James Nokise comes from a family with more than a few church ministers — his dad and grandfather among them. He's not much into religion, as he tells Dale in this interview, but as a stand-up comedian and writer who combines sharp political and social commentary with humour, he's found his own way to reach audiences.
Talofa, James. Now, first up, perhaps you could tell us where that Nokise name comes from.
Nokise is Samoan for Knox. It's from the Calvinist leader, John Knox. My grandfather took it when he graduated from theological college. It’s basically a made-up name, and there’s only about five of us in the world.
Any middle names as well?
Well, there’s Alexander. And there’s Feleterika, which is my father’s name, but it’s terrible in terms of coolness because it’s the Samoan version of Fredrick.
I sense that the religious side of your family has held some importance. Your dad was a minister, was he not? How did he come to be here?
He was born in the village of Leusoali'i, about 20 minutes out from Apia, on the north coast of Upolu, in Samoa. He came over on a banana boat in the 1950s. It was for the same reason that many families send their children overseas — for a better future.
He was top of his class in Samoa, and he came here to get a New Zealand education. He was very driven, so he went as high as he could educationally. He got a PhD and he was going to study for the diplomatic corps but, in the traditional Pacific way, his parents told him it was time to go to theological college in Dunedin. So they sent him down there.
And where did he gather up that PhD?
Actually, from Canberra University. His PhD research was on the way that Samoan missionaries presented Christianity into a Pacific-minded theological base. Sort of figuring out how Christianity could be applied to the Pacific. It was less about the conquering outsider and more of a “Hey, this is the guy you’ve been waiting for.”
How did you get on with your old man?
Pretty good, actually. It’s a bit strange because the older and hairier I get, the more I look like him. The more my voice drops, the more I sound like him. So, it’s a case of trying to rally against your folks while slowly becoming them.
And what about Mum?
My mum, Julia, was born in a shack in the south of Wales, and grew up on rations in post-war Britain. Her old man was a soldier so she travelled a bit, and got the travel bug. When she was a lot older, she decided to go to the other side of the world. She ended up in Papua New Guinea, working as a librarian at the university where Dad happened to be doing research for his PhD. It was love at first sight.
Nice one. And where are they now? Still living in New Zealand?
They split up when I was four and got divorced a little bit later. But, yeah, they’re both in New Zealand, in Wellington.
And brothers and sisters?
I’ve got a sister and two brothers, all younger than me.
So, you’re the tuakana. Big responsibility as you were growing up. And where was that?
Hutt Valley and Newtown. My dad was a minister at a church in Petone. My grandfather was a minister at a church in Newtown. My mother worked in the city. I sort of bounced between Wellington CBD, Lower Hutt and Newtown.
Shouldn’t you have been a preacher?
It’s the vibe of a lot of my family. And they still hold out hope. "It’s never too late to go to the church, my son!"
True enough. Who knows where life might take us in the years ahead?
My aunty is also a minister. I can’t overstate how many ministers are in my family. Which, probably, in some way, takes the pressure off. She reckons I’m already delivering sermons — just that I do it in a different way.
I’d agree with what she’s saying. Are you a man of faith yourself?
Yes and no. I am a man of faith, but I’m not much a man of religion.
I understand that you weren’t the funny guy in your class, but you were never shy of a comment or two. Were you considering other lines of work before heading down the comedy path?
Yeah, to a degree. I remember writing in my year book that I was going to get into politics. I was determined, with the passion of an 18-year-old, to become the Minister of Education, to ensure that schools, like the one I went to, got properly funded. Only a few of us from our school made it to university. I wanted to be a lawyer and then maybe go into politics. I thought that would be a good pathway for me.
What school did you go to? And was it brown?
I went to St Bernard’s College in Lower Hutt. I don’t know how brown it is now, but back then it was 53 percent Samoan and Tokelauan. That’s before you add in Tongan, Māori, South Asian, Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani. So yes, we were brown.
We were tough Bernard boys. That classic old-school brown persona. You dressed sharp, you talked softly, but you could bring it. I was the cheeky pasty boy in the group. It was good. We didn’t have drama classes. We didn’t have any of that stuff. We had barbershop. We had choir. That was the closest we had to performance.
