4 Feb 2021

NZ Screen History: McPhail and Gadsby

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:35 pm on 4 February 2021

In 1977, David McPhail, then a young producer with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, pitched an idea for a satirical comedy show to air on its second channel, South Pacific Television.

The response from his superiors was that it was a terrible idea because New Zealanders do not have a sense of humour as they are staunch sensible people who don't like laughing, and certainly don't like laughing at themselves.

Luckily, he ignored that and went on to make A Week of It - which was followed by McPhail and Gadsby

“I was told there was no place for satire, New Zealanders didn’t really have a sense of humour, and besides we had no right to make fun of public figures.

“As the project I was pitching required all of those it did seem to be a bit of a lost cause", he told Jesse Mulligan.

Eventually he was granted a pilot and then six shows.

"I have a suspicion that they just wanted to shut me up. They allowed me to make one pilot which they accepted and allowed me to make six shows, which they placed at the wonderful time of 10.30pm at night, when the majority of New Zealand was asleep.”

A Week of It used satirical techniques common overseas at the time but new to New Zealand, which was impersonating public figures. It was a slow burner, McPhail says.

“People didn’t know quite what to make of it, they didn’t know if it was a news programme or what.”

One impersonation in particular resonated, he says.

“And for that I’m thankful for the presence of one of the most dynamic, nasty, dangerous, vicious politicians in New Zealand history and that was Robert Muldoon – and also a very, very vague resemblance to him.”

He met his comedy partner John Gadsby at a party in Dunedin.

“One of those ridiculous moments in people’s lives, two people are at a party together and one group of people are saying you must meet David McPhail he’s very, very funny. Whereas in another part of the room there’s a crowd saying you must meet John Gadsby he’s very, very funny.”

A Week of It morphed into McPhail and Gadsby, but McPhail says the first series was hampered by two mistakes.

“You don’t make a sketch show that’s over a half hour long, and this one was 48 minutes long, that was the first mistake. The second mistake was you never make a 48-minute comedy show about the one topic, especially as the first show was about religion and the second was about sex.”

The show, after some pruning in length, eventually bedded in with audiences, he says.

And what of his famous Muldoon impression, what did the man himself make of it?

“He didn’t like them, but he accepted that they were useful, and this was one of the problems with the characterisations, they humanised him to some extent and I began to have severe worries about that, because it was supposed to make him look like a fool.”

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