Oscar Kightley is a writer of hit plays, top grossing films, and a primetime TV series. He’s also a newspaper columnist, actor, and Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
But one thing he’s not is a comedian, as he tells Dale in this kōrero, even if comedy is a prominent feature of his work.
Talofa, Oscar. Or should I be saying Osa?
Kia ora, Dale. Well, when I was born in Sāmoa, nearly 50 years ago, I was given the name Vai To’elau Osa Isa’ako Mase. But my rellies preferred to use the short version and call me Osa. And that was my name growing up here in New Zealand when I came over as a four-year old.
But that changed when I got my first job. I was a cadet reporter for the Auckland Star, which was an evening paper. This was at the end of the 1980s when there wasn’t much Pasifika or even Māori representation in journalism.
There was only one other Sāmoan, a sub-editor, in the Star’s newsroom. The Māori affairs reporter was a Pākehā — and so was the Pasifika affairs reporter. That was Phil Twyford, who’s a Labour MP now.
Jim Tucker was the editor, and one day he took me aside and told me how my name was difficult to pronounce. And he said that, as a journo, you need to be able to connect with people straight away when you meet them, and that having a funny name might be a barrier.
Then he asked me if there was an English version. I told him it was Oscar. He said: “Oh yeah. You can use that for your byline. Oscar Kightley.” I quite liked the name Oscar anyway because I was real big reader and I loved Oscar Wilde’s writing. So I didn’t mind that at all. And yeah, that’s how I became Oscar.
Let’s go back for a moment to your time in Sāmoa. What can you tell us about your village?
My first four years were in my dad’s village Faleatiu, on the north coast of Upolu. It’s two villages away from the airport. So if you’ve ever been to Sāmoa, it’s the second village you come to as you head towards Apia. There’s a big sign that says “David Tua’s village.” We’re relatives, I’m very proud to say. Me and the Tuaman.
So I grew up speaking the language and, as far as I can recall, I didn’t see a white person until I came here to New Zealand. My Aunty Mele, who raised me, adopted me from my parents because my father (Isa’ako Mase) had passed away. She and my uncle, Tikeli Kightley, were living in Auckland, in Te Atatū. And that’s how I came to be here.
I started school in Te Atatū when I was six, and my aunty kinda banned me from speaking Sāmoan at home because she wanted me to learn English. That’s a fairly common story for a lot of immigrants. So, unfortunately, my Sāmoan vocabulary stopped as a six-year-old.
My language is okay. I can understand it pretty good. And, when I go back to Sāmoa, it improves. But I do need to work at it and make sure to listen to Radio Sāmoa and use the language as much as possible.
It’s a special aroha when you whāngai a child, although it’s a very natural whānau dimension in Māori and Pasifika cultures. How do you feel about that gesture of your aunty to wrap you up and pull you into her whānau?
Well, it’s not like some Western adoptions that you see on these American TV shows where people find out they’re adopted late and have real issues with it. We’re lucky because it stays in the family. You’re not cut off from your history and your blood. So you still feel that connection.
In fa’a-Sāmoa, it’s about the group, not the individual. And the idea is that, when you receive that love, it’s your responsibility to give it out to others when they need it.
The way I was raised, you’re always part of a bigger picture and you have a responsibility to that bigger picture. It’s not about you as an individual. It’s doing what you do to serve the greater family that you’re a part of.
Since your time as a newspaper reporter, you’ve spent many years in other forms of writing. For the stage, for television, for movies. It’s been a busy career. And, because your work has prompted a lot of chuckles and enjoyment, you’re sometimes referred to as a comedian. But perhaps you’re more of a social commentator. How would you describe what you do?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to call myself a social commentator. I am a very serious person, though. And I hate being called a comedian. I don’t consider myself a comedian.
Also, if you look at the comedy that I’ve been involved with, it’s really comedy as a coping mechanism as opposed to comedy just for the sake of it. It’s been about getting laughs and entertaining people, but it’s been with stuff that was quite painful.
