Oscar Kightley has brought his writing and performing talents to stage, television and the big screen. Along the way he has been a key player in bringing Pasifika stories into New Zealand's mainstream.
Born in the Samoan capital, Apia, as Vai To'elau Osa Isa'ako Mase, Kightley emigrated to Aotearoa at age four, after the death of his father. He grew up with an aunt and uncle, one of eight children in the West Auckland suburb of Te Atatu.
At primary school, Kightley was "one of the shy kids", a keen reader who "had a rep as a smart-arse, kind of wise-cracking class clown. But I was never one of the performing kids". By age 15 Kightley he knew he wanted to be involved in comedy. Early influences included Eddie Murphy and John Clarke, "the first New Zealander that cracked me up".
As a reporter at The Auckland Star, Kightley was encouraged to change his name from Osa to Oscar. His four years at the Star and The Sunday Star-Times provided "a university education on what Kiwis are like". After short stints in radio and as a TV3 publicist, he headed down to Christchurch in his 1969 Valiant, to start his first ongoing television gig: co-presenting teen magazine show Life in The Fridge. A trip back to Samoa in this period proved potent — it reminded him that Samoans could be doctors and lawyers, as opposed to the Samoan cleaners he knew back in New Zealand.
Theatre was also entering the picture: he got "invaluable comedy training" acting as part of Christchurch-based Pasifika group Pacific Underground. Much of their material was issues based; but the group ensemble discovered that "the shortest distance between two people is laughter".
Through the rest of the 90s, Kightley's career continued to combine stage and television. On TV, he was developing his writing and performing talents on Gibson Group sketch shows Skitz, Telly Laughs and Newsflash. Kightley was invited to write for Skitz after producer Dave Gibson saw one of his plays; Kightley soon began writing himself into sketches.
In-between TV gigs, "the master of self-deprecating immigrant humour" (as Diana Wichtel called him) was honing his storytelling skills on a series of plays that explored Pacific Island characters, usually as they adjusted to life in New Zealand. His first play, 1993's Fresh off the Boat (co-written with Simon Small, and starring David Fane) was performed in Australia and Samoa. In the same period Kightley wrote and directed family tale Dawn Raids (not to be confused with documentary Dawn Raids), and won the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award.
That same year Kightley launched The Naked Samoans, with original members David Fane, Mario Gaoa and Shimpal Lelisi. The group of New Zealand-raised Pacific Islanders mined comedy from their experiences of growing up brown and misunderstood, in the world's largest Polynesian city. Kightley argues that they had a devil may care, "kamikaze approach. We weren't the polite Polynesian group". Extended excerpts from the group's live shows (plus interviews) feature in this Tagata Pasifika episode, while this Living Room episode catches them at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In 1999 Kightley was invited to work as a storyliner on Shortland Street, an experience that proved helpful when animated series bro'Town began, five years later. Shortland Street "gave me the discipline of writing stories and helped so much in the mechanics of writing 30-minute episodes. There are no schools that teach you those skills."
After watching many Naked Samoan shows, Kightley's ex Auckland Star colleague Elizabeth Mitchell decided that the group's portrayal of polynesian teens might work as an animated TV series. bro'Town's portrait of un-PC Pasifika and Māori kids proved a major hit, spawning five seasons. Kightley played Vale Pepelo, brother to Shimpal Lelisi's character, and the most studious member of the five. Kightley shared the script table (and the recording booth) with Mitchell and fellow Naked Samoans Lelisi, Fane and Gaoa.
Kightley calls Mitchell the show's "forgotten hero", who kept the team motivated and the machinery of an animated show on track. He talks in detail about bro'Town (and the complications of being expected to represent a minority) in this extended interview, shot for 2019 TV series Funny As.
Midway through their bro'Town adventure, The Naked Samoans ventured onto the big screen with 2006 hit Sione's Wedding. Centred around four 30-something males with an urgent deadline to find a girlfriend, Sione was another breakthrough for Pasifika characters on screen; Kightley remembers appreciative audiences ranging from a Polish film festival, to a Pākehā student from a high decile Christchurch school. Sione's Wedding quickly became the most commercially-successful Kiwi comedy released on home soil (at least until the 2010 rise of Taika Waititi's Boy).
