TOM Sainsbury doesn’t try to be funny. Honestly

30 November 2023

Written by

Emily Brookes for The Post

Tom Sainsbury writes, acts, directs, even dances, and makes us laugh without trying. But as Emily Brookes finds out, he’d rather not be the centre of attention at all.

The Sweetshop

Tom Sainsbury has been travelling a lot recently. He’s been in Australia and the US, meeting with potential distributors for his new film, Loop Track. That means international flights, which means the arrival card when you return to New Zealand, which means filling out the box that says “Occupation or job”.

This gives Sainsbury anxiety.

“I put ‘television production’ or something like that,” he says. “Maybe ‘artist’. Or ‘storyteller’ - these are all very pretentious kinds of words. ‘Storytelling artist’ is probably truthful, but quite wanky.”

Depending on your age and demographic, you might recognise Sainsbury as a team captain on two seasons of Give Us a Clue, or roving co-host of Snack Masters NZ. You may know him as Wellington Paranormal’s Constable Parker. Maybe you saw his 2020 film Dead, later serialised for TVNZ+, or you remember his face from spots in shows and films including My Life is Murder, The Breaker Upperers, 7 Days and Baby Done.

Or you may recognise less Sainsbury’s face than one of the many he adopts via Snapchat filter for his popular social media satirical video series, where he is known as Snapchat Dude.

“People think I’m much more of a party guy... whereas my energy’s sort of sitting there quietly having a little conversation and observing people.”

What ties all these together is that Sainsbury is funny. Even in roles where the funny isn’t necessarily on the page - he’s funny.

I first met Sainsbury a few years ago on the set of Wellington Paranormal. “He says the same thing over and over, and it somehow gets more and more hilarious,” I wrote at the time. “In fact, he’s hilarious just standing around saying nothing.”

This time, sitting in the small lounge of the two-bedroom house Sainsbury, 41, and his partner, Jacob, have recently bought in the West Auckland suburb of Waterview, he’s barefoot, in shorts and T-shirt, reclining on the couch. We’re surrounded by a mish-mash of bland domesticity and avant-garde: a desk that might be from Mocka, covered in papers.

A life-size ceramic cat rendered in full tooth-bared snarl, bought as a gift for Sainsbury’s sister but so terrifying she gave it back. Two racks of drying laundry. On the floor, waiting to be hung, a framed print of a dissected whale with the middle parts depicted as snails. Many pot plants.

“There’s just something about me that’s clownish,” says Sainsbury. This Sainsbury is thoughtful, even introspective, but there’s something - in the particular set of his baby face, perhaps, or the cadence of his recognisable voice - that’s just funny.

“I’m aware of being inherently funny,” he says. “Sometimes I do just walk on a stage and people are laughing and I think, I’m doing nothing. This is all unintentional. There’s just something about me that’s clownish.”

It appears we know a lot about Sainsbury. He is not reticent, or media-adverse. He gives a lot of interviews and he shares a lot of personal information. We know he is vegan, and Buddhist. He is a sperm donor who is the biological father to two children (their photos sit on the mantle in the lounge). In a recent appearance on Wellington Paranormal co-star Karen O’Leary’s podcast Full Disclosure, Sainsbury said he was about 75% gay, 25% straight.

So here we have a vegan, Buddhist, queer sperm donor who works in the arts. But is that real Tom Sainsbury - or is it, as much as Fiona the wine reviewer or Gingerbread the cat or the exaggerated, satirical versions of New Zealand politicians he performs as Snapchat Dude, a carefully cultivated character?

“I don't think there are loads of people who know Tom really well on a personal level,” says Lara Fischel-Chisholm. The actor and dancer has been friends with Sainsbury since 2007 and the pair, once flatmates, together formed and lead comedy dance troop Dynamotion. They’re currently working on a new collaboration, Boot Scootin Boogie, a rainbow-themed interactive line dancing show that will premiere at the Auckland Arts Festival next year.

“He knows a lot of people,” Fischel-Chisholm says, “but he's very good at knowing more about your life than you do about his - which is perhaps part tactic, part humility.”

The humility is there. “I love that list that you gave of who I am, because I always think I’m so normal, I’m like the base of normal,” Sainsbury says. He insists the sharing of often quite intimate detail about his life comes not because he finds himself interesting, but from what he describes as a “toxic” innate urge to people-please.

“Part of me wants to keep all of that private, but my friend was like, ‘Hey do you want to come on my podcast about being gay?’ and I was like, ‘Oh, ok, to keep you happy’.”

His close friends and family, he says, are probably surprised by his public verbosity. “People think I’m much more of a party guy… and that I’m going to be a lot more funny, whereas my energy’s sort of sitting there quietly having a little conversation and observing people.”

“‘Storytelling artist’ is probably truthful, but quite wanky,” says Sainsbury of his occupation.

This is subtle confirmation of the “tactic” Fischel-Chisholm suspects.

“I think he’s collecting all the time,” she says. “I think he’s genuinely interested in people and he genuinely loves idiosyncrasies about people. I’ve seen skits where I’ve been like - is that me? Or is that my story? I don't think any of it’s with malice or judgement, it’s just that he takes delight in those idiosyncrasies.”

Sainsbury grew up on a dairy farm in Matamata, and it’s tempting to read him as an easy, recognisable trope: the sensitive, theatre-loving, sexually confused kid growing up in a small, parochial town becomes the silent witness, building up a steady stockpile of his antagonists' traits that he will later use to skewer them.

It’s sort-of true, Sainsbury says. He was “an outsider, definitely”, in the sense that he was an unathletic animal lover in a community of rugby-heads, hunters and farmers.

