Each week, Jesse Mulligan talks to hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders, through TV, radio and in print, and his voice is beloved throughout the country. He tells Alex Casey about the humiliating failures, awkward experiments and games of Strip Honk he endured along the way.
Jesse Mulligan is hugging an invisible koala in a busy Kingsland cafe. I think he thinks people aren’t looking at him, but they are. I can tell, because I’m not a famous person on telly who gets looked at, nor am I the tall man in an orange sherbert polo miming marsupial affection during morning coffee rush hour. Across the road, ex-Metro editor Simon Wilson, who gave Mulligan his big break in food writing, happens to be waiting at a bus stop. This is Auckland.
Mulligan is doing pretty good right now. Not with this koala bit, so much. But in holding down three simultaneous jobs in 2018. Four, if you count being a parent to three kids under eight, but we’ll let his Three colleague Mark Richardson decide that one. He currently hosts afternoons on Radio New Zealand, co-anchors Three’s The Project NZ, and reviews restaurants for the Herald’s Viva, his voice reaching a combined audience of around 680,000 every week.
It’s a huge leap from his university days in Hamilton, where the accidental purchase of a TV licence by the student union birthed his own variety show, Static TV, to eventually becoming the head writer for Three’s 7 Days.
Before that, Mulligan was a stand-up comedian, a corporate PR guy, a breakfast radio host and a food writer, democratic enough to write about the importance of getting your tomatoes salted at Subway and the social anxiety of group dining.
He also has a law degree, because of course he does.
Today, Mulligan holds some of the cushiest, most plum jobs in media, working across radio, TV and print, broadcasting on topics as varied as the living wage, infertility, and the new local Bunnings Warehouse. Silver-haired at 42, with symmetrical, TV-friendly looks, his demeanour is glacially calm with a dry wit, and his banter with co-hosts and listeners seems effortless.
But he’s had to fail a lot for that to happen. “Most of my life, I’ve done things that haven’t been successful,” Mulligan says, matter-of-factly. “That’s just what you have to do in the media — you work your way up and try to prevail.”
You might have forgotten about Best Bits, the TV1 clip show he hosted that ran for two years but was unable to ever reach the juggernaut heights of 7 Days. “Sometimes you just make a show that people don’t watch enough,” he says.
Then, after a pause, “Would I Lie To You? is another one I made that people didn’t really watch.” I had forgotten about that one too.
And then there was Seven Sharp. The replacement 7pm show for Mark Sainsbury’s Close Up on TVNZ and rival to Campbell Live on Three, Seven Sharp was a shock to the system when it arrived in 2013 with Ali Mau, Greg Boyed and Mulligan at the helm. NBR described the concept, which aimed to fuse social media with bite-sized current affairs, a conversational tone and buzzwords, as a “mess of pottage.”
The premiere championed a newfangled “social media poll”, part of a promise to engage with the mystifying frontier of the world wide web. Of the audience of 400,000, who were encouraged to vote several times during the show, 43 voted.
“That’s one in every ten thousand,” quips Mulligan, who could tell I was straining to carry the one in my head. “The new format was just such an assault on the senses that nobody was thinking about pulling out their phone and voting in a poll. They were just trying to work out what the fuck was happening.” The NZ Herald reviewed the debut as “wobbly” and, most cutting of all, “semi-funny”.
“It felt like everyone was set a task of creating this new entertainment-and-news hybrid,” Mulligan says, “But nobody was given the guidance to do a good job of it.”
He persisted, under “weird and trying” circumstances, building a “nifty presenting pair” with Ali Mau and delivering weekly late night-style monologues complete with green screens, graphics and at least 30 “really solid” gags — “the sort of thing that would get a standing ovation on 7 Days now.”
His comedic attempts were met with radio silence, week in and week out, for months.“When you’re doing something that clashes with the format of a show, it disappears. People don’t actually register that it’s going on. It just becomes invisible.” Talent was shuffled, his co-hosts Ali Mau and Greg Boyed left and, eventually, Mike Hosking and Toni Street arrived.
Despite Hosking’s abrasive persona as the devil’s advocate in distressed jeans, Mulligan still wasn’t willing to rip into him, like an Italian designer taking to some perfectly fine denim. “He’s an alpha nice guy who is basically nice to everyone,” Mulligan says, of the Newstalk ZB host, who once revealed his strange breakfast habits during some studio small talk: three to five Brazil nuts and
a Mediterranean salad. Mulligan still finds that perplexing.
