Hard News by Russell Brown

Interview: Matt Heath

The following is a full transcript of an interview conducted with Matt Heath of Back of the Y for Fiona Rae's story in the New Zealand Herald on December 3, 2002.

Heath and his partner Chris Stapp have sprung from an obscure late night slot on TV2 - making a programme TV2 seemed to no longer seemed to very much want - to a gig making programmes in London for the MTV Europe. Their vulgar, rough-edged - and very funny - kind of television appears to have landed in London at just the right time.

What's England like at the moment?

It's kind of a horrible place, but it's really, really fun.

Where are you at the moment?

I'm at the MTV office in Camden.

What are you doing working on now?

We've had a show on over here called Stunt Night. They played that here, a couple of times already. We jumped the five most famous New Zealanders on a BMX bike and a big cage.

Is that a show of your own?

Yeah, we did it for them, it's like music videos cut in with Randy Campbell and it was a stunt that was hyped up over the whole night, it ran for about two hours.

Is that the MTV Europe audience's introduction to Back of the Y?

Basically, yeah.

How'd it go?

It went really well. It's been funny getting fan email for people who don't really understand the concept of the show, but who like it because it's a kind of strange introduction, these moronic New Zealanders yelling at them for hour and then they jump over things. They seem to really like it.

What are they saying in the emails?

I'll have to find one that I can read out. I interviewed Nigel Planer the other day. He was dressed in Neil costume. [Reads from email] "Hi there Danny, it's Dave here, I'm just congratulating you on a fantastic show on MTV Stunt Night, you've come up with an outstandingly original idea and we truly enjoyed the Back of the Y Hollywood Special. Dave"

So they've also showed The Hollywood Special?

Yeah, they showed that a couple times. I don't have any problem with them playing things over and over again. Our actual series doesn't start until next year, our contract starts in January next year.

Is it going into Europe too?

No, it's only in the UK and Ireland, but if it goes well here ...

How did the MTV Europe deal come about?

We went to Hollywood to shoot Back of the Y Hollywood Special and we thought the show had an international appeal, I guess everyone thinks that about their show, but we thought we'd go around and meet some producers and stuff, but being the lazy bastards we are we didn't actually go and meet anybody until we got to London.

In Hollywood we were shooting the show constantly every day, putting in bigger and bigger plans and stupid stuff was happening, so when we went to London we had some time off so we thought we'd try and hook up a meeting and Tim Finn knew the head of MTV over here and we know Tim so he set up a meeting and we were in Spain at that point and we flew back for this one meeting and he said "look, I like the show, but I dunno how it will go with British people" and then about three months later I got a ring from a British guy who loved the show, who thinks it's like genius for some reason, so they bought it and we flew over here.

It was the Brent Hansen [CEO of MTV Europe, former Radio with Pictures producer] connection?

He's not the person who can buy shows, it has to be the person who does the acquisitions or whatever. We can't wait till our series is on, actually, it's going to be really fun, actually watching on the telly, we've seen our series so many times now.

But actually seeing it in England will be great.

Yeah, when we were watching the Hollywood special, we were thinking it's kinda cool that people over here are watching our crap.

Who were the five famous New Zealanders that you jumped over on a BMX bike?

They were all fake. Oh, we had Miss Taranaki, she was real. I'm hoping TVNZ will want to play it. It ends up with us jumping Russell Crowe, but he gets out, he jumps on the top of the cage and he starts reading a poem so when Randy Campbell comes in, Randy Campbell just flies straight into Russell Crowe, which is actually just me in a fat suit and we both go flying through the cage and we fall down on the cage and squash everything. We've got the America's Cup with Peter Blake's ashes in it that go spewing everywhere and a big fight happens. Just normal type of thing on our TV show. But at the time over here they've been choosing the greatest Briton of all time, so it was kind of a parody of that, like we were choosing the greatest New Zealander of all time, but we were also going to jump them, to make us better than the BBC.

Good timing on the Russell Crowe thing too ...

