Laughing all the way:
New Zealand comedian Justine Smith writes for 7 Days and also appears on the show. She tells Sarah Nealon about her start in comedy and how the industry is changing for the better.
The changing face of the New Zealand comedy scene.
She performed her first stand-up comedy routine 20 years ago but it’s only in the past couple of years that Justine Smith has been able to earn a living making people laugh.
Smith, who writes for and appears on 7 Days, was working as a waitress in an Auckland cafe when her boss dared her to take part in an open mic night.
“She booked me in three times and on the third night I finally did it,” says Smith.
“I had never ever been so terrified. It was hosted by Radar (now Te Radar). Brendhan Lovegrove was there. I think Mike King was there. Andrew Clay. Maybe Michele A’Court. And Ewen Gilmour, I think.
“They were really probably the only ones doing it. I just did it and it sounds cheesy, but it was life changing. It went really well and just felt amazing.”
Since that nerve-racking gig, Smith has performed on stage here and in Australia but had to supplement her comedy work with hospitality jobs.
“I was a waitress and a comedian for years – like well into my 30s,” she says.
“But the scene has changed so rapidly. There are so many more gigs and opportunities to write for TV. Not just 7 Days. There is
Jono And Ben, Funny Girls and heaps of stuff online. There was nothing like that back then. So it was hard. You got $100 a week if you were lucky. Really lucky.
“But I’m making a great living and it’s awesome. All I do now is comedy and
comedy-related stuff and with that goes the corporate (gigs) and perhaps a voiceover and all those kind of things that help support the thing that I love, which is being on stage live.”
Smith, who won the coveted Billy T Award 10 years ago and will be on the judging panel for next year’s awards, was aware from a young age that she liked to entertain people.
“I always thought I was pretty funny,” she says. “I was in trouble at school for giggling and making people laugh. I was always a show-off. My mother will agree with that 100 per cent.”
Smith, who was raised in Christchurch, says her comedy is inspired by a variety of things.
“I’ve always felt really lucky with my mental health and outlook on life because I find lots of stuff funny,” she says.
“I look at a person walking down the street and just laugh in my car. I find things really amusing, but not in a totally mean way.”
Despite her love of comedy she nearly gave up on it for good.
“I got a bit sick of it in my 30s and tried to retire but had to come back because I realised I wasn’t good at anything else,” she says.
“I’m glad I did. I’m a bit of a one-trick pony.”
In New Zealand, comedy is a male-dominated industry but Smith is hopeful that will change sooner rather than later.
“You are looked at and judged differently as a woman,” says Smith.
For any woman considering stand-up comedy, she says, “If you’re thinking about doing it, it means you do want to do it. For God’s sake give it a go because what makes it so tough makes it so rewarding.
“It’s just you up there and it’s a real naked kind of art form. There are no bells and whistles. You are on your own.
“But at the same time if you get a great reaction it just comes straight back in your face and immediately afterwards.
“It’s so fricking rewarding. To make people laugh from their gut, it’s a real unifying experience. Laughing unites us all.”
Smith cites British actor, funnyman and musician Bill Bailey (Black Books) as one of her favourite comedians.
“Bill Bailey can unite an audience with joyful pleasure,” she says.
“I just love him. I’ve seen Bill Bailey live every time he comes to Auckland and he’s a really lovely person, which matters to me.”
Speaking of love, Smith married for the first time two years ago and describes her husband as, “The greatest man in the whole universe.
“I had to chase him for a bit because he was living in Wellington. It’s like a fairy story,” she says. “It’s adorable. We got engaged at Disneyland.”
Refreshingly, as the interview draws to a close, Smith is only too happy to state her age.
“I’m proud of my age,” she says. “I’ll be 50 next year and I cannot wait. I’m getting older and it’s fine. I’m having a great time. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
“It’s just you up there and it’s a real naked kind of art form.” – Justine Smith