And you were a barbershop guy?
Yeah. I started off a bit higher, and I’ve just watched my position in the barbershop drop down as my voice did. We grew up on Boyz II Men, Jodeci, all that stuff. Doing barbershop back then, we were in the height of four-part harmonies.
I’m a big fan of that style. I love our own Pasifika style of harmony, but barbershop offers a variation on it, and it’s clever how it’s put together. So you’re at varsity, flatting with Ben Hurley, you’re going along to a couple of gigs and thinking: I can do that stuff. You were thinking of being a lawyer and a politician, but instead you’ve come to be known as a comedian. Are you comfortable with that? Because you’re a writer, a performer and a social commentator as well.
I always think that being a comedian is how I pay my bills. I’ve always approached comedy as being a trade. For me, it’s the same mentality as someone who’s an electrician or a plumber. So, when someone asks me: “What do you do? What’s your bread and butter?” I’ll say I’m a stand-up comic. When I’m going through customs, I’ll generally put writer.
Comedy was first. I came to writing about seven years into my stand-up career, in terms of writing guest columns or writing plays. And the social commentary came a lot later.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of those subjects — I didn’t have my voice. I didn’t understand how to say what I wanted to say in a way that was palatable to audiences. So I learned how to get a message across and also entertain people at the same time.
There’s that interesting, perhaps annoying, expectation, isn’t there, that if you’re a comedian, people want you to be funny in social situations. Whereas we know most comedians are melancholy.
I think with a lot of comedians there’s anxiety, sometimes depression. I had a theatre teacher who gave me a very gentle warning, saying: “Just be careful as you go into stand-up comedy. It’s a very lonely lifestyle.” I didn’t understand that at the time, because I was gigging in Wellington to hundreds of people. And I thought: “How can you be lonely when you’ve got all these people?”
Of course, 15 years later, I completely get what he means. On the other hand, you find solidarity amongst other comedians because you kind of understand that we’re all wired up in a particular way which allows us to do what we do.
It’s socially taboo to be disrespectful to Pasifika people. You can make fun and make social commentary, but you can’t afford to be disrespectful. It’s a very difficult area to negotiate, right?
True. But remember that often the best critique comes from a place of love. Comes from a genuine affection. Your closest friends are the people who you trust to call you out. That’s true aroha. When you need to hear the truth, especially the uncomfortable truth, you don’t call up a random stranger. You call up someone who cares about you the strongest.
So I think that, when it comes to critiquing Pacific culture, you go a step further and deconstruct the clichés that have been put in place, and then go another step further and ask: “Why do those clichés exist in the first place?” And the result is that what appears to be a critique of Pacific cultures turns out, actually, to be a critique of the European interpretation of Pacific culture.
You’ve got to carry a lot of love for people with you, otherwise it does get hateful and spiteful. I remember Mike King saying to me, in one of those moments of a senior comic telling a junior comic how it is: “If you can find a way to make fun of people while making them care about why you’re making fun, then you’ll hit them.”
Sometimes when you peel back the humour you can expose quite a sad tale. I’m thinking of a story like Boy which was seen as a comedy, but really, he’s come out of prison, no one there to look after the kids — you know, the story was quite sad if you took away the humour.
That’s why I try to make my stand-up comedy rooms feel like a kitchen or like a garage. That mentality of sitting around with your closest people, around a table.
And I’ve found that some of the darkest humour, the most inappropriately timed humour — and I’m talking about Pacific humour here — comes from those tables. Comes from 1 o’clock in the morning at a family funeral. Everyone’s got Milo. You’re sitting around, and then someone busts something out and you’re in stitches. Or you’re in the garage with the cousins at a big family meeting. Something serious has happened. And someone drops something and you find this common thread, this common humour.
I think it’s true that comedy is tied to trauma. And comedy can be cathartic for trauma. And, as Pacific people, we’ve all experienced trauma, including in the deeper sense that we were all colonised. Except for the Tongans, who will remind you of that to the end of days.
