Humour is one of the core cultural codes that makes New Zealanders unique.
When we first dug into the codes that make up the cultural DNA of New Zealanders, we found that Kiwis use their particular brand of humour as a way of obliquely discussing difficult topics. Five years on from our initial research, we now see that our sense of humour has matured. We’re still talking about tough topics, but with more nuance and care around who our humour is directed at.
Kiwi humour is distinct – Taika Waititi’s trademark sense of humour was distinctly recognisable in Thor: Ragnarok, much to the delight of New Zealanders.
The characteristics of New Zealand humour have remained the same in recent years. It can be dry, sarcastic and self-effacing, with a dash of cheekiness. New Zealanders traditionally used humour to break down barriers and connect with others by sharing a laugh. This often happens in less-than-ideal circumstances – humour can be used to lighten the mood or make the most of a bad situation.
We also use humour to broach otherwise difficult conversations. This hasn’t changed in the past five years. The laconic Kiwi humour still serves as an indirect approach to complex and challenging subjects that are difficult to address head-on.
Taika Waititi is the perfect example of this. He uses comedy to talk about quite serious topics, often juxtaposing jokes with moments that are anything but funny. He broaches everything from mental health (Boy) to social exclusion (Eagle versus Shark) to child welfare (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) in serious ways.
However, a shifting context has prompted changes to the way we use humour. In the past five years, Individuality and Social Equivalence codes have been seen a shift, with an increased emphasis on authenticity and respecting others' freedom to be who they are. With this is mind, there is a new sensitivity to boundaries and a tentativeness in using humour – no one wants to overstep. Instead of making light of important issues, now we sometimes just avoid them.
In 2022, we saw more awareness of social issues than ever before and an increased international influence on our humour. 2021’s Super Saturday Vaxathon even demonstrated how comedy could be harnessed for social good.
The more we understand people, the more mindful we are of the jokes we share. This understanding arises from diversity. Increased awareness of a more diverse audience is nudging along a maturity of discernment in quality and content of jokes.
Individuality has developed with people able to more openly express who they are. This coincides with a more mature sense of humour, shifting away from laughing at marginalised or vulnerable communities, which have traditionally been easy targets.
We now see a new consideration and appreciation of humour from less historically-represented groups. Chris Parker, Eli Matthewson and Urzila Carlson have shared immensely popular comedic content on gay life from the LGBTQIA+ community. Their identities as part of this community has meant they can offer incisive commentary into what it is to exist in New Zealand society as a minority, which lands very differently to straight comedians making jokes from outside the rainbow community.
With the evolution of the individuality mindset, there is now also more likelihood people will pull others up for inappropriate or offensive jokes. Given these changes, people have more reservations around humour.
Although there are some detractors who moan that things are now “too PC” and this is restricting free and easy humour, most people applaud the stronger consideration for inclusive and quality context and content before launching into a joke or a story.
Using humour to put people down is not okay, and victimising people or targeting specific groups based on their gender, sexuality, or cultural background is off-limits. However, appreciating humour while recognising the need to be more sensitive about it isn’t seen as contradictory.
It’s entirely possible to be funny without skewering vulnerable members of society and we now agree that humour is not a free pass for openly indulging in discriminating stereotypes.
Can brands still use humour, given the new tentativeness? Yes – if they use humour that feels like a New Zealand brand of humour.
Nicholas Holm, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Massey University, notes that Kiwi humour makes good use of rough edges, disarmingly odd behaviour and that our most successful comedies tend to "consciously and lovingly flirt with their own failure."
The current examples include Jono and Ben and the panel shows 7 Days and The Project. We’re also seeing a new generation of comedians like Jamaine Ross, Guy Williams and Laura Daniel acting as the new torchbearers for off-colour asides, affectionately needling heartland New Zealand. Therefore, while there is more consideration given to humour, and who can joke about certain topics, humour is still a powerful tool for brands.
Pak’nSave’s enduring and popular Stick Man works solely on figurative and literal puns of common Kiwi clichés, showing that it’s possible to be funny and tap into this cultural code without making people or groups the butt of your jokes.
Speights have modernised their type of humour in their Southern Man ads. Their ‘The Dance’ ad, showing men learning to dance together, softens the ‘Southern Man’ stereotype with wit and kind-heartedness. The ad still showcases the value of supporting your friends, but not at the expense of others, which was where humour came from in earlier Southern Man ad iterations.
ASB’s Ben and Amy has touched a strong emotional nerve with people. The humour is laid back, the jokes don’t hurt anyone, but it tackles some of New Zealand’s challenges, like saving for a home and financial wellbeing.