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How Urzila Carlson turns dark moments into funny stories

How Urzila Carlson turns dark moments into funny stories
09 Apr
12:05

TheMelbComedyFest / YouTube

Urzila Carlson discusses the perils of a pap smear at this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival.

Like many stand-up comedians, Urzila Carlson draws heavily upon her own life for her material. Unlike many stand-up comedians, she’s got plenty of material to draw upon.

The 42-year-old South African-born, Auckland-based lesbyterian (her word) mother-of-two would probably have enough to work on in that description alone to generate a couple of hours worth of bits.

Throw in a white-trash childhood, a drunken violent father, growing up in the same middle-of-nowhere town as Charlize Theron, and the odd brush with near-death experiences back home and it’s not hard to see why she’s on her way to becoming one of the more popular performers on the international comedy circuit.

Urzila Carlson says it took her until she was 26 years old to come out to her mother.

Urzila Carlson says it took her until she was 26 years old to come out to her mother.

She’s biggest in Australia, where she is a regular on Have You Been Paying Attention and Hughesy, We Have a Problem, and in New Zealand, where she’s a semi-regular on 7 Days, but her comedy travels well enough that she’s played Edinburgh, London, Montreal, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, too.

“If you do five minutes as an opener about wherever you are, then you can do anything,” Carlson says. “Just to show you give a s…”

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She doesn’t talk about her children by name, on stage or in our two-hour chat over lunch, because “that’s not mine to give away. Once I’ve cracked that, how do I put the genie back in the bottle?” But pretty much everything else is fair game.

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She’s married with two children, and that’s relatable to a lot of people, she says; it doesn’t seem to matter to her audience that her partner is a woman. Not now, at least.

But when she started out, “I would wait to tell them I was a lesbian, otherwise that’s all they’d think about. There’s so much research they can do online…

“I don’t have a lot of gay material,” she adds, “but I would just not say ‘my wife’.”

Urzila Carlson is a regular guest on the Australian TV show Hughesy, We Have a Problem.

Urzila Carlson is a regular guest on the Australian TV show Hughesy, We Have a Problem.

A couple of years ago in Malaysia, where homosexuality is a criminal offence, she found herself once again skirting the issue like she did in her early days of performing.

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“In the lead-up I was thinking, ‘You’re not telling me what I can and can’t say’, but then the Malaysian royal family turned up, and I thought, ‘I’m going straight as possible’,” she says. “But I’ve never lied. I’ve never said ‘my husband’.”

It took Carlson until she was 26 to come out to her mother. In fact, she says, “My mum kind of came out for me.

“She worked for this vet, and he had three sons and one of them came out. She said to me, ‘Do you know how Dr Andy knew his son was gay? The son phoned his dad and said, ‘Dad, I’m gay’. And now he’s gay.’

“I said, ‘I think it was more than just the phone call’.

“She said, ‘If I had to find out like that that one of my kids was gay, I wouldn’t mind. I would be happy to get that phone call at work. Tomorrow morning’.

“The next morning I phoned her at work. I said, ‘Ah…’ And she said, ‘I knew it!’.”

Carlson tells a version of the same story in her memoir Rolling With the Punchlines, but she still makes it seem fresh when she shares it with me. Maybe that’s because her approach to comedy is to imagine it’s a chat, not a show.

Urzila Carlson will perform her latest show Loser in Wellington and Auckland next month as part of the NZ Comedy Festival.

Urzila Carlson will perform her latest show Loser in Wellington and Auckland next month as part of the NZ Comedy Festival.

“Regardless of the size of the crowd, I feel like I’m genuinely just having a conversation with them,” she says. “I feel like I’m at a barbecue with all my mates and just talking s…”

A barbecue where no one else can get a word in?

“Exactly,” she says. “That’s exactly like a  barbecue at my place!”

Carlson didn’t start in comedy until she was 32.

TV3

7 Days have battled Jono and Ben on All Star Family Feud twice before, with both sides tasting victory and defeat.

Before that, she worked as a typesetter in newspapers in South Africa for 12 years, then, after moving to New Zealand in 2006, as a graphic designer in advertising.

It was when she was leaving one agency for another that she got her first “break” in the comedy scene; her workmates, long impressed by her joking around in the office, drafted a contract in which she would agree to perform at an open-mic comedy night. She signed and in March 2008 she took the stage for the first time.

What did you feel up there?

“Terror. It was absolute terror,” she says. “I nearly broke the mic stand, I was holding on to it so tight.

“I remember my first proper kiss, my leg wouldn’t stop shaking; the same happened with comedy. That’s only happened twice in my life: my first pash, and my first time on stage.”

So, the Earth moved for you in both instances?

“Well, with both I thought, ‘I like this. I’ll probably do this again’.”

Urzila Carlson will resume hostilities with Guy Williams when the Jono and Ben team take on a 7 Days quartet on All Star ...

Urzila Carlson will resume hostilities with Guy Williams when the Jono and Ben team take on a 7 Days quartet on All Star Family Feud later this month.

That first gig, the audience was stacked with soon-to-be-former workmates; for the second, she didn’t tell a soul she was doing it because she wanted to see if she could actually make a bunch of strangers laugh. She could, and she was hooked.