There’s also modern colonisations, such as pop culture colonisation. Why is American pop culture so prevalent in a British colony? And there’s the trauma of almost losing your language. There’s the trauma of not being allowed, like our cousins in French Polynesia, to speak their language. All these little traumas. And in these little traumas, if you pick at them, you can use comedy to find the solidarity.
It’s an art. It is an absolute art, James. You now consider yourself a writer, so you look at the social setting. You’ve got the current affairs. All of it is meshing together in your head and you find something that can get some levity from serious situations. I’m reminded that part of the skill is knowing the formula — it’s almost rhythmical that you’re inviting the audience to laugh along with you. Can you tell us about that formula?
The old cliché is that comedy is tragedy plus time. It comes back to what I was saying about trauma.
So, when something terrible happens, often your initial response is to make a joke about it. Take something like the Christchurch earthquake. We did a comedy gig on the night of the earthquake. We were booked in, and we showed up thinking we were going to cancel the gig. The place was packed. And there were people with families in Christchurch. And we talked about it. It was a riot. It was a really funny and joyful gig.
If we tried to do that gig just two days later, there would’ve been silence. Because there was a small window when the initial trauma happened when you almost have to talk about it because the weight of the trauma is so much that you’ve got to find ways to lighten.
Then you’ve got a period where you can make jokes but you’ve got to be very gentle and careful. Further down the track, then you can start to make jokes, but again, it’s in a different way. Today, if I make jokes about Christchurch, it will be about the fact that the city still isn’t fixed and people still have these problems, and ministers are still talking a lot without doing much.
When I say tragedy plus time equals comedy, often you’ll see something and go: “I think there might be something funny there.” But you understand it's not the time for that joke. So, you make a little note about what you saw that was funny, and then you wait, and eventually you think: “I can say this now and it will hit people. It will relate to them. It will make them laugh, but it will also make them remember.”
I notice over the last couple of years at Edinburgh and Adelaide festivals our performers are very much sought after. You’ve also been guest lecturing at different universities. Can you tell us about Adelaide, Edinburgh and how this Samoan guy from New Zealand ends up over there, and how you’re able to entertain them and have them enjoy your performance so far away from the base where the comedy was written?
I sort of kept myself away from Australia. I’d had a couple of unpleasant experiences there, away from comedy. I hadn’t performed stand-up in Australia, which seems quite weird. But I’d gone to Edinburgh, lived in London, and so I respected Edinburgh enough to not take a solo show there just for the sake of doing it. I wanted to take something good, something I knew was me. So I held back until I had something I felt confident in.
I was touring Australia in a group show called Puppet Fiction — Pulp Fiction with puppets — which is three puppeteers. And I was in Perth, and they said: “Oh, we hear you’re a stand-up comedian.” I said: “Yeah.” They go, “Well, go and do a set.” And I went up and did a set. It flew. And I realised that I’d been an idiot and that, of course, my stuff was going to work in Australia.
Things happened very quickly and I ended up taking the show So So Gangsta over to Perth. That got nominated for best comedy. And that gave me more confidence. Then I went to Adelaide, which is the biggest festival in Australia, and I was making contacts as I went, building this momentum. So, I ended up in a really good venue in Adelaide, and it just kept going.
Māori and Pacific people were showing up. I did one night in Perth where it was 99 percent Māori and PI from New Zealand. They worked in the mines. They worked in the oil fields. So, I walk on stage and there’s all these bros, some of them old school. Guys from Cannons Creek, Porirua, and Wellington, which I know real well. And they’ve got Boston Celtics tops on, so I know they’re my generation.
Then I go to Adelaide, with its massive Greek community, and for reasons I didn’t quite understand at the time, they hear this mixed-race Samoan kid and he’s really going to town on the perception of immigrants in Australia, and race relations, and talks about New Zealand.
What I ended up doing was using our New Zealand race relations as a way to give Australians an in to talk about their stuff. Because it’s so tight over there when you talk about First Nations interaction. It’s just brutal. There’s no other word I can use. It’s brutal the way that our First Nations cousins in Australia have been treated and are still treated and are perceived. And the Australian Caucasian people know that.
