Urzila Carlson prepares to make history at Melbourne comedy festival

It's mid-morning and Urzila Carlson is already on. She's standing in front of a red screen, delivering her imitations of cliched cover shots from other magazines. "US Weekly," she says, then adopts a comically vapid expression. "Money Matters," her hands on hips. "Guns and Ammo," her trigger finger points straight at the camera. "Horse and Hound," she puckers up.

Then she tosses her hair, "Playboy!" She lunges, pushes her chest out and sticks her finger in her mouth, perfectly lampooning a seductive pose.

Urzila Carlson: ‘Everyday, at least I hope I make someone laugh and when they laugh, I write that down.’Credit:Justin McManus

There's only three of us in the M Magazine photo studio for our cover shoot, making us undoubtedly one of the smallest audiences she's had since her stand-up career began just over a decade ago, however our raucous laughter is unanimous.

"Her joy is contagious," says her regular hair-and-make-up artist Margie Skeggs a little later when Carlson is out of the studio changing outfits. Contagious is a good word for it as Carlson's popularity continues to spread like herpes through the Playboy mansion.

Carlson with Nazeem Hussain (left) and Matt Okine in Orange Is The New Brown.Credit:SEVEN NETWORK

In New Zealand, she has sold out every solo show she's done since 2009 and won Best Female Comedian at the NZ Comedy Guild Awards six times as well as the coveted People's Choice Award two years running at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Given our larger population, she has arguably a much larger fan base here.

Her national tour of Australia will take her to 10 cities and regional centres across Australia, which will culminate with three shows in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House in June. Since announcing the tour at the start of February, demand is such they've already added seven extra shows and she hasn't even set foot on stage yet. The tour begins this week at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and when she takes to the stage with her latest show Loser, she will make history as the first female comedian to perform a full run in the Main Room at the Town Hall.

What does this mean to her? "It's great but I don't really think about it. Honestly, the way comedy is going and the way women are dominating at the moment, I won't be the last. Don't get me wrong, it's great but I try not to think about it too much. It would be nice if it was a total non-event, you know, if it wasn't even a thing," says Carlson, who is also booked to host the Comedy Festival's Opening Night Comedy Allstars Supershow.

It's mid-February and Carlson is only in Australia for a hectic 48 or so hours. A media day in Sydney is followed by a packed media day in Melbourne with a couple of corporate gigs in the evenings. When M Mag meets with her at Bistro Guillaume in Crown Towers, she's already knocked out a couple of radio interviews and chatted with a student journalist. After spending a couple of hours over lunch, where she has the barramundi and some gin and tonic, in the car afterwards she describes that as having felt like a mini holiday, as she heads for more radio interviews: a pre-record with KIIS FM and a live interview with Jane Kennedy and Mick Molloy on Triple M.

Carlson, seen with Ed Kavalee, Mick Molloy, Kitty Flanagan and Sam Pang is a regular on Have You Been Paying Attention?.

Live Nation's tour manager Tom Webster is there with her, ensuring she gets everywhere on time, however the rapport between these two is almost like watching a double-handed comedy act as they constantly riff off each other. "We just chat and then we laugh a lot, right, because what is the alternative? We're not going to laugh? We're just going to be super-serious?" When she invariably comes out with zingers, she'll stop to quickly jot them down. "I force myself to write every single day," she says. "I'm not saying everyday I write down gold but everyday, at least, I hope I make someone laugh and when they laugh, I write that down."

Carlson also likes to make herself laugh, gleefully recounting how earlier when her publicist asked for talking points for the radio interviews, she said she was preparing for a marathon. She also admits to having previously told publicists that she and stand-up Nazeem Hussain (who cast her in his Channel Seven sketch show Orange Is The New Brown) are identical twins, separated at birth and only discovering their true relationship now. In the interview she did earlier this morning, she dragged newly-single Webster onto air, telling Melburnians he was looking for a husband. Over lunch, she giggles as she sends her manager Bec Sutherland a photo of Webster. "Sorry about that, just have to get him in trouble."

