On words, comedy, and community - Regional News | Connecting Wellington
 Issue 219

On words, comedy, and community by Madelaine Empson

Stand-up comedian and MC Jerome Chandrahasen is the co-founder and head of Humorous Arts Trust, which organises the Wellington RAW Comedy Quest every year alongside a slew of regularly scheduled comedy shows across Pōneke and beyond, including Raw Meat Monday and the beloved Laughs series. If you haven’t caught him on stage yet, you may recognise Chandrahasen from his time as the only featured extra on TVNZ’s Wellington Paranormal, where he played a ghost from the 70s disco era, a hapless Tawa Mall manager who accidentally booked Satan instead of Santa, and one part of a large, congealed blob of fat that suddenly became sentient in Wellington’s sewers.

“Being covered in gloop at three in the morning up at the Wrights Hill Fortress in the tunnels where they were filming the scene... I never would have thought I’d be in this position when I started in comedy”, Chandrahasen laughs. “But there I was with a bunch of adults playing silly buggers. It’s been quite a journey.”

I caught up with Chandrahasen to talk about the local scene and his many appearances in the upcoming NZ International Comedy Festival, including his solo show On Words at Te Auaha from the 7th to the 11th of May.

How did you get into comedy and what keeps you there?

It is entirely James Nokise’s fault. We went to high school together and we shared some classes in uni, and he started going along to The Wellington Comedy Club, which was run by Ben Hurley back then. One day, he said, ‘You should give comedy a go’ and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll think about it’. Before I knew it, he’d already signed me up, so I just had to turn up and do it. It was just through peer pressure [laughs]. What’s kept me in it? It’s such a silly way to be an adult. You just stand on stage and you say things and people laugh. Being able to do that for the past, how long has it been now, 20 years? It’s just so much fun.

Thanks James Nokise! How do you think your comedy stylings have evolved from that first gig till now?

I was very joke heavy when I started. I was very ‘set up, punch line’ and basically just did one-liners. Back then I was very, very nervous. I wouldn’t even talk to anybody before the gig. The Wellington Comedy Club was at San Fran, and at the interval I used to walk down the stairs and walk around the block twice – that’s when I knew the second half would have started so I didn’t have to talk to anybody during the break. I think now I’ve certainly become a lot more comfortable and relaxed on stage, a lot more conversational, and I do enjoy engaging the audience a lot more.

What made you take the leap to pursuing comedy full time? I read something about you dropping out of your honours degree in linguistics...

[Laughs.] I got three quarters of the way through my honours degree. I had one more paper to do, and then I got the most random phone call from someone who saw my picture in The Hutt News. This was in 2009. They said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for someone to perform in this television ad. Can I be your agent?’ I said, ‘Sure’. But I didn’t know what they meant. The next thing I knew, I got this audition and a feature part in an ad for – you might remember it – Fatso, an online DVD rental company that now no longer exists. I was the second main actor in that series of ads. That was enough money for me to pay the rent, and then try and make comedy work.

What have been some of the highlights of the journey so far?

Performing at The Opera House for the Best Foods Comedy Gala. Performing on my first and only ever TV spot for stand-up comedy on a show with Rhys Darby and Ewen Gilmour at the SkyCity Theatre. This is when I had just started out in comedy. They flew me out to Auckland, and they put me up at the SkyCity Hotel. I’ll always remember checking in. They said, ‘Do you have a credit card?’ and I said, ‘Oh, no I don’t.’ So, they said, ‘Do you have a $100 deposit for the room?’ My account was in overdraft and I literally couldn’t check into the hotel. The producer of the show had to come down to the foyer of the hotel and pay the $100 deposit so I could stay in the room. This big opportunity, and I was still really broke. What a gig that was with those legends. That was really special.

I love it. You’re an integral cog in the Wellington comedy machine. What does your day to day look like?

We set up the Humorous Arts Trust in 2010, which is one of the other reasons I’ve been able to keep doing comedy for so long. I’ve been working as a producer as well. The day to day: it’s a lot of complying with your requirements under the charities act and paying taxes and applying for grants. There’s a lot of engaging with city councils, Creative New Zealand, sponsors, and just trying to get by as an artist, because ticket sales only get you so far. We always have to find other ways of resourcing what we do. It’s an interesting challenge, especially the sponsorship stuff. The team at Cameron Harrison Butchery sponsor the Raw Meat Monday meat raffle, so every Monday, we’re selling raffle tickets. You’ve got to be creative, you’ve got to be innovative. We’ve got away with it for 14 years, so I think we’re doing okay.

You’ve got a busy month coming up with the NZ International Comedy Festival!

I’ve got my solo show called On Words, which is just some fun stories about growing up and about language that I tie in with what I learned from my old, partly completed linguistics degree. I’m also a part of The Comedy Mixtape [on the 21st of May at Te Auaha], which is a showcase run by The New Zealand Comedy Trust highlighting people of colour in comedy. I’m emceeing one of the late shows [Late Laughs at The Fringe Bar on the 24th of May], which are always wild. I really encourage people to go check those shows out, comedians just cut loose. And I’m going to be in the Best Foods Comedy Gala in Auckland and Wellington as well.

And On Words is your eighth solo show as part of the festival?

I think so! It’s been a few years since I’ve been in it. The last one I did was Five Fun Facts about Fajitas. Or was it Five Fun Facts about Falcons? I did a series, Five Fun Facts about Finland, then falcons, then fajitas. So, I actually can’t remember, but it’s always fun to be a part of it, and it’s great seeing the other performers and just getting the chance to hang out backstage or in green rooms, because it can get kinda lonely just sitting at home in your office tapping away. It’s quite nice to get out and get amongst people too.

Will you have any time to get out and about amongst the festival and see some shows yourself?

I really hope so. I always love supporting the local performers. Patch Lambert – I really want to see his solo show. And then the classics, Lesa [MacLeod-Whiting] and Gabby [Anderson] are always really good fun. Samantha Hannah is great.

Our comedy scene here is really thriving. What do you think already rocks and what more would you like to see?

I would love Wellington just to have a regular weekend gig, just a classic Friday Laughs with an MC and some acts on the same day every week. We’ve never been able to quite make it work, so I’d love to see it happen maybe later in the year. I think our open mic scene is really strong. People like Neil Thornton play such a big part in bringing new performers through from lots of different backgrounds. His New Zealand Comedy School has been a really welcome addition to not just Wellington, but the New Zealand scene in general. There’s a really good-natured vibe at the moment. People are really positive. They’ve always got things to work towards. And there’s some really fun gigs that are happening just outside of Wellington. It’s really important that we get out there to places like Featherston and Carterton and Petone and perform to those audiences out there too.

Do you have any words of wisdom that you’d like to leave us with?

Comedy can have a message, but it can also be silly. It’s just fun to be in a roomful of strangers and to have a shared experience. So, pick a show and just give it a go.

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