Entertainment

Comedy Opened Jamaine Ross's Eyes to Institutionalised Racism

"It made me realise how I'd been shaped to be who I am, and kind of be ashamed to be Māori."

In Early Works , we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's New Zealand comedian Jamaine Ross, who is a stand-up comic, one of the brains behind Māori TV's Only In Aotearoa , a director and editor for Jono and Ben , and a member of sketch comedy trio Frickin Dangerous Bro with James Roque and Pax Assadi.

What I usually say when people ask me about growing up in Christchurch is everyone tends to think race is a real problem, like being Māori and growing up there—but either I didn't experience it or I'm stupid and didn't notice it. I'm not sure which one it is. I love Christchurch and I liked growing up there. I've been away for over 10 years now. I still think I'm a Cantabrian, but all my friends there are like, "nah bro, you're an Aucklander now".

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When I was really young, I wanted to be a lawyer because they were rich, but then I found out everybody hated lawyers. One of the teachers from my old primary school once called us and was like "hey, there's this TV show that's being cast and they're looking for people and I think you'd be great for it". I went and auditioned and I got the role. I was 10 or 11. It was my first time really acting. It was called Mel's Amazing Movies and I played the cheeky Māori kid because no Māori characters back then were normal people. They were always a stereotype. But it was really fun. There were three seasons of that and from then I was like "I can be an actor".

Later on in seventh form, I was like, this is the year I get the main role in the school production. And … I didn't get the role. I think it was because I wasn't good looking enough because the guy who got the main role was really good looking. I was like, man if I'm getting typecast at high school I'm going to die in the real acting world. So I went, I'm going to make stuff instead. I'm going to be behind the scenes. Then I studied a film and TV course and thought I'm going to move to Wellington and work in film. I'm going to be a director and all that kind of stuff. But I didn't know anyone in Wellington. I had family in Masterton, so I moved there and worked in a sawmill.

"I worked 12-hour shifts pushing skinny pieces of veneer through these rollers into a drying machine."

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I worked 12-hour shifts pushing skinny pieces of veneer through these rollers into a drying machine. That was pretty much my job for 12 hours. Just standing there and pushing sheets of wood, one by one, through this machine. I spent a lot of time thinking and philosophising on life. I must have been 20. I listened to music heaps. That was the main thing I did.

I remember there was one point where I was like I think I can be a stand-up comedian. But a friend of mine, David, he was way funnier than me. We were in Physics class together and he used to say jokes quietly to me and then I would repeat them out loud and get the big laugh. That was probably the first time I thought, maybe I could do this.

I would watch Pulp Comedy, so I thought Mike King was great, and it was also the first time I saw Flight of the Conchords. They did their folk-rap songs and it spoke to me because I was also a hip-hop fan. Apart from that it was Chris Rock and the Kings of Comedy. We'd share the VHS' around. One person would hire it out, dub it, and then we'd all share it around. In terms of stand up, I was like, this is the jam.

I worked with a guy who was a bit of a stand-up nerd and he was like "I'm going to try it and you should try it as well". I went down to the Classic because they have their Raw nights on Monday nights and I thought, "I'm funnier than at least half of these people. I can do this." I went and wrote my five minutes and went out on stage and tried it.

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It was that easy. It was harder to get more gigs because New Zealand is a very small industry, so I was only gigging once a month which is not enough to develop quickly. The thing that really made it easier and pushed me forward was when I won the Raw Comedy Quest in 2012. So then I performed at Last Laughs, which is like the big crowning of the NZ Comedy Festival every year and then heaps of the comedy industry had their eyes on me and knew who I was and booked me for gigs.

I realised that what I was doing was trying not to offend Pākehā people and not expressing my thoughts around racism towards Māori.

I decided to write this show and in all the blurbs I'd said it was about racism. I had 100 percent committed to it. So I did my research and it got me quite angry actually looking into it and seeing the institutionalised racism. It made me realise things about myself; about how I'd been shaped to be who I am and kind of be ashamed to be Māori. I realised that what I was doing was trying not to offend Pākehā people and not expressing my thoughts around racism towards Māori. It made me angry that I'd spent 30 years being shaped to feel like that and to think like that.

I ended up writing this comedy show with a lot of anger while trying to make it funny and I don't think it came off very well. I wasn't proud of it and I didn't enjoy performing it. I felt like it was really important, but not a lot of people came to see the show and it made me really frustrated. I also got really annoyed—not at comedians—but that Pākehā comedians were allowed to say the same things that I said, but they would get laughs and when I would say it, it would be tense.

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"I can't talk about buying quinoa from the Grey Lynn supermarket because that's not me."

All I know is that I'm going to talk about what's real to me or what I think about. I can't talk about buying quinoa from the Grey Lynn supermarket because that's not me. I'm a Māori person in New Zealand and I have friends that experience sexism and homophobia and I'm sympathetic to them, so those are some of the thoughts in my head. I have family and friends that are victims of poor social systems here in New Zealand so those are also things that I think about. But also I think about wearing a blue shirt to a wedding full of Mongrel Mob members, which is a just a story that isn't really saying anything.

In terms of people taking those things away from what I say in my stand-up, I think that's more from the cumulative effects of lots of comedians doing it. In a weird way, it's great for the changes that comedians care about but we end up in a bit of an echo chamber at times.

I feel like I'm successful working in comedy, but I'm not a success as a solo stand-up. My goal is to be able to perform only stand-up comedy if I wanted to and be able to make money off that. I think it's very difficult to do in New Zealand. There's only a handful of people that do it, but working in comedy in these other ways is still really creatively fulfilling, so that's good.

Catch Jamaine Ross in the Frickin Dangerous Bro's World Tour of Tāmaki Makaurau. Find tickets and everything you need to know over on Facebook .