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Jackie van Beek: Funny for a living

Actor Jackie van Beek says risk-taking is her comedic style but playing a lettuce was a low moment.

Jackie van Beek
Jackie van Beek.

The house that comedy built: it’s in Laingholm, West Auckland, just up the street from the water where, on a blinding spring morning, pukeko stalk, a boat tilts on the sand and an old man communes with the sea. Actually, the home shared by Jackie van Beek and her partner, Jesse Griffin, was more of a falling-down bach that had to be reconstructed in what time they had to spare from their day jobs as local comedy treasures. “We feel like we’re on holiday in the 70s, living out here,” says Griffin.

It’s a suitably out-of-the-way location for chatting to van Beek, one of the country’s funniest, slightly under-the-radar comic actors. She won Best Supporting Actress at the 2014 New Zealand Film Awards for her human vampire groupie – someone has to schlep those bloodstained clothes to the cleaners – in Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s What We Do in the Shadows.

She’s a compelling reason to watch TV3’s new sketch comedy series Funny Girls (others include Rose Matafeo, Madeleine Sami, Laura Daniel, Siobhan Marshall, Kimberley Crossman, Antonia Prebble and anyone else they could rope in).

It’s a creative household. Griffin’s comic alter ego is Wilson Dixon, American country and western musician and homespun philosopher: “Life is like a salmon swimming upstream. Hard work. And sometimes you get eaten by bears.” Griffin embodies his character so convincingly even some people in the industry think he’s for real.

It’s also school holidays. Van Beek has specialised in the sort of risky theatre where she plays the Virgin Mary in handcuffs. Her tendency to invite chaos extends to embarking on an interview with three children in attendance. As we arrive, June, eight, Emmett, six, and Cassie, three, are dragging chairs out onto the verandah to catch some rays, a mission from which they are instantly diverted – “Hi, adults!” – by the arrival of the press.

June checks out her mother’s outfit for the photo shoot: “Are you wearing a hypocrite shirt?” It’s unclear what that is. Van Beek’s shirt is unremarkable, though she is wearing short shorts on a still-chilly morning. Emmett helpfully tries to rub away her goose bumps. “Jesse, darling, can you grab these kids? I’m getting a massage,” van Beek wails eventually. “I try to be a warm mother in life but …”

Jackie van Beek adorning the London Pornstars programme.
Jackie van Beek adorning the London Pornstars programme.

The children are herded off to the park, after some debate about the likelihood of another visitor, Funny Girls PR Jeane, being a spirit from Arabian folklore. “Do you reckon Jeane could grant us a wish? Probably not,” muses Emmett. “Wow, that’s smart, guys,” marvels van Beek at this hopeful leap of imagination. “Every day you impress me more and more.” The children accept the compliment graciously and exit stage left.

If anyone is still crazy enough to attempt a New Zealand sitcom, they should cast this family. “Emmett just won Laingholm’s Got Talent last week,” volunteers van Beek. He and mate Jack stole the school talent quest with their Romeo and Juliet. A two-minute version, with animal puppets. “It was very funny.” Van Beek’s mother used to do a show with puppets. “Except they were giant and disabled puppets.” It was for what was then the Crippled Children’s Society. It’s in the DNA.

The children are a confident, curious, hilarious handful. As well as working on Funny Girls, van Beek is making her first feature film, The Inland Road, shot near Glenorchy. How on earth does she do it? “It’s really only possible because Jesse works in the same business, so we’re able to juggle timetables. It would be hard if I was married to an accountant.” She got her father over from Australia to help out during the movie’s 10-week shoot. “It was ‘My Two Dads’ with the kids, and I’d pop back each weekend. I’m not prepared to swap family life for feature film-making. Just won’t do it. But that’s why only 7% of features are directed by women.”

Funny Girls is a straight acting job. Straight-ish. The concept: a female sketch-comedy show set within the framework of a comedy about the making of a female sketch-comedy show. So far, so meta.

Van Beek specialises in characters that make your fillings ache – see controlling-fiancée-from-hell Stacey in local comedy Coverband. In Funny Girls she plays Pauline, the show’s toweringly inept producer who enjoys a near-sociopathic lack of self-awareness. She’s awful but not awful enough for van Beek. “I wondered if I could make her just a tiny bit more gross-out so I hunted through the cupboards and found my old retainer.” She turned up with the aged orthodontic device in place. “I smiled at Johnny Barker, the director, and said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Brilliant.’ So through the scenes I’m taking it out and I try to get as much saliva on it before I pull it out. Drew, our lovely cinematographer, said, ‘The spit wasn’t reading as well as I’d hoped.’”

Funny Girls’ Laura Daniel, Rose Matafeo and van Beek.
Funny Girls’ Laura Daniel, Rose Matafeo and van Beek.

Yikes. She clearly has no vanity. I was warned the Funny Girls women were weary of being asked what it’s like to be a female comedian in a male-dominated industry but the subject is hard to avoid when it’s an often-hilarious subtext of the show. “I haven’t said I’m sick of it,” says van Beek. “It’s definitely a male-dominated industry, don’t we all agree? Comedy?” Certainly for her generation. She can name the exceptions. “I can see them. The wonderful Urzila Carlson, the wonderful Justine Smith …”

Things are changing, she allows. “What is exciting at the moment is all these younger comedians, male and female, coming through. These are all the people I’ve been working with on Funny Girls.”

The sketches involve things such as surreal takes on why women take so long in the bathroom. They are, insists van Beek, also political. “The over­riding theme is that there’s been a comedy sketch show funded and they’ve filled it up with women but that men are making key decisions. The whole series starts with the men coming up with the title for the female comedy show.”

