Dane Giraud: Riding the line
It is early in our conversation that Dane quotes Jerry Lewis saying that comedy has always been vulgar. It creates a level of discomfort that if landed is instantly released through the power of shared laughter. It is often a very fine line that comedians walk, especially those who use comedy to comment on the society they see around them. Seemingly making light of society's most sensitive and frictious topics can quickly lead to a certain level of controversy or public debate. For comic writer, Dane Giraud, pushing those boundaries is the essential to comedy.
Good comedy, says Dane, requires courageous writing that presents an honest portrayal of the good and the bad. The first step begins with turning off the filters and allowing yourself to write down exactly what is in your head. “Don’t worry about how others will respond or what they’ll think of you, yet. Get a flow on. Train yourself to sidestep some of those critical voices. At least for a first pass.” It is bypassing the critical voices that allows comedians to relieve certain societal pressure valves in a way that is unique to comedy, which if done well can open bigger conversations.
“Billy T James got in hot water over how far he pushed some of his comedy, but crossing the lines that he did enabled us all to feel more comfortable about having the tough conversations about race and identity that I think we’re all much richer for.”
Dane is the writer behind the comedy gold, Find Me A Māori Bride, screened on Māori TV. As the title suggests, this comedy series follows a pair of Māori men on their quest to find themselves an authentic Māori bride. The two lead characters, who have never engaged with their Māori heritage, meet a steep learning curve as they have to take a series of cultural challenges. The show, while definitely holding hilarity at its heart, shapes a larger story of Māori identity in contemporary urban New Zealand. It is educative. By watching it, audiences learn some te reo and a whole set of Māori values, almost without realising because it is embedded within a storyline that provides, simply, New Zealand comedy value.
Find Me A Māori Bride was Dane’s first experience of writing comedy for the small screen. There were few opportunities for scripted comedy to reach TV at that time but he took his chances and along with Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton of Brown Sugar Apple Grunt productions approached Māori TV with the pitch. Dane says that “it was a long shot” but the timing was right, and from there, everything flowed.
“I wrote the complete first series in something like six weeks. I threw a whole lot of crazy shit at the wall and expected a stern phone call from the producers for being unrealistic about what we could achieve, but I didn’t want to censor myself for that first pass. As it turns out there wasn’t a second pass. They filmed it all. Unheard of.”
Dane grew up in South Auckland in what he calls “a truly diverse community.” It is these roots, he says, that have been the biggest influence on both his humour and his ability to create comedy that reaches across audiences. This was his training ground for learning how to ride that line to use language in a way that can push social boundaries.
“I was asked by a network commissioner ‘How is it you write so brown’? But I’ve never seen my comedy as brown. My humour is the product of the good and bad – the comradery and the inevitable friction that can come out of a whole lot of different people bumping up against one another.
“Some of the ways working men would address each other in the smoko rooms of, say, a Pacific Steel, would turn many of my progressive friend’s hair white. But this was just banter. And these men were friends who shared their lives with each other. I came to see these un-PC (understatement!) jokes, made at each other’s expense, as a lubricant that kept our multicultural machine working.
“I couldn’t fight my way out of a paper bag and the world out there could be violent, so I became a talker. And an actor. I’d be gangster for the gangsters and would slip back into Nerd mode for my Dungeon & Dragons friends. I picked up a lot of slang and the cadence of people and that wicked sense of humour a lot of South Aucklanders have. We like to shock. Throw people off balance with an unexpected comment. We play up our uncouthness for the snobs (the bourgeois) to rattle their cages.
Regretfully Kiwis are still conservative. Or, at least, our arts community seems to be. Yet the people can take it. And if the response I’ve gathered from the comedies I’ve worked on is anything to go by, they love the irreverent and cheeky stuff and there’s even been a sense of “finally!”. A sense of release almost.”
Riding the line of what people feel comfortable with is what Dane does best, whether it is in his writing or his teaching. He seeks out the parts of society that are not talked about openly, or the ugliness that is present in all of us that we are embarrassed to express or feel restrained from talking about.
“I remember teaching an acting workshop years ago and I’d set up a scenario where a woman had walked out on her boyfriend and turns up again four days later without having called him or informed him in anyway where she’d been. We did the scene and the guys were so calm and rational I had to stop it and say ‘Seriously? You’re not pissed at her? Even a little bit??’. They didn’t want to signal to the rest of the class that they could get loud and abusive with women. But this is the work. And life can be ugly. Messy. If you want the work to be true you need to acknowledge that darkness we all have.”
However, there are ways and means that good comedians test these ideas before they let them go public. If a joke that comments on something in society isn’t funny, then there is always risk that it is just plain offensive. Recently, young comedian, Jimi Jackson, crossed the line for many when it comes to how we talk about race, and following the fallout, how he addressed women. His very public disgrace was an example of how comedians can quickly get ostracised if they get it wrong. Dane, who wrote and directed on Jimi Jackson's show, was disappointed in the response from the comedic community, “When Jimi Jackson got in hot water for snapchatting himself in blackface from the set of “Jimi’s World”, I was horrified by how many comedians were ready to pull this super-talented, young Maori performer down.” These are all steps to learning how to push those boundaries and create conversations, says Dane, and the way that Jimi was so quickly dismissed as a comedian highlighted the “hysteria around this stuff and how quickly people are to tear folks apart without knowing the big picture.”
While Dane is a big advocate for taking away the filters in the first instance, he says that it is important to test your ideas before they reach the public. It is clear when something doesn’t land right. “I was in a read-through recently and a lot of gags were landing for the actors and it was a good day. But then one went “CLUNK” and it was super obvious we’d gone too far. It always is. If a joke is mean spirited you feel it. Everyone feels it. And that’s the test. Is it mean spirited? I’m not interested in hurting anyone with my humour.”
Beyond that, he says that the world of comedy is all about endurance. That involves both endurance in your work (he once rewrote a script 50 times before it felt right) and endurance within the industry.
“Don’t go away. Stick around. It really is that simple. I think if you stick around long enough the industry decides what you are and will find a home for you. We all start with a vision of what we want to be and how we feel we can best contribute to the industry, but if we get hooked on that we can start denying ourselves opportunities. Like, I know I’ve made no small contribution to the revitalization of the Maori language over a decade creating shows for Maori TV and through exposing new audiences to te reo Maori using comedy. Did I plan to do that? It would never have entered my head that I could play a role in this back when I left drama school. But this is where and who I am. And it’s a serious source of pride for me. So, don’t go anywhere and stay open and ready for change.”
"Find Me A Maori Bride, series 2" is currently available to view @ Maori tv ondemand
You can see more from Dane Giraud on twitter @danegiraud or facebook @tamaandgeorge