Mike King first took to the stage in 1994, after making a $400 bet that he had the goods to be a stand-up comedian. After performing for 11 minutes, he got a standing ovation. An Englishman who watched the act told him if that was King’s first time — and it was — then he was going to be famous. The Englishman was comedian Ben Elton.
From there, King’s path has soared both high and low: from award-winning stand-up comedian to TV comedian; from chat show host to documentary presenter; from the face of New Zealand Pork to animal rights activist; and from drug addict to suicide prevention campaigner, encountering depression and several sorts of near-death along the way.
King covered many of the major moments in this extended, brutally honest interview, shot for 2019 TV series Funny As. Along the way, he talks about a childhood where making jokes helped give him a sense of self-worth, despite a hard to please father (see opening of interview), his legendary first stand-up appearance (39 minutes in), the birth in 1994 of his bad boy persona (67 minutes in), how fame fed his addictive personality (5 minutes and 93 minutes), realising that his comedy was harming others (119 minutes) and the feeling of getting "a knife through the heart" when he met students on suicide watch (130 minutes). In a separate interview, where he is joined by fellow comedian Andrew Clay, he talks about a disastrous blooper show.
There have been moments to savour too. As an apprentice chef at Auckland cabaret restaurant El Trovador, King got to see legendary Māori acts like Prince Tui Teka, and counts himself lucky to have cooked sirloin steak for the "electric" Billy T James. Later, while working as a chef on the interisland ferry, he began filling a notebook with comedy material, after a work colleague encouraged him to take notes whenever he heard something good.
After analysing famous stand-up comedians on videotape, King set off for Auckland comedy venue Kitty O'Brien's, to make his debut. He lost his courage at the door. Realising his clothes were part of the problem, he returned a fortnight later in an expensive new suede jacket, and offered to pay $400 and never return, if he failed to get any laughs. Although King's car was stolen that memorable night, it was "the highest I've ever been in comedy". Soon, he was using a camera to analyse his own performances: when he moved too much, when he failed to pause after a punchline.
King made his television debut in 1994 on stand-up contest show A Bit More After Ten. King traces the birth of his bad boy attitude to his annoyance at failing to win the show. "That was the birth of the leather jacket, the black jeans, the black boots, the Blues Brothers sunglasses, the cigarette, the drinking ... my dress sense says 'I look slick, but don't f*** with me because I'm going to smash you'."
In 1995 he was invited to host long-running stand-up comedy show Pulp Comedy, where he was conscious of the need to nurture young comedians, to help feed the growing audience for stand-up. King argues that he and fellow comedian Ewen Gilmour worked harder than most, because "for us, there was more at stake ... if Ewen and I didn't make this work, we had to go back to flipping burgers and chipping stone".
By 2001 King was doing national tours, and releasing live videos and CDs. "I remember watching myself on on TV One, Two and Three all on the same night." At the 2002 NZ Television Awards, he was nominated twice for his televised stand-up show An Audience With the King. For much of that decade he would appear in almost every comedy show going, including Comedy Central, Game of Two Halves, Strassman, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
In 2003 and 2004, two different production companies came up with chat shows for King: Mike King Tonight, produced by Greenstone Pictures, and Touchdown's Mike King. He also hosted documentary Swearing, which postulated that cursing could be a sign of sophistication.
King presented 2003's Von Tempsky’s Ghost, a TVNZ documentary about the mysterious Prussian artist Gustavus Von Tempsky, who led the Forest Rangers during the New Zealand Wars. King’s ancestors fought both alongside and against them. “For too long, New Zealand history has been put on the backburner by our education system,” he said about the show.
Soon after, following several near-death experiences (a blood clot at a poker match, a stroke and a three-day drug binge), he had an epiphany. King admitted he’d not only been a decades-long cocaine addict with crippling depression; he had also been a bit of a chump. He refers to himself now as a “recovering arsehole”.
King had used the drug in a thwarted attempt to help his depression, but it had only made him feel paranoid. He even bought a travel agency, reportedly so that he could leave the country in a hurry if his supply ran out. “I woke up with the realisation that the solution to my problems had become the problem”.
For seven years, King was the face of New Zealand Pork via the TV ad Mike’s Meals. But in late 2008 the group SAFE contacted him about pig farming conditions in New Zealand, and he accompanied activist group Open Rescue to a factory farm. King parted ways with NZ Pork, saying “I am deeply ashamed that I took part in promoting this style of farming”. The government subsequently decided to phase out sow crates.
Though King is still being funny in public, for now he has eschewed the comedian lifestyle. “I have cut right back on the comedy shows now because I don't like who I become when I'm on the stage.”
In 2009, he hosted acclaimed Māori Television series Lost in Translation, which retraces the 1840 journey of the nine sheets of the Treaty of Waitangi. In the series — the first six episodes can be watched on NZ On Screen — King describes it as “his dream project”, and an attempt to alleviate guilt from his ignorance on the matter. Dominion Post critic Linda Burgess described the 10-part programme as “dignified, conciliatory, informative”.
That year, King began hosting a radio programme called The Nutters Club (originally on RadioLIVE; now on Newstalk ZB), a forum for sufferers of depression and other mental health issues. Top Shelf Productions filmed the popular radio show across 75 television episodes for Māori Television — including this programme on Martin Crowe.
Documentary Postcards from Afghanistan (2012) sees King visiting Kiwi troops in the war-torn country, and having to take shelter during a concert for American defence forces.
Since 2013 King has toured the country with his Community Korero show aimed at preventing suicide. “The Korero encourages people to help fight suicide by talking and supporting each other rather than taking their own lives. Silence is not the solution.”
The tour has since expanded to schools through Cool to Korero, sessions with school kids. “I try to help our young people to understand that life's about loving yourself, you are worthy, everyone's worthy and everyone has a contribution to make – that's hope."
In 2019, King became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
Profile updated on 28 May 2020
'Mike King - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 19 August 2019. Accessed 30 January 2020
'Mike King & Andrew Clay - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 19 September 2019. Accessed 30 January 2020
The Nutters Club website. Accessed 30 January 2020
Mike Dinsale, 'Comedian Mike King takes on anti-suicide fight' - The Northern Advocate, 10 April 2013
Marlena Katene, 'Mike King NZ Comedian Interviewed by Marlena Katene' (Video interview) YouTube website. Loaded 1 May 2012. Accessed 30 January 2020
Lee Umbers, 'Mike King's anti-suicide crusade' (Interview) - Sunday News, 15 September 2013
'Mike King Korero Gets Whangarei Talking About Suicide' (Press Release) Scoop Website. Loaded 1 April 2013. Accessed 30 January 2020
'Comic tackles pig warfare' (Documentary item from Sunday programme - broken link) TVNZ website. Uploaded 17 May 2009. Accessed 1 September 2014
Unknown writer, 'Cutting a Dash' - The Dominion Post, 15 April 2003
Unknown writer, 'A Sign of Sophistication' - The Dominion Post, 15 October 2004