Embodying ‘multidisplinary’ in its truest forms, comedian, screenwriter, producer and musician Jess Karamjeet is having an Auckland Pride moment. Alongside a feature as a playwright in The Rawdog Gaysian Playwright Challenge, Jess has also brought her successful musical stand-up show, REDUNDANT, back after the New Zealand International Comedy Festival 2023—and this time she’s hoping the queers actually see it!
In a bid to find her own personal Jenno (read on to maybe understand the reference), Jess (JK) chats with bad apple interviewer Devon Webb (DW) about the show, being a queer, disabled, bi-racial woman working in the arts and more.
DW: Tell us a little about the show—what sort of themes does it explore?
JK: REDUNDANT is a narrative stand-up comedy show, featuring original songs which I sing and play on the guitar. It charts my journey backpacking across the world from the UK as a queer, disabled woman—and the mishaps and challenges along the way—as I chased (or should that be slowly ambled towards, with regular sit-downs . . ?) my dream job as a writer in Melbourne on the TV show Neighbours. I explore what happened when I moved to Aotearoa, and when a couple of dastardly plans became ‘Redundant’.
Underneath, it’s a show about the importance of intersectional storytelling—in screenwriting and comedy—and is for anyone on the outside looking in, anyone who wants to make a change in their life but feels like they have something holding them back. I hope the show encourages more intersectional people into the comedy and writing spaces! I won’t pull you up on stage or even talk to you—I have ADHD and sensory overwhelm, so really it’s a miracle I don’t get distracted by the buzzing stage lights—but you will feel safe, hiding in the dark.
Being [an Auckland] Pride show, it’s also a celebration of queerness and how my identity impacted my journey, and the storylines I wrote at Neighbours. I know a lot of Kiwis don’t care about the soap opera over the Tasman, but it’s a British institution. It also gave us Kylie and Jason, Holly Valance and Margot Robbie (enough said).
DW: This project, and a lot of your artistry, revolves around being a queer, disabled, bi-racial woman. How does this intersection affect your creative process?
JK: My comedy stems from real life, so it was only natural that my queerness and mixed upbringing would form the basis of my first sets. The adage being: write what you know. As a cis woman who’s bi-racial, I appreciate my intersectionality isn’t always something that jumps out to audience members. That said, being a woman in comedy is still a rarity and something performers often feel the need to ‘front-foot,’ and I do the same with my intersectionality. I don’t want to have to explain my perspective on a later joke because they don’t understand me or my point of view. Putting it up top means everyone is on the same page.
Similarly, referring to my hidden physical disability (I’m also neurodivergent, as mentioned above) is something I only did during the last two out of four years of performing—prior to that, I was trying to gig and pretend I was able-bodied. My fellow hidden-disability friends will know that’s untenable—physically, mentally, and spiritually. I feel free and at peace, now that I can be myself.
DW: What are you most looking forward to regarding this run of the show, and Auckland Pride Festival in general?
JK: I’m looking forward to bringing this show to more queers! On my final night of the New Zealand International Comedy Festival (NZICF) 2023, I had four LGBTQIA+ people in the audience out of sixty. No shade to the straight, white men who came to support, (thanks for being rich and covering the cost of my expenses…) but there’s a joy and beauty to telling jokes and stories for people who align with me, and who can relate. They are laughing with the jokes.
I’ve been a resident of Aotearoa for five years, but it’s been a long process to feel welcome and at home. I feel like I’ve found communities here, and this iteration feels like everything is coming together.
I’m also part of The Rawdog Gaysian Playwright Challenge by Anti-Jaded, where I’ve been tasked with writing a play in a genre I hate. Similarly, I’m really looking forward to Legacy 7, a collection of six ten-minute plays by queer playwrights—and fellow Brit-Kiwi comedian Ryan McGee in The Scottish Kiwi! I’ll also be at the club night Nympho after my show, wearing lots of sequins.
DW: Has anything changed since REDUNDANT’s initial run? Or any evolution in your artistry as a whole?
JK: A lot has evolved! This material was developed during a four-year process, and the original run took place at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) in March 2023 under the title Redundant Neighbours Writer Does Stand-Up.
The NZICF version in May of last year was a different iteration—mainly because I knew that Kiwis (on the whole) don’t care about the legendary soap opera. They are meant to care more about this thing called Shortland Street, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it.
