Susie Ferguson: Hello, Kia ora, welcome to Brazen. It’s our first ever episode. I’m Susie Ferguson. You might know me from RNZ’s Morning Report but this is a little bit different. Now every month on Brazen you’ll hear from two incredible women. One you’ve probably heard of, one you maybe haven’t. Of course the stories they’ll tell will be different. It’s covering everything from the fight to dismantle colonialism and reform the justice system, to tips from a top publicist for the next time you’re caught in a paparazzi scrum. But throughout the series, one thing remains the same: They’re Brazen, Bold and Unashamed.
Michèle A’Court: I think some of the people who are attracted into doing stand-up comedy are people who will make themselves feel big by making somebody else feel small.
Susie: We’re going to kick off now with Michèle A’Court. She’s a comedian, writer, you might have seen her on The Project or heard her co-hosting the SpinOff podcast “On the Rag”. But her big break, that came back in the 80s when she was hired by What Now, the Saturday morning kids’ show that launched in 1981 and it’s still going to this day. And the story of how she got that job, that’s a great one.
Michèle: My boyfriend at the time was very keen to be a What Now presenter, and so he asked me to help him make an audition tape, a video tape, so that he could apply for the job that had become available. So we were both in the video tape, and I got the job.
Susie Ferguson: Oo, and he didn’t?
Michèle: Bless him no. So that was weird.
Susie: Did you stay together?
Michèle: For a little while, after that, but not that long.
Susie: Was that always kind of the elephant in the room?
Michèle: I don’t think I thought hard enough about it. I think he was thrilled for me, and we both moved from Wellington to Christchurch, and then he returned back to TVNZ in Wellington. I don’t know that I thought about it terribly hard, that that must have been a great wound for him. I don’t know. There was so much going on for me, moving cities and being the new girl on What Now was so huge, that I don’t think I gave him enough thought. That’s quite dreadful. If he’s listening to this, I apologise.
Susie: Why was it the best job ever?
Michèle: Cause you could do anything you wanted. It was so creative. Christchurch TVNZ was then very much a family, and the show was very successful, and it had bedded in at that point, so this is ’87, so it had been going for maybe six or seven years, and it had enthusiasm and support from everybody who worked on it. So the routine was that on Monday you would go into a production meeting, and tell them the wild ideas that you’d had for the show that week. Because we had a theme. We had to write 17 comedy sketches each week. So you’d tell them what your theme was, and maybe it was ANZAC week, and you wanted to be in the trenches, so Design, Wardrobe, Makeup, would turn you into soldiers in the trenches. One week I decided that we should fill the studio with popcorn, and they all go, ‘All right, yeah, we’ll do that, that’s fine’. So anything that you said, it was never a problem. There was no push-back against any creative idea you had, so long as you could sell the idea as, this’ll make great television they’d go, ‘Yep, we’ll do that, that’ll be terrific’.
Susie: So what did you do in the video that they saw? What do you think was the clincher?
Michèle: In the audition tape? I don’t know. There was something quirky that they quite liked about it. They’d just lost Michelle Bracey from What Now and they wanted to replace her. It turned out, of course, that they didn’t really want me, they wanted Suzy Aiken, who was very famous then for doing aerobics videos, but they couldn’t get her. So they told me that, of course, as soon as I arrived, in the new city, to my new job, that they wanted me to be more like Suzy, because they hadn’t been able to get her.
Susie: Was that a bit crushing?
Michèle: Oh, very crushing. This is the people kind of from the director up, as opposed to Design, Makeup, floor managers, camera operators, sound people, who were all just so fabulous. But the director from above was, could I please stop making jokes, cause my job was to not be the funny one. I was there to allow the men, who were Danny Watson and Frank Flash, to be funny. And my role was to be the big sister who kept the boys in line and told them, Stop your mucking about, we’ve got a toy to give away.
Susie: And how did that work out?
Michèle: Well, I didn’t do that. And that was the beauty of live television, was that they could say, you have to do this, this is how you have to be, and I’d go, ‘Yeah, sure’, and then I wouldn’t do that. And you’re live to air for two hours, so what are they going to do? Fire me. In the end, after a couple of years. But I had a terrific time, it was so great.
Susie: And for a couple of years, you’re speaking to a whole generation.
