‘I still get really intimidated by teenage boys in rugby uniform’

Award-winning funnyman Chris Parker finds a return to school is an emotional visit, writes Charlie Gates.



Stuff NZ Newspapers


Focus Sound & Vision

Comedian Chris Parker is sitting at a picnic bench at his old school in Christchurch when a team of teenage rugby players stream past. He leans forward and whispers. ‘‘I still get really intimidated by teenage boys in rugby uniforms. It’s like, oh my God, don’t look at me. Don’t talk to me. I’m so scared they will pick on me or something. It doesn’t go away.’’ Parker has come full circle – returning to the school where he first discovered performing to film a new comedy special for TVNZ. Since leaving Christchurch Boys’ High School in 2008, Parker has won awards for his stand-up comedy, become an Instagram star, and been catapulted into the mainstream after winning reality show Celebrity Treasure Island. During a break in filming, he looks across the giant expanse of rugby pitches, where the school has trained 46 All Blacks. ‘‘I have never set foot on that field. It is such a lovely bit of grass. This place is quite interesting because it’s known for its rugby, but it’s not really known for its gay comedians. It was hard, doing drama and stuff here. You were so isolated and alone. You just have to look at the visual of how much space sport takes in this school compared to the one drama department.’’ Parker’s special will combine stand-up comedy filmed at the school, in front of an audience of former teachers and pupils, with documentary sections examining the changing culture of boys schools in New Zealand, his sometimes tough experiences at his alma mater, and how things have changed since he left in 2008. He remembers how the school introduced him to theatre and comedy, but also how tough it was to grow up as a closeted and gay teenager in an all-boys school that prized sport. Of course, as a stand-up comedian, Parker has the perfect anecdote to capture that contradiction. He was in year nine and was cast in a senior production of a musical. ‘‘I was loving that. I was around these older kids that were talking about parties and the energy was intoxicating. ‘‘We had to promote the production and decided to do one of the numbers at assembly. I had to sing, with my unbroken voice, a solo in front of the whole assembly. ‘‘Lunchtime, after the assembly, I was the absolute target. I texted my mum and asked: ‘What do you do when you are being teased by everyone in the school?’ It was the whole school.’’ He explored the trauma of his school days in the stand-up comedy show, Camp Binch, which won the Fred Award for best Kiwi show at the Comedy Festival in 2018. But he believes his experiences at the school, both good and bad, helped shape him as a person and a performer and he wants the television show to take a more balanced approach. ‘‘It’s so easy for people to say it was shit and hard and the worst years of my life and throw their gay hyperbole around. It is that for some people but, for me, what were the benefits and the hardships? Coming back into this space is about repairing it or helping shape it rather than leave that in the past. The culture will never shift then.’’ And Parker hasn’t shied from returning to the very heart of his old school. The stand-up comedy section of the show was recorded over three nights in ‘‘The Big Room’’, which is used as a staff room but was a performance space during Parker’s time at the school. He worried that he had created an impossibly tough gig for himself. ‘‘I’m doing it in a space where I don’t really feel comfortable performing – I have had some of the biggest comedic bombs of my career in this space – and I’m doing it for an audience that might not necessarily want to see an hour of comedy by me.’’ But, on the last night of recording, Parker more than overcame these barriers. He commanded and reclaimed the space feeling passionate, cathartic and hilarious as he talked about his teenage years and his life. At the end of the performance, Parker reflected on how his school had changed. He talked about how the distinctive facade of the school, with its grand clock tower, was covered in scaffolding for renovations. This was something he talked about earlier, out on the picnic bench. ‘‘I like that the school is under repair, because so is the institution. It’s like this beautiful visual metaphor, because the work being done on the building is also being done on the way the school works now. This place has changed and I have changed.’’ When he reflected on this progress at the end of his stand-up show, he was briefly overwhelmed. He broke into tears and left the stage, applause filling the room behind him.