This version again has a few tweaks and changes, and you don’t need prior knowledge of Neighbours to enjoy, which is really just a Trojan Horse for me to talk about the very soapy topic of murder . . .
DW: Tell us a little bit about this new script you’re writing! How do you find the experience of semi-autobiographical storytelling?
JK: My TV producer (flex!) has cautioned me not to say too much—because Phoebe Waller-Bridge might steal my idea?—but I was really honoured to be given development funding in the December 2023 round from NZ On Air to craft a TV comedy-drama series.
Writing based on life is something I did during my undergrad, but I feel much more comfortable with who I am as a person now and the timing feels right. It’s very much a long-time-coming/dream-come-true project. I started writing as a child, completed a Creative Writing BA and Masters in Screenwriting, and have been trying to progress in these industries ever since. I just finished up a domestic thriller feature film for the NZ Film Commission.
Also, those sentences were hard to write—Tall Poppy syndrome, which I talk about in the show, is so insidious! But I’m excited by this juncture in my comedy and screenwriting careers.
DW: You founded PACSA, the Pan-Asian Comedy School Aotearoa—how cool! How’s that experience been, and has the interconnection with other Pan-Asian comedians informed your own creativity in any way?
JK: I founded PACSA (laughs) because I wanted to find more comedians within the Pan-Asian Community, and to combine my comedy and writing skills with the pathway I developed a few years ago as a speech and drama teacher. Honestly, it wouldn’t have happened without the push from the Asian Artists Fund (CNZ/Foundation North) and I really would like to highlight what a great funding initiative that was. It meant participants could pay a token fee, and get to develop their craft and showcase a set in an end-of-term show. The whole thing was an absolute joy, and I’m gathering expressions of interest for the next cohort which will start up in May after I get back from a month of performing shows at the Melbourne Comedy Festival.
DW: What’s your long-term goal—where do you hope this path takes you, and what are your next steps in getting there?
JK: Oh. We did so well before I had an existential crisis! I don’t make life plans, or long-term plans because I have ADHD, but also because I like to keep my heart open to opportunities. Ten years ago, I was in a dead-end job, a toxic relationship, and planning to settle in the UK. I never would’ve imagined myself living in New Zealand as a screenwriter and comedian. Spoiler alert, there’s also a chance I have a hereditary terminal illness—but no, that doesn’t keep me up at night. I want to live my life to the fullest, and I think I’m doing a pretty good job . . . other than when I sleep in ‘til past 10 am—but that’s usually disability-related, so perhaps I should give myself a break!
I think creative life needs balance, and maybe my goal is to maintain that. Oh, and also to become the brown Hannah Gadsby, i.e. to meet the woman I marry (Jenno) who also happens to become my world-touring producer. Anyone . . ? Seriously, taking names.
My overarching goal is to continue uplifting stories and voices from under-served communities —whether through TV, film, comedy, or teaching—and to be able to do squats because my ass is so bony I now can’t sit cushion-less without chronic pain.
DW: Are there any other comedians or artists who inspire you?
JK: A bunch! A couple to check out though:
Jordan Grey, who I met at MICF and tried to convince to come to this year’s NZICF, is a fantastic trans comedian from the UK who lights up the stage. She’s multitalented as a musician and comic, and I adore her. Next-level girl crush.
I also love Rosie Jones, from the UK. She’s had so much trolling because she has cerebral palsy, and has had comments that she’s only got to where she is because of her disability. It’s utter BS—she’s hilarious. A really sex-positive, queer woman who doesn’t make herself the butt of the joke, who commands the stage and will have you laughing ‘til you ache.
DW: For anyone still on the fence about buying a ticket—any final statement to help sway them?
JK: My weekly disability living allowance is $1.75; hospital car parking is $6 an hour. Help a sister out?
Nah honestly, come and enjoy some music, stories and belly laughs. Say hello after. Whether or not you’re my Jenno, I hope you’ll go home with your heart feeling full.
REDUDANT by Jess Karamjeet will be performed at 6:00 pm on Friday 15 and Saturday 16 February at Q Theatre as part of Auckland Pride 2024. You can purchased tickets on the Q Theatre website.
The Rawdog Gaysian Playwright Challenge by Anti-Jaded has two remaining performances, Friday 9 and Saturday 10 February at 6:30 pm. You can purchase tickets via iTicket.
Featured images courtesy of Jess Karamjeet.