As the first episode reveals, Funny Girls is a distinct improvement on such proposed alternatives as Women Are Definitely Not Funny and Boobies Boobies Ha Ha Ha.

There are men on the production team. “People have been asking me how can this be a female show if it’s directed by a male or there are male writers. I find that a really odd question. It would have been like putting people back into a private girls’ school or something.”

The piss-taking is equal opportunity but the sensibility is fundamentally female – see the show’s long-overdue takedown of Romeo and Juliet. “The women are at the top of the food chain here,” says van Beek, “and it’s great to have a female producer.” Unless it’s Pauline. “Unless it’s my producer.”

What We Do in the Shadows’ Taika Waititi and van Beek.
What We Do in the Shadows’ Taika Waititi and van Beek.

Van Beek has always been a funny girl. She was so busy acting and auditioning that she took five years to get her linguistics degree from Victoria University. She worked in Melbourne. She has, at one dismal point, played a vegetable. “I did. I played a lettuce.” She was working for a professional improvisational company. It was a corporate gig. “I was asked to get under the buffet table and pop my head through a hole – I had full green make-up, lettuce pinned to my hair. I just had to make funny jokes while people helped themselves to lunch.” She was 18 and earning good money. “And I was just sitting there thinking, ‘I need to quit my job. It would be better to be poor.’”

She must have a freakishly high embarrassment threshold. “I do delight in humiliating myself,” she beams. She was happy to be appalling before the likes of Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer made it fashionable. With long-time collaborator Jonny Brugh she created international stage sensation My Brother and I Are Pornstars. Two siblings are abandoned in their parents’ porn den. Hilarity ensues. The show came with an R18 rating and warnings about hyper mania, violence, nudity and Christian porn. “Sick” and “twisted” were the kinder adjectives applied. “My character falls in love with my own brother, which makes things even more complicated,” says van Beek. The show started as a title. “We vowed to make a show to go with that title for about three years.” You can see the difficulty.

“We did that show over 100 times around the world – 200, probably.” There was a season in London that played to packed houses and acute critical distress. “Oh, the reviews were just shocking,” she recalls. “… two amateurish New Zealand performers who stumble their way through the most puerile, unintelligent collection of below-the-belt sketches in a limp attempt to shock,” railed one critic.

Van Beek genuinely seems to thrive on a mauling. Her idea of good material is something that’s likely to get either five stars or one; never three. And yet, I put to her, we can be something of a three-star country. “The reason we have made, potentially, a three-star country is that programmers and funding bodies and networks – I think they’re just risk-averse,” she says. “Understandably, of course,” she adds diplomatically. “For myself as a practitioner, I love to take risks … I used to delight in making an audience feel uneasy and unsure.” It didn’t always work. “I didn’t mind. I’d make a show every three months, put it on and learn that way.”

At one point I ask if she considers herself a feminist. The conversation gets interrupted so later she emails: “I’d like to go on the record and say, ‘Hell, yes.’” She has pushed boundaries, taken her sometimes toe-curling risks. She has been fearless. “I do feel that, certainly with age, I’ve lost that self-consciousness that really holds you back, especially as a female. To be self-conscious, to want to look attractive – it holds you back, I think, in drama and comedy.”

Jackie van Beek and her children (from left) Emmett, Cassie and June.
Jackie van Beek and her children (from left) Emmett, Cassie and June.

She finds the chutzpah of the new generation of female comics such as Dunham heartening. “She totally exposes herself, in many senses of that word. That takes a lot courage, but the payoff is fantastic. The people who engage with that and applaud her for doing that – they’re fans. We’re all fans. It’s fantastic for us to be able to see those women as role models and think it’s entirely possible.”

“Here comes trouble,” says van Beek. The kids are back. “They’ll want their pictures taken.” They want their pictures taken. Family life chez van Beek-Griffin seems like a sort of rolling, collaborative, improvisational happening.

Paradoxically, at this stage of her career, van Beek is experiencing the tyranny of being a funny girl. “When people find out I’ve just shot a feature, they’re like, ‘Oh, it must be hilarious.’ No, it’s a drama. People who don’t know me very well are like, ‘Why aren’t you making a comedy?’ They get so upset.” Luckily she has a Wilson Dixon mockumentary and a comedy project with Madeleine Sami in development as well. “So people can get less upset with me.”

Busy, then. And finding that what goes around comes around. Funny Girls’ Rose Matafeo reminded van Beek that she’d taught her at AYA drama school. “I’m an honest person. I said, ‘I have no recollection.’ She said, ‘Remember, you got me up and we did that example to all the kids?’ And I said, ‘Nothing. I’ve got nothing.’” Clearly, van Beek has a keen eye for picking future stars. “I’m just glad she cast me in her show.”

So does this show’s female-friendly environment feel creatively different? “It’s hard to know whether it’s a gender thing because that group of people on Funny Girls have all worked together for two years on [live improv show] Snort. They know each other really well.” There are no hier­archies, no egos and a willingness to take risks. “Everyone’s playing the yes game. Sometimes, if you play the yes game too much, you’ll still be there at midnight and the production shuts down because they run out of money,” she laughs. “But they’ve created a very playful environment and that’s where someone like me can thrive.” Being a funny girl – it seems like a terrifying occupation. It can go horribly wrong. Bring it on, says van Beek. “A bit of panic excites me, actually. You learn to be bold and to fail and to carry on. That’s when you truly feel alive.”

Words by: Diana Wichtel
Photos by: Ken Downie and Getty Images