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Why the Darkest — And Funniest — Dark Comedies Are Coming From New Zealand

Taika Waititi’s ‘Jojo Rabbit’ is just one example — but you can’t miss ‘The Casketeers,’ ‘Dark Tourist’ or ‘The Breaker Upperers’ either

All things considered, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit has a very strange approach to winning over audiences. It stars Waititi (who is half Maori, half Russian Jewish) as a cartoonish version of Adolf Hitler, the imaginary friend of a 10-year-old German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). Like his dopey young friends, Jojo is eager to be a good Nazi in the waning days of World War II, and looks up to Hitler like a magical superhero while participating in book burnings and thinking that Jews have horns on their head. In this adaptation of the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Jojo is framed as a relatively innocent part of a terrifying piece of history — when he befriends a young Jewish woman (Thomasin McKenzie) that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding, Jojo starts to reconsider that whole “being a Nazi” thing.

Jojo Rabbit makes a lot more sense if you look at its “anti-hate satire” in the context of New Zealand’s sense of humor, a blend of dark comedy perfection of which Waititi is but one ambassador. Just watch this minute-long anti-drunk-driving PSA from 2011, which is easily the funniest commercial of its kind ever made:

Waititi handily summarized Kiwi and Maori humor to the Sydney Morning Herald back in 2010 when promoting his movie Boy (which threads a tough story about flawed parents with a young man’s whimsical coming-of-age): “It’s colonial outpost humor: You’ve just got to laugh at awkward, crazy, painful stuff when you’ve been banished to the nether regions of the globe.” He went on to add, “Maori humor is quite self-deprecating. It’s more true to life to see humor among really upsetting situations — laughing and crying at the same time — dealing with things by trying to see the flip side.”

A recent batch of hilarious imports have gained wider audiences because of these comedic values, like the 2019 anti-rom-com The Breaker Upperers. Written and directed by Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek, the film builds its premise out of the very real, very painful process of having to put a strained relationship out of its misery. Sami and Van Beek play two members of an agency that’ll do to the breaking up for you, but in hilariously cold-hearted ways. For example, they’ll tell the person being dumped that their partner was cheating on them (by surprising them with a fake pregnant belly), or that their lover went missing or that they’ve been murdered. The movie is hilarious, in part, because it dares to hit traumatic memories of a dumping head-on.

Meanwhile, one of the country’s most popular reality shows, The Casketeers, is about, of all hilarious premises, funeral home directors. And yet it breezes by with the lightness of a Great British Bake Off episode, mixing the low-key operations of a workplace comedy with the gravity of daily funeral services.

Gifted to the world by the producers of The Bachelor New Zealand, The Casketeers documents the humdrum goings-on of a funeral home in the Auckland suburb of Onehunga. Bashful Maori teddy bear Francis becomes fixated on small, Seinfeldian issues like getting a decent leaf blower or someone eating the biscuits saved for the guests. In one of the show’s more poignant moments, Francis talks in his deadpan way about having to light matches whenever someone uses the parlor’s bathroom, because he doesn’t want the funeral service next door to smell any poo.

I can’t imagine an American reality show achieving the type of respectful balance between death and comedy that The Casketeers consistently maintains. Within such reverence, too, the series is educational about different Maori traditions, which both the show and its subjects are unquestionably serious about.

Along those lines, Kiwi journalist David Farrier has a show on Netflix called Dark Tourist, where he ventures around the world to different sights of morbid amusement. (You might remember Farrier from co-directing and “starring” in the jaw-dropping documentary Tickled, in which he went up against the blackmail-savvy Goliath of the tickling industry.) The first season of Dark Tourist includes Farrier strolling through Japan’s Suicide Forest, engaging in a bit of “nuclear tourism” in Kazakhstan and participating in a violent voodoo ritual in Benin. Among the best segments, however, has Farrier taking a Jeffrey Dahmer tour, introducing Milwaukee as a city that’s “famous for beer and cheese… and a serial killer.”

Farrier, with his deadpan Kiwi delivery and lack of ego, is an ideal guide to these disturbing corners of the world. He merely lets the absurdity unfold around him, like when getting involved with a World War II reenactment festival that includes men dressed up as Nazis (though they demand to be called “Germans”), or when he walks through an English museum of real-life horrors that features a lampshade made of skin. The same goes for the Charles Manson fans that Farrier meets in California, who talk earnestly about the purpose Manson has given them. At no point does Farrier pass judgment on them; instead, he tries to understand them for whoever they are, while he lightens the mood with self-effacement.

Farrier has told Australia’s Saturday Paper that both his on- and off-camera persona is very Kiwi. “I think maybe some people mistake my kind of deadpan nature with not being engaged with it — but I am,” he explained. “It’s just kind of the Kiwi way, I think, being a little bit more low-key.”

And whether it’s Farrier or Waititi or Sami and van Beek or Francis the funeral director, it’s a key the rest of the world could be a little more in tune with.