Actually, one of my most memorable moments was when I was a cadet reporter at the Star. The great Billy T was still alive. He’d had his heart transplant, and I was sent, along with a photographer, to do a story. I remember how excited I was to meet him — to meet this inspirational man who’d entertained me so much and planted seeds in my mind about what I wanted to do.
And I was struck by how serious he was. He was so quiet and softly spoken. Not cracking any jokes. And I thought: “Oh yeah. The jokes are what he does for work. That’s not what he’s like all the time.”
But meeting Billy T was one of the coolest moments of my life. Meeting Billy T in real life. One of New Zealand’s icons.
Being a Te Atatū boy meant that you were off to Rutherford High for your secondary schooling. How was that experience?
Oh man, it was such a buzzy school. It was the first school to have a marae, which I presume was led by June Mariu. And there was Pita Sharples helping the kapa haka group. Rutherford was the first school to get adult students, too.
The foundation principal, Eric Clark, was still there when I started, and I remember him explaining at assembly that the school motto, translated into English, means that we should strive as we’d strive if we were desperately hungry. I really related to that feeling of hunger and I kind of adopted that as my personal motto. Like: “Yeah. I know what it’s like to be hungry.”
So I feel blessed that I was there, and in Aotearoa at a time when there was a renaissance in Māoritanga. I was never part of a kapa haka group, but my best mates were and I watched them. And looking back to my time at the school, I feel lucky that I came under the sway of some really cool influences.
When you took on writing as a job, first of all as a reporter and then with plays and film scripts and so on, did you find that it came easy to you? I know it doesn’t for most people.
See, my thing was reading. I loved reading. It didn’t matter what my circumstances were, once I started reading a book, my imagination would set me free and I could be anywhere. It could take me anywhere. Reading to me was an escape.
I remember at school, there was always me and this Māori girl in class that couldn’t afford the school trips. She was my mate. We used to get left behind when the bus would take off. The teacher was really cool. She’d just let us read.
I actually preferred that because the school trips were only ever to the zoo or MOTAT anyway. And, as wonderful as those places are, you can’t keep going there all the time. Whereas, with reading, you could go anywhere.
So, from my love of reading, I just wanted to be a writer because of how reading made me feel — and I wondered whether, if I wrote, I could make other readers feel like that, too.
Actually, I was very shy at school and I barely spoke. I think because I was learning English and I didn’t know if I could speak it properly. So it just became a natural progression. I was putting my thoughts on paper rather than saying them out loud.
What books stick in your mind?
My favourite books at school were all the Narnia books by C S Lewis. I just love the imagination and the fact that they came from other parts of the world. And one of my other favourites was a book of fables. They were stories from different cultures, old stories from far-flung corners of Europe. Here was me, this little Sāmoan kid who’d just left a village, growing up in West Auckland. And, within these pages, I’d connect with all that. It just makes you feel less alone when you can read a story and realise that other people feel the same way as you.
But I would read anything. I’d read the back of a Weetbix pack.
Now, so I understand, you’ve got the opportunity to spend three months in Hawai’i on a Fulbright-Creative New Zealand scholarship. I know you’ve had other national awards and recognition. But this seems like a great chance to concentrate on your writing.
Yeah. And it’ll be in one of the coolest places on earth. I’ve always wanted to write a book, but somehow it’s always ended up turning into a play or something for TV, or a screenplay. This Fulbright will mean having a break from normal life and just focusing on writing.
When you’re a freelancer or artist, you tend to say yes to lots of things and you’re always busy because you’re never sure where your next gig is coming from. But, with this one, I can plan ahead and focus on just one thing. I want to write something set in America. But it’ll be a Sāmoan story.
It’ll need discipline, though, won’t it Oscar? Because the words won’t magically appear on the page.
