Urzila Carlson - Addicted To Comedy
The fat, funny, lesbian, South African Kiwi aims to take the bullets out of the gun!
Urzila Carlson / urzilacarlson.com
Unless you’ve been living in a cave these past few years, it’s unlikely that you haven’t heard of Urzila Carlson, the popular—and hilariously funny—South African lesbian comedian, who has called New Zealand home for the past 11 years. Her popularity is so great here in Australia, that she has just been announced as a nominee for an Australian LGBTI Award in the “Most Popular International Celebrity” category. She’s a regular at both Comedy and Fringe Festivals as well as selling out her own individual tours; is a host of shows in New Zealand “7 Days”, “Super City” and “Road Madness”; and a is a regular guest on a variety of Australian TV shows. And she has lots to talk about!
So let’s start with the move to New Zealand. That in itself tells a bit of a story of Carlson’s approach to life. “I had done no research, I just came over, and started living here,” she says. “There’s a lot of crime in South Africa, and I used to work for Community Newspapers so our door was always open, so we got robbed a few times. Then once we got robbed by these 4 guys with AK47s—it was quite impressive, they did a great job—and I thought I can’t live in this country if I want to have kids, and I saw an ad in the paper on the second page, and it said ‘Want to emigrate? Why not New Zealand?’ And I thought you know what, I can’t think of one reason why not. So 3 months after I saw that ad I was on a plane. I packed up, sold up and left.” I ask if she has ever had any regrets. “No, I don’t believe in regrets. There’s no greater waste of time than regret.”
Upon her arrival in New Zealand, Carlson began working in advertising. Friday afternoons would roll around, and she would have a few drinks with her colleagues, and they would tell her she should give stand up a go. “You’re really funny,” they’d say. Her response was always that she wasn’t interested, until she was ‘tricked’ into participating in an open mic night for new talent.
“They gave me this fake contract. They’d already booked it all in, and they’d booked seats for 70 of them, and a 5 minute open mic spot for me. And because I’d only been in the country for a couple of years I didn’t want to look like a dick and not do it, so I went yeah alright, so I signed it, and they all cheered,” she laughed. “That was the Friday, and on the Monday I went and did it, and we had a good time, but it was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.”
She stops to take a drink from her coffee, before continuing. “Then the next day I get a call from the owner of the club to say that I’m through to the next round, but I didn’t know what he was talking about.” After a few questions and some obvious miscommunication, she realised what the story was. Her colleagues had booked her in to a talent show—and she had made it through. She told him she wasn’t interested. “But then he tells me ‘but you’re very funny, everyone was laughing,’ and I go, ‘mate, everyone was laughing because I knew 70 people in your audience.’ And he goes, ‘I was in the audience, I don’t know you, I was laughing.’”
And then he said what she describes is her ‘trigger word’. “And because I don’t believe in living with regret I seize every opportunity, and he goes, ‘It’s a great opportunity, you should come back and try it.’ And because he said ‘opportunity’ I’m like, ‘oh shit, okay.’ Anyway, I wrote a new 5 minutes, I went back, I did it again, it was still a great experience, people still laughed but then I was hooked. You want to get out there again, it’s super-addictive. And then people send you messages and they go, ‘I’ve had such a shit of a week and it was real tough, and then I went to your show and I just laughed my head off for an hour and a half, and now I feel better, so thanks.’ And I’m like – that’s it, that is the pay-off right there; and then someone says don’t forget to invoice me, and I think holy shit, I get paid for this? I’ve got the best job in the world.”
Carlson is about to head off on a whirlwind 2 month tour, taking in a number of festivals and doing a couple of shows in her homeland for the first time. “Yeah, it’s pretty insane. Yesterday I got invited to do ‘Just For Laughs’ Comedy Festival in Montreal, but for now I’m back and forth between Australia and New Zealand until the end of July. Then I head off to LA, then to Montreal, back to LA, then a run at the Soho Theatre in London because I’ll be up that way doing my first Edinburgh Fringe. Then I’m off to Johannesburg, then back to LA, and then back home.”
