Being a TV star in New Zealand isn’t your full, Hollywood experience.
For one thing, Jemaine Clement can tell you, budgets are slim. His “What We Do in the Shadows” is made with American money. “Wellington Paranormal” (shown here) – belatedly reaching the U.S. on July 11 – was originally just for New Zealand and is “probably between one-fifth and one-tenth of the budget.”
So the actors might keep their day jobs. For the first three seasons, Karen O’Leary was a TV star AND kindergarten teacher. “The kids don’t care at all,” she said. “And that’s the good thing about children.”
There’s one other key difference: New Zealand shows – or, at least, “Wellington Paranormal” – might be funnier than American ones.
This summer, situation comedies have hit a low. NBC, former home of “must-see” sitcoms, has none.
But coming up are two new shows that some viewers will find hilarious: “Wellington Paranormal” debuts at 9 and 9:30 p.m. Sunday (July 11) on CW; “Miracle Workers” starts its third season at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday (July 13) on TBS.
Both thrive on droll understatement: “Miracle” stars Daniel Radcliffe (an Englishman) and was created by Simon Rich (an American with British sensibilities); “Wellington” has similar influences.
“Most of the stuff we saw on television was British,” said Mike Minogue, one of the stars. “It was ‘Black Adder’ and ‘The Young Ones’ and just heavily, heavily British.”
That humor often has the “Monty Python” notion: Put something ridiculous alongside a stiff-upper-lip soul who under-reacts. Clement says that fits his countrymen perfectly.
“New Zealanders find it very difficult to emote,” he said. “That’s kind of naturally funny, to watch people struggling to say how they feel.”
Back in 2005, he and Taika Waititi used that sort of humor to create a 27-minute “What We Do in the Shadows.” Clement went on to do two seasons of “Flight of the Conchords” for HBO and became a frequent guest star (especially with cartoon voices) in the U.S. But back home, he and Waititi were creating and starring in the 2014 movie version of “What We Do in the Shadows.”
For that, he needed two cops to under-react to the vampires; he spotted Minogue in a small movie. “It was a dramatic role,” Minogue said. “And Jemaine saw that and he goes, ‘Oh, this guy’s funny.’”
The other role went to O’Leary, the teacher. “One of the parents at my work was the casting director,” she said. “So she got me to have a chat with a casting agent and it turned out it was an audition.”
At school, she says, she was quite cheery and animated. “I’ve always really valued fun as one of the best strategies for learning.” But in the movie, she was a non-actor, playing it straight. “Probably, that worked in my favor and maybe in the show’s favor.”
Clement thought so. “By their second take, Taika and I were saying, ‘This should be a show. These guys are so great together.’”
So in 2018 – a year before they launched “Shadows” as a U.S. series on FX, they created “Wellington,” with those same cops calmly confronting outrageous monsters. The boss is played by Maaka Pohatu, who (like Clement and Waititi) is a musician and comedian with aboriginal Maori roots.
The show survived tight budgets – “we’ll just say, ‘What have you got laying around your studio?’” Clement said – and COVID. The third season was filmed during a lull in the crisis; O’Leary continued her day job, via virtual-classroom.
Now the fourth season has started filming, while the first two reach the CW this summer. Waititi is on to other things; “Jojo Rabbit” brought him an Oscar for best script and a nomination for best-picture. The others, however, remain … and O’Leary has finally retired after 21 years of teaching.
“Now I’ve become a full-time actor,” she said. “So I pretty much don’t work.”