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Paul Yates

Writer, Producer, Actor

Paul Yates’ love of British comedy is a given; he was born in Hemel Hempstead in England, and grew up devouring episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus and Not the Nine O’Clock News. He emigrated to New Zealand at age six; his family eventually settled in Palmerston North, where he tormented his teachers at Palmerston North Boy’s High with impersonations and "silly voices". 

While studying for his Bachelor of Arts with Honours at Massey University in Palmerston North, Yates met fellow comedy obsessive Jon Bridges. They later became friends with members of comedy group Facial DBX, and reformed it with some new faces, including Paul Horan and David Downs. (The group later reconvened for this interview.) Facial DBX toured the country during university orientation week in 1989, with a show of quick-fire stand-up and sketches. After seeing them perform, producer Dave Gibson hired them on the spot to work for (and act in) his new sketch show, Away LaughingYates became a key staff writer for Gibson Group’s subsequent sketch shows, including Telly Laughs, and four seasons of political sketch programme Facelift in the mid 2000s. He was learning to write fast, and funny.

Yates also found work as an actor, appearing in Shortland Street (in a minor role as an MC) in 1994 and nabbing a minor role as a sheriff in horror comedy The Frighteners (1996). “There was a scene where I got spun in a revolving door. They accidentally spun me too fast and I got spat out onto the front steps. I woke up to find Peter Jackson standing over me going, 'Are you okay Paul?' I was like, 'Sure'."

In 1996 Yates performed in TV3 ‘s Pulp Comedya TV outlet for the burgeoning stand-up scene. By this stage Yates had married and settled in Auckland, but when kids came along he moved back to Wellington to be closer to family.

In 2000 Yates became a writer and creative producer for classic Kiwi kids show What Now?producing a steady stream of sketches and scripts for presenters like Shavaughn Ruakere and Jason Fa’afoi. Yates calls it "the most joyous time that I've had working in comedy". At Avalon Studios, he met up with writer and actor Thomas Robins, who had penned funny/scary scripts for What Now?.  Yates and Robins saw how young audiences embraced the comedy/horror mix, and in 2003 Yates joined Robin’s team as script editor for the "tweenage Twilight Zone" series Freaky.

Yates and Robins explored supernatural themes again with The Killian Curse (2006-2008), another anthology series for pre-teen audiences. Yates was script editor and played weary teacher, Mr Timmins. The Killian Curse was a nominee for Best Children’s Programme at the 2007 Air New Zealand Screen Awards.

Another creative partnership was with prolific director Mike Smith. In 1998 Smith wrote and directed the short film Willy Nillyand in 2003 Smith developed the idea into a TV series, inviting Yates on board. Yates relished the challenge of creating a "gentle ... simple Last of the Summer Wine-y situational comedy". The writing team included respected script writer Ken Duncum (Skitz, Duggan) and comedian Cal Wilson. The series rated well, especially with an older demographic. It ran for three series, and won Best Comedy Performance, Best Script and Best Direction at the 2003 NZ Television Awards. 

In 2011 Yates played Cyril Ellis in Tangawai - A Love Storyand in 2012 was a vet in Dean Hewison’s "peeping Tom rom-com" How to Meet Girls from a Distance. The same year, he teamed up with Robins and director David Stubbs to write Girl vs Boy, a sitcom set in ‘The Bay’ (filmed in Seatoun, Wellington). The series ran for three seasons.

Yates’ versatility as an actor has resulted in small roles in big budget films. After appearing in Avatar in 2009, he  was asked to work as a "mo-cap" (motion capture) actor for Steven Spielberg’s animated version of The Adventures of Tintin. Yates was "delighted" to be wired up and working on classic characters like Captain Haddock and the Thompson Twins. In 2018, he acted in Christian Rivers' feature directing debut Mortal Engineshe went on to play a "vaping, completely corrupt cop" in TV2's black comedy Fresh Eggs.

Yates' idea to create a spin-off from cult film What We Do in the Shadows proved a success across two seasons —  the first episode of police parody Wellington Paranormal attracted nearly 500,000 viewers. Yates has known Shadows directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement since their Gibson Group days (as Yates says near the end of this extended Funny As interview, he also worked with Clement on Flight of the Conchords' infamous, rejected TVNZ special). After seeing an early cut of What We Do in the Shadows, he suggested a spin-off show for the film's laconic cop characters.

Waititi, Clement and Yates formed production company The New Zealand Documentary Board, and developed the concept. The writing team included Nick Ward (Stickmen), and new talents like rapper and reality TV addict Jessica Hansell (Aroha Bridge) and Melanie Bracewell (7 Days). Initially the premise was "two of the worst cops in Wellington being banished to somewhere like Masterton". But ultimately they decided to retain the location and the supernatural theme. Clement directed four episodes of season one, which aired on TV2 in July 2018. Public anticipation was high. Reviewer James Croot called it “a spot-on police procedural piss-take, New Zealand’s answer to The X-Files and the Police 10/7 parody the world has been craving.”

Yates acknowledges the two main actors are key to its success. “Both of our actors (Mike Minogue and Karen O’Leary) are ‘non’ actors, both came from outside the industry and find comedy in the real.”

After several years in the Kiwi comedy scene, Yates is happy to see New Zealand embrace its own humour and welcome more female comics. “We’ve advanced from a British comedy obsession to a unique, Pacific voice. There’s so many strong female comic voices coming through now and more American directors are hiring Kiwi talent”.

Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; updated on 27 November 2019 

Sources include
Paul Yates
'Jon Bridges & Paul Yates - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 12 September 2019. Accessed 27 November 2019
James Croot, 'Wellington Paranormal: Why It’s the Police Ten 7 parody we’ve always wanted (Review) - Stuff website. Loaded 11 July 2018. Accessed 27 November 2019
Jennifer Dann, '12 Questions with Paul Yates: from bit parts to a main role' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 12 February 2019
Steve Kilgallon, 'Review: Fresh Eggs' (Review) - The Dominion Post (Your Weekend pullout), 16 February 2019