'I was the first Taskmaster contestant to break a bone' | Q&A with NZ comic Urzila Carlson as she heads to the UK

'I was the first Taskmaster contestant to break a bone'

Q&A with NZ comic Urzila Carlson as she heads to the UK

New Zealand-based comedian Urzila Carlson is hitting the UK next month, with her tour It's Personal Tour starting in Edinburgh on February 8. Here she talks about the UK comedy scene, why she left her native South Africa… and her ill-fated stint on the New Zealand version of Taskmaster.

Your latest show is called It's Personal. Can you tell us about it?

It's about how some things we overshare and other things we don't share and get offended by. I never share anything personal on social media or reveal my kids' names. And then especially during lockdown, it got to the point where people would just flop everything out online. But then if you ask them anything they go 'excuse me, that's personal.' It's like, 'nothing in your life is personal any more. You have literally shown everything on Tiktok’.

How would people know you over here?

I've had a Netflix special [Overqualified Loser] but also during the pandemic I did daily documentaries online which were watched all over the world. When I played in South East Asia I thought it would be all expats, but about 70 per cent were locals. As soon as my Netflix special was released there were lots of viewers in the UK. And, weirdly, Brazil.

Will you have to adjust any of your material for the UK?

I don't think so, but I try to start off talking about where I am. Every place you go has something interesting happening. I once performed in Newcastle in New South Wales. As I drove in, there was a fist fight near a sign that said 'Welcome to Newcastle'. And both of the men fighting had a box of doughnuts so there were just glazed doughnuts everywhere.

What British comedians do you like?

So many. John Bishop, Sue Perkins, Francesca Martinez, Jen Brister. Because of the internet you can just see everyone anywhere. And so many UK comics come over and do the Melbourne Comedy Festival, the Adelaide Fringe and the New Zealand Comedy Festival. It's like a little family that moves around the world.

How do the UK and New Zealand comedy scenes compare?

UK comedians' brains work on a different level, the pool is so much larger it is so much more competitive. It's like you're in a pool with 50 sharks, we're in a pool with seven. I did a TV show with Sue Perkins and she was just riffing. I looked at the teleprompter and there was nothing on it. She was phenomenal.

You did the New Zealand version of Taskmaster, was that fun?

It was insane. I learned so much about myself. I did the tasks alone then the first time you see everything is when you are together in the studio. The first task they showed I thought I'd done fine but then I saw I was the worst one. The great thing about it is whether you do the task well or badly, it's still funny.

Did you win?

I came last but I made history. I was the first contestant to break a bone. I broke my clavicle in three places. The task was to come up with a dumb idea. And then for extra points, execute that dumb idea. I built a ramp in the driveway, rode a bike down it and fell off. It was pretty gruesome and they couldn't even broadcast it in case children copied me.

You moved from South Africa to New Zealand in 2006, why was that?

I didn't want to raise kids there because of the violence. I used to work for a newspaper and we'd see police reports and pictures that were confidential so I was very aware. And while I was living there I had a home invasion. I had an attempted carjacking. We had an armed robbery one morning with four guys coming into our office with AK-47s.

New Zealand must've been a contrast?

I live in Auckland and it's a village compared to Johannesburg. I remember the first year I'd walk around town and I'd go 'I swear I've seen that person before'. And then you realise you have. It wouldn't happen in any other city in the world.

How did you come to change career from graphic designer to comedian?

At work I sat across from an English guy called Leon. I'd never been to a comedy show in my life, but he was obsessed with stand-up. When I was going to a new job he arranged my leaving gift – an espresso maker and a contract to perform at an open mic club. He said he'd booked seats for everyone at work. I wrote four minutes of stand-up for a five minute slot - allowing a minute for laughs! That's confidence. I don't even do that today.

I'm guessing it was a success?

I got a call the next day to say I was through to the next round and I said ‘I'm not interested’. The boss said 'everyone was laughing.' And I said, 'yeah, but I knew them all, it was stacked in my favour.' And he said, 'I was laughing and I don't know you. Come back, don't bring anyone and see how it goes.'

I went back and after that second gig I was hooked. Then with the recession in 2008 I got made redundant and started doing comedy full-time.

What are you looking forward to when you come to the UK?

I think just being out of my element. You almost get to a point where you go, I love my audience. And I know they love me. And this will be a bit of a push for me where I can't just rely on them loving me. It's like when you meet someone new, you go, Oh, my God, are we gonna be friends?

• Urzila Carlson tour dates

Published: 2 Jan 2023

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