A lot of firsts in there, I muse. Why has it taken this long to get to South Africa when there must be family and friends who want to see Carlson perform? “It’s basically so my favourite cousin can see me. He and I are very close and he always says, ‘I just want to see you do some comedy’, so I finally told him I’m coming back. I’m doing two spots of twenty minutes, and he can come on both nights and I’ll do something different, just so he can hear different material. Then he can come with me and be my plus 1, and he’s gonna get swept up in it, because it really is a lot of fun!”
Carlson has two young children, aged 4 and 10 months, and they accompany her and wife Julie on all of the tours. I suggest it sounds like hard work! “Yeah, but it’s good. We know that once they start school, I’m gonna have to put the handbrake on, but you know what, while they can do it, we do it! It’s a great experience. Somebody at kindy said, ‘you know it’s so important for your kid to attend kinder often because it teaches them about being social with other people’. I’m like, my kids travel the world, they’re social as fuck, don’t worry about that!”
Carlson spends a lot of time making fun of herself in her act, and refers quite openly to her sexuality and her weight. “I’m not one to pick on my audiences, so for me it’s about normalising the other stuff, she says. “Like I did Studio 10, the breakfast show, and when I left, one of the producer guys came up to me and he says, ‘Excuse me do you have a car waiting?’ And I said, ‘nah I’m just gonna Uber.’ And he’s like, ‘no car?’ And I’m like, ‘no car, I don’t know who the fuck you think I am’,” she laughs. “But he says, ‘I’ll walk you out’ and says, ‘I just want you to know that I am a gay man, and no one has ever come on the show and talked about their wife and their kids like it’s a total non-event.’” Her face is deadpan, but there’s certainly no joke or punch line about to follow.
“But I don’t feel that I should come out all the time. Like you don’t see straight people saying, ‘my wife—because I’m a heterosexual’, so why should we do it? It should be a total non-event, and more people should talk about it like it’s nothing, because it is nothing. It’s nothing special. Yeah I’m married, I managed to trap someone who wants to be with me!” she laughs loudly. “Who gives a shit if they stand or sit to piss, that shouldn’t be an issue. In winter, I put my cold feet against someone else, and gender shouldn’t come into it, it should be as normal as that.”
Then there’s a slight change of tack as Carlson exclaims, “And I’m always flabbergasted when people put hate on gays. I’m like, ‘Really? Is that all you’ve got to do with your life? How fucking dry is your life when you look at someone else’s sexuality and think – THAT, that’s the thing that’s going to push me over the edge.’” So if someone says to me, ‘oh, you’re a lesbian,’ I’m like, ‘yeah I know. My wife knows.’” She laughs wickedly, “And I’m REALLY into it!”
And her weight – that is something else Carlson makes jokes about in her comedy also, but it’s about more than just making fun of herself. She believes it helps to take a strong anti-bullying stance also. “When I go, ‘I’m fat’, people go, ‘wah’ and I go, ‘it’s okay, I know, it’s not a secret.’ I always say this is how we stop bullying,” she says. “Like say if you have a tail, and there’s a lot of stress around it now because you’re going to school and no one else knows it’s there. But you know its there, and then you have to go to PE.” Carlson’s voice strengthens as she raises her fist. “Own that tail. You rock up there and go ‘look at my tail. When I’m happy it wags—look at it, look how happy I am!’ So now no one can go, ‘you’ve got a tail.’ Because you can say, ‘I know, I showed you’. So you just normalise it. The minute you say it, it takes the bullets out of the gun.”
I finally suggest she’s not only a South African living in Aoteoroa, but an honourary Aussie too with the amount of time she spends here. “Oh look, I love it in Australia. People often say I should move there, but it’s only a three hour flight, so it’s easy to come for work.” Other than the numerous Festivals and tours she does, it’s her work on “Have You Been Paying Attention” for which she is most well known. “I love that show. I started doing it last year, and all the people who work on it are all amazing, because they’ve been doing it together for so long, and it’s not like work anymore. You know when you do something that’s so much fun then when I haven’t done it for a couple of weeks, I miss it, so I can’t wait to get back to it.”
And after the tour? Can we expect to see her back on this side of the Tasman again soon? “As soon as I get back in October, I’m in Melbourne for the last of my ‘Unacceptable’ tour, then I’ll wrap that up and bring a new show next year. I can’t wait!”
Neither can we Urzila, we’re counting the weeks!
Check out Urzila’s spot from Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017