‘Any time Māori get together, they’ll want to make each other laugh,’ says broadcaster Kingi Biddle.1 In 2012 Biddle presented the television programme Te kāuta, an informal Māori-language chat show. The programme is set in an old-fashioned kāuta, the cooking shed beside a meeting house where marae volunteers prepare meals while exchanging rude jokes, outrageous stories and light-hearted abuse.
The subjects discussed on Te kāuta range from traditional history and customs to personal memories and opinions, but always with a note of humour. In Māori society, both in the past and the present, humour naturally accompanies every type of activity. Humour can leaven a serious situation, or can defuse conflict.
Humour in art: Michael Parekowhai
The work of internationally recognised sculptor Michael Parekowhai is known for its quirky, witty and culturally subversive qualities. He has exhibited massive white elephants in the window of an Auckland art gallery, which he said was ‘a little reminiscent of grandma’s china cabinet’. Other Parekowhai artworks have included a set of 10 guitars – a nod to Māori performers and the popular song ‘Ten guitars’ – outsized pick-up sticks and a magnificently hand-carved grand piano. ‘Humour's a really important part of everyday life, especially with art. You gotta make them smile before you make them think.’2
Becoming the joke
A 2007 study of workplaces with a high proportion of Māori found that ‘Maori humour is fundamentally different from Pakeha, both in content (what the different groups find amusing or ‘get’) and style (the way the joke is told).’ For Māori much of the effectiveness of a good joke depends on how it is told. ‘Māori are physical – look at our haka. It engages the whole body, the whole expression. So the telling of a joke is in the eyes, the expression, the body language. Our best speakers don’t just tell a joke. They become the joke.’3