With ‘Good Grief’ being just the latest in a line of classic comedies coming out of New Zealand, we ask the question: how do they do it?
8 Jul 2021 - 12:30 PM  UPDATED 8 Jul 2021 - 12:30 PM

Comedy is a tricky business in the 21st century. A lot of the old assumptions aren’t getting laughs anymore; some of the biggest hits in recent comedy have been questioning whether we even should be laughing at all. Sitcoms are out of style, stand-up is struggling, and social media’s idea of a joke is often just a grim observation with a cute gif attached. 

In the midst of all this, there’s an island of hope. Well, two islands: while nobody was paying attention, New Zealand became the funniest country on Earth. Okay, maybe not the funniest actual country, but they have been putting out more than their fair share of top-notch comedies these last few years. While other countries are struggling, there hasn’t been a dud from the land of the Long White Cloud.

Good Grief starts out with two sisters who’ve inherited family funeral home, Loving Tributes. Elle (Eve Palmer) is a teacher who’s keen to keep the business alive, in large part because she’s just been sacked for calling a student the c-word and making him fall out a tree. Pink-haired Gwen (Grace Palmer – yes, they’re real-life sisters) just wants to sell the whole place off and live her dream of being a DJ in Bali. The Loving Tributes staff – embalmer and entertainer Dean (Josh Thomson), refreshments specialist Sharyn (Sophie Hambleton) and hunky handyman Beau (Vinnie Bennett) – aren’t impressed.

When we first meet the sisters, Elle is being fired over the phone while slicing into the neck of a corpse to fill it with embalming fluid, and Gwen is throwing up from the stench. It’s the kind of awkward real-life moment that made recent NZ documentary series The Casketeers a hit. Like that series (only with more jokes), Good Grief constantly plays off the mundane yet extreme nature of running a funeral home, where serving tea and biscuits is just as important as getting the fine details of corpse presentation correct.

It’s this mix of harsh reality and a warm approach to character that marks out the best of recent New Zealand comedy. A series like Wellington Paranormal might seem as far from realistic as you can get, and yet it remains firmly down-to-earth in its portrayal of police officers Minogue and O’Leary. It’s just that these regular cops keep being sent out to arrest ghosts and monsters and demons from hell; even that doesn’t put much of a dent in their low-key approach to law enforcement.

This kind of comedy wouldn’t really work in a lot of places around the world. Because NZ has a reputation as an unassuming, laid-back, big country town kind of place, simply having the locals dealing with big issues – you know, death, decay, monsters, things like that – works perfectly. The contrast itself is funny, and it means the comedy flows from how the characters react rather than the situations themselves.

Even with a dystopia like the recent Creamerie, set in a female-run utopia (of sorts) after a virus has killed off all the men (or has it?), seems a little less harsh set in the rolling hills of New Zealand. There’s still an edge to the vaguely sinister New Age leadership and over-the-top celebrations of womanhood, but the contrast between the high concept and the firmly grounded farming life of two of the three leads (the third has bought into the leadership cult and is stuck as a receptionist as her reward) is rich ground for wry comedy.

Putting offbeat but basically kind-hearted characters up against serious topics isn’t just funny, it’s funny in a way that suits our times. Comedy today is still working through the backlash against the “anything goes” offensive comedy of a decade or so ago, where it was assumed that issues like racism and sexism were “solved” and so racist and sexist jokes were automatically assumed to be jokes and not offensive attacks on marginalised groups. Safe to say that’s not the attitude today. 

Enter, New Zealand. Those kinds of harsh jokes simply don’t work there; since at least Flight of the Conchords, what’s made New Zealand comedy work so well is the inherent good nature at the heart of the characters. Having them struggling in a world full of death and demons and dystopia – especially when that world is also an idyllic NZ setting – is comedy gold.

Back at Good Grief, Elle and Gwen want different things and Loving Tribute’s staff aren’t exactly keen about the sisters’ plan (it’s mostly Gwen’s plan) to sell off the business, but as they talk about saveloys and home-made T-shirts it’s clear nobody here is a bad guy. The stakes among the living are small and petty; it’s only their business that deals with life and death.

Good Grief is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


Follow the author @morrbeat

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