Aside from being asked to co-write Sione with James Griffin, Kightley appeared on-screen as the bumbling but sensible Albert. "Oscar didn't want to be anyone, and had to be kind of slapped around a bit before he fell into Albert," says Griffin. "He was always destined to be Albert in my mind." According to Kightley, the character's naiveté means that he needs everything explained to him "in triplicate, with memos ... including which girl likes him, and which girl he likes ... if I knew I would be playing him I would have made Albert much cooler. I would definitely have given him better clothes." Sione's 2 - Unfinished Business became a rare Kiwi sequel when it was released in January 2012.
Kightley followed it by starring in gritty 2013 police drama Harry, which he co-wrote with director Chris Dudman and real life detective Neil Grimstone. Kightley plays a troubled Samoan-Kiwi detective dealing with a meth-fuelled crimewave, while raising a teenage daughter. To those questioning why he'd taken on such a serious role, Kightley maintained that he "got work in comedy because that was the work I was offered, but I'm quite a serious person generally". Calling the show great, gritty and grimy, The NZ Herald's Paul Casserly praised its lead actor. "Kightley is believable ... You buy him."
After co-directing a video ('Just Roll') for hip-hop musician PNC in 2006, Kightley went on to helm video 'Walk Right Up', for rising talent Ladi6. In 2013 he wrote and directed short film Tom's Diary, which follows a Bob Marley-mad Samoan teenager in 80s-era West Auckland. It was nominated for four Moa awards, including Best Film, Script and Actor (for Mac Kaisuva). A movie version is in development. Kightley directed the second season of Madeleine Sami comedy Super City. In 2019 it was announced that he would direct feature-length documentary Dawn Raid, about the Otara-born, Polynesian music label of the same name.
As a presenter, Kightley has fronted up for Elizabeth Mitchell directed Rooster Rooster Dragon Rat - Oscar's Guide to the Chinese Zodiac, in which he interviewed defenders and attackers of the zodiac. In 2019 he toured New Zealand in the path of American author Mark Twain, for TV series Following Twain. Other broadcasting gigs include TV3 rugby coverage, playing an old lady on comedy show Radiradirah, and breakfast presenting on Nui FM. Kightley has also been a frequent partner in crime to ex-Ice TV presenter Nathan Rarere. The two co-presented DNA-tracing documentary Made in Taiwan (which he talks about in this interview), sports show Sportzah, and quiz show Snatch Our Booty.
In 2016 movie hit Hunt for the Wilderpeople, he won laughs as a bumbling policeman. He was part of the voice cast of Aroha Bridge in its second season, before joining the cast of 2020 Taika Waititi movie Next Goal Wins.
A 2006 Arts Foundation Laureate Award winner and Qantas Award-winning journalist, Kightley was made a member of the NZ Order of Merit in 2009 for services to theatre and television, and a Senior Pacific Artist at the 2016 Arts Pasifika Awards. In early 2020 he began a three month Fullbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer's Residency in Hawai'i.
Profile updated on 24 January 2020
'Oscar Kightley - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 15 August 2019. Accessed 24 January 2020
'Oscar Kightley talks bro'Town and being brown' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Clare O'Leary. Loaded 27 March 2009. Accessed 24 January 2020
'James Griffin - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded September 2019. Accessed 24 January 2020
Paul Casserly, 'Harry is gritty, grimy and great' (Review of Harry) (Broken link) - The NZ Herald, 9 May 2013
Cath Bennett, 'Shorty road to success'. Stuff website. Loaded 23 May 2010. Accessed 24 January 2020
Kelly Dennett 'Oscar Kightley's nostalgic look at 80s NZ' - Western Leader, 16 July 2013
Adam Dudding, 'No Joke' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times (Sunday liftout) 14 April 2013, page 11
Madelaine Empson, 'The simple act of storytelling' (Interview) - Regional News, 23 July 2019, page 9
Bess Manson, 'No Laughing Matter' (Interview) - The Dominion Post (TV Week liftout), 23 April 2013, page 11
David O'Donnell, 'Everything is family: David O'Donnell interviews Nathaniel Lees', in Performing Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama and Theatre in an Age of Transition, edited by Marc Maufort and David O'Donnell (Brussels: PIE Peter Lang, 2007), page 331
Diana Wichtel, 'Funny, that' (Interview) - The Listener, 9 December 2006, issue 3474
'Oscar Kightley'. The Arts Foundation website. Accessed 24 January 2020
'Oscar Kightley'. Playmarket website. Accessed 24 January 2020
Sione's Wedding press kit