in Musaphia and Hall's mouths after the script was changed without their consultation. They ended up asking for their names to be taken off the credits, after they were barred from contacting actors or the studio.
In 1973 Musaphia had a small acting role in this teleplay about Prime Minister Richard Seddon. In the mid 70s he contributed sketches to (and acted) on magazine show Today at One. But what mattered most was that one of the plays he worked on in his shop each morning debuted to critical acclaim. Mothers and Fathers (1975) cemented Musaphia’s name as a significant New Zealand playwright. The plot concerned a well-to-do couple's desire to "hire a womb" and the clash that ensues with their chosen surrogate. Its comedy hit home, although the subject of paid surrogacy was considered "outlandish" at the time. It was first produced in Dunedin at Fortune Theatre, then at Wellington's Downstage Theatre, where Musaphia took the role of Terry Boon.
The Wellington season broke box office records, it sold out every show and transferred to the Opera House, which was a "very big deal" at the time. It then toured Australia. Leading up to the crossover success of Mothers and Fathers, Musaphia had written four full-length plays, comedies Guerilla (1971), Victims (1973) and the drama Obstacles (1974). His comedy Skin Deep premiered at Circa Theatre in 1977.
Musaphia drew on current events for his writing, his notebook bulged with cut out stories from newspapers. Just as his playwriting career soared, he started writing regular columns for The Dominion and The Sunday Times. In 1978 he won the first writers’ fellowship from Victoria University and was able to concentrate on his own work, completing three scripts in one year. When the fellowship ended, he took another day job as a journalist (and later, investigator) for the Consumers’ Institute, staying here 12 years.
In 1986 Musaphia wrote sitcom TV series Between the Lines, which focussed on the home life of a soap opera writer (played by Lloyd Scott) who "loathes" his work. By this time Musaphia wasn’t interested in acting any more, telling The Evening Post in an interview the same year: “I’ve given up acting, I don’t think I can do both justice...I want to write.”
He went on to write columns for The National Business Review and The Evening Post. In 1997 he published his first novel, Let us be Naked, a story about 48 year old hippy and drifter Eddie Lang. Musaphia continued to write popular plays right into the new century, with Ugly Customers (2003) and political satire Problems (2018). In 2014 the radio adaptation of his stage play The Train Set won Radio New Zealand's Best Drama Production Award.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; published on 30 August 2019
'Joe Musaphia - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Loaded 30 August 2019. Accessed 30 August 2019
'Joe Musaphia', Playmarket website. Accessed 30 August 2019
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television: The First 25 Years, (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Catherine Callen, 'No longer a part-time playwright' (Interview) - The Evening Post, 12 May 1979, page 13
Carol Cromie, 'An audience with Musaphia’s Mates' (Interview) - Truth, 25 May 1986
Katherine Findlay, 'Comedy is serious' (Interview) - The Listener, 1 May 1976, page 50
Roger Hall, 'The Roger Hall of Fame: The playwright picks his unsung heroes of NZ Theatre' (Interview) - The Listener, 30 August 2018
Helen Paske, 'Musaphia’s itch' (Interview) - The Listener, 10 February 1979
Tracey Strange, 'Hangman based on real tale' (Interview) - The Dominion, 22 June 1983
Hannah Templeton, "Meet Joe Musaphia - The serious side of comedy on TV' (Interview) - New Zealand TV Weekly, 13 October 1969
Unknown writer, 'Backstage with James - Playwright Still Hasn’t ‘Bust’' - The Evening Post, 28 August 1965
Unknown writer, 'Between the Lines, It’s a giggle' - unknown publication, 23 November 1986
Unknown writer, 'Tough time for playwrights' (Interview) - The Otago Daily Times, 1 March 1988