It’s discipline that I’ve always struggled with. I wish I was one of those writers who could wake up and be at the desk at the same time every day. But I’ve never been one of those. That’s the discipline — it’s the sitting down. It’s not getting the story ideas. The hard part, for me, is always the sitting still and the starting. Once I’m in there, it’s just magic. I love it. But it’s a process.
You don’t always fly solo, though, as a writer, do you? You’ve done quite a bit of work as part of a writing team.
Yeah. Most of my work has been in collaboration. Part of that is because most of the time, I’d rather not do work. I’d much rather hang out with my mates or sit around and do nothing, or watch a movie or something. At least when you’re collaborating, and when you don’t feel like work, there’s someone else there to help you stay motivated. It’s harder to be slack when you’re not on your own.
So, part of my love for collaborating is that it makes me get something done. But, also, it’s sharing, and it’s having the benefit of someone else’s mind and someone else’s eyes.
I hope so. But with Sāmoans, there’s no single Sāmoan view. There are as many Sāmoan worldviews as there are Sāmoan people — and I’m sure that’s the same with Māori storytelling. So you’ve just got to focus on your own experience and on what you know to be true and authentic. And, if you do that, you’ll connect with others.
But it’s changing. There’s a new generation of storytellers. There’s a whole new set of things that are happening and it’s really exciting. I love it. Technology is democratising storytelling so much and we’re hearing more stories now than we ever did before. And there really is a flowering of Pacific talent.
I imagine that you’ve received all sorts of compliments through the years. But what are the responses that have given you the most satisfaction?
You know, it’s never anything I read. It’s never the reviews. It’s when people come up to me and talk about something of mine that they’ve seen. Like this old Niuean guy who was working in Parnell once. He was in a hi-vis vest and he took the trouble to tell me he read my columns every week. That just meant the world to me.
Then, just last week, at the Fulbright scholarship ceremony, I met Abbas Nazari who was one of the Tampa refugees. He came here as a seven-year-old and he told me that, when he was nine, he learned English from watching bro’Town. At first, I felt sorry for him when I heard that. But then I thought: “Wow, that’s so cool.”
And I once met this Canadian couple who’d just arrived here. They told me that by watching bro’Town they got a really neat insight into this new country. Those have been the moments that I cherish. It’s those real moments of connection with people. You can see it in their eyes — and that’s the stuff you hang on to.
I have to admit Jeff da Māori resonates with me. Always has. You’ve got the Sāmoan boys there, and he’s always got the guitar slung over his back and the Rasta headgear on. Was he modelled on a real person, Oscar?
Yeah. He was modelled on mates that I had growing up. Māori mates and mates from other cultures were a part of that world. The reason he was called Jeff da Māori was that we did a Naked Sāmoans play where we had a character who was Māori. But, because he was played by our mate, Heto, who was Tokelauan, he didn’t look Māori. So we had to call him Jeff da Māori to make it easier for the audience.
And then the name kinda stuck. I think Jeff was everyone’s favourite character on bro’Town. And, as the show evolved over the five years that it was on TV, it was like he kinda became the heart of the programme.
I’ve been asked, a couple of times, who bro’Town was for. To me, it was for New Zealand. It was a series about growing up in the big city and about the less than ideal things that can happen. But, if you have your friends alongside you and some good values and you stick together, you’ll be okay, even when some of the stuff happening around you isn’t okay.
For my part, I always loved that little kids could watch bro’Town and not feel so stink about being poor.
Your career is full of highlights, but I guess there must’ve been challenges. Some downtimes. Occasions when you’ve doubted yourself and the direction you were heading?
Every day. I think that’s part of the process. Always questioning. Self-doubt. Always trying to prove yourself. But maybe that’s a good thing.
I know you don’t consider yourself a comedian, but people still expect you to be funny even though there’s a belief that comics, almost without exception, are melancholy.