Michèle: Yeah. And of course, this is in the days of television where there was only TV1 and TV2, so the reach was massive. And it was a really interactive program. What we had was a couch, with a push-button telephone, one of those very first ones, glued to the arm of the couch. And people would call this number now, and if they got through, they would leave their number, and when it came to be live to air, we would dial them up on the arm of the couch and phone them back and say, ‘Hey you’ve won a thing’. Which would often be a Sony Walkman, and I insisted on calling it a Sony Walkperson. And every week there would be a meeting saying, ‘could you please call the sponsor’s product by its proper name’, and I’d say ‘No it’s sexist’. And then I’d go ‘yeah, sure I will, this Saturday I’ll call it a Walkman’. And then, live to air, and we’d go, ‘And you’ve won a Sony Walkperson’.
Susie: And that has not occurred to me, until now, that that’s not okay.
Michèle: I was pretty hot on sexist language.
Susie: But it didn’t go down too well with your bosses.
Michèle: No. I think they were tolerant for a long time. But then eventually, stock market crash affected budgets for all television programs, and there was me, Simon, and Katherine, and so they decided two presenters were required for that show, and we’ll send the mouthy lippy one back to Wellington to host Video Dispatch, the young people’s news show.
Susie: Tell us about that conversation. Were you called into someone’s office and told?
Michèle: Yeah. It was horrible. And it came out of the blue, and it was before the last show of the year, so it was like, ‘in about four days you’re going to broadcast your final show. We don’t know actually that we should let you be on it, because you might say something that you’re not supposed to say, cause you’ve got a history’. In the end they did, and I behaved myself really well.
Susie: What was it like doing the last show?
Michèle: Hugely emotional. I kept it in check, I think, for as long as we were on air. And it felt to me like a death in the family. It was a real tremendous grief, cause I’d loved the show so much. As much as I make myself sound like I was incredibly naughty, I worked really hard, and we did six days a week, and didn’t earn a lot of money, and the one day a week off that you did have, you would spend doing wonderful things like school visits, and oh god, it was great. You felt like part of a community of, this sort of secret society of What Now.
Susie: And so, that ends, and how do you find your next thing?
Michèle: I had another year to go on my contract, so to take that up I had to move myself back to Wellington. So that was the moment that I decided that when my contract finished in a year’s time, I would never have a job again. Cause I felt like I’d been ripped out of this beautiful life in Christchurch where I had really good friends and a cute little one-bedroom flat in the CBD, and I loved that job so much, and I had to leave it to go and do this contract in Wellington. I could have, I guess, just asked to be paid out of my contract or something, I don’t know. But it felt like I’d lost the control of my life, and so that’s when I said to myself, I will never be employed by anybody ever again.
Susie: And you never have been, have you?
Michèle: No. I’ve had some short-term contracts and I worked in radio for a little while in Queenstown while I did some other things as well. That’s where I started doing stand-up, and did some theatre, and touring and stuff, but I’ve never had a job again.
Susie: It’s worked out quite well then.
Michèle: I really like it. So I work for a whole bunch of different people, I do some radio and I do a little bit of television, and I do a bit of writing, and I do a lot of stand-up, and I do a lot of corporate work, and I have regular clients for voicework. I’m working for dozens of people. And so my theory, touch wood, is that yes you might lose this gig, but you’ve got 12 other gigs.
Susie: So stand-up, how did that start?
Michèle: Oh, I married a dude, and he was from Queenstown. And he didn’t like Wellington, so he moved back to Queenstown and I moved to Queenstown too, see if I could make the marriage work, and I couldn’t. But I got a job in radio, and then developed this gorgeous circle of friends who were all musicians and singers, and started doing shows with them. I can’t sing, and I can’t play an instrument. So I did the talky funny stuff in between bits in shows, and I always wanted to do that. When I was growing up I watched the Carol Burnett show and there’s that bit in her sketch comedy show where she stands with the microphone and the stool and talks to the audience, and I remember as a very young person in the ’70s thinking, ‘I don’t know what that’s called, but I would like to do that. That’s what I want to do, I want to just talk to the audience and make them laugh’. So that’s where that came from.
Susie: Were there many other women on the circuit?
Michèle. No. Well, there wasn’t a circuit. Stand-up didn’t start in New Zealand until ’89, so when I was in Queenstown a few little touring shows of stand-up comedians came through, like Facial DBX and Andrew Kovacevich, and so I started to see people doing the thing I’d seen Carol Burnett doing. And then I moved to Auckland, specifically really, to try and do some stand-up. I also moved to Auckland cause I married another guy, well, didn’t marry him, but we had a child, so I was pregnant in Queenstown and discovered that you’re not allowed to give birth if it’s your first child in Queenstown, you have to go to Invercargill, and I thought, fuck that. So I moved to Auckland.
Susie: So you moved to Auckland, you have a daughter, tell me a little bit about that marriage, how that partnership unravelled.
