Comedian Urzila Carlson has learnt to deal with difficult things by laughing about them, her new book, Rolling with the Punchlines, tells her life story from a difficult South African childhood to an accidental career in comedy.
In it she describes her childhood in South Africa, being raised by her mother after her alcoholic father walked out on the family.
“There was no animosity, there was no anger or anything. I just felt sad for him that he had wasted a great opportunity and his life. We were never close. He was somebody I knew of, but I didn’t know him.”
At school, Carlson was the class clown.
“It didn’t matter if there was one person in the audience or 30 in the classroom. I would never want to teach a kid like me, because I never kept quiet.”
When she was in her early 20s, doctors found a cancerous cyst on her kidney that was so aggressive that it grew 8 cm in two days. Surgeons removed the cyst that very day. Going through the ordeal caused Carlson to rethink how she was living her life.
“I thought, I have to come out of the closet, I can’t be one of those people. When it turned out that they got all of cancer out, I thought I could wait a few years and I waited six years.”
In the end, it was her mother – who she describes as a strong, warrior woman – who came out for her.
Carlson says her mother said to her: “If I had to get a phone call like that from one of my kids, I would be happy. I would be proud to receive a phone call like that.”
Her mother ended the call by booking in a time for the conversation.
“Tomorrow morning, at 7am.”
The next morning, her mother texted her. “I got a text: ‘I’m at the office, I’m ready’. At quarter past I called her.”
Her mother’s response was to ask why Carlson hadn’t told her years ago about her sexuality.
Later a frightening experience got her thinking about the possibility of leaving South Africa.
She describes it as “the cricket bat incident”.
Warned by a neighbour that someone was breaking into her home through the kitchen window, Carlson raced downstairs to scare the assailant off, armed with her cricket bat as a weapon.
“You just protect yourself with whatever you have closest, if I had a stronger hairbrush, I would have taken that,” she says.
Then, while sitting at the traffic lights in her car in the months following the break in, she noticed an ad in the newspaper on the seat next to her.
“It said ‘Do you want to emigrate?’ and the second line was ‘Why not New Zealand?’ and I couldn’t think of a single reason why not.”
After a viewing of Whale Rider for research, Carlson arrived in the country three months later.
She found a job in advertising shortly after her arrival and it was while she was there that her colleague Leon Fisk encouraged her to get into stand-up.
“He used to say, ‘You have to do stand-up comedy, you’re really good at that,’ and I said, ‘You’re out of your mind. That’s public speaking, no one wants to do that.’”
A secret booking was made, forcing her to piece together a five minute show.
It was only the next day when she received a call from the bar owner asking her to return that Carlson realised Leon had secretly entered her into the Raw Comedy Quest, a competition in the lead up to the Comedy Festival.
A teacher had once taught a young Carlson that there was no greater waste of time than regret, and it was these words that sustained her when she decided to continue with comedy.
“I don’t believe in wasting opportunities.”
Within three years she was a regular on TV3’s 7 Days and had won Best Female comedian four years in a row. These days her comedy festival shows regularly sell out, both here and in Australia.
Carlson does not pick on her audience and avoids the more taboo subjects in her shows.
“I don’t talk about abuse or rape that will take people to their darkest corner. You don’t want that. If you just keep things above board then no one gets hurt.”
Over the years she has learnt to ignore the trolls, despite receiving her fair share of hate online.
“Normally I don’t interact with them. I just let them have their moment. You must be in a very dark moment if you’re at home and you say, ‘I could spend time with my kids, but no, I am going to email this person and rip them apart.’”
Recently, Carlson and her wife had their first son; a brother for their four-year-old daughter. The couple have also experienced the devastating loss of a miscarriage and she describes the pregnancy as “very stressful”.
“Every day, that’s all you think about it. It was like a haircut when you go from long hair to short hair, you’re always aware of it. This pregnancy was the same. We were always aware of it, right until he was born.”
She says the experience of going through a miscarriage helped to reinforce her belief that it is always better to share life’s hardships with those around you, saying she doesn’t like to hide things.
“When we came out and said that we had lost a baby, all of these people came out of the woodwork, people in our family, and said, ‘We did too’, and we had no idea. These are people I have known for 20-odd years. It was never talked about.
“I think you do have to talk about everything."