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Jason Gunn ‘I’ve got my joy back!’

The TV and radio personality opens up about his career change of heart and why, in the two years since, life has never been better

If there’s one value that Jason and Janine Morrell-Gunn strive to uphold, it’s authenticity. The golden couple of children’s TV have always kept things real and today’s no different, whether they’re teasing one another about their mutual love of talking or laughing about what they wore for the Weekly shoot.

“Trust me, I’ve had 30 years of this,” quips Jason of being dressed in something out of his comfort zone.

“I’m laughing because Janine looks like a billion dollars and I’m like, hey, I’m just heading off to the beach!”

The presenter is typically upbeat today, but when he found himself in an uncharacteristically moody place two years ago, it was the couple’s 18-year-old son Louis who helped him make a life-changing decision. At the time, Jason was hosting a radio show on More FM and despite having worked behind the mic for years, the job was no longer fulfilling him, something Louis had obviously cottoned on to. “I didn’t realise how much stress I was bringing home,” he says.

After quitting the airwaves, Jason embraced the newfound flexibility that allowed him to watch Louis in his last year of school rugby. “Before every game he would come up, give me a hug and say, ‘This is what success looks like.’ That’s pretty powerful. That Louis is a wise old soul.”

Now, not only has Jason answered his calling to help people through his communication coaching business Easily Said, but producer Janine’s science-based animated children’s show Darwin & Newts is gaining traction overseas, selling into 50 countries in eight languages including te reo.

Faith is the voice behind Heni in kids’ show Darwin & Newts

Janine feels the content could not be timelier. “What I really love about this show is that parents and tamariki can watch it together, then do science and craft together. I tell you, I wish I’d had this when our lot were starting school.”

And as the couple’s production company Whitebait Media wraps up several of its children’s TV shows for the year, including What Now and Brain Busters, their grown-up children are excelling in showbiz themselves. Janine’s daughters Eve and Grace, both writers and actors, star in the TVNZ comedy series Good Grief, and the couple’s daughter Faith won the voice role of Heni in Darwin & Newts. Jason mock-fumes that he auditioned and didn’t land the role of the frog, but is consoling himself that he and Faith sing the opening credits together, “which is amazing,” he adds, “because our family love language is singing.” Eve helped with the research and Jason’s writer brother Andrew also worked on several episodes.

But if anything trumps all the entertainment excitement, it’s new “star attraction” Genevieve, aka “Gigi”, the first child for Eve and her husband Adam. Jason and Janine have dealt with becoming grandparents in their typical yin and yang fashion, says Janine.

“Jason is great at celebrating. He slows right down to her heartbeats, and lies with her and plays the piano with her. And I do the opposite. My mortality has come up, right in front of my eyes. And I think, ‘Wow, I’ve just got to do as much as I can with this beautiful person because she’s going to be here a lot longer than both Jason and me.’

“For me, there’s been a real shift in my place – not time to move over, but to see another generation coming through.”

Recently, the eight-month-old came to visit and Jason spent a solid 20 minutes with her, sitting at the keys and singing, while Gigi “made noises” back. It was enough to snap him out of the “blah” day he was having.

“The great thing about the age she’s at is that, while not translatable, there are some bloody good conversations,” says Jason, who admits to playing the piano for hours to his precious granddaughter. “A bit of comedy creeps in there, which is important because in these crazy times, we all need a bit more joy. She normalises things. You have moments in a day like time stamps when the sun shines a little brighter and everything seems to work with the world.”

Their favourite day of the week is Tuesday, when Adam and Eve and Gigi come round from their place nearby, and they cook an easy meal and enjoy one another’s company.

Janine says she’s now looking forward to a time when the younger ones are old enough to enjoy movie nights and watch all the classic family films their children loved. Otherwise, they’re excited to spend Christmas with the family, with Grace and Faith both returning to Christchurch from Auckland for the occasion.

Reflecting on the past year, the couple tell it’s been a positive culmination of the personal and professional. Jason says he has always wanted to connect with people – and his business gives him that opportunity, allowing him to work with everyone from sports stars and real estate agents to everyday Kiwis planning to speak at weddings or funerals.

“Hey, I’m not your life coach. I’m not your guru Tony Robbins,” he quips. “I’m just giving people permission to tell their stories… the link between confident communication and wellbeing is immense. And it gives me purpose.”

It was through reading feedback on social media that reaffirmed to him his strengths are making people laugh, along with Louis’ observations, given he’s the last of the four off spring still living at home. The biggest tip Jason likes to give people is to speak from the heart. “And not just because I had a heart attack.”

After that 2017 health scare, the gregarious presenter found himself taking stock of his stress levels. He’s since made peace with the fact he can’t control everything.

“I wasn’t expecting that and who knows exactly why it happened,” he says. “It’s a collection of things, isn’t it? So it just makes you stop and go, ‘Hang on, there are some things I can’t control.’ Whereas there are some things I can control – exercise, diet and you’ve just got to find joy.”

The couple say a large part of finding their joy is through family connections and also their home. They have been based for many years just out of Christchurch on a semi-rural four-hectare section and have never felt more grateful for it than during the past two years. “Even though when you get the two of us together it’s hard to get a word in edgewise,” Janine laughs, “it’s actually really quiet here.”

Having room to spread out and enjoy nature has helped. While many couples suddenly had to navigate the unfamiliar waters of living and working together during Covid, Jason and Janine have always managed this harmoniously.

Asked for the key to maintaining their happy relationship for more than two decades, they are quick to joke that it’s having separate work spaces. While Jason closes himself off upstairs, Janine has her own larger office, which she cunningly nabbed early on in lockdown.

The pair also love to look after one another when they’re off duty. “Jason is very much an early riser and is a great morning person, so he’ll always make me breakfast, and lunch as well,” shares Janine. “And I’ve stepped up in the afternoon and evenings, so we’ve been able to find our rhythm and routine.”

Now, having raised four children between them – “five if you include Jason” – and running an internationally successful production company, as well as serving on several charity boards, Janine says she finally feels she has the space to enjoy being at home, where she loves to ride her horse and spend as much time as she can with Gigi as Christmas approaches.

“I love family traditions,” she tells. “Now that the kids are older and there’s a baby in the mix, they’re getting into them too – putting up the tree and the decorations. It’s lovely, actually.”

Adds Jason, “It is lovely and Janine is amazing. Given what’s been going on in the world, I think we’re all going to be playing those Christmas carols a little louder this year. We tend to rock through Christmas dinner, but this year I think we’ll slow down and really savour it a little more.”

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