Sparking joy with laughter by Madelaine Empson
Dai Henwood can remember making people laugh when he was about five. He doesn’t remember what he said or did, just the feeling of sparking joy with laughter. He says he’s been a bit of a clown, and bit of a performer, ever since. To this I’d add, and a beloved one at that! The face of such Kiwi TV staples as Family Feud and Dancing with the Stars, and most recently Lego Masters, Dai has been a team captain and series regular on Three’s hit comedy gameshow 7 Days for the past 13 years.
Last year, COVID-19 squeezed the show’s stars into Perspex boxes and saw the cancellation of their annual tour. This June, seven comedians – host Jeremy Corbett, Paul Ego, Justine Smith, Josh Thomson, Laura Daniel, Ben Hurley, and Dai – will finally take to the road, performing 7 Days Live at the Michael Fowler Centre on the 18th at 7:30pm.
I caught up with Dai, who was born to legendary Kiwi actor Ray Henwood and Judge Carolyn Henwood, both of whom were founding members of Circa Theatre, to chat about the show and more.
Did growing up in a theatrical family help to foster your love of performing arts?
Oh, absolutely. I grew up [in] pretty much a mixture of Circa Theatre and Avalon Studios in Lower Hutt, where Dad was either performing live shows or recording the TV show Gliding On. Gliding On would go to air, then before school, I’d get up at 6am and watch VHSes of Dad performing because I just loved comedy and I loved performance. It’s always been part of my life and something I want to do. Being able to bring entertainment and laughter to people is the skill I have and it’s something I look at as a blessing, and I’ve been able to make a career out of it.
Is it the buzz of making people laugh that keeps you in the comedy game?
Yeah. I must say I went through a period where I suppose I was thinking a bit more deeply about why I’m doing this. I have mates who are doctors or surgeons, these people who are doing these amazing things. And then I was doing a stand-up gig, just a gig in a pub. Afterwards, this woman came up to me and said, ‘A month or so ago my husband passed away, and I just want to say I loved your show tonight because when I laughed it just took me completely out of anything’. There’s laughter that’s like a complete shock response. When you’re honestly laughing you are releasing endorphins and forgetting about the hard things that you may be going through. When she said that to me, that actually changed my perspective and made me double down on really wanting to invest my time in comedy. It buoyed my spirit and helped her for a small amount of time.
What made you somewhat segue into being a TV presenter?
New Zealand’s a small market; to be a performer, to work in the arts, you have to have more than one string to your bow. In a country like America or Britain, you could just be a stand-up comic and you could earn enough money. I’d always had a little bit of a bug of wanting to get on TV. I got on C4 Music TV back in the day, doing an outrageous show where we’d play music videos and then I did bizarre interviews and skits in between. That kicked me off. I started doing comedy travel shows on C4, then I moved to 7 Days. Then the opportunity of Family Feud came up and I was in two minds about that. I was like, ‘I’m sort of this late-night loose comic, is that my brand, is that my thing?’ And then I went actually, it’s a real challenge, doing comedy at 5:30, doing a game show – something I’d love to chuck my hand at. I did and I was really proud of what I did there. One of the biggest joys of my career is being able to chat to everyday Kiwis, and doing Family Feud and Lego Masters has sort of done that. I really enjoy just making good TV and working with talented people.
Speaking of good TV, 7 Days holds a really special place in the hearts of many Kiwis, myself included. What do you think makes it so great?
What makes it amazing is its ability to shift yet remain the same. We started off as a more late-night edgy comedy show. Over the years, the show matured in a way, people matured, our viewers changed. It always made me pretty stoked when we’d meet people and they’d go, ‘On Friday nights the kids stay up and we have a couple of drinks and some pizza or whatever and we all watch it together’. I think why it kept a place in people’s hearts is that you have a lot of the familiar all mixed up with new people, different news stories, what’s going on in the week. Even more recently there’s been a big reshuffle with it, it’s moved earlier to 7:30 and that’s proving to work. It’s something I've poured 13 years of weekly work into and I just love it. I’m so proud of it.
Out of Jeremy Corbett and Paul Ego, who is clearly the best and the most superior and the coolest?
Out of the three of us, we’d all agree that Paul probably makes us laugh the most. Paul is definitely the superior when it comes to just straight up riffing. Jeremy would tell you he’s the coolest. He’s the kind of guy who likes to make up nicknames for himself. He honestly tried to tell us that his brothers and his family have started calling him Jack Knife, and they definitely haven’t been. Jeremy has the cool factor because he’s effortlessly his own person. He doesn’t bow to what other people want or anything. He’s a mate and a colleague, but he’s also someone who I take a lot of life lessons from.
That was a joke question but I love that you answered it so thoughtfully!
My family will tell you I’m actually quite quiet and serious off TV, even though I love mucking around, and people sometimes get a bit of a surprise that I’m a bit more thoughtful!
Looking back over those 13 years on set, what would be your favourite story?
What always comes to mind is we played a game very regularly called Yes Minister. We had good ol’ Tim Shadbolt, a Kiwi legend, and we said to him, ‘You’ve just gotta push your chair out, you can do whatever you want with it. You can sort of do a funny roll on it’. And he dove on it, full Superman style, and smashed into the set, knocking over all the panels of the desk. He’s not a young man. We were quite concerned he may have done himself damage, but he just hopped up with a glint in his lovely smile and carried on. That always stuck with me because it’s an example of how beautiful New Zealand is that we’ve got these crazy politicians and yet they’re so accessible.
The 7 Days Live tour is starting soon. What is the snack of choice for the great Kiwi road trip?
The principle is trying not to put on five kgs which always happens on tour. Everyone starts quite good, but then once we get onto the leg where we’re driving, there’s always the stop, there's always the pie, there’s usually the donut. You know, the classic New Zealand pie-donut bakery combo.
Amazing. And you've got seven comedians with you in the same vehicle the whole time?
Yes, we do. We all either fly together in small planes or wind our way around. We all get along. Justine Smith who’s on the tour, she’s one of my best mates and she was actually my best man at my wedding. Paul and I holiday with Corbett and [Ben] Hurley. The comedy community in New Zealand is a real family. Sure people have little fallings out here and there, but we’re all mates. This tour especially has a vibe about it, because no one’s travelled, no one’s gigged. In our little group chat there’s just so much excitement.
For our readers who don’t know, could you please explain the interesting format of 7 Days Live?
So the first half is basically the best stand-up comedy gala you’re gonna get of local talent. Everyone comes out to do short sets of seven to 10 minutes. It’s an explosion of amazing stand-up comedy. Then we have a quick break and we come back and we do an hour of no-holds-barred 7 Days. It’s not being filmed for TV, so people can say anything, do anything.
Why do you think Wellington audiences in particular should come along?
I’m massively biased being a Wellingtonian. But the Wellington show, ever since our first tour, has always been such a destination for the comics because the crowd is one of the noisiest. It’s so warm. To take part in it as an audience member as well as a performer is something to behold. So if you want a real treat, if you want to see your town on display in the best possible way, come check it out.