Electric Kiwi Billy T Jams showcases strong local talent

Who else awaits the release of the NZ International Comedy Festival programme each year with more excitement than a small child on Christmas eve? Clearly, quite a few Aucklanders judging by the crowd at the Electric Kiwi Billy T Jams event which serves as the taster to Festival season and the best in local comedy.

This is a showcase of the finalists of the much sought-after Billy T Award which recognises outstanding emerging talent in the world of comedy. Past winners include Rose Matafeo (who has since won Edinburgh Comedy Award 2018 for Best Show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival), Taika Waititi (now an Oscar winner!!) and Jemaine Clement, Guy Williams, Melanie Bracewell, and Kura Forrester. 

Billy T Nominees 2020

As last year’s winner, Kura hosted the event and showed a lot of aroha for the nominees, many of whom she works closely with on various projects including improv comedy troop Snort. The crowd showed a lot of aroha back to Kura too as she regaled us with impressions of her future (currently imaginary) and extremely protective dog; family members who can’t cope with bad trailer back-ers, and her overly nice Mum.

Any comedy fan will be familiar with the names on the list of finalists – these up-and-coming comics are regulars on the circuit and have honed their craft with audiences all over the country with audiences big and small. Kicking off the line-up, Josh Davies announced bold as brass and right out the gate – “I’m blind” and had the audience in stitches with stories from being a leader at a camp for vision-impaired kids. He holds no punches in his style and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself as well as others, whilst simultaneously putting the audience right at ease. He’ll be one to watch over the coming years as his material expands into new territories.

Ray O’Leary is adept at getting his audiences on-side with his very low-key, cerebral style. A more abstract comic, he focussed on the intricacies of language and social interaction, getting the audience to think about it from his own unique perspective. For example, is there really that much of a difference between eating a whole lot of oranges vs. downing a tab of Berocca? Although his genius is appreciated by the audience, the energy in the room did flatten a little due to his overly deadpan delivery. 

Enter Brynley Stent – instantly likeable and a breath of fresh air, especially with her non-traditional form of comedy. Judging by the groans of recognition, the audience could relate to her frustrations with the self-serve checkout – a familiar topic visited by comedians but given new life with a fresh twist from Brynley. If I was a betting woman, I’d put my money on Brynley to win the top prize – a definite must-see in the festival.

The second half introduced James Mustapic, an increasingly frequent name on comedy line-ups who kept us all in the loop of this latest romantic adventures (and misadventures). His assured style is easy to watch and enjoy and at only 22-years-old, his star is set to rise if it continues at this rate. 

Rounding out the show was Lana Walters, also keen to update us on her love life and the pros and cons of dating a cop. A regular on the improv scene as well, Lana has been getting more active in stand-up and her style is developing to be confident, with more fleshed-out jokes and anecdotes. Her open and constantly smiling face are endearing but it’d be great to see her own the more risky side of her material.

The show was rounded out by a crowd favourite, not a finalist himself this year, but world-famous in New Zealand – Tom Sainsbury. His observations on the minutiae of online comments and reviews gave us a right giggle. Add to that his star factor and you’ve got a crowd laughing uproariously whilst making goo-goo eyes at the dashing Tom. An excellent way to close the show and leave us all wanting more. Lucky there’s not long to wait until the festival starts. Plenty of time to peruse the programme, book your favourite shows, and sample the local talent in the meantime.

Check out all the Billy T Nominees in their solo shows during the fest that runs from 30 April to 24 May. The 2020 NZ International Comedy Festival full programme is out now at comedyfestival.co.nz.

Reviewed by Steph Bean.