URZILA CARLSON

 URZILA CARLSON
Comedian
                  Urzila-A2-Portrait-HR.jpg
I grew up in a state of civil unrest in the middle of the apartheid regime in South Africa. It was quite a violent time and you were always aware that big brother was watching. It was just mum and us three kids and while we grew up very poor, there was so much space and things for us to do, it was great.

After a spate of crimes in my direct neighbourhood, I decided I needed to leave, I just didn’t know where to. I used to work in the newspaper industry in South Africa and found an ad in the paper one Saturday that said, ‘Do you want to immigrate to New Zealand?’ know most people before they immigrate do a lot of research or soul searching and visits to the country they will one day live in, but when I saw that ad, I couldn’t think of one reason why I shouldn’t move there. I had never heard anything bad about New Zealand. In fact I had never heard anything about it at all, apart from the All Blacks.
The only research I ended up doing was watching Whale Rider, but I was on a plane to New Zealand three months later and it was love at first sight when I arrived.

There’s a warmth to New Zealand you just can’t explain. It’s like being at your mum’s house. You know where everything is, it is a nice environment, great for kids and New Zealanders appreciate everything. You can make anywhere else you go in the world a home, but it will be more like your step mother’s house – you still feel like you’ve got a room and while it is nice, its just not quite there. You’re on the edge of danger all the time.

My first job in New Zealand was working for an advertising agency, which was great. I’m a designer, so it really ticked the creative box for me. Everyday was different which kept me interested. We’d work in groups and crack each other up all day long. My friends would always tell me that I had to do stand-up comedy because I was so funny. So as a present when I went to leave that agency, I signed a fake contract they’d made up for me, to participate in an open mic night. Which I did and I thought that was that. What we didn’t know at the time is, that was the night of Raw Quest – the new talent comedy competition. So the owner of the club rung me up the next day to tell me I’d made it through to the next round. I said, ‘no thanks, give it to someone who is interested.’ I remember him saying, ‘you were really funny and everyone was laughing.’ Except that the whole agency had come along so I knew about 70 people in the crowd. You could say that the odds were definitely stacked in my favour. But I went back and this time didn’t tell a soul and by the end of that night I was hooked.

A teacher once said to me that ‘there’s no greater waste of time than living with regret,’ so from that day on, if any opportunity presented itself to me, I’d take it. I don’t want to look back on my life when I’m 60 years old and think, ‘shit, I wish I had done that.’ So that’s how I’m here. That’s how I started a whole new career in my mid 30s. 

One night at The Classic, Scott Blanks said to me, ‘never change your name.’ I know that’s a weird thing to take as the best advice you’ve ever been given, but it’s really about being who you are. Pretending to be something or someone you’re not is exhausting. The wheels will eventually fall off and people will see who you truly are, so just work with what you’ve got and be better than your worst, because that’s the best you can do and people will adjust to that and accept you.

As a comedian, my job when I get up on that stage is to make people’s lives lighter and help them to have a good time, because you never know what is going on in somebody’s life. One woman who came to a show in Melbourne last year had lost her baby that morning but still decided to come along and not only cried, but laughed throughout the entire show. If you’re nailing life and just out having a few drinks with your friends, then my job is to add to your enjoyment. If you’re having a really shit time, then my job is to lighten you and help you forget about your shit. It’s a big thing to cry with someone, but I think it’s very powerful to laugh with a group of people. Your problems don’t go away, but my job is about pausing them for a minute and making people realise that comedy is a release. 

I suffer very badly from stage freight. That walk from the side of stage to the middle where the microphone stand sits is the longest walk any human has ever taken. But the moment that microphone is in my hand, I start talking and get the first laugh, I’m away. That feeling you get when you realise why you do it, is amazing –  It’s a massive high.

Because most of the television shows I’ve been on are filmed in front of a live studio audience, it’s easy to forget that there’s any cameras, as the response is still the same. You tell a joke and they laugh. The risky shows are those with no live audience where you just have to predict that people will laugh. Then you have to wait for two months for the show to go through the editing process, receive a time slot and start playing. Then you wait for the Twitter backlash as to whether or not people like it.

A lot of people say they can’t watch themselves on-screen, but like an athlete, I feel that you have to be able to look at yourself and question why you’re doing something a particular way, to know where and how to make improvements. I constantly return to the drawing board after every show. 

As for writing, I believe there’s a book in all of us. For some that may only be a colouring book, for others it’s a history book. When I began writing Rolling With the Punchlines I decided to be very honest. I’m normally quite a private person – I don’t discuss my family, wife or kids, but it frustrates me when you read a biography and haven’t learnt anything about the person by the end of the book. When you’re writing about your life you tend to procrastinate, because you know the storyline. But in order to be completely honest, I had to check in with a lot of people because it’s funny how time can mess with your memories. My brother, sister and I are all different ages so we observed everything from three different angles. After comparing stories with one another, mum would then come in and tell us all what actually happened.

As people we’re great at putting anyone in the public eye into a box. If I’m on social media during the elections and say something about voting for Labour because of particular policies, I’ll get told to ‘shut up and go tell a joke,’ because I’m a ‘comedian not a politician.’ But I went to university for a few years and am actually quite smart. I understand how things work. You would never tell a plumber to ‘shut up and go clean a pipe.’ I just find it frustrating that we often refuse to look behind the poster.

We’re so focused as a nation on sport, especially the All Blacks and that’s great. But people don’t see these rugby players for more than just that. Think about Richie McCaw, he’s like our Prince William. He flies a rescue helicopter for crying out loud, why is that not a bigger deal? We look at them to set good examples for our kids to do really well on the sporting field, but lets look deeper. Most of them actually do a lot of incredible work above and beyond rugby and that’s why I find them inspiring.


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