Comedian Rose Matafeo Is More Than Your 'Ethnically Ambiguous Sassy Best Friend'

Rising star Rose Matafeo recently won one of comedy's biggest prizes for her show "Horndog." We talked about love, life, and the sexual politics of the wider industry.
January 30, 2019, 4:21pm
New Zealand comedian Rose Matafeo
Rose Matafeo. Photo courtesy of Avalon Management.

Occasionally, and she reassures me that it really is only occasionally, Rose Matafeo sits alone and watches videos of herself as a baby. Without fail, every time, Matafeo has the overwhelming urge to reach into the screen and pick herself up. “Not in a weird way,” she tells me, semi-convincingly, “I just want to hold me close and tell little baby me that everything is going to be fine.”

She’s saying all this, I think, because it’s the very same sensation the now 26-year-old comedian gets looking back at clips online of herself doing comedy as a fifteen-year-old at home in New Zealand. “I just want to get a hold of that little girl with braces and whisper in her ear that the impression of a comedian she’s doing isn’t any good at all,” she says with a laugh. “Fifteen-year-old me didn’t have anything interesting to say. If I was in my audience then I’d have been like: ‘What the fuck is this? Stop!’”

Thankfully, Auckland’s comedy scene was kinder to Matafeo than she might have been to herself. The bookings kept on coming, as did the material. At eighteen Matafeo was the best newcomer at the 2010 New Zealand International Comedy Festival, and it wasn’t long before she was cracking jokes on TV screens: first, as a presenter on (now defunct) channel U, before going on to be lead writer and star in the New Zealand sketch show Funny Girls.

Cut to August 2018 and Matafeo is on stage again, this time collecting the prestigious Best Comedy Show Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for her show Horndog. It's a show about desire, the search for love, getting distracted while masturbating, and a little about loneliness, too. Matafeo describes the win as “totally unexpected.”

“It was so funny that it happened, in the most surreal way,” she tells me as we meet in the bar of London's Soho Theatre, where Horndog recently completed a four-week run. “I’m an incredibly ambitious person, but I had no plan of how to process it."

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2018 felt like a big year for women in comedy: Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette was Netflix’s break-out comedy hit, sparking uncomfortable conversations about power, privilege, and sexual violence around the world. Michelle Wolf eviscerated Trump’s administration at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Does Matafeo think now is a good time to be a woman in comedy? “There’s never a good time,” she says. “I’m wary to say we’re having a moment though, because by definition that implies it’s a blip or something that will go away.”

Instead, Matafeo says, we’re witnessing the continuation of something that began in the 90s, when a handful of female stand-ups, like Jo Brand and fellow New Zealander Cal Wilson, broke into the comedy world. “Women are definitely in a better position to come into stand up now than we were 20 years ago,” Matafeo continues, “but the shit we have to go through is the same.” It’s rare, she explains, to see an equal gender balance on festival lineups, and this breeds a culture in which women are made to feel like they’re competing for slots. “And then that’s before we even get to the issues around personal safety that working alone at night across the country throws up.” I’m reminded of 22-year-old Eurydice Dixon, an Australian comedian who was murdered as she made her way back from a gig in June 2018.

“On the way here I was thinking about Louis CK and Aziz Ansari,” Matafeo adds. “On the one hand I see their predicament—their behavior is part of a culture, which enables it. And they’re artists who work and they want to make stuff, like all creative people.” What bugs her in particular is the entitlement they display in carrying on as if nothing has happened after allegations of sexual misconduct surface. “I think a lot of these men don’t see how much of a privilege it is to be heard. They don’t understand how it can be that they shouldn’t be doing it.”

When she’s actually on stage, Matafeo thinks things have improved. Subjects, which not too long ago might have been considered off-putting to audiences: Woman’s masturbation habits, periods, and contraception, are being discussed freely. “Women were talking about this years ago in stand-up and were just getting fucked for it,” she says, “now it’s comfortable, for me at least, to talk casually about it on stage.”

Rose Matafeo. Photo courtesy of Avalon Management

It’s easy to get sidetracked by the sexual politics of the comedy world. But it’s important to remember that Matafeo is really, really funny. I’d been in the audience a few nights previously, watching a packed-out crowd convulse in hysterical laughter. Matafeo’s riff on the fact she only began masturbating aged eighteen has a couple in front of me crying; and then there’s the bit about straight women having the “worst of all sexualities” (as she puts it, straight women only eat the vanilla out of the metaphorical Neapolitan ice cream of life).

“My last show was called Sassy Best Friend,” she says, “and it was on the surface about me being exactly that stereotype—curly hair, glasses, slightly ethnically ambiguous and a little bit weird.” In fact, she explains, it was mostly about being on the pill for most of her adult life. “Since the age of eighteen I’d been on it, and when I came off it was like taking a blindfold off.”

Matafeo compares being on the pill to getting an Uber which starts driving a route slightly differently to what you were expecting. “Then you try to explain to the driver that it’s not quite the way you want to go, and then the Uber driver turns around and it’s you. You realize, Oh my God, I’m fucking myself up,” she says, as I laugh. “It was a fun show to do, because I talked to so many girls who had similar experiences, or different experiences. It just opened up discussions about taking control of your body.”

At the moment, Matafeo is preoccupied with the idea of relationships and break-ups, both in her day to day life, and the material she performs.

“It’s almost like I’m obsessed with being in love,” she says. “When I think about the most important things in life it’s like: Food? Fine. Helping people? Sure! But being in love—or actually just chasing boys who don’t like me as much as I like them—for me is the ultimate thing.” Dealing with relationships and exes on stage comes with its own set of challenges: Matafeo questions whether she’s exploiting an experience she shared with someone for a punchline. Also, she asks, “what if people see the show and nobody ever wants to date me anymore?”

At least when she’s not thinking about love, there’s also the question of that £10,000 [$13,150] prize money to distract her. What does Matafeo plan to spend it on? A chair, of course.

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“I wanted to get something to commemorate it, and I decided on a chair,” she says. “I want to get a really great chair made in a fabric I like. Then I could sit in my chair and remember that time. I think I’ve found the right one, I’ve been looking online… Can you just write down I’m happy being single?” She cuts herself off, again, grinning. “Yes, that I’m happy being single. But I’m open to any offers. Call me.”