Performing in the new season of Taskmaster NZ is a dream gig for the veteran comedian, but the path was far from smooth. She tells Sam Brooks the highs and lows of a 25-year career.

“Butter knife. Butter knife. Butter knife. Meat fork. Knife. Ice cream scoop. Dessert spoon. Soup spoon. Dessert spoon. Butter knife. Coffee spoon. The letter A. The letter H …that half-full water bottle.

It’s the first episode of the new season of Taskmaster, and Justine Smith winks at the camera as she throws each of these items off the balcony. The task in question is to break open a small pot of crème brûlée in the most “satisfying” way possible. The half-full water bottle cracks him up.

Smith doesn’t win the task, but she’s clearly having fun doing it, and watching the comedian miss the creme brulee with an increasingly ridiculous number of thrown objects is a delight. It’s a scene that serves as something of a parallel to Justine Smith’s quarter-century of comedy. She may not have gotten the most points, but she had a great time doing it, and we had a great time watching her.

Justine Smith alongside fellow Taskmaster contestants Paul Ego, Josh Thomson, Kura Forrester and Chris Parker. (Picture: TVNZ)

As a young girl growing up in Christchurch in the 1980s, comedy was part of Smith’s family life – her grandfather was a stand-up back when comedians had joke books rather than setlists — but it wasn’t until 1997, when she was in her mid-twenties, that she was strong enough to do her first gig. By then she had a degree in photography, had moved to Auckland and ran a bar where a “slap on the head” was on the menu (customers would ask Smith “What’s a “slap on the head”? You can guess what happened next).

The gig took place at the Kitty O’Brien pub, the favorite venue for live comedy before The Classic arrived. The lineup included Mike King, Ewen Gilmour, Te Radar and Michele A’Court – a legendary list if ever there was one.

Smith learned two chords, made what she calls “a terrible song about the waitress,” and from that moment a 25-year career in comedy was born. In 20003, she won the Billy T Award for Best Emerging Talent; For the past few years, she’s been a staple on television, filling The Project, 7 Days, and numerous other panel shows, before landing her dream gig on the new season of Taskmaster.

“I asked so hard for this,” she says of landing the Taskmaster job. “I had my comedy director, my TV agent, me, Chris Parker, Laura Daniel, and I just bombarded them with my fucking passion because I wanted to be there so badly.” Despite her passion for the role, Smith knew being cast was far from a sure thing.

Taskmaster is a showman, and the cast’s lineup and chemistry are key to its success. If a season had two David Correos types, or even two Guy Williams, everything would go down. Smith knew she might not be the right person and she was ready to accept that fact. “Maybe I would have a few little cries in my Pinot Gris, but you have to get over it very quickly when you don’t understand.”

It was a Friday afternoon and she was sitting on set of The Project when she saw a missed call from Taskmaster producer Bronwyn Bakker. In that moment, she knew she had it – Bakker wouldn’t call her to tell her she’d been ignored. She returned the call and broke down in tears of happiness and relief. Then she continued the gig she already had.

Justine Smith on the set of The Project. (Photo: provided)

This phone hasn’t always rung. Although the past few years have been kind to Smith – with the exception of the lockdown, which she says has made her bank account look like it did in her twenties – there have been many lean times. . After the strongest possible start with the Billy T award, she saw her male colleagues start to get ahead.

In the mid-1990s, in her early days, Smith was one of the few women doing comedy. She names the others – A’Court, Jaq Tweedie, Cal Wilson, Irene Pink, Jan Maree – and of those, only she and A’Court still regularly give gigs, MCs and do TV spots on the neo circuit. zealander.

Talking to Smith in 2022, you can only imagine what an audience in 1997 would have made of her. She doesn’t apologize for who she is, what she says or how she says it. Sailors wish they had a way with fucks and shits like Smith does. She’s all about personality, zero fake persona, with a mix of “don’t give a fuck” and an assertive approach all her own.

A’Court, a longtime close friend and industry comrade, remembers a young Smith as an absolute whirlwind. “Big hair, loud voice, bigger laugh, all the confidence in the world,” she says. “And as funny offstage as onstage, which isn’t as common as you might think.”

Smith credits her initial toughness for being a bit older when she started and a bit tougher. “Some of these guys treated me like garbage, but I had this mindset that it was right on them. They look like the dick. She also saw at least one benefit of being the only woman on the bill.

“Fuck, I could see the audience was 50 or 60 percent female. I had this access to them. Smith thrived on the camaraderie of the women in the audience, but she also acknowledges the support of many male comedians, including Dai Henwood and the late Ewen Gilmour. It also helped that she was able to rise above the sexism that was a fact of life as an actress in the early 2000s.

