Photograph by Florence Noble
From humble beginnings living on expired two-minute noodles to the heady heights of hit TV3 comedy 7 Days, the founders of production company thedownlowconcept have built a business out of taking the piss. By
They are the friends of one of my friends in the TV industry, so when they wrote a film for the Red Bull Reel Life competition in 2008, they asked me to act in it. Nigel McCulloch revealed himself as funny, generous and the life of the party. Ryan Hutchings was quiet, with a trace of something crazy. Jarrod Holt fired pun after pun at me during our 30 hours of filmmaking in a musty miniature caravan, and we decided we didn’t like each other. But by the time we won, I realised he was actually rather nice.
Together, they are thedownlowconcept, the production company responsible for National Radio show Off the Wire, radio and C4 quiz show Pop Goes the Weasel and more recently for putting the funny back into New Zealand comedy with hit TV3 news show 7 Days.
The downlow boys come from different parts of the North Island. They met in class studying for a Bachelor of Communications at AUT, all majoring in radio. A couple of years later, on what must surely be the auspicious date of 02/02/02, they formed thedownlowconcept and spent the winter in beanies and jackets in a chilly farmhouse in Matakana with a pet kune kune pig called Salmon, trying to come up with ideas for radio shows.
It’s a far cry from their current flash offices in Auckland’s Viaduct. “It’s not like we’re millionaires now. We’re possibly on the minimum wage,” says McCulloch. “When we started we were getting next to nothing … Jarrod got us a box of out-of-date two-minute noodles and we survived on that and frozen sausage rolls for six months. The fish-and-chip shop down the road from us did a delicious deep-fried Mars bar. That was our weekly treat.”
Three years later, the boys created news panel show Off the Wire on National Radio and later Pop Goes the Weasel. They moved back to Auckland and, as luck would have it, the radio programmer of Pop Goes the Weasel started up C4 and moved their show to television. Holt, Hutchings and McCulloch were now TV producers.
Unlike almost every production team you’ve ever heard of, thedownlowconcept share the roles of producing, writing and directing on all of their projects. “Hutch does the accounting,” McCulloch tells me. “That’s his job. And Holt acts as a secretary and I’m kind of the cleaner. We don’t share those roles.”
Having three directors is something some people find difficult to swallow. “I know it really bugs some people out,” says Hutchings. “We divide up duties and make sure there’s one person who’s responsible for talking to the actors or talking to the DOP or the art department. We’re all doing everything; it’s just that one person is doing the talking.
“I often wonder how shit we’d be if we did things separately. Like when Kiss did their solo albums, they were all pretty rubbish.”
I tell him some band members have actually done well alone. “Right ...?” He looks puzzled. “Yeah, I don’t think we’re that talented.”
Still, thedownlowconcept has two Golden Jandal awards for its music videos. One of them, for the Hot Grits, was banned from TVNZ for inappropriate content as it depicted children drinking excess amounts of milk as if it were alcohol. Many commented that this was political correctness gone mad. “It didn’t need to be banned,” says McCulloch. “That was silly. There are a few jokes in there, like the kids in the toilets eating lollies, but kids watching it would never understand what that means. It’s your own experience that makes that bad.”
The trio has regular production meetings where they whittle down a dozen ideas to the ones they like, and develop them. “Ideas often come from constraints,” says McCulloch. “We try to come up with one that has maybe two or three protagonists, which is easy to shoot and cheap, because otherwise it won’t get made. We also get ideas from little pockets of society. Like the Will Ferrell syndrome: he’s done millions of movies on weird sports, that’s a bit like us.”
“I often wonder how shit we’d be if we did things separately. Like when Kiss did their solo albums they were all pretty rubbish”
Four years ago they made their first pilot episode for what would become 7 Days. “The format wasn’t ours ever,” admits McCulloch, “but we saw that there was comedic talent in New Zealand that was overlooked.”
The boys shopped the pilot around but broadcasters said no, and six months later another panel show, Out of the Question, appeared on Prime TV and flopped. McCulloch kept pushing anyway. They shot another pilot, pitched the idea again—and this time got it.
“How to get a show made is like trying to explain how to get struck by lightning,” laughs Holt. “You can have a fantastic idea but put in front of the wrong person—who might, I don’t know, hate shows with the number seven in them—then it won’t happen. There are some of the most obscure reasons that they get pushed back. But the key is to keep on hunkering under a tree in a storm with a piece of corrugated iron over your head every night … wearing metal boots.”
These days the lightning continues to strike: 7 Days has 30 more episodes funded for 2010. Holt, Hutchings and McCulloch are also developing a script for a feature film, are awaiting funding for a comedy series for TV3, have two shows being developed internationally, and have set up an advertising wing within their company.
To keep it current, the three work on the structure of each episode of 7 Days the same week they shoot it and say only a little of it is scripted. “It’s a pretty free-flowing show,” says McCulloch. Host Jeremy Corbett’s jokes are written, “but sometimes he’ll ad lib something. The comedians will have an idea of what’s in the news each week, so they might think about what they’re going to say and come with a few notes on different stories in case they get asked about it.”
Comedy flows freely behind the scenes too. “My favourite part is when we come together on a Thursday with all the other writers and pitch jokes and have a gag-off and rip each other apart,” says Hutchings. “We’ve got to that comedy nerd stage where you break down jokes just to find out why it’s funny and what kind of joke it is.”
Thedownlowconcept has worked together for eight years and their regular meetings are often used as an excuse to give each other a verbal thrashing. I ask who in the group is most annoying. “Hutch is,” says McCulloch, “because every Friday afternoon he goes away sailing and he always goes on about his new Audi. I’m sick of hearing about it. Jarrod is annoying because he keeps going on health kicks and then stopping them.”
Holt looks worried. "I think I annoy them a lot. I don’t mean to—I just talk absolute rubbish sometimes. Though Ryan’s got this new thing where he makes a mosquito noise just behind the back of your head.”
It’s impossible to surmise that the three could be any less than best friends, and behind the ribbing lies a great deal of respect. “We still find each other quite amusing after all these years,” says Holt. “Ryan and Nigel, I think they’re the two funniest people I know.”
Hutchings is diplomatic. “We’re used to each other’s quirks. Jarrod and Nigel are both quite loud, actually. They laugh really loud. Is that a bit of a psycho thing to find annoying in a production company that’s supposed to make comedy?”
The lowdown on the downlow
They’ve vowed to never produce a home renovation show, but thedownlowconcept has dabbled in just about everything else.
After making the transition from radio to television with Pop Goes the Weasel, the company—comprising Nigel McCulloch, Ryan Hutchings and Jarrod Holt—branched into music videos. Making clips for artists such as the Red Sea Boys, Daniel Munro and The Sneaks, it was a 2008 video for ‘Headlights’ by The Hot Grits that really gained some attention. Sure, it won the Handle the Jandal DIY music video awards but the controversial content saw it banned by TVNZ.
The production company is garnering more positive reviews for its short films. As well as the intriguingly named It’s Like We’re Stuck in Primary School and Second Coming, Brown Peril: The Tim Porch Story won the 48 Hour Film Festival in 2006 and Water as a Metaphor took out the 2008 Red Bull Reel Life competition.Thedownlowconcept has recently ventured into the advertising world, producing TV commercials and online content. But television remains its most high-profile work, with the success of TV3’s 7 Days finally resurrecting New Zealand comedy shows.