10 Apr 2015

The reluctant performer

8:48 am on 10 April 2015

The poster for comedian and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ actor Cori Gonzalez-Macuer’s latest show reads: “Cori’s reluctance to accept a career in entertainment has made him the performer he is today.”

I read the sentence out to him.

“Aw, yep,” he replies.

Who wrote that, then?

He did.

“That was probably when I was still deciding whether or not I wanted to be a comedian,” says Cori.

For some performers, incredible talent sometimes comes with a degree of uncertainty about whether or not they’re happy they were landed with it. For a while, Cori’s relationship with his comedic abilities was so conflicted that it actually became part of the act.

“It did work sometimes, cos I’d go up on stage and people would be like, ‘He really doesn’t want to be there,’ and that was kind of like my character, I guess,” he says.

The Billy T Award-winning comedian has TV credits including Seven Days and Pulp Comedy to his name. But he only got back into stand-up again last year after three years away from the stage, and in his words, “Now it’s a little bit not as depressing.”

“I like it again; I like doing comedy now. Like, I’m actually trying to put on good shows. Even if I’m just doing a five minute spot somewhere, I still want to make every spot really good, and I never used to even care.

“I used to just go there [comedy shows] to go out afterwards, kind of thing.”

Why would you put yourself through the vulnerability and terror of live comedy, then? Surely if you’re only there for the “going out” bit, you could just go to the pub without all the drama?

Cori shakes his head. “That’s what I still can’t figure out after, like, 10 years or however long. I don’t think any comedian can really figure that out.

“I just think, once you do it, you just want to – even if your heart’s not really into it, you just want to go out there, because you know that you can do it, and you’re not that bad at it. You still just want to go out there and do something.”

It seems like in the past year, Cori’s started to get a sense for where his “not that bad” comedy could take him. His star turn as the newly-turned and over-excited vampire Nick in Taiki Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s mockumentary ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ has generated a lot of overseas interest.

Making What We do in the Shadows is one of the best jobs Cori Gonzalez-Macuer can remember

Making What We do in the Shadows is one of the best jobs Cori Gonzalez-Macuer can remember Photo: Supplied

And talking about it makes Cori effusive, or at least as effusive as his quiet, dry manner allows for. “It was awesome,” he says. “Probably one of the best jobs that I’ve done, that I can remember.”

Suddenly, due to the film’s success overseas, a trip to the States was in the offing, with opportunities for him to perform and network for people who could send his career stratospheric.

“The stand-up shows were pretty good,” he says, of his performances in the States, “And I was over there for the premiere of [What We Do in the] Shadows. Things just kind of went from there.

“Every week something different would start happening. I’d do a show, and someone would come to the show, and I’d get something else from there. Just trying to network as much as possible, doing as many shows as possible, and just setting up contacts for when I was next going to come back.”

He mostly found audiences in the States through people who’d seen ‘Shadows’ –who came to his solo shows expecting to see the same super-dry brand of kiwi comedy made famous by the movie, and by ‘Flight of the Conchords’ before it.

“I pretty much just play myself [in the film]. But not as much of a dick,” Cori says. “So a lot of people knew it’d be something like that.”

He found the Los Angeles comedy scene more alternative than anything he’d seen in New Zealand.

I pretty much just play myself. But not as much of a dick. So a lot of people knew it’d be something like that.

“No jokes that you’d see on the back of a packet of chips or that someone would write on the toilet,” was his assessment.

But he thinks other New Zealand comedians would “smash it completely” in that climate, and there’s a lot of interest around him going back next February as well for what’s known as ‘pilot season’ – when pilot episodes of new TV shows are pitched to the networks, and actors audition for and film roles in the successful ones.

While Cori’s excited about the possibilities, there are aspects of the US comedy scene that he can’t resist poking a bit of fun at.

“I had a lot of meetings,” he says, of the TV network schmoozing (he got interest from CBS). “The meetings would be about what the next meeting would be about, and it’d just go like that… Pretty much every stereotype you can think about is true.

“There’s like, agents and TV execs at comedy gigs… And everyone’s talking about their development deals that they have, backstage, and everybody’s got something going on – but at the same time, they don’t really.”

Cori’s reflections on that culture make up a big part of his show for this year’s New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Titled White Background, Confused Face (a bit of a piss-take of the standard comedy show poster format), the show’s based on the lives of comedians he met in the States.

Basically every comedian cliché, he says, is real over there.

“You have people like, waiting for other comedians after shows to talk about development deals, and in the green room there’s comedians talking about that kind of stuff.”

READ: Adam Goodall interviews Cori Gonzalez-Macuer on the release of WWDITS.

In such a cut-throat environment, it sounds like there’s no room for reluctance about pushing yourself forward. But it seems that these days, Cori’s only uncertainty is about whether his infamous guitar playing (using a full range of three chords) from previous years will make an appearance in this show.

“Hopefully some more music that I’ll be trying to play,” he says, “But I don’t know how that’ll go. So actually, I’m not promising music.”

And none of his trademark anger at the world. “For some reason not this year.”

“Like, a couple of years ago I did a whole show about things that I hate. That’s what it was called, Things I Hate.

“People will freak out [this year] if I go out there and just talk about how happy things are.”

All’s not lost though - he also promises a journey “from hedonism to depression”, with some multimedia, personal material, and that endless reservoir of “stories from people who’ve been drunk that I’ve seen.”

Cori attended his first-ever stand-up show as a university theatre student, when he went to watch a gig with now-established Wellington comedian James Nokise, and thought he could do it too.

Shortly after that he entered, and won, an open-mic competition run by Ben Hurley, and “was stuck with it from then on.” He says that with a laugh, like he’s not sure he minds the fact as much as he used to.

He was a mild-mannered kid who never did drama at high school; in fact, he was a “pretty quiet” and well-behaved soccer player. His friends from back then are surprised by the turn his life has taken.

“They say they don’t think they heard me say a single word in high school.”

An unlikely career, then, but as an American TV exec has probably already said to him in a green room somewhere, “Watch this space.”