When Urzila Carlson was given a fake contract giving her four minutes of stand-up comedy at a local club four years ago , little did she know that the joke present would be the moment that would change her life.
“It was supposed to be a mickey-take,” she says. “We had so much fun at the agency I used to work at that my leaving gift was a coffee machine and the contract,” says Urzila (37), who once worked as a designer for an advertising agency and now takes pride of place alongside Jeremy Corbett and Paul Ego on TV3 with roles on both 7 Days and The Radio.
“I thought, ‘You cheap b**s!’ They made me sign it in front of them and booked a table for 70 people on the night so I couldn't back out of it.”
Four minutes of stand-up resulted in another gig, then another. Now, Urzila's self-deprecating humour has made her one of the most popular comedians in New Zealand.
While her unexpected stumble into fame is the stuff of movies, the likeable comedienne insists she's ended up where she is not because she's special, but because she's an opportunist.
“If something comes up, you owe it to yourself to give it a go,” she believes. “If you don't do it, you'll always wonder.”
Like, for example, moving to New Zealand from her native South Africa six years ago – despite never having visited and not knowing anyone here. “I worked at the newspaper in Benoni – the same place Charlize Theron comes from – and every day I'd see all these horrific police photos.
“The crime rate was terrible and my partner had a six-year-old son – who wants a kid to grow up around that? “One day we got smashed and grabbed in our car, and I just thought, ‘I'm over it.’ The next day I saw an ad in the paper saying, ‘Want to emigrate? Try New Zealand.’ It seemed like a sign, so we did.”
Urzila and her partner are no longer together, but both still live in New Zealand and remain friends – one of a few South Africans the “fully jandalled-up” new Kiwi stays in touch with. “I spent three weeks on the North Shore in Auckland, where I met a few other South Africans that I've stayed friends with, but most of my friends here are Kiwis. I'm not a ‘stick with my own kind’ type!” she laughs.
Urzila is now living in west Auckland in the house she's bought with her Kiwi partner of five years Julie (34), who is almost seven months pregnant with their first child, due in late April.
“I feel so grown-up! We've bought a house, now we're having a baby – all the things people say you should never do at the same time because they are so stressful,” laughs Urzila.
“All we need to do now to totally ruin it is buy a puppy to complete the stress triangle – and if Julie had her way we'd do that too. She keeps sending me links to the SPCA website!
“We've been having the puppy talk for five years and we're in a new house. Do I want a puppy to eat my new home? No. Give me some time to ruin the house myself for a while, then we'll get the puppy!”
While there are some aspects of her life that Urzila prefers to keep private, many of the big events in her life usually end up becoming part of her comedy routine – moving to New Zealand being one of them.
“My show in this year's NZ International Comedy Festival is based on it,” she says. “People are always asking me how long I've been here and whether I like New Zealand, so I decided I'd write a show about it and answer everyone in bulk!”
Despite her outgoing personality, Urzila seems genuinely surprised she's become a success so quickly – but it hasn't been easy.
“The past few years have been a massive shift for me. I'm still getting used to it. “The first gig I did, I got paid $40. I remember lying in bed holding the two $20 notes, thinking, ‘Someone actually pays me to do this?’”
Next month Urzila will take her comedy routine to Australia for the Melbourne Comedy Festival, although she has a “get out of jail free” card if Julie goes into labour early. “I'd like to do a bit more overseas,” she says, cautiously.
“The first time I went to Australia I didn't know if my style of comedy would work – I still thought New Zealand was just humouring me by laughing at my jokes! But it's quite a polished show now. I'm proud of it, yeah.”
Urzila’s show, The Long Flight to Freedom, is on in Auckland and Wellington during the 2013 NZ International Comedy Festival during April and May. For more details, visit urzilacarlson.com