Her phone constantly pings. Wife Julie, back home in Auckland with their two children, sends photos throughout the day, which she proudly shows across the table but will never name nor identify in any way publicly. There've been more questions from her publicist, and emails from around the world. Washington, Johannesburg Comedy Festival ("they want me to go over in three weeks. I'm 'mate, you're out of your mind if you think I'm not booked for three weeks from now! I'm booked til October!' so I said next year give me more time and I'll definitely go") and she's got a story about how a group of women in Sweden are actively working to raise Carlson's profile there in a bid to get her over for shows.

Carlson's fame in Australia has been considerably boosted by regular appearances on comedy panel shows such as Have You Been Paying Attention? and Hughesy, We Have A Problem. (She says one of the most commonly asked questions by fans is whether those shows are scripted. "The funniest stuff in there is not the answers we give to the questions, it's us riffing off each other or taking the piss out of each other. How do you script that? Tell me that.")

However, this new-found international attention comes from having been one of the 47 comedians Netflix handpicked to film a half-hour special in Montreal at the Just For Laughs Festival, one of the three biggest comedy festivals on the planet, for their Comedians of the World series, which dropped on the streaming service on New Year's Day. She had a few G&T's to celebrate and chatted on Insta-live afterwards about it with fans and Nazeen Hussain (who along with Cal Wilson and Joel Creasey were also featured in the series).

"I was nervous as hell," she recalls. "You go 'I've got a Netflix special coming out'," she says sounding calm. "And then you go 'I've got a Netflix special coming out and it's going global. That's all over the world' and you know Australian and New Zealand audiences like my stuff, I wonder if other countries will like it? That's a lot of hate if people don't like something, so I just knuckled down on the gin and tonics," she says laughing.

The feedback, she says, has been positive and it's collected her an additional 30,000 Instagram followers. Carlson, who was born in South Africa and emigrated to New Zealand in 2006, back when she used to work in advertising, happily refers to herself as a "lesbyterian". As her profile continues to grow, does she ever think about the importance of that in terms of queer visibility? "I don't think about it like that. I don't think about it as an immigrant. But then when I get emails afterwards that go 'it means a lot to me to see that you were there' then I go 'oh shit, yeah!' Just because I go bullet-forward and I don't think about stuff, because I don't allow discrimination to come near me, but there are people who don't have my thick skin and don't have my massive voice, they benefit from it. Then I'm like 'oh yeah' I'm happy. I'm glad. If it changes one life or empowers one other person, then I'm like, amazing," she says.

Carlson believes her thick skin comes from being the youngest and "growing up poor in a poor neighbourhood". She also comes from a background of domestic violence, which she details in her memoir Rolling With The Punchlines, which has been updated and re-released this month with an extra three chapters. They're not stories you're going to hear her tell on stage anytime soon, nor are they events that she has let define her.

"You can either make that a crutch for being an asshole for the rest of your life and go 'well actually I was abused'. Or, you can go I don't ever want to be abusive but I also won't let it dominate my life. I will make sure I am stronger because of it and not let it keep on beating me down every day. They do it once, you do it for the rest of your life if you keep carrying that shit with you," she says.

Instead, what you'll see on stage during Loser – which is about, in her usual unpretentious manner, how "we look at people who are losers but at some point we all classify as that, we're all a loser at some point" – is what audiences have come to love about Urzila Carlson. "When I write the show I don't go 'I have to give a message to this audience, how can I change their life?'" she says, using a hushed tone to mock over-earnestness. "I go 'what am I going to do for an hour that's going to make them laugh their tits off?'"

Urzila Carlson performs Loser in the Main Hall, Melbourne Town Hall, March 28-April 20. She is one of the 60 women in comedy who feature in Joanne Brookfield's upcoming book No Apologies (Allen & Unwin) https://t.dgm-au.com/3yDar

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