Comedy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think politics. Unless, of course, you’re Robbie Nicol. His webseries and live show White Man Behind a Desk satirises New Zealand politics while tackling some big topics like child poverty, immigration and racism. Robbie admits some of these things “don’t scream funny”. But he and his team try to find the “core absurdity” in the issue. They ask “what in it is totally illogical and doesn’t make sense?” Maybe it’s “human action” or maybe there’s a “good analogy that allows us to talk about it without making everyone too sad to laugh”. Plus, “throwing in a bunch of jokes” always helps.
Robbie’s been into comedy since he was little. He comes from a loud family and has three older sisters. He said “people are surprised when I say that I’m the quietest one”. Then, growing up he said he “became increasingly obsessed with people like Jon Stewart” and the jokes combined with politics. At school he realised he was more into politics than most people, but then went to University to study maths. He quickly realised it was “like an extended crossword puzzle” so took the “practical route” of politics and philosophy. He said it actually was the most useful combination he could have taken because preparing monologues for White Man Behind a Desk is basically essay writing. “We do a lot of research and reading then write a bad essay and rewrite until it becomes a good essay,” said Robbie.
White Man Behind a Desk started when Robbie was working with a Wellington-based group called The Candle Wasters on a webseries inspired by Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost called Lovely Little Losers. He said, “I saw people my age making a webseries and looking to NZ On Air for funding and realised it was actually possible”. He reached out to collaborators Sally and Elsie Bollinger, they wrote a monologue, filmed it and put it up online. And people watched it. “I didn’t know if anyone would watch it or like it but enough people watched them to justify doing more of them.”
Over the last year, fans may have noticed the classic ‘Robbie talking to the camera in his bedroom’ format has disappeared in favour of videos from live shows. That’s because the show went on the road. It was a big year for White Man Behind the Desk that ended with Robbie winning Best Newcomer at the 2017 New Zealand International Comedy Festival.
But, now, Robbie has decided comedy is evil. In his latest show he has one hour to convince the audience that politics and comedy should never mix again.
Robbie said, “live audiences are a million times better than internet audience. Seeing the view counter go up doesn’t quite get dopamine pumping in the same way as a live audience”. He didn’t actually expect live shows to be “less anxiety inducing,” but somehow they are because there’s “that warm feeling of laughter in the room”.
In election year Robbie managed to get a bunch of politicians on the show, including Jacinda Ardern. He said it was easier to get opposition candidates as they had less to lose. Robbie said, “it was surprisingly easy to get politicians to take part. That’s the nicest thing to being a Kiwi, there’s only five of us so you can get politicians along and play stupid games with them”.
Robbie tells the politicians to act normal and he’ll be an idiot around them. “I’d stab wildly at different types of interview, go from ‘the Oprah’ to Guyon Espiner-style. You see them shift gear and go ‘ok, I know how to behave’ then see them switch and use different talking points when you switch,” said Robbie. The goal was to “show the audience how theatrical politics is, you can see how the politician and interviewer play a part”.
Since the election, Robbie’s goal has been to “do as much different stuff as possible”. He’s been using the brand as a platform for different issues like civics education and reworking the live show for Dunedin and Auckland. We’ve been “trying to grow as creators and performers”. There’s also three new monologues coming up, “hopefully people will like those too”.
The live show in Dunedin runs from 27th to 29th September at Hutton Theatre as part of Arts Festival Dunedin. Robbie said it’s a showcase of an “enormous team that comes together to make something weird and silly and hopefully borderline informing at times”.