He's managed to make a fool of himself, all that fighting's one thing but the fact that he helped Ritchie Cunningham steal Peter Jackson's Oscar is what pisses me off. I was so annoyed, it would have been the greatest thing that's ever been done, ever, anywhere and Beautiful Mind is probably the worst movie ... I had Beautiful Mind on the plane, it's like a Sunday medical drama kind of thing. How's TV over there in New Zealand at the moment?

Pretty shit, actually, it's summer and we've just got loads of repeats ... apart from Back of the Y Hollywood Special there's not much else.

The Hollywood Special's kind of different, you know the series was a skits sort of show. Hollywood Special's more like a made-for-TV movie. There's Randy Campbell and Danny Parker and they go to Hollywood and it's kind of a story that goes from start to finish. Have you seen it?


It's different from the show, it will be interesting to see if the kids like it. We've sold heaps and heaps of copies of our video through the stores and stuff and we get email from kids saying they watch it every day, three hours of Back of the Y. Kids that are so into it and quote every part of it.

So it's getting to be like Monty Python or something.

Yeah, well, our big ambition when we made Back of the Y was that we were big Young Ones fans and we used to watch The Young Ones over and over and over again and could repeat every word of it. That's why it was so good when I met Nigel Planer, because he's our big hero - one of the four - and we always wanted people to watch our show like that. So we kinda made the show so that it had lots and lots of stuff in it so that it was worth watching over and over again. So the first time you see it, it seems 100 per cent moronic and ... there was a really good review in the Listener that said it was like a whole lot of pop culture eaten up and spewed on the screen. But that was a bad review, but it actually totally described our show and that's what we wanted, like in the Young Ones -- the more times you watch it, you get more and more out of it.

Pacing's important, isn't it ... if you do something fast enough ...

Yeah, we always had that kind of thing that with pacing - we haven't got time for it. Like when Danny Parker walks through the door, he always walks in fast forward from when he comes through the door to when he gets to the [???], or if anyone was to walk from A to B we speed it up. I personally get really bored in the bits when nothing's happening. I always wanted it to happen as fast as it possibly can, so that's why our show's almost in fast forward, because we're impatient people.

Where are you guys from?

Dunedin. We started down there and then moved up to Auckland, did Triangle TV. You know Back of the Y series one? We basically made a show exactly like that, but on video cameras and edited on two VHSes. We made that and paid for it, and got some sponsors and stuff to pay for it and then from that, a guy called Graeme Hill, he saw it and said do you want some help and went out and got us on TV.

So TVNZ said, 'yeah, we'll play it'?

No, we made a second series of Back of the Y, it was the same set up, it was Danny and Randy and all the same characters, but just different stories. We made seven episodes of that and a one-hour Christmas Special shown on Triangle Television, watched by an audience of our friends. There was a whole lot of stuff that we really wanted to do and we had a million ideas, but we didn't get to do, we didn't have any money and had jobs and didn't know how to edit or anything.

So you've actually been doing this quite a long time?

Yeah, we did the Arts Holes ... what we're doing at the moment over here ... I'm almost more interested in the Arts Holes we did. Did you ever see any of those? At the moment we're making an Arts Hole on the history of the Popstars phenomenon, so we're following True Bliss right up to the latest one, Pop Rivals. Obviously slagging it off. That was quite funny, we made this one Arts Hole which was really slagging off Lady Diana. It was really harsh on Lady Diana, and that's the one they loved the most. I thought they liked the Royal Family over here, but they all seem to hate them.

Hey, I went to see The D4 last night, went to see them play in this packed-out place, it was huge and there was tons of British people going 'D4, D4'. I didn't realise -- 'cause there's a lot of hype in New Zealand about The Datsuns doing well over here, but no-one seems to mention how well The D4 are doing over here.

Has that connection been helpful for you? The NME knowing that The Datsuns and The D4 are from New Zealand?

I think that sort of hype's pretty much restricted to the NME.

So they're not being played on MTV?

No, I guess cos they're more rock, y'know, MTV is more into playing Christine Aguilera.

