Grant Lobban reveals his strategy for Celebrity Treasure Island

The Shorty funnyman is facing the scariest challenge of his life – no joke.

Grant Lobban has no problem getting up in front of hundreds of people to do a stand-up comedy routine. And despite having previously had very little acting experience, he made the Shortland Street character of Damo Johnson so popular, he went from a one-off appearance to a regular cast member.

But of all the things he’s done in his career, signing up to take part in Celebrity Treasure Island is certainly one of the most daunting.

“It’s definitely taking me out of my comfort zone,” admits Grant, 50. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m happy being on stage in front of a big crowd because that’s the performance personality I have.

“But I’m also an introvert a lot of the time and not very socially confident around people I don’t know very well. Hopefully, once I get used to it, I can relax and be myself.”

Grant doesn’t have a game plan for Celebrity Treasure Island. He just wants to “try my best to get along with everyone and win the challenges. I don’t want to stick my head up too much, I want to keep a low-profile and be useful.

“I’m just hoping I can throw a bit of comedy into it and make people laugh.”

Cracking people up has always been Grant’s thing. He started out doing stand-up comedy in Christchurch, while working as a chef to pay the rent. He ended up as head chef at a theatre restaurant called Excalibur’s, which has since closed down – “not due to my food”, he’s quick to add. When a waiter called Rhys Darby was hired one of the staff told Grant, “He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever met.”

Quips Grant, “At the time, I was the funny guy in the restaurant, so I was like, ‘Who is this Rhys guy who thinks he’s so funny?’ We sat down, had a few beers and got on like a house on fire. We were instantly mates.”

The pair performed as a duo for several years before Rhys moved to Auckland and then overseas, where he found fame on the TV show Flight of the Conchords. They’re still best friends and Grant is delighted for his success. “He always had a hunger for it – he was always going to make it. I was just in it for the free beers!”

Shorty’s memorable couple Damo and Desi, played by Kura Forrester.

Grant’s comedic talent went on to land him a job that paid more than free beers. He was originally supposed to play Damo in just one scene of Shorty in 2015, but the bosses were so impressed with his portrayal of the dorky IT guy that he ended up becoming a member of the core cast.

“I think the mannerisms I gave him made the difference,” says Grant, who based the way he played Damo on his brother Brent and a friend.

He reckons he’s somewhat socially awkward like Damo, but doesn’t share his trait of excess confidence. “He was pretty full of himself and that’s not me, but I enjoyed portraying that.”

Working on such a fast-turnaround show with some very accomplished actors was a challenge, but he can’t speak highly enough of the welcome he got from the cast.

“When I started, I thought, ‘These people are so good, I am not worthy!’ I hadn’t been to acting school – I was a comedian trying to be an actor. But people were so lovely, especially Michael Galvin, who would put his arm around me and say, ‘You’re doing great.'”

After seven years on Shorty, Grant left last year to relocate to Christchurch where his daughter Lily, 13, had moved with her mum, Grant’s ex.

“I was missing out on her life and I wanted to be there with her,” he explains. “I haven’t regretted it for a minute.”

He’s now got some new challenges in the pipeline, including writing a skit show with a good friend. He’s also hoping to get back to stand-up comedy. “There is nothing more gratifying than getting that instant feedback when you get up in front of an audience and make them laugh. It’s great.”

In the meantime, he’ll keep auditioning for acting roles, although he’s realised that he’s probably not cut out for dramas. “No matter what I am doing, even if it is really serious, I just can’t help being comedic. Comedy is definitely my genre.”

He still frequently gets stopped by Shorty fans who recognise him as Damo.

“Kids in particular loved him because of the comedy aspect, and it’s really nice when they come up to me in the supermarket and ask for a selfie. I also get some lovely old dears who say hello and I give them a hug. It’s a very privileged position to be in, when you can bring a little bit of happiness to someone’s day. It fills my heart.”

Celebrity Treasure Island premieres September 18, on TVNZ 2 and TVNZ+.

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