Playing it for laughs

James Mustapic is bringing his new show to Dunedin Fringe.
James Mustapic is bringing his new show to Dunedin Fringe.
It might look like he’s leveraging his comedy for good, but Dunedin-raised comedian James Mustapic tells Tom McKinlay he’s really just having a laugh.

The way James Mustapic tells it, there’s likely to have been a rush on the ticket office following the announcement this week that he’s bringing a new show to the Dunedin Fringe Festival — a stampede of comfortable shoes and yoga mats.

Or at least, that was his shtick in a comedy gala set up north last year.

"I think my target demographic is middle-aged women," he joked then, setting up a couple of gags about safe sex and swimming between the flags.

He chuckles at the suggestion there might be more to it than a laugh line, and yet ...

"Weirdly, I had another show called Abandonment Issues on TVNZ+, and I think that was quite popular with the middle-aged," he says on the phone from Auckland, pausing from the work of putting the laundry on.

The concept behind the show was very niche, he explains, and he’d imagined that it would only really appeal to his own demographic — given its focus on kids-TV presenters from the early 2000s. But, apparently not. The middle-aged women keep turning up for his gently self-deprecating humour and arch observation.

"And I love to see them. They are always my favourite. When I see a gay couple coming to my show I think ‘Oh, no, here comes the judgies’. But when I see the middle-aged women I think, ‘Yep, I am home, I am home, here’s my crowd’. No, just kidding," he says, his own chortling removing any doubt. "Gays are all welcome, everyone is welcome at my show."

Dunedin-raised and schooled Mustapic returns to the Fringe this year with his show You Mustapicked The Wrong Guy To Mess With — and he’s talking it up, claiming to be in a funny place with his writing.

Indeed, happy to be having a quiet start to the year to concentrate on the craft — while he "sun bathes and lives his best life".

It seems a well-earned pause after a couple of busy years, in which the comedian has well and truly marched centrestage, following up Abandonment Issues with Queer Academy (also on TVNZ+) and his big win on last year’s Celebrity Treasure Island.

And there’s more to come on the small streaming screen, from next month — the show that will quite possibility cement Mustapic’s standing with his favourite audience once and for all.

"I have a show coming out with Dunedin legend Janet Mustapic, aka, my mother," he reveals. "And I am not supposed to say but, whatever, it is coming out early March on TVNZ+ and it is about finding my mum a man.

"So you will get to see that before the Fringe Festival and then Janet will be, I think, making an appearance in my Dunedin Fringe Festival show, so you will get to see all the stars of TVNZ," he says, skewering his own self-importance.

It is perhaps important to note here, for the uninitiated, that Janet Mustapic, the comedian’s actual mum (real name neither Janet nor Mustapic), has indeed been a big part of James’ output over the years, making any number of appearances in his video posts and featuring in his stand-up routines.

Whereas many might have left such familial involvements to linger on only in the early career archival clips, Janet has continued to play straightwoman to her son’s comedy — leading to a notoriety that she might well never have anticipated. Among other things, she’s played herself as a neglectful parent with behavioural deficits and a drinking problem.

So, does she in fact enjoy it all, or is she just bearing her long-suffering as mothers must?

"I think it is a mix of both," Mustapic says, with a laugh.

"I think she enjoys the suffering and, I think, she said to me recently that everything that I have forced her to do she has ended up enjoying or finding it fun. So, I think she does, but she also finds it very stressful.

"One year in the Fringe I got her to memorise about two lines, she had to run up at the end of my show and say her thing. And she was memorising for bloody weeks and every time she still couldn’t get it."

That extended to the live shows.

"Well, you know, she missed her lines a couple of times but the audience loves it — because they know she is being forced to do it."

And now she’s been forced to have her search for love documented for all to see.

"She was a good sport. It’s, yeah, hopefully going to be a fun watch for people — see Janet maybe fall in love."

Mustapic concedes that, yes, his mum is just a little stressed about the show airing.

"It is one thing to be on camera, or whatever, but another thing to try to go dating on camera. Although, she did say at one point after we had filmed it, she was like, ‘Oh, is this only going on TVNZ+, is it not actually going to be on real TV? Well, I shouldn’t worry so much’."

James Mustapic, with the captain’s pou ariki, is carried aloft by his Celebrity Treasure Island...
James Mustapic, with the captain’s pou ariki, is carried aloft by his Celebrity Treasure Island rōpū.
Mustapic is also MC for a comedy night during the Fringe, continuing an association that stretches back to 2018.

Although he grew up in Dunedin, it was after he moved to Auckland in 2015 that he first took to the stand-up stage, then 19.

However, the Dunedin Fringe Festival was host to his first solo show in 2018.

Stand-up remains the bedrock of his career, even as he’s spread his wings into other areas.

Through it all there is what looks like a consistent theme of advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community, members of which are by turns the heroes and fall-folk of his humour.

Mustapic routinely embraces various of the derogatory epithets used of the LGB community back in the day, evoking trailblazing reclaimers of the vernacular such as Julian Clarey — of whom he’s a big fan and was pleased to see back on our televisions in the recent series of Taskmaster.

(He notes Clarey’s relative absence from television after a celebrated awards show appearance in which he claimed to have been intimate with the chancellor of the exchequer. The clip’s on YouTube.)

