By 1990, Billy T James, NZ’s most loved comedian, was recovering from a heart transplant - and trying his hand as a sitcom actor. His career was based on one liners and stand-up gags - but this Billy T James Show was a series of 26 half hour family based comedies with a clear debt to The Cosby Show. Billy was cast as a radio DJ with an Australian wife (Ilona Rodgers) and two daughters - but the trademark giggle was absent, the humour was gentler and the series never captured the public imagination. It was to be his last TV series — Billy T James died in 1991.
This posthumous series — produced by Ginette McDonald — collects segments from Billy T’s long running skit based comedy series. Some of his most cherished creations are here: the Te News presenter, Cuzzy in his black shorts, and the chief bemused by Captain Cook. Support comes from a seasoned cast including Peter Rowley, David Telford and Roy Billing (with cameos from Bob Jones and Barry Crump). Some of these skits are essentially elaborate setups for one line jokes but Billy T’s infectious warmth and 'bro' giggle inevitably carry the day.
Legendary professional wrestling TV show On the Mat ran from 1975 until 1983. Each half-hour show featured wrestling matches accompanied by commentary - promoter Steve Rickard described the technical in-the-ring aspects and Ernie Leonard, and later Barry Holland, added colour. The larger-than-life wrestlers were a mix of US imports and local characters: King Curtis, Samoan Joe, Aussie Larry O'Day, Rick Martel, and Sweet William and Brute Miller (soon famous in the US as The Bushwackers). The show was the catalyst for the boom in popularity of Rickard's pro-wrestling tour.
Classic sci-fi TV series Under the Mountain follows the adventures of redheaded twins with psychic powers — Rachel and Theo — on their Auckland summer holiday. They meet the mysterious Mr Jones, an alien emissary who enlists them in the battle against the evil Wilberforces, who are plotting planetary destruction. Adapted from the Maurice Gee novel, the series' fx left their slimy imprint on a generation of NZ kids, haunted by the transmogrifying Wilberforces, who changed from humans into giant slugs slithering underneath Auckland’s volcanoes.
This was a beloved six-part children’s drama about the adventures of skateboarding 12-year-old Terry Teo, based on a 1982 graphic novel comic by Stephen Ballantyne and Bob Kerr. The Auckland-set series honoured the comic’s distinctive New Zealand landscapes, people and humour, and gave them a cartoonish feel with larger-than-life acting, animated arcade game style sequences, bright costumes and oversized props. Former Goon Michael Bentine headed the cast which also featured Billy T James as a bikie, and a cameo from former PM Sir Robert Muldoon.
Off the back of the success of A Week of It and McPhail and Gadsby, Jon Gadsby was given his own gig, as writer of this gentle, rural based sitcom series. His comic partner David McPhail was not involved, but writer AK Grant was on board as script editor. Gadsby’s onscreen involvement was limited to cameo appearances, as a highly competitive rugby coach. Set in the rural backwater of Rabbit Flats, the series drew on Gadsby’s experiences as a barman in the Southland town of Dipton, and allowed him to revisit the bar-based skits of A Week of It.
Funny As traces the history of New Zealand comedy through archive footage, and extensive interviews with local comedy talent. Debuting on TVNZ 1 in July 2019, the five-part series explores how Kiwis "have used comedy to navigate decades of profound cultural change". Funny As touches on everything from live and musical comedy, to pioneers of Kiwi screen humour (e.g. Fred Dagg, Lynn of Tawa) and the hit exports of later years (Flight of the Conchords, Rose Matafeo). The series was made by production/creative agency Augusto, and produced by comedy veteran Paul Horan.
The launchpad for Billy T’s rise to television superstar, Radio Times recreates an era when home entertainment involved another type of box entirely. Inspired by 30s and 40s era radio extravaganzas, producer Tom Parkinson creates a show complete with swinging dancehall band, adventure serials and coconut shell sound effects. Parkinson’s masterstroke was casting Billy T as the oh-so-British compere glueing everything together (and occasionally sliding effortlessly into a different accent). The Yandall Sisters, singer Craig Scott and writer Derek Payne also feature.
TVNZ’s Loose Enz was a series of 12 stand-alone dramas that canvassed a broad range of subjects. With a distinct NZ voice, the series’ 1982 9:30 scheduling allowed the array of writers to pen racier and more confrontational content. Funding exceeded the (mostly) meagre levels of the 70s, and talent pooled around the production: names such as Tony Isaac (who produced the series), Caterina De Nave, Billy T James, Merata Mita, John Toon, and Angela D’Audney, made up an illustrious cast and crew who had forged, or were yet to cut, vital paths in the screen industry.
Pete and Pio was a sketch comedy show based on the talents of its two leads, Peter Rowley and Pio Terei. Each episode opens with a stand-up double act performed to a studio audience and closes with a musical number led by Terei. The sketches mostly star Pete and Pio together, with a small supporting cast. This was Terei’s first lead television role, and was followed later by his own show Pio! which also aired on TV3. Rowley has had a long career in comedy, most notably his collaborations with Billy T James in the 1980s.