By Ayla Miller
From actor, to sales rep, to professional poker player, Wellington-based comedian Rhian Wood-Hill has taken some gambles in life which he shares with a combination of roguish charm and compelling storytelling.
Rhian took an hour out of his chaotic life to reflect on his tumultuous journey into comedy, being called out on a high school crush years later and his fondness for a bet.
A: Can you remember the first time you saw stand up comedy, who was it and what did you think?
R: I saw one RAW late night at The Classic when I was working on a film. I don’t remember any one being any good.
What really got me into it was a conversation with a friend. He didn’t think I was funny. I was in a bad place at that time. I didn’t know where I was going and when that bet came up it seemed like the next thing to do.
I studied acting for six months and then I dropped out because I started getting a few student films. It was my first year in Wellington and I got 18 parts. I got a good flying start.
It was semi professional but I was not being paid much. I sort of figured I don’t need to study this. Almost instantly when I dropped out that’s when I started not getting any more parts.
There I kind of lost my way a bit and found poker and through poker I made a few good friends. I got involved with drugs and darker side of things and via connections wound up getting an EFTPOS sales job. I moved into town and got my life together a bit. I get these out there ideas, I work them for a few years or so and then I end up getting a real job for a bit.
How old were you when you first started stand up and can you tell me about your first gig?
I was 25. My first gig was in the basement of a gay bar called S&M’s in Wellington. My two flatmates were there and seven of my friends were in the crowd. It was hard to tell if it went well or not because I didn’t have a point of reference. I hadn’t seen comedy much before. That’s kind of turned out to be a good thing.
Where did you cut your comedy teeth?
At that said gay bar, in Wellington, and the Fringe Bar. There was also VK’s Comedy Club which existed four nights a week.
Do you get nervous before a show? If so how do you deal with that and does it go away with experience?
It depends on my material. If I know my jokes work I’m not so nervous or if I’m comfortable with the risk that it might not work. If I know the material is gold and tight I don’t need to worry about it. It depends on the freshness of the material and whether or not something is riding on the gig like if there’s a booker in the audience.
What was the worst gig you ever did?
I got knocked out of the RAW semi finals. I’d been booked to do my first ever pro night and I was a bit gutted about that. On that night there were 12 people in the audience and eight of them were a group of middle aged women. As soon as I came out they got on their phones. I did a show at Kapiti College where my step dad and my mum teach. My dad stopped the show halfway through and said “Sorry Rhian. I don’t think you’re getting the respect you deserve!”
Tell me about the process you went through to create your most recent set. Do you actively plan it or does it evolve in your head gradually over time?
I start with no idea of what I want to say and go on stage with a tenuous idea. I start with a story and the jokes are a flow on from that. So I basically write it on stage.
What do your parents/ family think of your comedy? Can you make them laugh?
Not in the way I do on stage. I am the consummate idiot of the family. Intelligent but always known for being a bit roguish. I’m 27 and I still get lectures about being places on time and there’s mock horror when I do turn up on time. In saying that they are very supportive. My family are hugely academic, for example 16 of my 18 cousins have degrees. My older brothers have phDs and my mum’s got a Masters.
After seeing your show ‘Rhian-vested’ I’m left wondering if there is anything you won’t do for a bet? Is there? Have you always been down for a challenge?
There are lots of things I wouldn’t do for a bet like put someone’s life in danger but I’ll do anything within reason.
Do you think there is some kind of collective sense of humour unique to New Zealanders or do you think it varies depending on the demographic?
No, I think there are certain things within any culture that are funny and no matter where you perform it the audience will understand it. I think the essence of these kinds of jokes are universal.
Is there any subject you don’t believe should be joked about and why?
Nope I don’t think there is any subject you shouldn’t joke about as long as it’s actually funny. When someone actually writes a funny rape joke I’ll be the first to applaud it but no one’s managed that yet.
Who are your comedy idols/role models?
James Acaster. In New Zealand, Guy Montgomery, Ben Hurley, Nick Rado and Justine Smith.
Do you take on a persona on stage or is what we see pretty much the real you/ an element of you?
My producer says Rhian is a whole lot more likeable on stage than off stage.
Is there anything you’ve learnt along the way that you wish someone told you before you started getting into comedy?
There is one thing. Get someone who can teach you the etiquette. That was one of the first things the owner of VK’s taught me. I went up to him after a show and I asked about the etiquette of things. You have to have the ability to be likeable enough for people to want to have a beer with you after the show. Things like not heckling when you’re on the bill, don’t go on your phone when you’re sitting at the front. Courtesy goes a long way.
So comedy doesn’t give you a regular income and you have to deal with hecklers. What keeps you going?
You don’t do it for the pay. You’re a narcissist who needs your voice to be heard and gain the acceptance of other people. I do it because I need to. I’m an attention seeking narcissist.
Do you get a rush from performing?
If it goes well then for sure. I don’t think it’s as high as some people think it is. It’s not like a drug buzz, trust me.
Are you working on any other creative projects on the side? Do you have a day job?
My mate and I have been working on a TV show but it’s probably wishful thinking. I’m working on a few new jokes especially around conspiracy theories. I also like to do work for Lifeline and mental health awareness.
What is your biggest strength when it comes to stand up and why?
Storytelling. I have an eye for understanding what makes a good story, and for the most part, the ability to cut out the waffle. Not all waffle but a lot of it.
What has been your most brutal heckle and how did you handle it?
I took my show to Timaru where I went to school and eight of my school teachers were in the audience. I talk about having a crush on a girl and they correctly named her. This is eight years ago and from people who deal with high school crushes on a day to day basis!
What’s the dumbest bet/dare you’ve ever won?
I’ve got a bet going that I won’t walk from Brisbane from Sydney. I’ve also had a bet going with my mate since high school about who will grow a beard first. I’m 27 and he’s 28 and neither of us have won yet.
What is the most useless thing you’ve ever spent a lot of money on?
Cigarettes. I spend all of my money on cigarettes, eating, drinking and enjoying my time. Oh! When I was younger I spent $200 on a black trench coat like in The Matrix.
Like Rhian Wood-Hill on Facebook to get regular updates about his upcoming shows.
Photo credit: Eleanor Strathern