Yeah. Melancholy. That’s one of my favourite words. I love it. It’s one of my natural states. But, yeah, comedians are very serious people. They’re people who do a lot of watching and listening — and that’s what they make their jokes out of. But I’m a very serious person. I’m not much fun at a party, at all. I’m probably the one sitting in the corner looking odd.
No doubt you’re still forced to cope with public recognition?
It’s not really forced, because this is what I choose to do with my life. But it’s really weird because there are always two conflicting forces at play. On one hand, you’re like: “Look at me. And listen to me.” And on the other hand, you’re like: “Don’t look at me. Why are you looking at me? Go away.”
It’s kind of a struggle between these two responses. It’s quite bizarre.
When you mull over the highlights of your career so far, what is it that has you feeling most proud?
Well, I’m pretty stoked with the fact, with bro’Town, that we got to do a primetime cartoon. And I’m proud of Sione’s Wedding, and doing The Naked Samoans with all my friends — and that people liked it. That was amazing.
I also really liked Harry, the drama. It wasn’t comedy. It was where I got to show the darker recesses of my mind. We did one series of that, and I worked with some cool people and learned a lot. I loved Harry. But it was really hard. It was the hardest.
When you’re doing comedy, you’re laughing and smiling and enjoying it, and it’s not such a strain. But I’ve found with drama, it was just so heavy. I ended up drinking heaps. I can see now why dramatic actors drink a lot. It was pretty full on. But, of all the things I’ve done, it was one of my favourite things.
With you finding your way in the media over the last 30 years, you’ve seen the move away from writers and actors and directors, and so on, being almost exclusively Pākehā.
Absolutely. As we know, it’s not so long ago that New Zealand television was a very white place. I think one of the women in Beauty and the Beast was Māori. Perhaps. I remember Pat Everson was on Close To Home. There was Jim Moriarty. And Nathaniel Lees was on Shark in the Park. But there weren’t many brown faces.
That’s why I loved a show called Chico and the Man where the main star was Puerto Rican. And I thought: “Far out. He’s brown. Like me.” And even Roots. As upsetting as that was, it was still seeing people of colour on screen.
And, because there weren’t so many Māori and Pasifika faces on screen, as an audience, we were drawn to African American and Latino stories and their stars. So when I saw Aretha Franklin in the Blues Brothers, I thought I was looking at my aunty. That’s how that felt.
But our Pacific people are on the move on many fronts. Technology, performing arts, filmmaking, business, academia. Sport, of course. Politically, too. How do you feel about this Pasifika surge?
It’s exciting to see all that flowering. I compare things now to how they were. And they used to be real stink. The casual racism was everywhere, but you just didn’t know what it was back then.
But the progress isn’t going to stop. It’s not going away. And the cumulative effect of us telling our stories is that we free others. Not only that but it adds to the picture of what this country is and can be.
You’re much loved in Aotearoa, Oscar Kightley. Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Fulbright Scholar. Fully-bright Sāmoan. I just wonder, is that the same back home in Sāmoa? Do you travel there a lot? Will we one day see outside the village: “This is Oscar Kightley’s village?”
Nah. I don’t know if that David Tua sign will ever change. I might have to tag that sign next time I go back. I might have to just write my name underneath David’s. But he’s the king of our village, and rightfully so. I love that man.
I go back to Sāmoa as often as I can, and the thing, of course, is that, when one of us does well, we all do well. When one of us struggles, we’re all struggling. And, when one of us does something bad, we all feel it.
But, beyond all that, the main driver for me is that I just never want to embarrass my mum. I’ve always wanted her to be proud of me. I’ve never wanted to give her any reason to feel stink about something I’ve done.
Is your mum still alive?
Yes. My dear aunty and uncle who raised me in West Auckland passed on a few years ago. But I’ve been very fortunate in having four parents — and I still have my mum left. She lives in Morningside. I’ve always loved that name. And there’s still a reason there for me never to muck up or misbehave.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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