"I love Julian Clarey, he was so funny in that show," Mustapic says of his Taskmaster turn.

But he’s not making too much of his own repurposing of those once-were-insult names and phrases.

"I don’t really think about it too much any more," he says. "Like, now I just say it if it feels funny to me, but I think that is part of why it is funny really, kind of, I guess — reclaiming or taking back those things."

Mustapic says his high school years in Dunedin, at an all boys school, were tough, and he’s been pleased to see progress in Dunedin in terms of the environment for young LGBTQ+ people, the growing sense of community and the development of Dunedin Pride.

"Last year I filmed a little series down in Dunedin, a couple of episodes, it was called Queer Academy, we filmed during Dunedin Pride and it was cool. It was something I never experienced when I was growing up. It was great, it was lovely to see young people and older people celebrating pride."

He has been known to refer to Dunedin as "the gayest place on Earth" in his stand-up — but, again, just for laughs.

"I am afraid to say it was mainly sarcasm. But you know, as I say, it has gotten better."

Queer Academy did pretty much what it says on the tin, platforming people who champion diversity and looking at the issues the rainbow community continues to face.

But Mustapic demures at the suggestion that his involvement talks to a sense of mission.

"I think, you know, it’s all about having a laugh and not taking everything too seriously, I guess. I am not smart enough to educate everyone on everything because I am not educated on that much myself."

That said, he’s clearly proud of the series, even if he’s determined not to take too much credit.

"I was mainly just presenter on that show, more than anything else but, hey, you know, I was grateful to be a part of the show and it was fun. It did feel rewarding doing it, putting a spotlight on to different communities and all that jazz."

But while Abandonment Issues and Queer Academy mean Mustapic has as many shows on TVNZ+ as Anika Moa, soon to be more than, it’s likely to be the little matter of winning last year’s Celebrity Treasure Island that brought him most unavoidably to the New Zealand public’s attention.

The win also meant he secured $100,000 for Gender Minorities Aotearoa (GMA), his nominated charity, an organisation dedicated to the cause of the transgender community.

"Yes, I was very proud of that and I was really glad to be able to do something for the trans community because it was a tough year for many trans people — all sorts of awful stuff around in the media and on social media and s... like that. Yeah, I was really stoked."

He’d actually anticipated some hostility for supporting GMA, maybe some online attacks, and was pleasantly surprise when it didn’t eventuate.

James Mustapic and his mum at the Dunedin Fringe awards night in 2019. Photo: Gregor Richardson
James Mustapic and his mum at the Dunedin Fringe awards night in 2019. Photo: Gregor Richardson
"I think it kind of gave me some hope that most people have their heads switched on. And I had lots of messages from parents and things saying, "my son is trans" or, you know, things like that. Yeah, so, I felt that was a real highlight of my life to be honest, doing that show."

Though he still ducks any suggestion of championing.

"I am a charity worker at heart," he says, laying it on like marzipan icing.

However, he did genuinely dig the whole Celebrity Treasure Island experience.

"Yeah, I loved it. I was talking to one of the people who was on the show recently and they said to me something like, ‘oh, I don’t ever think about it, that was just like a moment in my life and now it’s done and I never think about’. I was like, ‘I think about it every day, it is still on my mind. It has been a year now since we were on the island, last February. I still think about it all the time and I still desperately want to go back and do it all again."

Not that it wasn’t without its stressful moments.

"I really worried that I would be eliminated early but also I worried that I would find it too distressing on my mental health and too hard to sleep and too awful."

But in the end, he came away with a pep-talk from Tame Iti on top of the big prize, a pretty good three weeks on an island.

"It’s weird. It can be so intense and it can be so ... you really have to remind yourself that it is, like, just to have a laugh.

"There were a few people, well, one or two on the show, who I think forgot to enjoy it and have a laugh — might have taken it a bit too seriously. But you get so invested, because you don’t have any contact to the outside world or anything like that, you become very invested and it feels like, ‘this is my whole life and I need to win this challenge’ or ‘I need to stay in the game’.

"I tried to remind myself to have a laugh."

It’s tempting to draw a connecting line between that game show triumph and his Fringe show, "You Mustapicked The Wrong Guy To Mess With". But Mustapic pops that supposition.

"The thing is, when you have to apply for a show in a fringe festival or the comedy festival you usually have to have the name of your show five or six months before you actually do it. So sometimes you have to kind of guess what you are going to be writing about."

What he did end up writing about was "all the feuds I have had over the years, and, I guess, some of the beef I have had".

"But it’s pretty silly," he says, in case there were any doubt. "It is just kind of, it’s not really serious."

As for his mum, she might get up on stage, he says.

"Who knows?"

Though, at this stage at least, she has no lines.

The festival

 - Dunedin Fringe Festival runs March 14-24. From March 11-24 the Princes St Community Gallery transforms into the Fringe x Pride Hub. For more:

The shows

 - You Mustapicked The Wrong Guy To Mess With, Te Whare o Rukutia, Friday, March 22, and Saturday, March 23, 8pm

 - Late Night Line Up: The Second One, Te Whare o Rukutia, Thursday, March 21, 9.30pm