Jon Gadsby's screen career spanned four decades, decades which saw him impersonating everyone from poet Sam Hunt to the angel Gabriel. Gadsby first won fame in breakthrough 70s show A Week of It, winning his place in Kiwi comic history by virtue of dimwitted character Wayne alone. Gadsby and friend David McPhail collaborated further over seven seasons of McPhail and Gadsby, skit show Issues, and sitcom Letter to Blanchy.
McPhail has argued that in writing and performing together, the two found an instinctive understanding. "Jon and I were inseparable when it came to comedy. We spoke the same language. We shared the same nods and raised eyebrows".
Gadsby was born in Derbyshire, England. When he was around eight, the family moved downunder to Invercargill. Later he began acting in capping reviews while studying law at Otago University. Gadsby left in his final year to work for Radio Dunedin. At a party he met McPhail, who had already done time in television. The two talked until at least 4am. As McPhail writes in autobiography The Years Before My Death, the evening "would define the next 20 years of my life".
In July 1977, A Week of It debuted in a graveyard after 10pm slot. Daring for its time, it mixed political satire with potshots at Kiwi culture and sport, and a skit in a bar which would become famous. The show was rough and ready, going to air within an hour of being recorded. Initially Gadsby commuted at his own expense from Dunedin to work on it. He began as one of the writers, but was soon appearing regularly, thanks partly to one sketch.
Set in a Gluepot Tavern which bore little resemblance to the Auckland pub, the sketch revolved around conversations between a bigot in a bright pullover (McPhail), a vulgar optimist (Chris McVeigh) and the well-meaning but not especially bright Wayne (Gadsby). Writers McVeigh and AK Grant discovered a handy way to end each week's sketch by having Wayne misinterpret something another character said; somewhere along the way, one of the other actors replied with the putdown "Jeez Wayne". The line would enter the Kiwi lexicon.
After A Week of It won its first Feltex Award for best entertainment programme in 1978, the second season was upgraded to a primetime 8.30 time-slot. The trio of McPhail, Gadsby and off-screen partner in crime AK Grant would be key to the creation and writing of a run of further comedy shows: namely the award-winning McPhail and Gadsby, Issues, and Letter to Blanchy. They also provided material for The Billy T James Show and Laugh INZ.
McPhail and Gadsby debuted in mid 1980, for the first of seven seasons. The topical sketches and McPhail's beloved Muldoon imitations were initially abandoned. But the hour-long episodes of the first series, each episode riffing off a particular theme, strained resources and audience patience; the religion episode saw McPhail receiving death threats.
Later seasons returned to a half-hour, and a wider variety of material. Gadsby played Bill Birch, Jim Knox, and female MP Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan. Remembering the pub sketch in A Week of It, Gadsby and AK Grant argued for a regular sketch which could hold topical material. The result was Denny and Ron, in which Denny (McPhail) thinks he is more clever than he is, and Ron (Gadsby) is not very clever at all. The sketch locked in a comical double act that saw Gadsby playing rough-edged diamond to McPhail's posh-talking snob. Gadsby also played a key part in varied musical parodies, and donned wig and dentures to portray Nanny McWhirter, a whisky-swilling Scot who nannies for the royal family.
In 1983 McPhail and Gadsby scored a Feltex Award for best entertainment show. The same year saw the debut of Gadsby's own creation: Rabbiter's Rest. A sitcom set in a country pub, the show was based partly on his memories of bar work in the Southland town of Dipton. Rabbiter's Rest ran two seasons, and included cameos by Gadsby as a highly-competitive rugby coach, and Billy T James as one of the bar regulars.
In 1987 McPhail and Gadsby were foundation shareholders of new channel TV3. After finding out, TVNZ swiftly canned their show (although incoming executive Neil Roberts would later invite them back into the TVNZ fold). The TV3 plan, later abandoned, was that the third channel would be run on a regional basis, with the Christchurch studio concentrating on making comedy and children's programmes.