Michèle: So not long after our daughter was born I found out, discovered, it became clear, that my partner was a drug user. And I’d been, I was so naive, that I hadn’t worked it out. You know you have that kind of feeling that there’s something not quite right, and it turned out that he was a pretty serious drug user. And he talks about that now, and he’s clean now, and we get on incredibly well, but those years in the ’90s were pretty traumatic really. So by the time that I found out that he had a serious drug problem, we already had a child and a house and a mortgage, and my parents had also moved to Auckland and were living in a flat at our house. So it was all very established and intertwined. And so there were some pretty rough years of trying to help him kick the drugs and rehabilitate, and things would go well for a little while, and then they would go really badly. So they were pretty traumatic years and in the end it all fell apart.
Susie: What did you do?
Michèle: I kept the… stayed in the house, and took over the mortgage, and with a lot of help from my parents doing child-care stuff, managed to keep working and keep the house. I’m still in the house now.
Susie: So he was into pretty hard drugs, what was his drug of choice? Or did he just take anything?
Michèle: He would use… he was an intravenous drug user some of the time, and would use heroin if he could. And use any other kind of drugs that might have the same kind of effect.
Susie: How did you find out?
Michèle: It became really obvious.
Susie: How, though? Track marks on his arms?
Michèle: Yes. Blood stains on the inside of the left-hand shirt. I was suspicious, and went to a drug counsellor and said, ‘What are the signs?’ And he listed them and they were all there. But I think he was terrified. I’m speaking for him now which isn’t entirely fair, I think he was terrified of suddenly having a partner and a house and a child. I think that was all just a bit scary, and I don’t think he wanted… I think he wanted to be living somewhere else.
Susie: And how old was your daughter at this point?
Michèle: Oh, this is just after she was born.
Susie: So she’s little, she’s a little baby.
Michèle: Yeah, tiny baby.
Susie: And you realise this is going on.
Susie: How did you cope?
Michèle: Mostly by knuckling down and trying to make enough money to keep us independent. It’s one of the reasons that I will never have a joint account with anybody ever again for the rest of my life. Because money just disappeared. Drugs are very expensive. All of that stuff. A relationship that was falling apart, and terrible financial problems, and just being frightened really. Feeling really unsafe.
Susie: I was just sort of thinking, from your perspective, it’s hard enough when you’ve just had a baby and you’re trying to do something and you’ve no idea what you’re doing, or at least I had no idea what I was doing, and you’re trying to make a situation work that you don’t really know how to make work, and then you have that thrown in as a hell of a thing to deal with in that situation.
Michèle: It was really hard. But I think my response to those kinds of things is always to just…I think there’s a little bit of denial, I’m quite good at that, and I will just keep my nose to the grindstone – oo, I sounded like my mum – and just keep pushing forward and try to make things good. And you know, he would clean up from time to time, so that you’d go, ‘Okay, we’re okay now, everything’s going to be great . And then it would fall apart again. So that was a real roller coaster over those first few years.
Susie: Are you glad you made the decisions you did around that time? Maybe we should stop talking about it.
Michèle: No, it’s good. Yeah. I think that I managed all that in the best way that I possibly could.
Susie: When I first came to New Zealand, about 10 years ago, you were one of the first people that I, you know, you kind of learn the scene or you see people on TV or whatever it might be, and I remember thinking, Why have I never heard of her before? You were obviously doing stand-up comedy at that point, but you weren’t so able to travel, I guess.
Michèle: No, so I was doing stand-up in clubs in Auckland, and I was doing little tours to small towns. I did a lot of work with Mike King, and we would do the Melbourne Comedy Festival a couple of times, and do a lot of touring around the country. Stand-up was how I paid for groceries, basically, and I started doing corporate work parlaying that kind of, I can tell funny stories while doing something serious into corporate work. Doing after dinner speaking and conference MCing and awards night MCing and stuff. So hardly any television at all in the ’90s. So it was mostly live work. And I think also what happens to lots of women when they have children, when a marriage breaks down or when there’s some trauma in a marriage, you lose your voice. You lose your confidence. And I think that happened to me for quite a few years. It wasn’t that I didn’t have things to say, it was that I was afraid of saying them for a little while. Which was amazing, because I’d been a mouthy lippy thing from the moment I was born, and then, yeah, I kind of lost my voice for a little while.
Susie: How did you find it again?
Michèle: By the time the 2000s came around, I started to recover from the anxiety of being in a really complicated relationship, and started to feel really good about the work that I was doing, the writing and the stand-up. So it came back slowly.