Still, he goes on, “there was no trauma there. It wasn’t a difficult thing.” His family has always been entirely accepting and supportive of him and at Matamata College, “as soon as I found the theatre kids, I found my people”.

His childhood did mean “you had to be good at reading people,” Sainsbury allows. “If you weren’t the majority you were the minority, and you had to fit in around other people and other energies and stuff. So it trained me to be more observant of human nature, I think.”

But that trope would be easier to accept were Sainsbury’s brand of observational comedy - which it all is, certainly - ever mean. Sharp, pointed, even arch as Sainsbury may be, his affection for his characters is always clear. This is exemplified by the fact that after impersonating her for years, Sainsbury worked, seemingly happily, alongside former National MP Paula Bennett for two seasons of Give Us a Clue.

In appearances on both Bennett’s podcast, Ask Me Anything, and Generally Famous with Simon Bridges - another of Sainsbury’s most popular characters - both said not only were they not offended by the videos but actually rather enjoyed them.

Sainsbury credits his long-running love for shows like French and Saunders and Kath and Kim as his training for this kind of humour, saying it’s easy to translate to Aotearoa.

“Yeah, there is a darkness in New Zealand, and there are things we’re challenged by, but there’s kind of a lower stakes life here” he says. “It’s gentler. When I’m in America or Europe it feels like WWIII’s about to erupt at any moment, but here it feels a lot safer. So I think that kind of gentler side really attracts me.”

But the darker side does, too. It’s certainly something he explores in Loop Track, which Sainsbury wrote and directed and in which he stars as Ian, who’s running from something that may or may not be real onto a multi-day tramp through the New Zealand bush. Set entirely on the fictitious Evers Forest Park loop track, with a very small cast, it’s sort of Man Alone by way of The Babadook - with, of course, a healthy splash of humour.

“When I was writing it I was like, I really want it to be grim, like a really grim psychological horror,” Sainsbury says. “But the scenario’s inherently silly, and the actors - in hindsight I just kept pushing them to be funnier. So I’ve got no one to blame but myself that it’s turned into this kind of comedy.”

It might seem now that everything Sainsbury touches turns to droll, but his earliest ambitions were to drama. After finishing high school, he says, “I was gung-ho to be a dramatic actor”. He auditioned for drama school performing “some kind of Shakespearean tragedy”. He didn’t get in.

Instead, he went off to study for a BA in English at Auckland University and concentrated on writing rather than acting. If you think Sainsbury’s prolific as an actor, get this: there are 34 plays he has written listed with New Zealand’s theatre portal Playmarket. He’s won the organisation’s Young Playwright of the Year award four times, been nominated for the prestigious Bruce Mason Playwriting award three times, written for several of the TV shows he’s acted in and many he hasn’t, and among his other accolades is a screenwriting prize for the Madeleine Sami vehicle Super City, which was directed by Taika Waititi.

Sainsbury says “yes” to too many projects, he thinks; that people-pleasing again.

“The writing this year has just been ‘Oh, I’ve pushed this deadline out, I’ve got 12 hours to do it’,” he says, not without rue. “With me it’s like, f…, I’ve forgotten something, something’s going to come at me from left field because I haven’t considered it or written it down on my list. I’ve definitely been blindsided with text messages going ‘Hey, how far away are you?’ - I don’t even recognise that number!”

Sainsbury is, Fischel-Chisholm agrees, “very sweet and generous with his time, almost to a fault. Tom will say yes as much as he can and then he will squish everything into a very specific Tom schedule and I don’t know quite how he does it.”

As a collaborator, he’s fully engaged, and without ego. “There’s nothing that’s off the table with Tom.”

When developing a new Dynamotion show, or the upcoming Boot Scootin Boogie, “we throw everything we think of in and then we whittle it back. I always look forward to making with him because there's a lot of ‘yes’ that goes on.”

Nowadays, of course, there’s an added bonus to working with Tom Sainsbury: he opens doors, he gets you meetings, because, thanks to Wellington Paranormal and Snapchat Dude and all the rest of it, he’s famous.

This word makes Sainsbury squirm on the couch. “It feels weird,” he says. “I don’t believe it. I don’t really see the evidence of it.”

Doesn’t he get recognised on the street? Well, yes, he concedes, he does. But he finds many of the markers of his fame intangible. An average video he posts, for example, will get around 30,000 views, but he’s never played a crowd anything like that big.

Maybe he also finds his own fame hard to measure because he keeps his world deliberately small. He’s not a natural social butterfly; Fischel-Chisholm calls him “an introvert”, Sainsbury describes himself as “shy”. He’s perfectly capable in social situations, he says, but they often come with a high degree of anxiety. He doesn’t crave public figure status like the kind Waititi has found.

“I mean who knows, of course I would be absolutely blessed to have his lifestyle, but I think I would be kind of more like a Roald Dahl who goes and works in his shed. That lifestyle appeals to me a bit more.”

If he were to craft his dream job, in fact, he reckons he might move out from in front of the camera entirely.

“I think if comedy was put aside and I could just focus on a steady output of doing good films, directing them not acting in them, that’s an option I’d take,” he says. “I think it’s being the boss, probably, you’re in charge, I quite like that. And you’re looking at all the elements coming together. There’s something very satisfying about that.”

Maybe the time is coming when Sainsbury can confidently write “Director” on his arrival card. But as we move on from our interview into a photo shoot in which Sainsbury gamely squeezes into a far-too-small leather jacket, poses with the afore-mentioned terrifying cat and even just sits in a chair, it’s impossible to deny the obvious, delightful truth: he’s really, really funny.