New Zealand International Comedy Festival 2024 reviews: Tom Sainsbury, Nazeem Hussain, Abby Howells and Angella Dravid, Tom Cashman

New Zealand International Comedy Festival 2024 reviews: Tom Sainsbury, Nazeem Hussain, Abby Howells and Angella Dravid, Tom Cashman

Tom Sainsbury’s new comedy show is The man With The Cup From The Staffroom.

It’s May, so you know what that means – the New Zealand International Comedy Festival is back in Auckland and Wellington. Over the next three weeks, the NZ Herald will review some of the top shows throughout the festival, so make sure you check back here for all the latest recommendations of local and international comedy stars.

It could have been a gossip sesh with your best friend over a glass of chardy at the kitchen table.

Perhaps one of New Zealand’s most recognisable comedians, everyman Tom Sainsbury has perfected the art of relatable content.

Despite performing to a packed Q Theatre, the 42-year-old – donning understated jeans and a shirt – managed to create an intimate vibe with his delivery, which resembled a good-natured gossip or bitch session between a colleague or a flatmate. In fact, both such figures are part of his act. He delivers his lines as if he is pointing out something slightly salacious under his breath in the office kitchen, with plenty of self-deprecation thrown in.

Each embarrassing disclosure only builds a greater rapport with the audience.

The audience participation at the beginning of his set plays to his demographic (which he points out several times is women aged 35 to 60, who revel in sharing his Instagram reels on their family WhatsApp chats).

In one bit during his stand-up, Sainsbury describes his recent journey toward mindfulness (to “visualise a better you”) but not quite understanding the brief.

All his aspirations involve meeting or befriending things or natural phenomena that no normal person would or could ever experience. From these strange starting points, he always comes back to the mundane domestic worries that make his online video characters so amusing. The poor architectural taste of his grandfather, a past job as a receptionist in which he only did 12 minutes of actual work which was shared with another temp, and his frustrations over the price of watermelons.

You feel awkward for him, but it’s a shared awkwardness with no pity.

Despite Sainsbury claiming he wants endorsement from teenage boys for what he hopes is edgy content, he embraces the normal everyday irritations and trials of a fairly bland suburban life.

All his dorky shortcomings are on show, but there is at the same time a kind of unbothered resignation to the fact the Gen Zs just don’t get him.

He is one of the audience in spirit and happy to be there, plodding along and reflecting on his inadequacies in a very understated but perceptive way. Sainsbury the real person must know himself well.

There is no rage in his comedic voice, he doesn’t stray into controversial topics and never punches down. But in this age of outrage, maybe playing up to that outrage, being the rebel, is actually the easier laugh. Sainsbury’s voice is almost unique in this climate because he doesn’t play off race, gender or sexuality. He caricatures stereotypes but does it without spite leaving the audience just nodding along in agreement.

Sainsbury’s whole show is like a warm hug.

Tom Sainsbury’s The Man With The Cup From The Staffroom is on at Auckland’s Q Theatre until May 17. Reviewed by Alanah Eriksen.

Australian comedian Nazeem Hussain.

Discomfort in a comedy show usually is a bad thing. But for Nazeem Hussain, it’s glorious. A mixture of belly laughs and tension, the Australian comedian and actor artfully demands more from his audience – and the result is exceptional.

Like wine, Hussain’s comedy proves to age well; after a two-year break from the stage, he’s better than ever. Before his new stand-up Totally Normal even begins at Auckland’s SkyCity Theatre, Hussain characteristically mocks racial stereotypes with his choice of pre-show music. Setting a relaxed and unmistakably sexy vibe, the 39-year-old arrives on stage after Ludracris’ track Potion and Saweetie’s Tap In finish playing – as if in satirical reply to his later-made comment that pop culture rarely sexualises South Asians. It was a full-house attendance, albeit a slightly tardy one that is typical of community-driven events like this one (or, as Hussain called it, “brown lateness”).

Hussain skilfully highlights the hypocrisies of society through his punchlines. Whether it’s how we view certain crimes committed by different groups of people or how various cultures approach mental health, the comic can get the audience laughing fiercely almost every 10 seconds, like a conductor waving his invisible baton at his obedient instruments. Using accents and stories of discrimination, the sufferings of being a parent, and the complexities – and warmth – of his family dynamics, Hussain’s comedy is relatable to the underdog, the everyman – to anyone who has ever felt different.

But the crowd didn’t always laugh. Awkward silence can reflect poorly on the comedian who perhaps failed to deliver – that wasn’t the case here. Awkward silence can also reveal a great deal about the audience. What topics do we, as Kiwis, find acceptably funny – and which ones are off limits? Does a laugh carry moral weight? Hussain navigated where this specific audience’s line was with empathy and cheek. It turns out: Muslims and terrorism – funny. George Pell and paedophilia – not funny. Then, we arrived at the point: Gaza. It was a mixed reaction.

