There is a moment just before Urzila Carlson steps onto the stage that she begins to question herself. She questions her material. Questions why she’s there. Questions why she ever left the safe world of advertising. There’s not one show when stage fright doesn’t strike Carlson – and there’s not one show when it doesn’t disappear the minute she steps onto the stage.
“I go, ‘Oh, right. I’m home. I know what’s going on. Don’t worry, I got this.’ The adrenaline pushes up just enough to calm me down.”
If this sounds counter-intuitive, then perhaps it is – but it’s the immediacy of stand-up that draws Carlson back again and again. “When you stand up in front of an audience, and you’re all nervous, and they’re nervous… you tell a joke and people laugh. You know you're doing your job well.”
This year, she’ll cross the ditch from her adopted home of New Zealand (she moved there from South Africa years ago) for a fourth time to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with her new show, Man Up.
"You tell a joke and people laugh and you know you're doing your job well.”
Carlson is a storyteller, and an effortlessly affable one at that. Her previous shows have followed her journey from politically tense South Africa to New Zealand and her thoughts on a society addicted to being outraged. Her stories blend cultural observations with highly personal stories (Man Up deals with society's inability to be at ease with her role as the quote unquote ‘father’ of her daughter in a same-sex relationship). An hour with Urzila feels like spending time with your funniest (and rudest) friend – which is why it’s surprising to hear how hard she’s working for every chuckle.
“I read somewhere that after 40 minutes, people lose concentration,” says Carlson. “So when I write the show I make sure that at the 40-minute mark, there’s something that will wind them up to keep them in the game for those last 20 minutes.” In last year’s show, while describing the birth of her daughter, Carlson whipped out the anecdote of the moment a nurse refused to look after Carlson’s wife in hospital when she realised they were a couple. “Everyone was really appalled,” she says, laughing. “Then, they were with me again!”
As Carlson’s fame grows on her home soil, she finds it all the more surprising to face audiences overseas who don’t already know and love her. “It’s the difference between cats and dogs. In Zealand, they’re dogs – they love to see me. In the rest of the world, they’re cats – I have to work for their affection,” she says. “They won’t just jump and greet me at the door. I like that moment when they look at you and go, ‘Who are you?’ and then you start being funny, ‘cos that’s your job, and they say ‘OK, she’s alright, guys’. It’s almost like they collectively decide that I’m safe.”
2008: Winner of New Zealand Comedy Guild's Best Newcomer Award
2013: Winner of TV3’s People’s Choice Award
2013: Makes her debut at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival
2014: Winner of Best Female Comedian at the New Zealand Comedy Guild Awards
Did you know: Urzila is an avid sports fan, and often appears on New Zealand television program 7 Days of Sport and hosts TV3’s Road Madness.