Back of the Y must seem even more strange in between Christine Aguilera videos ...

Yeah, there's a show called Jackass over here and in America and stuff and our show gets compared to that. And that fits into the later time-slots, 10 o'clock time-slots. It's so amazing how well The Datsuns have done over here, I heard their album went to number one in New Zealand, is that right? The D4 were amazing last night.

Ah, yes. How long have you been in London now?

About a month.

And how long will you be there for?

It sort of depends. It's funny, because our show was supposed to start over here on the 23rd of November and they're doing articles on it saying the 23rd of November, but the contract we actually signed was for January, so it's a confusing thing where we should probably come back around January, so what we're actually doing is really just hanging around and getting drunk every single day.

Everyone tries to go out every night, it's not like New Zealand where sensibly you'll go out on a Friday night maybe. Everyone over here seems to want to go out Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. And Sunday. I guess it's because dark at 3.30, so everyone's a bit depressed so they go out and drink. We've had a month of partying, we went to Los Angeles on the way and stuff and it's like and partying hard. Put the kibosh on the partying and stuff, but it's really, really fun over here, eh. You can go on about how depressing it is, but it's actually really, really fun. You're in the biggest shithole on the entire planet, but it's exciting and there's lots happening.

Like, I mean, ultimately I'd much rather be at the beach, but it's really cool here. If we're to continue on our path to world domination we have to conquer London on the way. Americans can't understand our show when we play it to them. There was one guy we met from Texas, but it doesn't play that well to Americans. They don't understand the concept, they're like "but the stuntman's crap, why is the stuntman crap?" and "why is the stunt so stupid?".

Is that the irony-free American culture?

Yeah, yeah, and I think they can't understand what we're saying. I think the only one meeting in America about our show, and the woman was like 'I love it, it's really funny, but it would need subtitles, I can't understand a word you said'. We've just totally ripped off The Young Ones and The Goodies and Viz, so that's probably why British people get it.

When did you do The Hollywood Special?

We finished the Hollywood Special a long time ago and they're playing it now [in New Zealand]. I guess it's niche or something. It's like, you've got shows like the MO' Show where people travel around and talk to celebrities and it's all glamorous and stuff, but our show's kinda stinky and smelly, it's not as palatable, so it's harder for people to fit in.

You're a known quantity now though, we've seen the second series, the Hollywood Special isn't so wildly different.

Personally I wanted to make the Hollywood Special more hardcore, but in some ways ... but it's a bit softer and nicer because it's shot in Los Angeles, so it all looks good and it's shot on better cameras and we've got flash shots of cars driving around so it's all a bit flasher. But I actually thought that it was way more mainstream, but there's still our voiceovers are yelled so loud I think it's a bit annoying for most people. I think maybe I'm just trying to be cool and pretend that we're only liked by a select few, but we're probably like by everyone.

So why did you want to do Hollywood anyway?

I've got a mate over there and he took some time off work and said why don't you come over and hang out and we just had this idea that we really wanted to jump off the back of the Y in the Hollywood sign, it just seemed like a cool thing to do and once we had that idea it seemed like a thing we had to do, we got obsessed about it. We're going to Hollywood to jump off the back of the Y. When you get there, it's like "you can't go there, it's a terrorist site, you'll get shot". You've got to climb over barbed wire fences and it's actually impossible to get there, I didn't realise that, I thought we'd just be able to stroll up and jump off it. But we had to actually climb fences and go through bush.

And that helicopter was really there?

Yeah, yeah, when we were shooting another thing it was actually really dodgy because we were dressed up as cops with guns and stuff and we had a helicopter flying over our head and the helicopter had this thing that goes "Get away from the sign, you will go to jail". Chris actually got arrested at one point during the filming.

For going off the pier.

