Rose Matafeo: Kiwi Conspirator

The Kiwi standup has made something of a splash this Fringe. Even the laughs sound different, she tells Evan Beswick

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
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Rose Matafeo
Published 21 Aug 2017

It's a hoary old interview trope: pick a location that lends ready-made colour to the conversation. Take Rose Matafeo, for instance, whose show Sassy Best Friend sees her prodding at the movie conventions which place her looks, her hair, her skin colour firmly outside the rom-com leading lady category. Milkshakes at an American diner, obviously. But, after queuing for half an hour we're told there's no milkshakes on today. And then we're hurried and prodded until someone orders food. If anything, it's a more appropriate metaphor. Leave your expectations and preconceptions at the door because they won't fit Matafeo.

Case in point: "You've been to Budapest?" Matafeo interrupts at one juncture, wide eyed. "That is the capital of escape rooms. It’s one of the best places for escape rooms. I’m very obsessed with escape rooms."

Escape rooms? I confess, I've no idea what they are: "Yeah, rooms that you pay to get locked in and then you try and get out. Me and [comedian] Ed Gamble, we did about 10 of them I think.

"It’s unlocking locks, finding codes, figuring out things laterally," she says. "Finding a code and unlocking a lock is probably the most satisfying feeling of my life. And that’s more than doing comedy, having a good show, finding love, you know, seeing my brother married! It’s up there! I wanna run an escape room next Fringe! Genuinely, I might not do a show, I’ll just do a comedy escape room. The comedy is so bad and you’re trying to escape it!"

To pause momentarily: it's worth escaping for a moment onto more expected territory. Rose Matafeo: a half Samoan, half Scottish/Croatian standup, already a TV star in her native New Zealand. She's in Edinburgh with her second solo Fringe show – which she's currently selling out. In it she talks hilariously about issues relating to the pill and periods and other concerns pertinent to 50 per cent of the population – but, surely, funnier to a great many more?

"I’ve had some amazing crowds who, I think, enjoyed it," Matafeo allows, self-consciously. "I’ve only seen a couple of bored faces in the crowd so far. Who I pinpoint, and memorise, and hunt down afterwards."

In reality, there's something a bit more exciting to what Matefeo achieves in Sassy Best Friend. Less a show about women, it's a show which recognises that the default target for comedy is generally men – women have been asked to laugh at knob gags for years. Quite casually, Matafeo turns the tables – and it's a re-orientation that, it turns out, is audible.

"When you’re doing the show, and doing these jokes about the pill and stuff that is very specific to it, you hear women laughing in a way that’s like they can recognise. You hear that people are going ‘yes!’"

She continues: "After the show I’ve had girls come up to me really conspiratorially and they’re like, ‘I was the same. I was on a terrible pill’. It’s like a release to be like, ‘Yeah, you can talk about this on stage’. In no way is it like, ‘Fuck you guys for not liking it, I’m gonna talk about this shit’. I think just talk about it! Flooding the market with material like that and topics like that is the way it’s going to become normalised rather than putting this otherness to it and being, 'Oh, she’s going to talk about this now’."

Matafeo talks carefully, thoughfully but with enthusiasm. She doesn't hold back (Woody Allen, for instance, is a "fucking creep"; an early gig back home in front of eight Dalmatian men was "like something out of a fricking Wes Anderson movie"). But if there's any reticence talking about what she does, it is perhaps unsurprising: she recounts the "shitstorm" of what she generously terms "feedback" from men upset that the hit TV series she co-writes and performs in, Funny Girls, wasn't aimed directly at men. Indeed, she's generally very generous – even towards the odd symbiotic relationship between performers and critics: "It’s like when someone’s like, ‘Don’t take a photo of me; don’t take a photo of me; don’t take a photo of me; don’t take a photo of me'," she squeals, posing and pouting.

But, then, Matafeo is also pretty experienced, having done standup now for what she calls "an embarrassingly long time". Somewhere, under virtual lock and key in the deep recesses of the internet, is a video of a 15-year-old Matafeo doing her first gig. "Sometimes I watch it!" she says with a laugh.

"I have braces, I’ve got curly hair, I’m wearing a sweater vest with, inexplicably, a long-sleeved merino underneath. And, I’m watching it and I’m like, that’s a pretty decent joke! Some of them are ones I continue to do! It’s quite nice to remember what your first ‘in’ to comedy was and you’ve probably got better around it, but at the core of it, there is something consistent in that it’s like stupid stupid observations and very specific pop culture references, which have not changed."

About that first 'in' to comedy: audiences in the UK might be unfamiliar with the New Zealand scene beyond Flight of the Conchords and Taika Waititi. There's a reason for that, says Matafeo: "The thing about people coming from New Zealand is that it’s a place where no one is asking you to do comedy. 'Cos you’re literally on a friggin’ island where not many people go and see comedy, you know, you don’t really see so much of it on TV."

The result is a small number of very committed comedians doing quite quirky things: "It’s all quite unique personal styles, and there is no audience to try and please! So you may as well be yourself. I think that is why I really love New Zealand comedy. It’s really quite true to itself, and weird and such a point of difference."

Surely, though, moving steadily into the mainstream must dull this quirky edge? Is there anything left for her to talk about? Well, there might be something: "The funny thing with comedy is you can’t see what’s weird about your own life to talk about. My parents are Rastafarian and I don’t really talk about it that much. It’s this bizarre thing that’s so normal to me. Maybe there’s a show in that, but I don’t know."