“I wanted to be a comedian so badly. And I didn’t want to let any of those assholes stop me. That’s why I was a waitress in my fucking quarantine. I really wanted to do it.

“I wanted to be a comedian so badly. And I didn’t want to let any of those assholes stop me.

“I felt like I was a really good comedian, but stand-up wasn’t working for me because 7 Days ignored me for so many years,” she says. She describes watching the rest of her cohort – 7 Days mainstays Dai Henwood, Paul Ego and Jeremy Corbett among them – start buying their own homes as she still asked friends if she could borrow $20 until payday.

It’s not that his abilities were ever questioned. While comedy producer Paul Horan thinks it’s taken Smith longer to find her groove, it’s only because she’s more herself on stage than any comedian he knows. “She didn’t really create a persona to protect herself, and that’s an amazing choice for an actor to make,” he says. “This reality can cloud his indisputable skills. You might miss her phenomenal timing and smart, articulate writing because you think she’s having a conversation with you.

Smith says she hopes audiences were able to see past the boldness inherent in her act. “It’s really important as a comedian to be warm first,” she says. “You can be fucking brutal, but if they like you, you can get away with it so much. And if they don’t like you, and you blame somebody for talking, they’ll say : ‘You’re a fucking bitch.’ »

“You have to pack it, especially with men,” she continues. “You have to pack it for straight, fucking, boring cis-men. To make it acceptable to them, in a way. But honestly, I don’t care less as I get older.

In 2014, Smith quit the comedy business altogether to run the bar at the Q Theater, a few yards away from where his friends were still playing at the Classic. She had begun to resent her fellow comedians, not understanding why she wasn’t experiencing the same success when she felt as good as them. “I didn’t want to twist like that, I really didn’t want to feel like that.

“In the end, I was only gone for two months, because I realized that I had absolutely no other fucking skills.”

That’s when things started to fall into place. The longtime 7 Days panel finally began booking her, and she eventually became its first female head writer. She is now part of the show’s regular national tours. Smith is popping up on screens where you might not expect him – a role in Golden Boy here, a bit in Joe Daymond’s latest project there. She’s even booked every New Zealand comedian’s dream gig: hosting the annual comedy gala. “When I walked out on that huge stage and everyone was so warm, it was hard to talk. I felt very emotional,” she recalled.

Now she can choose her appearances — she’s not rushing into the Classic on a Saturday night for a few hundred dollars — but the gig that matters most to her is the one that picked her: Taskmaster.

Justine Smith with Dai Henwood and Rhys Darby on the 7 Day Tour. (Photo: provided)

Smith came to Taskmaster as a superfan – she watched all the UK seasons, the two New Zealand ones, and even attended a few of the live tapings here. She also comes to the show as a celebrity who has no interest in doing other celebrity shows – she shuts out Celebrity Treasure Island due to her lack of creature comforts, Dancing with the Stars for the huge amount of work required, and says filming his episode of The Great Kiwi Bake Off as one of the most stressful days of his life.

Taskmaster was Smith’s dream, although it didn’t make the filming process any easier. She knew she had to read the cryptic clues correctly, which her husband Dan reminded her to do, but when it came to doing the tasks, she found it to be a completely different experience than live comedy. . “You go out, you do your thing, and Paul [Williams] is there with the film crew,” she says. “Everyone is masked and no one is allowed to speak to you.”

For Smith, Taskmaster is a personal high in his career. It may not be its peak, but it’s the result of decades of hard work, tenacity, and talent to back it up. It’s the one that matters the most.

A’Court, who tours regularly with Smith on the Feminists Are Funny tour, loved seeing the producers finally embrace Smith’s talent. “She can win over any audience, knock the house down any night, and she’s 100% authentic and relatable. They finally fixed it!”

“It means everything to me that we both stayed, that I could walk into a green room and see her,” A’Court says. “We both spent so many years being the only woman in the room. Now the greenrooms are full of women, and we’ve been there for a very long time.

Although local comedians have opportunities for international success that did not exist in the same way in the 90s – hour-long television specials, the potential to succeed in Edinburgh or even Australia – Smith is happy to work here and take the occasional trip to Disneyland with bestie A’Court. In fact, she’s starting to think about what comes after acting. “I’m 53 and I know it’s not super old, but I don’t want to do stand-up when I’m 60. There are people who do it, and it’s great, but I think it’s something I should probably do.” have a bookend.

For now though, Smith just wants to be the best person every step of the way. “I want to take it so seriously that I feel like I’m as good or better than everyone else on training.

“I want to be the one people remember – without being an asshole.”

Taskmaster NZ airs at 8:45 p.m. Wednesdays on TVNZ 2 and on TVNZ+.