Kiwi as

It would be hard to find someone more ‘kiwi as’ than a half Maori, half Scots who said of himself, “Half of me wants to go to the pub and get pissed, and the other half doesn’t want to pay for it.” Quote.

Billy T Jameswas a Kiwi entertainment icon, known to thousands of New Zealanders for his many television and stage appearances, plus the role of a crazed M?ori-Mexican bandito in movie Came a Hot Friday. A gifted impressionist, his affectionate and oft-debated portraits of M?ori (and many other nationalities) stretched the boundaries of Kiwi comedy. His trademark giggle is embedded in the country’s popular culture; nearly half the respondents in a 2009 Listener poll voted him our greatest local comedian.

Billy grew up as William James Te Wehi Taitoko, first in the Waikato town of Leamington, then in Whangarei. At high school he sang and played guitar in a band. Popular for drawing caricatures of his teachers, Billy began an apprenticeship as a signwriter after leaving school.

In his mid 20s he was invited to join showband the M?ori Volcanics, and was soon performing around the world, echoing the path of entertainers John Rowles and Frankie Stevens. He quickly showed his skills as impressionist, comedian, guitarist and saxophone-player. While living in Australia Billy went solo, dropping his Taitoko surname, and rearranging his birth names to “something the Aussies could pronounce”. […]

Watching Billy win over a drunken, rowdy sports club crowd in 1978, TV producer Tom Parkinson was astonished by his timing and talent. Billy had sung occasionally on TV’s The Ray Woolf Show; Parkinson felt there was a lot more he could bring to the medium. […]

The first of six seasons of sketch comedy programme The Billy T James Show debuted in July 1981, with echoes of Radio Times’ music hall style. Billy’s co-stars included his Radio sidekick Laurie Dee, and veteran comic Doug Aston. The same year, the trio were invited to perform a sketch at the Royal Variety Concert. […]

When the second season of The Billy T James Show kicked off, Billy was keen to add a very different role into the mix: a down home take-off of M?ori news bulletin Te Karere, with Billy in a black singlet, a yellow towel round his neck. Billy had road tested the Te News sketch on stage. It won fans, plus criticism that he was stereotyping M?ori, which Billy firmly denied. He argued that his humour concentrated on accents and mannerisms, and that getting an accent perfect played a part in making the humour more acceptable. “I think I’ve just come in in the middle of this quiet spot where everyone’s too frightened to say anything, and just done it. There’s still further to go.”

With the 1985 departure of Billy T James Show producers Tom Parkinson and Jeff Bennett, for yet to be launched channel TV3, season five saw major change. Cast members Laurie Dee and Doug Aston were controversially dropped, and the bulk of writing duties fell on Billy and new sidekick Peter Rowley. Now commanded by comedy veteran Tony Holden, the fifth season included sketches mixing Captain Cook and solvent abuse, a Miami Vice takeoff, and the immortal “where did I get my bag?” ad, possibly the most repeated seven seconds in NZ TV history.

Billy made his big screen debut with 1984 comedy Came A Hot Friday, based on the over-the-top tale by Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Director Ian Mune cast him after witnessing first-hand Billy’s “feel for an absolutely honest performance”, on the set of One of those Blighters. Billy played the Tainuia Kid, a crazed M?ori character who believes he is a Mexican bandito. Though only on screen for 15 minutes, the performance proved a comic highlight. The Listener called the role Hot Friday’s “ace up the sleeve”, while the raves of American showbusiness magazine Variety included praise for Billy’s “riveting, totally original performance … this kid says more about cultural cross-breeding in small countries like New Zealand than any learned academic.” […]

In 1984 Billy won the Feltex Best Entertainment Award, followed by another for Entertainer of the Decade. Two years later he was awarded an MBE for services to entertainment. By now The Billy T James Show had reached a new ratings high, with almost half the population tuning in ? more than the primetime news. A talented artist, he was also collaborating with cartoonist Chris Slane for comic book The Billy T. James Real Hard-Case Book, and a sequel.

By now Billy had developed serious health problems, with a heart transplant in 1989 […]

Following a memorable live show in February 1991, Billy contracted a cold which seriously weakened his heart. It was to be one of his final performances: he died on 7 August 1991. Chris Hegan, the son of Billy’s agents, wrote at the time that “Billy gave us a way of laughing at ourselves in a way that no one else has done and in a particularly unique style. And we are not very good at that as New Zealanders.” End of quote.

Imagine the snowflake meltdown if Billy T was to grace our screens with his humour these days.

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