Yeah, arrested and dragged away and handcuffed and they were all wankers about it. But then by the end they were really nice about it, they changed from saying "you guys are finished" to laughing at us and thinking we were idiots. I just went in there and said "look, we're from New Zealand and in New Zealand we jump off piers every day and it's fine and we're just small and stupid and we don't know any better." But it was actually pretty dodgy when Chris got in the water, it looked like he was going to drown because there's huge waves and he was in full costume with his helmet on so the actual jump wasn't the dodgy bit it was where he was jumping into waves splashing onto barnacled poles and stuff.

So did they just let him go?

Yeah, he got charged and stuff. The other thing was that, I was filming it, and it was a really tough decision of when I intervened, because I wanted to get the shot of him being handcuffed and dragged off because it was going to be gold footage, and the other two cameramen we were working with were illegal aliens, so they couldn't jump in, so we were filming him, plus you've got American people filming him because everyone walks around with a video camera, so it will probably turn up on a stupid real TV show, so I kept filming but I also wanted to get him in handcuffs, but there was also a point where I had to put the camera down and go in and help him. That was just as the LAPD had actually come in, they'd actually handcuffed him and they were manhandling up these stairs. As a result we didn't get the best footage, which was him being manhandled by ChiPs basically.

So what did they charge him with?

Being a dickhead in public or something like that. A misdemeanour.

So did they let you go, or did you pay a fine?

We just left the country. We've been back since then and it didn't seem to be any problem.

I thought you could get to the Hollywood sign from the top?

Yeah you can't. You used to be able to, but people kept vandalising it and changing it. It's so stupid, Americans are so sure they're going to get shot all the time. No-one's going to shoot you for jumping off the Hollywood sign. They were saying it's a terrorist site. Rubbish, why would anyone blow up something where no-one's allowed to be? The world's not going to lose a lot of sleep about someone flying a plane into a few letters on a hill. The whole mystique about the Hollywood sign is so stupid, it's just some stupid letters on a hill. When I got up to them it suddenly struck me as ridiculous, the whole concept of some letters on a hill being anything other that stupid.

It's not exactly Mt Rushmore, is it? Is it just wooden? They looked plastic.

It's actually made out of sort of Perspex. There's a real soulless element to Los Angeles, I reckon. It's symbolised heavily in the fact that the Hollywood sign's made out of this weird Perspex stuff. Everything was so cheap and throwaway. Even though it was really nice, it's just not as cool as London, I love London because it's so cool, there's hundred of people around.

Like, the other day in London, right, I was looking out my hotel window and this sign got blown down on top of a guy. It was blown down from about three stories up, it was a huge heavy sign, it totally flattened him. Killed him and stuff. I dunno if he was dead, but if he was alive he was just a sack full of bones and they sort of just moved him slightly and then all the traffic just kept going around him, people seemed to not really care that this guy had just been munted.

I was thinking that it was kinda cool, a big freaky city where no one gives a shit about anyone else. People urinating everywhere. The other day the Tube got stopped because they thought they'd spotted a fire, but it was actually just steam from somebody urinating. The whole place stinks like piss, eh, it's a filthy, disgusting city, but it's wicked. We definitely want to shoot the third series back in New Zealand because you can do so much more there.

In terms of what you're allowed to do?

Yeah, yeah, you can flip a car in the street and just flip it back and wheel it in and sweep up the glass, you know? Before anyone gets there to tell you off, because it feels a bit deserted, but over here, you couldn't, you couldn't even park a car in the street.

Are you actually surprised that you've come this far?

Not really, I'm surprised we haven't gone further. With our show, people have often been telling us it's crap and generally reviewers hate it, but we've always had a strong belief that it's the best thing that's ever been made in New Zealand television history and I totally believe that, rightly or wrongly, that it's brilliant. Because it makes me laugh.

I was just making a showreel for a focus group today and I was just cutting up parts of our series and it was making me really laugh, and I guess it's just because basically it's the most in-joke television show that's ever been made. It's basically designed to make me and four of my mates laugh. So I was surprised how long it takes for people to catch on. I always just think that people would love it as much as I do, but obviously they don't because they weren't there when Phil slipped over.

Are you still making it using Apple Macs?

