One of the country’s funniest comic actors, Jackie van Beek, is sitting in her West Auckland home pondering who her favourite comedian is.
But she isn’t quick enough. Her daughter Cassie, a gorgeous elfin presence at the Weekly interview, supplies the answer in a heartbeat.
“Jesse!” she yells.
Jackie (42) explodes with laughter.
“To be honest, Cassie is right. Jesse is one of my favourite comedians. I am still extremely enamoured with his country musician character, Wilson Dixon.”
Jesse [Griffin] is also Jackie’s husband and the co-creator of her latest comedy show, Educators, an improvised series about the batty staff of a suburban high school.
It arose from a live sketch show called Flashdunce, which the couple, along with comedian Jonny Brugh, devised in a Titirangi scout hall five years ago.
Jackie is emphatic that none of the teachers in Educators is based on anyone they know.
“This is not meant to be a naturalistic portrayal of teachers in New Zealand. It’s a comedy and we’re really poking fun at people who work in high-pressure jobs and have gone a bit nuts. My greatest hope is that teachers around the country enjoy it.”
The Funny Girls star admits that it is unusual for an entire TV series to be improvised and is chuffed that TVNZ OnDemand supported it.
“I’ve done a lot of improvisation, but I was really given a run for my money by some of the other improvisers in this show. I love that – having to really lift my game. A lot of the cast Jesse collected are really quick thinkers.”
It’s not surprising that her co-stars are sharp.
Educators boasts a cast of the who’s who of Kiwi comedy – Madeleine Sami, Oscar Kightley, Jeremy Elwood, Tom Sainsbury, Hayley Sproull, Yvette Parsons and Ana Scotney, to name just a few.
“It’s just so much fun,” Jackie says.
“I know that this will sound like a complete cliché, but driving to work, even though it is a little early, you are absolutely looking forward to it because you can’t wait to see all of these amazing people.”
Jackie and Jesse’s children – June (11), Emmett (10) and Cassie (7) – spend a lot of time on set too.
“They love it,” Jackie says. “They bring their books, they get to watch a movie and play four square with the other actors. I think it’s good for them and they’re all budding performers as well. They go off and do their auditions, and they’ve all worked on sets without us.”
The kids have two sets of doting grandparents, along with a kindly collection of comedians, who are all happy to step in and babysit.
“We try to strike a balance between racing around madly creating crazy shows and also just being at home, cooking spaghetti,” Jackie says.
“They really need – as most children do – that home time and they love it when the five of us are at home together, just being a normal family, eating normal food.”
Jackie is delighted that New Zealand comedy is finally getting its time in the spotlight.
The Breaker Upperers, which she co-wrote, co-directed and starred in, with Madeleine, was a critical and box office success, and the pair, who have been friends for 20 years, now have US agents and a few other projects in the works.
“There are so many New Zealand comedians doing great things!” Jackie exclaims.
“Everyone raves about Flight of the Conchords, Rhys Darby, Taika [Waititi] and Taika’s films, and Rose Matafeo won the Edinburgh Fringe Award…
“So many people are doing so well and there’s a real focus on women at the moment. I do a fair bit of mentoring and I keep saying, ‘Now is the time to strike! You never know how long the window will stay open!'”
She is certainly keeping busy – she’s about to fly to Wellington to direct two episodes of TV series Wellington Paranormal and is writing a feature film called Nude Tuesday.
“An hour before you arrived, I was chained to my desk,” she tells the Weekly.
“I have to write on my calendar, ‘Ten pages today.’ And then I write ‘achieved’ underneath when I get it done. It’s so hard to stay focused!
“But in answer to your question about my favourite comedian, if I was invited to lunch with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, I would certainly try to clear my calendar – even if I hadn’t written ‘achieved!'”