You often find that they’re too tight to be able to engage in talking about that stuff, because there’s too much guilt. They’re so paralysed by how bad they feel about what’s happened that they can’t engage. So, if you go over there and start talking about New Zealand — our statistics, our struggles, Māori and Pacific Islanders — but talking in a way in which we’ve used comedy to do it, and you give them comedic examples, they start laughing.
And then you stop saying the words Māori and Pacific Island. You just start talking about indigenous. You don’t say “First Nation". It’s interesting how gentle I’ve had to be when I’ve been working my way into it and then how blunt that allows me to be later on.
So I started by taking So So Gangsta over there, which is a very light show. And then this year I took Let’s Talk About the Golliwogs, which is straight up about being a race relations show and quite confronting to Australians.
Let’s Talk About the Golliwogs — that’s an interesting title. But it does get your attention straight away. On the other hand, a lot of young people wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.
It was interesting, because that’s a very New Zealand attitude, that it’s something in the past. The show originated from a racist encounter I had in Dunedin. Very traumatic encounter, where I was called the "n" word to my face by a group of young men in the street. I was very confused and angry. And then I encountered two shops across the road from each other which were both selling golliwogs in the front window.
I’m always curious when it comes to bigotry. It upsets me. But beyond that, I want to understand where it comes from, and I try and build humour into the journey of discovering that. So, with Australia, I was like: “Okay, this is what happened to me in New Zealand. This is my New Zealand experience.” So, the Australians go: “Ah! Okay.”
And then we start to get into their relationship and I talk about how often we deflect. So a lot of the show is actually about how, instead of dealing with racist constructs, we actually deflect to other people’s racism. So, in New Zealand we go: “We’re racist, but we’re not as racist as Australia.” And in Australia, they’ll go: “Ah well, Kiwis and us, we’ve got our problems, but we’re not as bad as South Africa.”
It was interesting watching that hit home, and then watching a very visceral response in Australia. Even more so than in the UK, because people didn’t want to believe it. Or didn’t believe it. The statistics I was giving them, the jokes I was making at the race-based structures there.
And often I’d have people stand up and challenge me or want to lecture me after a show. But I knew that going in. I didn’t go in naively thinking I was going to change the world. I went in wanting to make people laugh and hopefully challenge that perception.
But this year, especially at the Adelaide festival, I had a very rewarding and educating experience on how you can have someone screaming in your face, standing up and screaming in your face, but know you’re still safe. Know that they’re angry and they’re upset, but they’re not going to attack you. You’ve just hit a nerve. And then have them, at the end, go: “Great show, mate.” It was really surreal.
Well, you can laugh at the Aussies, but you can’t laugh at us Māori. You Pasifika guys better be careful when you start laughing at us. We’re okay to laugh at the Laughing Samoans, but it ain’t okay to laugh at us. There’s some truth in that, isn’t there? Do you have to tread a little carefully here in the Māori space? I get the feeling that you might have to, because we haven’t quite broken through there. Do you do skits about things Māori?
I talk about it. You’ve got to remember, one of my mātua when I first started was Mike King. And there’s the big secret we shared back at high school. The secret is that Māori and Pacific all rip into each other harder than any Caucasians can. Caucasians think they know how to rip us. But they don’t speak the shorthand. They don’t know the secrets. No one can cut as deep as us.
With Māoridom, what unites us of course is colonialism. So I start making jokes about that — and this is really following on the path that Billy T put us on with his Captain Cook sketches — and I say: “Hey, remember that time back then, when they all showed up and thought they discovered us and we were already here?”
And then you make fun of how that mentality is still in place. And the thing is, when you’re a mixed-race kid, you end up being a bit of a bridge.
When I was first starting out, I was pretty clumsy with it. But I was also really lucky because I got Mike, but I also got Taika (Waititi). Taika was in Wellington. Jemaine (Clement) was in Wellington with Bret (McKenzie). So I had these cool voices who were doing really interesting things when I was coming up, which allowed me to see different ways to approach the subjects I wanted to approach.
I admire stand-up comics, James, because this is one form of entertainment that’s stripped down bare. All you’ve got is a microphone. It allows you to travel in ways that bands can’t. They’ve got to rig up and they’ve got to get their set. But comics can do their work anywhere. It’s quite liberating in that sense. There’s no one else to rely on.