Susie: You were a bit of a pioneer in terms of being a female comedian. How do you feel about that terminology? Are you a comedienne?
Michèle: No thank you. I get asked all the time if it’s harder to be a woman doing comedy. How do I know? I’ve never done it as a man. I’ve got nothing to compare it to. So when I started, there was me and Cal Wilson, pretty much, and one of the few comedy producers said to me on the way to a gig once, Mike was in the van, It’s a shame really, cause you’re both really, you and Cal, you’re both really good but there’s only room for one female comedian and she’s the full package, she’s younger and she’s prettier. And I mean, she is fabulous and gorgeous and she’s made a fantastic career in Australia, but the idea that there was only room for one woman, it’s weird being the only woman in the room, for most of your life. It’s one of the reasons I organise a show every year called Feminists Are Funny, so that I get to work with all of these women who, if I’m on the bill they’re not on it, or if they’re on the bill I’m not on it. So even now, it’s still a bit like that.
Susie: I was about to say, is that changing?
Michèle: It is changing. Very slowly. And you know, people still go, ‘if we have too many women on the bill it’ll look like it’s a women’s fundraiser’. It’s like, fuck you can have as many men in goatees as you like, so I don’t know why you’re talking to me. One of the advantages that I had was that when I started it wasn’t just me that was starting. The whole scene was starting. There wasn’t already an organised industry that hadn’t let women into it. There wasn’t an organised industry. So when I started with people like Jeremy Corbett and Paul Ego and then later on Ben Hurley and Dai Henwood and Jeremy Elwood, we were all pioneers. So I experienced almost no sexism from those boys, than I do maybe from younger men now.
Susie: So what happens now?
Michèle: What happens now is that, I think some of the people who are attracted into doing stand-up comedy are entitled young men. The kind of people who will make themselves feel big by making somebody else feel small. So I’m much more aware of sexism from other comedians probably now than I was then.
Susie: So do you think it’s harder for women to get into the scene now?
Michèle: It’s easier in the sense that there are more of them, and they’re organised and supportive, and they talk. If somebody does something that they shouldn’t do in a green room 300 miles away, we’ll know about it within five minutes.
Susie: And has that changed since the 1980s? Where I guess we’re sort of post Me Too era now, but do you look back on some of your professional experience from the ’80s, ’90s, and kind of go, ‘oh my god’?
Michèle. Yeah yeah, I do. Maybe not so much in New Zealand comedy clubs, but in overseas clubs, and corporate events here, I’ve looked back on a couple of experiences that I’ve had here and gone, I don’t know how I got myself through that, and I would never put up with that now.
Susie: What kind of things?
Michèle: So I went into a gig out of town, one of the things about doing corporate work is that you’re on your own, and you are usually going to a venue that you’ve never been to, to meet people you’ve never met, to perform for people that you’ve never met. So you’re surrounded by strangers in an unusual environment. And I arrived at this event out of town, and walked in, and the man who had hired me because he was the head of the organisation, his first words to me were, ‘I used to masturbate while I watched you on What Now, and I still feel that about you, and I know that tonight you’re on 7 Days, so I’m taping that, and when I go home I’ll be able to do that again. So tonight I’ve got three opportunities with you’. And then he took his trousers off, because he had just arrived from work and was changing, ostensibly, into his dinner suit. And I’m alone in a building where I didn’t know anybody. And what I would do now is say to him, ‘This is in appropriate and I’m leaving’, turn around, walk out, drive home. But I didn’t. I went, ‘I’m so sorry to be here while you’re taking your trousers off, I will go away’. And I went downstairs and waited for him to come downstairs, and I did the gig, and he was horrific, double-entendre all the way through the dinner with his wife sitting on the other side of him, and I did my gig, and went back to the motel, and cried all night. And told somebody the next morning that I met for breakfast, a woman who is not a comedian and who is not in my industry, and said, ‘I tell you what happened to me last night, you wouldn’t believe it’. And she just looked at me as if I was insane.
Susie: And when was this, roughly what year?
Michèle: This would be maybe five years ago.
Susie: Oh, this is quite recent even.
Michèle: Yeah. It was about two years before Me Too. Maybe one year before Me Too. Because what that moment in time, the Me Too movement, meant to me, was the discovery that I thought I was the only person that that shit happened to. And when Me Too happened and I’m reading through my Facebook feed and my Twitter feed, and every woman I know is hashtag Me Too, I went, ‘oh my god it’s not just me’. So me keeping silent is a terrible idea. Because I wanted to know about their moments, because it’s not good enough for them, I want to protect them, and then you have that thought of, ‘why is that okay for me to experience that but I feel terrible that they’ve experienced that’?