These days, she works six days a week, doing TV, stand-up and corporate gigs.

She makes a good living, but says the life can be surprisingly lonely. “They don’t book me and five of my closest friends to do a corporate gig, so I’m always on the road by myself,” she says.

Urzila Carlson has been a regular fixture on 7 Days for many years now.

Urzila Carlson has been a regular fixture on 7 Days for many years now.

She has friends on the circuit, but she still feels, after a decade of performing, like a newcomer.

“You know when a group of friends is walking in the mall, and one doesn’t quite fit, they’re one step off? That’s me. It’s not awkward, I just don’t fit in.”

She misses South Africa, though she couldn’t live there – especially with young children – because of the crime. She went back last year for the first time since emigrating and it felt weird. “It had gone downhill so fast. It was like when you see a good friend who’s been drinking hard. It’s not in a good way.”

Urzila Carlson released her memoir Rolling with the Punchlines in 2016.

MAHVASH ALI/FAIRFAX NZ

Urzila Carlson released her memoir Rolling with the Punchlines in 2016.

Not that it was in such great shape when she left, either.

Over the years she’d been car-jacked while waiting at traffic lights, she’d suffered a home invasion, she’d been forced to lie on the ground while men with AK47s looted her workplace. And yet somehow she could hear other people’s tales of woe – being shot, friends being murdered – and imagine she was lucky not to have been affected.

Maybe it was that strange ability to disconnect that explains her response when she and her workmates were stripped to their underwear and told to lie on the floor while the machine-gun wielding bandits made off with everything they could carry.

Urzila Carlson has established a reputation as being tough enough to take some of the worst things that have ever ...

Urzila Carlson has established a reputation as being tough enough to take some of the worst things that have ever happened to her and make them part of her show.

What went through your mind while that was happening? Did you think you were a goner?

“No. I didn’t think of anything,” she says. “People talk about seeing their lives flash before their eyes but I had nothing, mine was just white noise. I was not a hero, not a coward, I just lay on the floor and did nothing. My leg didn’t even shake.”

Remarkably, it wasn’t that experience that prompted her to get the hell out of a country that was rapidly going to hell in a hand basket. It was the home invasion years later. Well, that and something she read in a child’s schoolbook.

“My girlfriend at the time had a six-year-old son and in the back of his book it had the rules: don’t bring a gun to school, don’t rape your classmates.” Yep. You can see how that might do it.

She’s had no shortage of dark moments, but Carlson has a knack for turning them into funny stories. It’s a survivor’s skill, as is the trick of identifying an aspect of yourself that a bully might see as a weakness, and getting in there first (a trait that has served as many a comedian’s entry point to the trade).

She uses it, too, she says, though adds: “I was never really bullied as a child. Someone would say, ‘You’re fat’ and I’d say, ‘Really? No s…’. And that would just defuse the situation.”

Her grandmother used to arm her with comebacks; now she’s schooling her four-year-old daughter in the same approach.

“We can eliminate bullying by owning all your shit whenever you meet someone new,” she says. “If you’ve got a tail, be proud of that tail. As soon as you meet someone, say ‘I’ve got a tail’. If they say to you six months later, ‘Hey, you’ve got a tail’, say, ‘I know, I told you’. That way, they can’t hurt you.”

I find it hard to imagine anyone hurting Carlson too much. She may not be indestructible, but she’s certainly tough. Tough enough to take the worst thing that’s happened to her and make it part of her show.

In October 2015, she and her wife Julie (who was pregnant with their second child) had a miscarriage. In her 2017 show Unacceptable, she addressed it directly.

“The first time I did it I choked up, I had to take a bit of a drinks break,” she says.

“I didn’t try to make it funny. I was talking about everything I find unacceptable, from turmeric lattes to bad body odour and the way people behave at the top of escalators. And then I talked about the miscarriage, just factual, it happens to one in four pregnancies. I said I find it unacceptable that we don’t support each other with the tough stuff – if it doesn’t look good on Facebook, we don’t discuss it.” 

Stand-up remains her first love, Carlson says, because the response is so direct, so immediate.

She can still recall the thrill of playing to 20 people in a tiny room at the Forum in Melbourne (where she’s currently performing in a 480-seat room, six nights a week, for four weeks at the annual Melbourne International Comedy Festival). She still likes to hand out flyers on the street because it feels like she’s “hunting” for fresh meat, people who don’t know her and need to be persuaded to come to her shows.

In fact, if there’s one downside to becoming successful in comedy, it’s in not knowing if you can trust the audience to be honest in their response.

“If I have a new joke, they laugh at it, and I wonder, ‘Was it funny, or is it because you know me?’,” she says.

“That was part of the joy for me of Edinburgh, London, South Africa and Canada. They don’t know me. So if I go out and tell a joke and it works, I know they’re laughing because it’s funny.

“They have a good time, I have a good time. It’s great.”

As part of the NZ Comedy Festival, Urzila Carlson will perform Loser at Auckland’s Sky City Theatre (May 4 and 5) and Wellington’s Te Auaha – Tapere Nui (May 8 to 13). For more information, comedyfestival.co.nz

 – The Age

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