How to Speak New Zenglish:
An Interview with Jesse Mulligan

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
Comedian Jesse Mulligan wittily nailed gay marriage in a minute. SARADHA KOIRALA chats with Mulligan about his new book, How to Speak New Zenglish.

Jesse Mulligan has his in fingers all kinds of pies. He’s a food critic, blogger, comedian and broadcaster, and has just published a book, How to Speak New Zenglish (Penguin, NZ$17.99). “Essentially a dictionary” he says, but it’s definitely funnier than a dictionary, and raises questions about our sophistication as a nation and our collective identity.

He’s not the first person to point out that New Zealanders have a funny way of talking and anyone who’s been on their O.E (i.e. been to London, as pointed out in ‘The Big O.E’ section) will have been made acutely aware of their own use of New Zenglish. “When I was working in an office in London people thought my name was “Jiffy”… it’s strange to have to learn to pronounce your own name differently. Jassy.

So he wanted this book to be more than just “gag after gag” about pronunciation, “it’s about our attitudes as well.” The tone shifts for each section, so that where ‘Shopping at the Mall’ humorously describes “escalator” as:

1. a mechanised moving staircase; 2. an indication you’ll seek further information at a later date e.g. ‘Do you need directions to the mall?’ ‘No, don’t worry, I’ll escalator if I need to.’

The ‘Talking about Politics’ section makes a stronger social comment:

Illiction a three-yearly vote on which group of middle-aged white men will run the country until next time. MMP a new system designed to replace about six of these men with Asian transsexual Rastafarians, because 114 white men plus six non-white non-men equals diversity.

Yikes. “You can’t be unsophisticated and precious about it at the same time.” So New Zealanders are unsophisticated? “No-nonsense is the nicer way of saying that,” or “allergic to pretentiousness.”

For most New Zealanders there’s a mixture of both pride and cringe in our use of language. We like that we’re no-nonsense but there’s something irksome about our nation’s leaders—our “Pro Mister” as he calls himself—not making more of an effort to speak properly. “I think that’s why he’s so popular though,” Jesse points out. “He’s just being himself and people seem to like that.” He did however provide rich material for Jesse’s book, “there’s a guy who does really good impressions of John Key on You Tube that I used for parts of the book.” Other sources included the impassioned outpourings on twitter during the Olympics. “We’re a passionless people until it comes to sport.” In the last few weeks of putting the book together, Jesse retreated to a beach house and immersed himself in the rich material offered up by social media.

How to Speak New Zenglish helps us embrace our shared inadequacies, “the cringe disappears when you accept it,” Jesse says. I had several “It’s so true!” moments when reading, (Trolley 1. a wheeled metal cart used for holding groceries; 2. an exclamation of surprise from a checkout operator e.g. ‘Trolley?! Darren said that to you? Tell me it’s not troe!’) However, I’m personally not ready to accept it entirely.

When I listen to mainstream news, I’m constantly distracted by poor pronunciation, misused phrases, mixed-metaphors and horrible puns—should I stop being such a snob and just submit to this New Zenglish? “No, I’m with you.” Jesse says, adding awful clichés and verbless sentences to my list of grievances. We probably have to accept it but we can still be incensed by it, he says.

And so he should be concerned with correct grammar; he points out the commonality between all his lines of work is “being able to turn a phrase,” which he certainly can do. “I make excuses not to go to group dinners generally, what with the latecomers, the loudness, the split bills,” he writes on his funny Auckland Food Blog, “no matter how much I try to relax, my shoulders keep absorbing all the awkwardness and tension in the room until I can barely grip my fork.” He’s also well-known for his work both behind the scenes and on screen for TV3’s often hilarious 7 Days.

In an interview with Matt Hicks in March, Jesse spoke about the move from 7 Days to One’s Seven Sharp. “It isn’t easy to go from a loved person on a loved show to being an annoying person on a new show. My plan is to turn it around of course, as quickly as possible—if I manage to do that then I’ll have achieved something much more valuable and rewarding than staying somewhere that was already successful.” So how’s that working out? “It’s getting better, we’re becoming more loved.” The ratings for Seven Sharp have been increasing steadily, and the daily format means there’s no long wait for feedback and they can work with it and improve each time. The idea with Seven Sharp is to be “tight but loose,” trying to get a sense of easy banter without rambling on too much. Where 7 Days was two to three hours of filming cut down to 22 minutes of “comedy gold,” Seven Sharp is “just that 22 minutes.” He’s enjoying the challenge.

So what next after How to Speak New Zenglish? I point out that, apart from “kyora” there’s little reference to Te Reo in the book. “I had to keep something for the sequel,” he jokes. In fact he says he realised afterwards that a section on place names would have been a good addition, citing weather reporters’ constant fear and destruction of names like “Taupo.” I suggest a New Zild cookbook written in plain New Zenglish or a survival guide to small towns, perhaps? “All good ideas.” He sounds enthusiastic, but will wait to see how How to Speak New Zenglish is received by the no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is New Zealand public.

Saradha Koirala is a poet; and a Lumière contributing editor, with a focus on books. She is part of @alexanderbisley’s crew covering the 2013 Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, including interview features with Kate Atkinson and Shehan Karunatilaka.