12 May 2024

Bailey Poching: Here are the Māori comedians - but where are you looking for them?

From Culture 101, 1:05 pm on 12 May 2024
Bailey Poching

Bailey Poching Photo: Supplied

In an article on Stuff in 2019, comedian Guy Williams posed the question, “Where are all the Māori comedians?” Williams noted that, despite our main comedy award being named after Billy T James, he could only name a handful of Māori funnymen and women working at the time. 

Now in 2024, comedian and actor Bailey Poching is responding. In a piece for Vice titled ‘Here Are All The Māori Comedians' Poching says the question isn’t and has never been about where the Māori comedians are, but rather: where are you looking for them?

Speaking to Culture 101’s Perlina Lau, Poching admits in the past five years, there has been a dramatic shift in the industry. Perhaps however, he says, not dramatic enough in ways that matter. 

He explains that audiences have usually meant “white audiences” - skewed towards a Pākehā lens. He reminds us, Aotearoa’s most famous comic, William James Te Whei Taitoko changed his name to ‘Billy T James’ so the pronunciation was easier for Australians. 

While there are more comedians of colour now, Poching says “there are still systemic structures that act as barriers which makes it hard for Māori comics to ascend in their careers.”

Poching points out the comedy industry is largely centralised in the Auckland CBD and while it sells tickets, whether those spaces are accommodating to different cultural values and socio-economic backgrounds is another matter. 

“If you are a woman of colour, a queer person or a gender-diverse person, these places aren’t always super safe late at night. That environment isn’t always conducive to safety for young comedians.”

And that’s before getting on stage.

Scheduling is also an important consideration. That is, whether the comedians are being put in front of an audience that can relate and identify with them.

“I’ve experienced it as well - incredibly fascinating performers who are Pasifika or Māori. They have such rich world views and then you put them up at 10pm in front of a middle class Pākehā audience and because they’re not making this crowd laugh, that somehow equates to their value as a comic.”

For Poching, it doesn’t add up. 

Poching talks about the constant challenge and double-edged sword of being a minority in the industry. There’s been an increase of awareness of the need for diversity in the industry which has yielded more opportunities but there’s also the risk and fear of being the token comedian or person in the room.

“It is exhausting trying to figure out how to make a living in this industry while doing right by ourselves and by the people we stand with,” writes Poching. 

He says there’s always the question of whether you’ve been given an opportunity because there’s earnest interest to develop the art form within the community - or whether it’s a financial decision and box-ticking exercise to make the employer or company look equitable. 

“Having to engage so critically with every opportunity that comes my way is exhausting… will it reflect badly on my people? Because people will associate me with my people.”

While Poching says he does care about all of those aspects, they’re factors that have to be considered and negotiated with every offer.

“Pay checks aren’t guaranteed for us. When you get a young artist who’s struggling to pay rent, they don’t have the capacity to challenge these things as much.”

When asked about what changes he would want to see, it’s simple. 

“I just want my peers and the people coming up after me, to not have to worry about these things. To be able to accept opportunities without fear of being tokenised, to explore their artform in front of people who want to see them and not feel the need to be exceptional from the get go.”

Poching says more venues in different spaces would be a good start and, furthermore, engaging new audiences in those areas. 

“There has to be representation in all levels of the industry so there are people who understand the struggle and collectively work together against the issues.”

Poching understands it’s a gradual process and making it sustainable is a significant hurdle. But for now, he’s asking readers to consider, “what efforts are you making to look for Indigenous Pacific comedians? In free backyard shows put on by comedians from our South Auckland communities? In the performing arts buildings in East Coast Schools? In the under-resourced high school arts programmes?....We are here. You will find us here.”