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City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Tom Sainsbury on Yvonne Todd, Lockdown, and Gingerbread, Prrit, Prrit

18 May, 2020

Megan Dunn talks to comedian Tom Sainsbury.

In lockdown I found myself caught in a haze of Zoom meetings and consuming endless content online like static. In this state, I was most receptive to the work of comedian and satirist Tom Sainsbury. His Snapchat characterisations of Kiwis responding to Covid-19 made me laugh at a time when I really needed it.

Megan Dunn: When did you get the approach to be one of Creative New Zealand’s new ‘Thankful for Art‘ campaign artists? And has your online audience grown in lockdown? 

Tom Sainsbury: I think I was one of the last artists to be asked to partake in #TFA. I guess they were looking for someone to pad it out. Joking. It was fairly early on in the process and I was honoured to be involved. And my online audience has definitely grown. I guess it’s because people are far less distracted by normal life and can finally focus in on my output. 

Your Facebook profile picture is from Yvonne Todd’s Ethical Minorities (Vegans) photo series, which featured in Creamy Psychology, her survey exhibition at the Gallery in 2014. How did you become involved in the vegan photo shoot?  

God, I loved being part of that exhibition. I was approached by Yvonne because we share a mutual friend. She was told I was a vegan and contacted me. I was already a huge fan of her work. And can’t believe my luck in being asked by her. 

Yvonne said you were the only vegan she photographed that projected a persona that made it a fun shoot. What look were you going for in that tie-dye top? 

I had no idea I was the only one! I guess I was trying to replicate how her models have looked in her previous works. I brought a few options of clothing to wear but we decided on the tie-dye top because it had the most personality and brilliant colours. 

Were you aware of Yvonne’s photography beforehand? I saw some kind of weird link between her passive-aggressive female characters and your cast of eccentric characters. You’re both doing forms of portraiture, with wigs. 

I was aware of her work and loved it. She’s really amazing. And her mum was assisting in the shoot, which was hilarious and awesome. And there were vegan treats to enjoy as she set up the camera. The wigs are definitely a link between her art and mine. But I feel her art has a wonderful posed artifice, whereas what I do has more rough realness. 

Do you collect art? I recently watched your video on art dealer Michael Lett’s Instagram, which features your bubble with some wigs and scripts strewn around and then a close up of a framed picture. Who did the picture? Who is the woman in it?

I’ve got a friend called Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu who did a commissioned work for me, which is the one you saw. It’s a portrait of Muriel from Muriel’s Wedding, which was a huge influence on me for many years. I’m a big fan of illustration. I have two Ross Murray illustrations from his Rufus Marigold exhibition and a Rebecca Ter Borg picture too. I’ve got two Pedro Fins animations and a drawing by Cat vs. Pencil—another Kiwi artist. Oh, I also have a prize Gina Kiel—a Wellington artist. It’s a rainbow whale and I love it. 

I have been following your Snapchat characters and their responses to the coronavirus as a tonic for my spirit. Angela discusses Mother Nature’s resurgence during the pandemic. It made me laugh for the first time in lockdown. Everything from the shawl to the comment ‘Since we’ve been working from home, kakapo have been spotted flying around and having fun on Queen Street for the first time in 922 years.’ 

Angela was inspired by people sharing memes about dolphins swimming in Venice for the first time in centuries. And my bullshit meter kicked into gear. Has that statement been peer reviewed? I was just channelling those sorts of people. I just wore the shawl because I was feeling lazy that day and didn’t want to put on a full costume, and the voice was the first one that came to me. I hope I’m not disappointing everyone by saying it’s all very slapdash. 

I also loved Tanya and her adult colouring-in books in lockdown, ‘things you can do just to make the time pass’. She describes colouring-in books as ‘creativity that’s been really really restricted’. There’s a lot of focus on art and wellbeing, and it was refreshing to see someone send it up for a change. What prompted Tanya?

Normally (pre-pandemic), I would do most of my character-study work in real life, being in proximity to people in cafes or in queues at the supermarket. But now I have to do a lot of my study voyeuristically by looking at how people are conducting themselves online. And it’s great. I picked up on a lot of people posting about being creative or learning a new skill during lockdown. So, that was where that came from. And the adult colouring-in books have been floating around in my mind for years. I’ve always thought they were a funny concept, but, when I tried one, I found it quite addictive. I tell people my mind is like a soup. It’s full of tidbits of dialogue and character types and speech patterns. And then it all seems to come together at an opportune moment. 

Are these characters and their conversations completely improvised or do you script them? How long does a new character take to create and post?

I’ve usually got an idea about what the character is going to talk about and then just go for it. I’m way too lazy to script something, unless I have characters talking to each other. Then I script it, because otherwise I’d get muddled. If I’m mimicking a real person, it can take hours before I’m even vaguely happy with them. But, if it’s just a random person that I’m making up, it might take two minutes to find a voice and decide on a wig and then fifteen minutes to make the video and edit it. 

I know your political satires of Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett have been really big, even with benefits for their careers, as noted by Paula. What reactions to these characters have surprised you most?

People told me I made them too sympathetic, which does concern me. But then, they are sympathetic people. My politics aren’t in line with theirs, but I do have a soft spot for them. In fact, I have a soft spot for everyone, really. And, if you perform as someone, you can’t help but appreciate their humanity. I’ve been surprised at people taking my improvisations and relating them to the actual person. I’ve seen people comment beneath Simon Bridges’s Facebook posts, asking him where his acrostic poem is. That is bonkers. 

