Wellington Paranormal is full of terrifying creatures – demons and ghosts and cow-molesting aliens barely scratch the surface. It’s a world where humanity is constantly being preyed upon from all sides by all manner of nightmarish creatures that exist beyond the realm of our limited understanding. So, of course, it’s as funny as hell.
The supernatural and the hilarious have gone hand-in-creepy-talon for as long as there’s been moving images. Sometimes it’s been about inserting humorous characters into scary worlds – Abbot & Costello meet Frankenstein is a legit classic that’s both hilarious and scary. Other times the scary monsters are the funny characters – The Munsters, The Addams Family, endless cartoons, Bride of Chucky and the New Zealand vampire movie What We Do in the Shadows, which Wellington Paranormal is a spin off from. But Wellington Paranormal belongs to a third tradition: treating the supernatural as something totally normal and mundane.
While What We Do in the Shadows gets big laughs from presenting vampires as a bunch of wacky share-house guys – who happen to drink blood and live by vampire rules – Wellington Paranormal is based around the adventures of regular New Zealand cops Officer O'Leary (Karen O'Leary) and Officer Minogue (Mike Minogue) who’re brought on board as the second and third-ever members of Wellington Police’s paranormal unit.
It’s a great joke in and of itself; if you had to name a place plagued by the supernatural (episode one features a body-jumping demon named Bazu’aal) then New Zealand wouldn’t so much be on the bottom of the list as you’d need to attach a whole new sheet of paper to the bottom of the list and write it on the very bottom of that piece of paper.
There’s two titans of this approach to mixing the supernatural with the funny, and at first glance they couldn’t be further apart: the original Dawn of the Dead and the original Ghostbusters. Dawn of the Dead is obviously a horror movie: zombies have taken over the world and a tiny band of survivors have holed up in a shopping mall, only to find while the zombies pile up outside there’s not a whole lot to do inside but shop. Ghostbusters is obviously a comedy: a bunch of schlubby scientists (played by some of America’s top comedy talent) form a kind of supernatural carpet cleaning service where they tool around New York in a beat-up van solving people’s ghost problems.
What they both have in common with Wellington Paranormal is that they treat the fantastic world of ghosts and zombies and monsters as just another aspect of the average, everyday, mundane world. The central premise with all three is that seeing people trying to muddle through in a world gone mad is intrinsically funny: people treating the crazy as just another part of their day is always worth a laugh no matter how grim it might all seem from another angle.
After all, the real world can be pretty crazy even without the supernatural running amok. One of the best jokes in Shaun of the Dead, the rare zombie satire that Dawn of the Dead creator George Romero liked (he said it was “hilarious” and “so loving”) is that for a while Shaun (Simon Pegg) doesn’t even realise that a zombie apocalypse has taken place: modern life is all about keeping your head down while everyone else shuffles around you doing the same.
So when the cops of Wellington Paranormal are called out to deal with various bizarre situations, the tone isn’t some terrifying horror movie nightmare; it’s more like any number of reality television cop series where a camera crew follows regular police around dealing with domestic disputes, low key traffic problems and rampant stupidity. It’s no co-incidence that New Zealand TV has served up a number of classics of the reality cop genre (including Police Ten 7, Border Patrol, Highway Cops, Motorway Patrol, Dog Squad and Coastwatch); those shows have become a core part of New Zealand’s comic persona as a nation full of people facing everything with a good-natured and cheerfully stoic patience.
There’s jokes aplenty, the monsters of the week are always great - who doesn’t love a seemingly haunted record player - and there are some brilliant performances (especially Maaka Pohatu as the duo’s deadpan boss, Sergeant Ruawai Maaka). But seeing the kind of calm, reasonable NZ cops we’re used to from reality TV mixed up with the kinds of monsters we’re used to from a very different kind of TV is what makes Wellington Paranormal so funny. The guys dealing with these creepy and frightening situations are just regular average, petty people just like us. Even when they’re covered in demonic vomit.
Wellington Paranormal airs Tuesday nights on SBS VICELAND at 9:35pm and streams at SBS On Demand.