Gadsby made his movie debut in children's romp Nutcase (1980), as a policeman helping defeat villianous plans to reignite Rangitoto. Four years later he reteamed with Nutcase director Roger Donaldson in his big-budget remake of the Mutiny on the Bounty, playing an unfortunate crewman.
In 1983 veteran Brit director Michael Anderson (The Dambusters) flew to Auckland to shoot Adam and Eve comedy Second Time Lucky. It was one of the most expensive films shot in New Zealand to date. "A terrible movie," Gadsby told The Press in 2014, "we had a lot of fun making it." Gadsby took one of the main roles, playing the Angel Gabriel opposite Robert Morley as God (Gadsby also plays Gabriel in the first clip of this episode of McPhail and Gadsby).
In the 90s, Gadsby returned to skit comedy for Issues, which weathered a number of variations of title and network, before finally expiring after a total of 134 episodes. Parodying both newsmakers and newsreaders, the impressive cast included Mark Wright, Rima Te Wiata, Rawiri Paratene and Alison Wall.
Comedy Letter to Blanchy took a new angle on previous collaborations. In this video interview for NZ On Screen, Gadsby described the tale of three mates caught up in outdoor misadventures as "pure middle New Zealand". Each episode saw the trio apologising to their absent mate Blanchy for damage done to his property or reputation. Some of the situations were based on Gadsby's own "mad moneymaking schemes" as a teen in Invercargill. Starting as a one-hour special, and surviving some bumpy scheduling, the show ultimately spanned 30 episodes. During the same period, Gadsby formed corporate video company RMG with McPhail and Blanchy co-star Peter Rowley.
Gadsby also played on-screen tour guide: on the Clutha episode of Great NZ River Journeys (1991), and a 2004 episode of Intrepid Journeys, which saw him fishing with spears after he and a cameraman managed to enter Myanmar/Burma. He wrote about it in The Listener. In 2008 Gadsby appeared in British movie comedy Sisterhood, in which an uptight Englishwoman finds a Kiwi half-sister in her living room.
The same year, McPhail and Gadsby re-teamed to write and star in the play Letter To Blanchy: Stir Crazy. It was inspired by an award-winning episode of the original TV show, about four blokes trapped in a tramping hut. When the play debuted at Christchurch's Court Theatre, audience attendance averaged 95 per cent.
Gadsby was also an author, mainly for children. Jon Gadsby's Book of Beasts (1984), a series of animal poems, was the first. He lost count of how many followed — at least 40. In 1999 Random House published political satire The Trough.
In 1992, Gadsby was awarded the Queen's Service Medal for Services to Broadcasting, in the New Year Honours List. In 2003 he and sister Sharon set up North and South style magazine Avenues. They sold it to Fairfax Media in 2007.
Jon Gadsby died of cancer on 12 December 2015. McPhail visited him almost daily in his final months — including the day he passed away.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 30 January 2020
'Jon Gadsby - an iconic Kiwi comedian' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 11 April 2010. Accessed 30 January 2020
'David McPhail - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 19 August 2019. Accessed 30 January 2020
David McPhail, The Years Before My Death (Auckland: Longacre Press, 2010)
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Jon Gadsby, David McPhail and AK Grant, The McPhail and Gadsby Book (Christchurch: Whitcoulls, 1983)
Charlie Gates and Amy Maas, 'Tributes flow for Kiwi comedian Jon Gadsby' Stuff website. Loaded 13 December 2015. Accessed 30 January 2020
Philip Matthews, 'Comedian leaves notoriety behind' (Interview) - The Press, 28 September 2014
Tom Parkinson, 'The Real Story Behind the Truth' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 16 June 2009. Accessed 30 January 2020
'Author Profile - Jon Gadsby' (Press Release) Scholastic Books, 2004
'Jon Gadsby' (Broken link) Captive Audience website. Accessed 23 November 2010
'Letter to Blanch: Stir Crazy' (Press Release) Loaded 19 March 2008. Accessed 13 December 2015
Unknown writer, ''A Week of It' returns to TV2' - The NZ Herald, Date Unknown