I really like the women you create with tepid voices that think they’re really calm, like Donna trying and failing to take us through a guided meditation. But, at the same time, I feel like that reveals something awful about me. What does response tell you about audience?

I don’t think you’re awful at all. I think we can all safely laugh at people going through a trauma or tragedy that is huge in their minds but fairly innocuous in the big scheme of things. Donna couldn’t let it go that her friend stole her shakti mat. It’s a stupid scenario and I’m glad you laughed. The response from my audience makes me really happy and hopeful for humanity actually. It’s so good to know people are more than happy to laugh at themselves. I think that’s a good trait to have. 

As a whole, the characters you’ve posted over lockdown offer a multifaceted window onto society and our myriad of reactions to the pandemic. From cutting your hair in lockdown (a tragi-comedy, if ever there was one) to Warren’s bad feeling about the 5G towers (‘It was the aliens. Shit!’) to the narcissism of life spent in countless Zoom meetings staring at yourself in the screen pretending to listen. Who is your favourite character so far?

The hair-cutting video is my most successful video ever, which is bonkers. But my favourite video during the lockdown involved me having a relationship with a teddy bear that was placed in someone’s window, like everyone seems to be doing. It’s a very sexual relationship but it turns sour. I love it because it’s kinda dark, it’s very bonkers, but it’s a scenario that everyone can get their head around. Everyone has seen the teddy bears in windows and are willing to go on the ride where one of them starts a relationship with a human. 

What’s your own reaction to this pandemic? What have you been reading and watching to keep yourself sane? Or is it singing that helps, your solo concerts on your Instagram? Have to say, that was a very stirring and original version of Sex on Fire. 

Your personal research into my art has me blushing! You’ve seen it all! My reaction to the pandemic is enjoyment, I guess. It’s given me so much time to work on my own projects that I’d been postponing. And I’ve been reading so much, and watching movies, and going for runs. It’s been great. But then I’ll watch the news or see what’s happening in America, and it’s all terrible, and people are dying. But it’s hard to marry my current experiences with that. It just doesn’t seem real. People are now starting to get projects going again, specifically writing for TV and the web, so I’m getting asked to work. So, I feel like I’m not rattling around going crazy just yet. I’m looking forward to a cafe coffee though!

I watched your Funny As interview and was struck by you starting out in drama. I also liked your remark that maybe comedy works for you because you’ve never been really trying too hard for success—it’s an area that naturally opened up. How does not trying too hard benefit creativity?

Not trying too hard or not caring too much definitely helps with creativity, especially getting it out in front of an audience. I think, if it was really important to me, I’d be crippled by previous success, worried I won’t be as good as I was before, or worried I’m disappointing my audience. I think just doing something and putting it out and not caring all that much and not trying too hard allows you to keep going. Oh yes, and drama. God, I love drama. But there’s a finer line between drama and comedy than one would necessarily think. And my favourite actors can be very funny too—Charlize Theron, Meryl Streep, John Goodman. And vice versa—Jonah Hill, Melissa McCarthy. 

In that interview, you discuss the dilemma about creating a Paula Bennett Snapchat video owning up to the death of Jacinda Ardern’s cat Paddles. You were in a moral dilemma but decided you had a higher calling to make the joke. This is key in the arts right now. What’s too far? Should any content be out of bounds?

I feel, as an artist, you should never censor yourself. You can create something very offensive and no one can like it, but I think it’s better to live in a world where an artist can freely express themselves than one where you can’t because it feels dangerous. In saying that, I’ve done at least a dozen videos that were too brutal for people, the latest one being around all the animals being killed in the Australian bushfire. But offending people was a risk I was willing to take to make a point. 

Have you been trying out any Jacinda videos that you have not posted during lockdown?

I have been, but I need to spend a good day ‘getting her’. Mimicking her just doesn’t come easily! I just have to put in the hard mahi. 

I have to ask, what was the genesis of Gingerbread? How did you crack the name? I also like the name of Gingerbread’s Tonkinese nemesis, Uma Purrman. Names are an important part of creating a character. 

I meant to call him Marmalade, but called him Gingerbread without thinking, and then it was too late—everyone knew him as Gingerbread. It’s funny because I have people coming up to me saying they’re ‘Gingernut’s biggest fan’. So, I guess a name isn’t that important. I have a cat that visits me at my apartment called Una. I convinced myself her name was Uma and added Purrman whenever I introduced her to friends. It wasn’t until one of them said ‘it says her name is Una on her name tag’ that my ruse was dashed. 

Why is Gingerbread such a success? Is it because he’s a cat? I love the repetition of that eye roll after he says, ‘dropkick husband’. And that particular cat sound, ‘prrit-prrit’. 

He’s popular because, 1, everyone has a relationship or an attitude to a cat, and, 2, he can say the most outrageous things, and, 3, you can mercilessly make fun of a cat without offending anyone. And I’ve found everyone loves a catchphrase but I don’t think you can plan them. My first video of him included ‘prrit’ and ‘dropkick husband’ and everyone quoted that in their comments. So, I thought, they need to be replicated in the next one. And that’s how it all began. 

Megan Dunn is Head of Audience Engagement and Education, City Gallery Wellington.