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Billy T James: the power of comedy

Friday, June 20, 2008 by Marianne Elliott

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A conversation with Christine last night wound it's way from my friends Bret and Jemaine (and how happy I am for their success here in the USA as the comedy duo The Flight of the Conchords), via Rhys Darby (who plays Murray on the Conchords HBO show), to Billy T James.
The link between Rhys Darby and Billy T was the Billy T James comedy award, for which Rhys was nominated a few times. It was at the Billy T James Awards ceremony in 2001 that many of us first saw Rhys perform.
But when I finished talked to Christine, it was Billy T who stayed with me and kept me awake til well after my bedtime. Billy T James was one of New Zealand's most well-loved comedians. I grew up on the Billy T James show.
Born William Taitoko, Billy T James famously claimed he had changed his name to something "that Australians could pronounce". His work tackled racism and New Zealand's colonial history with such irreverance and humour that he was equally enjoyed by Maori, Pakeha (loosely translated, descendants of the white settlers) and other immigrant groups.
Billy T had a whole series of jokes about key events in New Zealand's colonial history. This one about the signing of the Treat of Waitangi gives you a taste:



This next piece is about the arrival of James Cook, the man often credited with discovering Aotearoa/New Zealand. Obviously he was not the first to get there, by a long shot, and Billy T James always had a lot of fun with the Cook character. In this skit he makes fun of Captain Cook and at the same time lampoons the US government's response to New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy (as a result of which nuclear-powered US naval ships were not allowed to enter New Zealand waters):

Often controversial, he was always topical and although he avoided elitism and was incredibly popular, Billy T James' humour was highly political. This dialogue between a Maori taxi driver and his South African fare is a good example:


Billy T James died in 1991 at the age of 43. It was far too soon and as far as I am concerned it was a great loss for New Zealand. He helped us to laugh at ourselves and at the same time challenged New Zealanders to reflect on race relations in our country and throughout our history.
Recently I talked with a friend about comedy entertainment. She was saying that she thinks sometimes we forget that it really is just entertainment, it's not actually changing the world. In lots of cases, she's right. But it made me think about Billy T James, and to remember that in some cases a little perfectly pitched, well-delivered comedy may be the most powerful catalyst for a little political revolution.


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5 Responses to "Billy T James: the power of comedy"

  1. susanna says:

    I hadn’t heard of Billy T.James before so thank you for these clips. It looks like it was a fun, smart show. And I laughed out loud when I read about the Concord’s newlyfound powers on their website. Hah!

  2. susanna says:

    Oh god, I just watched a few Flight of the Concord clips on itunes…hee!

  3. susanna says:

    Oops – concHordS. Forgot the “h” and the “s”.

  4. Di says:

    🙂 I had to call my Belgian bloke over to watch Billy. I grew up watching his show, my dad killing himself with laughter. The memory of his giggle-thing came to me as soon as I read his name here.

  5. tiny noises says:

    I think the best way to change the world is through humor! This is why Jon Stewart is my hero–he points out how ridiculous we are if you just take a step back, much like Billy T. If we can step back and see that ridiculous isn’t always funny, maybe we would all be more motivated to change.

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