Susie: Yeah, because the advice that you give yourself in a situation like that is not the advice you would give your friends.
Michèle: No. Exactly.
Susie: But why are we not kind to ourselves in the way that we would be to our friends?
Michèle. And that’s what that moment meant to me. The horror of seeing that these things happen to all of us was overwhelming for me. And do you know what, not long after the beginning of Me Too, that organisation that he is still the… he’s not the president of the branch, he’s now the national president of that organisation, asked me to MC their end of year event. And I said ‘no’, and then I got in touch with the agency that I work through and told them why I said no. Because it struck me then, and I said, ‘look, this is what you need to know happened, and if I were you I would not offer this gig to a woman, but also I feel terrible for having just said that to you. I’ve just missed out on a job, and I’m asking you to not give a job to any other women, because it’s dangerous’. That’s not how this should work.
Susie: Have you ever been in touch with the organisation?
Michèle: No, and I thought about it. I should, shouldn’t I, I should get in touch with the organisation. Shall I do that tomorrow?
Susie: Maybe you should.
Michèle: Perhaps I will.
Susie: So, you do talking, but you do writing as well. Tell me about your books. Can we start with the one about people in love, about couples? Where did you get that idea from?
Michèle: I was on holiday, and some friends who live in Rarotonga, we’ve known them for years, and I said, ‘how did you two meet?’ And they told this amazing story. And I said, ‘I love that story, I love stories like that, I wish I could read a whole book full of stories about how people meet and fall in love’. And they all sort of looked at me and went, ‘well go on then’. And I went, ‘Ah, all right’. So came home and started gathering up those kinds of stories. Cause I just love those, the possibility that you will meet somebody randomly that you could live with for your whole life. I just love those stories.
Susie: What’s the best one you’ve ever heard?
Michèle: My favourite one in the book is about a young woman, she was in her late teens, who went to work on a farm, and fell in love with the farmer. And stayed working there for quite some time, like years on the farm. She went for docking and dagging, and stayed for something more. And they clearly started an affair. And then she got pregnant after about five years maybe, and he… farmers don’t leave farms, they don’t get divorced, right? And he was a Catholic, and his wife, and children, and blah blah blah. So she went, she left with the baby, and they lost touch. And then when the daughter was about 12, she wanted to find out who her father was. Coincidentally at exactly the same time he wanted to find out what had happened to his daughter. They managed to connect. Before this young woman would let her daughter meet her father, she thought she better meet him again just to see how the land lay. By this time he was divorced. They met each other. They fell madly in love. They’ve been married for about 20 years now. I love that story. And they got married, he moved in, finished off the last years of raising this child. They now, as it happens, live in two houses on one piece of land. So the daughter and her husband and child live in one house, and the farmer and the farmhand live in the other house. It’s the best story. It’s gorgeous, ay.
Susie: How many books have you written now?
Michèle: Just the two. Just the two.
Susie: Well there’ll be more?
Michèle: Yeah there will. There will. It’s quite hard work, and there’s no money in it, and I’ve been really busy with family stuff for the last couple of years. So I’m just taking a break. I’ve given myself until June 2020 to work out what the next chapter of my life looks like. But there might be a book in it.
Susie: What else might there be in it?
Michèle: A lot of travel. That’s my thing now. I just want to see more and more of the world.
Susie: Travel for fun?
Michèle: Yeah, travel for fun. There’s some bits of Europe that I haven’t seen yet, and I need to spend more time in New Orleans drinking bloody marys and eating jambalaya and listening to jazz. Eventually I’d quite like to buy an uninsurable apartment in the French Quarter and just do voodoo and drink.
Susie: Sign me up Michèle. That’s comedian, writer and all round Brazen babe Michèle A‘Court. If you’re not already subscribed to Brazen, why not? Do it now. come on. Because that way fresh episodes will appear in your podcast app the moment they’re available. And you can also listen right now to the next episode of Brazen where we speak with US activist and mother asha bandele. She co-wrote the book ‘When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matters memoir’.
asha: We’re the survivors of people who were marched, literally barefoot, thousands of miles from an inland to a Ghanaian coastline, athen survived months in dungeons. And then got here, and survived plantations, and we’re their children.
Susie: Brazen is hosted by me, Susie Ferguson. It was created by me, Lou O’Reilly, Vic MacLennan, and Dave Cormack. Brazen is produced and edited by Melody Thomas. Our engineers are William Saunders and John Pilley. The theme is Be Who You Are by Edie. Artwork by Pepper Raccoon, and transcriptions done by Emma Hart. Ka kite anō