Yeah. I reckon that's a big part of it, the budget-looking editing. A lot of love and care goes into every shot, but it still looks kinda crap, because we use crappy programs and there's a drop out every few frames and it's rubbishy-looking. If we shot it on 35mm, the crapness of our sets and everything ... it's not Lord of the Rings. The sets are made out of rubbish and it would just show it up. It's good shooting it on crappy video cameras, it kind of suits the stuff we make, which is basically crap and in-jokes which are really stupid. It makes sense to edit low-rent footage of low-rent jokes on low-rent editing gear.

Does Chris Stapp get approached a lot by people who want to beat him up?

No-one really knows him as Randy Campbell, because they think Randy Campbell would be six foot tall, but he's only 5'7" or something - I think he's 5'8" or 9" - say 5'9" -- people don't know he's Randy Campbell. They often recognise Danny Parker. I'll be hanging out with Chris and they'll go 'Where's Randy?'.

I heard this real funny story, where a friend of mine overheard a conversation between these kids at a dairy and they were going 'oh, I just saw Danny Parker at the dairy' and the other says, 'Did you say hello to him?' and he said 'No, he would have smacked me in the head'.

It's like, I've never smacked anyone in the head. People expect us to do stupid shit, like we were doing a photo shoot the other day for this magazine over here, Sleazenation, they expected him to be a trained monkey jumping off stuff and setting himself on fire. It's just like, it's all done in editing, it's all done with mirrors.

The worst thing during this photo shoot was that they organised a mime and they said "can you go and do with something with that mime?" and he was just being an idiot, jumped on the mime, threw him to the ground and pretended to beat the hell out of him. He didn't realise that they hadn't really talked to the mime about it, and this mime just thought he was getting beaten up in the middle of Oxford Street for no good reason and the guy actually started crying. I ended up giving him a whole lot of guilt money. We're practiced in the art of fake fighting, so we have big swings that don't actually hurt, you know? This guy didn't know that, he didn't even know what was going on, so he just thought he was getting beaten up. He was saying 'I'm a pacifist, I'm a pacifist'.

Does Back of the Y have a philosophy?

We had some sayings while making the show and one was "close enough is good enough". Our philosophy's always been that ... we write the show when we're sitting around drinking and if we laugh at a gag then it stays in the show, so it's basically as long as we're laughing. I met someone just before who said "don't make it too in-jokey", I think television should be helluva in-jokey.

Why are you interviewing people like Nigel Planer and Brian May?

For the Arts Holes that we're making.

What did Nigel Planer say?

He was funny, because we asked him if we could interview him in the character he played in Bad News, we interviewed him as Den and as Neil, so he just totally hammed up that whole thing. It was really, really cool. It was quite surreal, because we turned up and he was there as Neil, who I've watched a million times. If you go to our website there's a picture of us with him on the front page of the website.

Another thing I've got to tell you about is our band's got an album coming out. Deja Voodoo. We've just finished the artwork and it's getting mastered at the moment, so it's going to be out in the stories.

Who else did you want to interview for Arts Holes?

There's this big thing called Pop Rivals, have you ever heard of that? It's like, you know there was True Bliss in New Zealand, they're making a girl band and a boy band and they're rivals and the thing is that they're both releasing a single at the same time for Christmas to see who goes to number one. That's who we're interviewing. I think we're going to interview Geri Halliwell because she was on it too.

Do you find any of this daunting, or is it just "let's do it"?

I really don't have any interest in celebrities. I'm interested in Neil from The Young Ones, but I find television's obsession with celebrities, I find it really glib - like, who cares? I'm not daunted by it, I find it funny that that's what we've ended up doing. Everyone's doing the same sort of stuff in television. Everyone ends up interviewing celebrities, but it's kind of a bore. When I say it's a bore, it's actually exciting, but it's like a bore for the audience I reckon. I would much rather see someone jumping off the back of the Y in the Hollywood sign than see someone talking to Geri Halliwell, personally, but I think I'm in a minority.