Comedic protest isn’t new – neither is Hussain to the scene. And yet, Totally Normal is a breath of fresh air. What makes him remarkable is that he seeks to go beyond laughter. The audience ends up in places they would have otherwise been reluctant to visit, examining what we decided is normal, laughing anyway.

Nazeem Hussein’s Totally Normal was at Auckland’s Q Theatre and is at Wellington’s Te Auaha’s Tapere Iti from May 23. Reviewed by Varsha Anjali.

Abby Howells and Angella Draivd star in The Improfessionals.
Abby Howells and Angella Draivd star in The Improfessionals.

Abby Howells and Angella Dravid – The Improfessionals

As two winners of the Billy T Award and part of the longest stretch of female winners in the award’s history, Abby Howells and Angella Dravid are forever linked as part of this pantheon of rising comedic talent.

For a casual observer, the similarities would likely end there. Dravid is best known for her deadpan delivery, while Howells is brimming with a cheerful energy every time she steps on stage.

They seem like an odd couple to be doing a joint show together, but when they walk on stage for The Improfessionals, dressed in matching pink outfits, you quickly start to see they are more alike than you’d initially think.

The differences in delivery are still there but the two complement each other, evening out the energy while never skipping on the comedy.

Working together also helps to be a palate cleanser for them both. Dravid won the Billy T for a show in which she detailed her experience in prison in the United Kingdom, while Howells won after previously detailing her experiences with sexual harassment in the industry.

They are done with those experiences now and want to be observational comedians – even if their observations are niche and only relevant to them.

Howells’ set is focused on her experiences during and after winning the Billy T last year, including hyper-specific feuds with one local business, but also covers off her experiences discovering her comedic chops during her high school musical. One joke about how a certain role was dual-cast delivers a casually brutal punchline that other comedians will struggle to top this festival.

Dravid, who is back on stage for her first festival show since 2021 and her first since giving birth to her first child, references having “baby brain” several times and has to be prompted by Howells. However, she has such a casual, almost dismissive style of delivery that it works perfectly with her demeanour and becomes an endearing part of the show.

Her comedy remains as sharp as always, particularly her darkly comic observations on having a high-risk pregnancy and the months afterwards, creating a fresh take on the new parent sub-genre of stand-up.

By sharing the stage and mixing the light and shade, both comedians play to their strengths while delivering tight sets that kill with every line. It provides a reset for both and a great transitional show you can see being refined into a solid hour for each for 2025.

The Improfessionals with Abby Howells and Angella Dravid is on at The Basement’s Theatre in Auckland until May 11. Reviewed by Ethan Sills.

Tom Cashman is best known for his role on Taskmaster Australia. Photo / Supplied
Tom Cashman is best known for his role on Taskmaster Australia. Photo / Supplied

Tom Cashman – Everything

It’s a rare treat and privilege to be able to see an international comic’s debut show in a country. While Tom Cashman has built a steady reputation for himself over recent years in Australia, with a series of viral appearances on The Project and a steady social media presence, this week marks the first time he has performed here in New Zealand.

He’s smartly striking while the iron is hot, coming off the debut season of Taskmaster Australia, the latest spinoff of the incredibly popular series in which five comedians compete in a series of deranged challenges over the course of a season. Cashman fills the assistant role in the show, which aired on TVNZ+ last year, and was a natural fit for a role that, on-screen at least, is part referee, part teacher’s pet, and part interactive prop for whatever the comedians want.

That energy carries through to his on-stage presence. In Everything, Cashman is breezing through a range of subjects and stories, many of which share a particular pedantry and unique interpretation that seems born from writing the specific requirements of a Taskmaster challenge, whether that’s dealing with customer engagement surveys or nitpicking who the real winner of a dick-measuring contest is.

Like most other millennial comedians, Cashman is aided by a PowerPoint throughout to hit some of the punchlines. Not only is it one of the best-designed ones you’ll ever see at a stand-up show, but Cashman also ensures it’s integral to the punchlines rather than a prop for setting up jokes, with graphs, emails and a spot of colour co-ordination heightening the show.

Despite being advertised as an hour, the show on Tuesday night was only a little over 45 minutes, though with a bonus-element QR code gag at the end like a Marvel post-credits scene, which ties the show’s elements together. While the shorter show doesn’t quite get to “Everything”, Cashman’s self-deprecating charm and specific point of view is a welcome treat and seems set for far more local performances in years to come.

Tom Cashman – Everything is on at Q Theatre’s Vault in Auckland until May 10 and at Wellington’s Te Auaha’s Tapere Iti on May 11. Reviewed by Ethan Sills.

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