I think it’s probably why people think comedians have such massive egos. But also, it’s how you get into university lectures. Some of the places that I’m able to go, they haven’t had political commentary.
I was in Guam last year, and I’m making jokes to them, really taking apart the American structure and making jokes that I’d written since I’d arrived on the island about how ridiculous the island of Guam is to an outside eye. This is an American military base. And they’re howling. So, they invited me in to come and lecture on activism, and using artistic expression as a way to politically vent, in a constructive way.
I was thrown by some of the questions. One person was like: “You write?” and I go: “Yeah.” And they ask: “How do you write in a way that you’re not going to get in trouble when they check your blog?” And I go: “When who checks your blog?” And they go: “The government.” And I laughed. And they go: "No, we’re serious."
And I made this remark about being watched, and we all laughed. And then, two minutes later, military police came into the university room. I put my hands up and people laughed again. I went: “Sorry, is everything okay? I’m just lecturing.” They said: “Oh, yeah. We thought we heard a noise. It must’ve been the laughter.” Then we all kind of laughed. But, you know, again, it’s what I was saying about tragedy and time — we all laughed in the moment.
After I finished the lecture and left the university grounds, we went and got a coffee because I had to sit there and shake. Because I’d had to keep my temper in check. Keep my outrage in check that these students, these young minds, were living under such oppression by Americans. Because you’ve got to pick your fights. You’ve got to pick your moments.
I think, with some of the social commentary, you’ve got to ask: Are you doing this for yourself? Or are you doing it for other people? Are you doing this so you can tell people that you did it, so that you are the hero? Or are you trying to help people, trying to figure out the best way to help them? Because maybe the best way to help them is you shut up.
In these interviews, we often talk a lot about work, but sometimes we skip over the things we love — or that pisses us off. Is there something about you that you’d like to share?
What pisses me off is apathy. I get that people don’t like some things, but I hate it when people aren’t engaged in something. Especially on social issues.
Also, I’m a massive computer game player. And I love basketball, in particular, because I’m a basketball tragic. You know how you get cricket tragics? I’m a basketball tragic. I will play an NBA 2K game for hours after I’ve finished a gig — sometimes to the detriment of my writing deadlines. But, if you pass me the rock during a game, then you better get ready to rebound. 'Cos I cannot shoot. I probably won’t pass it to you because I might hit you in the face with the ball. I love basketball — it’s my favourite sport. But I’m absolutely terrible at it.
Good on you, mate. Something about our country and about our people might be a nice way to wrap it up. We’re looking at development and a future for our Pasifika people. We’re all intertwined, Pasifika and Māori. We’re in the same gene pool. We’ve got our people pushing the boundaries in all sorts of areas, whether that’s sport, entertainment, business and education. For instance, the Tongans, I was told the other day, have more PhDs per capita than any people of the world.
I bet a Tongan told you that [laughs].
Comedy plays its part here as the entertainment sector does, as music does, as television and radio production and broadcasting does. How do you feel about where we’re moving as Pasifika peoples?
I think for Pasifika peoples it’s a really interesting time because — and this is one of the strengths of New Zealand, which New Zealanders might not recognise, but you have to trust me in that, because from outside you see it much more clearly — we do change. We socially change.
And yet we all make so much noise about not changing. Kiwis are like: “We don’t want to change.”
But we do. And it’s partly because we’ve got such a small population that it allows us to have these debates. That whole two degrees of separation means that, when we have a national debate, we can actually have a national debate. And so, social change can happen quickly.
So, applying that to Māori and Pasifika, one thing you’ll find is that now we’re beginning to write our own history. We’re talking about our own history and we’re doing it with our voices. And it might seem small, but it’s a really important change, because all the books our parents grew up with are written by Caucasian people and they’re written from the point of view of descendants of colonisers.
Now we’re able to look at that trauma and see it with Māori and Pacific eyes and say: This is how it looks from our world. This is how it affects our generations. Our children. This is the systemic effect.
Sometimes that flies right in the face of what’s been written before. And sometimes it’s grating to hear, because you’ve got generations who’ve been brought up on the old narrative, and now you have a counter narrative being presented.
And that’s the time we’re living in.