“It occurred to me that there’s nowhere to buy Mediterranean salad at seven in the morning, so he must be making it, either the night before or the morning of, which means that olive oil-based vinaigrette is sitting on those rocket leaves for ages. That could be in any sort of state by the 7.30 morning news.”
Mulligan’s final months at Seven Sharp were “awkward” as the show somehow evolved into a two-person show that still had three hosts— Mulligan being the extraneous one. If a guest was in-studio, he was asked to sit in the control room so they could use his seat. The show’s other anchors were assembled for a Woman’s Day cover shoot, but he was not invited.
“It’s around that point you realise you’re probably not an integral part of a show… It was a pretty horrible feeling,” he admits. Seven Sharp had found its feet in the furry Gucci loafers of Mike Hosking. “I felt like if more people had been on the same page, we could’ve made a cool show... We could’ve made The Project.”
“Most of my life, I’ve done things that haven’t been successful"
Mulligan acknowledges that being “the comedy guy” on Seven Sharp might have limited his usefulness, but up until that point, comedy had been his main gig. “My first comedy hero was Garry Shandling. When I sat down to write my first 10 minutes for the university comedy competition in 1996, I basically wrote as if I was Garry Shandling.” (He won the competition.)
“That style has stuck with me for my whole life —first person, reasonably confessional, self-deprecating.”
It is at this point he begins to tell me a very sad story about visiting a Gold Coast theme park alone, and paying to hug a koala. “You go into this shed with a trainer and a koala, and you get to hug it. I got my hug and then tried to give the koala back and the guy just said, ‘The hug lasts 15 minutes, you might as well use it’. So I did. All three of us were just watching the clock, waiting for it to end.” He embraces the melancholy air.
When he started getting booked on comedy panel shows like 7 Days and the hosting gig on Best Bits, Mulligan threw in his stand-up career. “I did it for as long as I needed to, but when I started getting TV work, the incentive to go into the Classic Comedy Club at 10 o’clock on a Friday and perform for six Germans is less compelling.”
He also feels he could never be as good at comedy as he wanted to be. “In stand up, you’re deeply alone. My jokes were pretty good, but when you’re not match-fit you just can’t get into the groove. You go out there and it’s student night and your gag is about getting married and everyone’s looking at you like you’re the oldest person they’ve ever met.”
There is only one thing Mulligan seems to be certain of, in his career. “RNZ is the only thing I’ve done that everyone seemed to like from day one, if I’m honest.”
His afternoon show on Radio New Zealand has earned him the title of “work husband of stay-at-home mums” from The Spinoff Parents, who praised his gentle cadences and general niceness as a “balm” before the chaos of afterschool time.
“He is non-threatening and chill” says Emily Writes, editor of The Spinoff Parents section. “He seems like he would empty the dishwasher without you asking him to.” She recalls falling for Mulligan’s charms over a post-match dinner during the Dunedin Writers Festival, where they were both speaking. “He kept talking about what a great Mum his wife is and I just wanted him to shut up about her because it was killing my fantasy date buzz.”
“Oh, it’s all true,” confirmed Kanoa Lloyd, his co-host on The Project NZ. “He is just as nice as you think he is. He is just as smart as you think is. He is just as much of a sweetheart as he seems”.
Mulligan bats away questions about his appeal to females, but offers that his persona on Radio New Zealand is miles from what was expected of him from More FM, where he worked as a breakfast host in Wellington. “I hated commercial radio so much. I did it for 10 years. I had to play “Strip Honk” where I had to stand in the middle of a roundabout and every time someone honked their horn, I had to take off an item of clothing. It’s not even the lowest common denominator stuff. It’s what some programme director thinks is the lowest common denominator, which is so much worse.”
On a random day, Mulligan covered stellar glitches, the rise of New Zealanders travelling overseas for dental work, and a close reading of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ on his radio show. It’s a far cry from Strip Honk.
“On More FM and 7 Days, the idea was always just ‘make a gag on the headline, never read deeper’. For the last three years, I’ve had this gift of spending three hours a day going deep into these amazing subjects that I spent my whole life avoiding.”
On paper, The Project NZ is similar to that first, doomed iteration of 7 Sharp: graphics, jokes, news, internet stuff, guests. But it was not to be the same old song and dance, the promotional video sang proudly, in a musical number that featured Mulligan, Lloyd and then cohost Josh Thomson dancing around Auckland’s Albert Park.
“It felt really different,” says Mulligan. “Even at the very top, [producer] Jon Bridges is the right man for that job. To have someone who comes from comedy is great. He really gave me the opportunity to be a leader on the show.”
Lloyd remembers Mulligan acing his audition. “He couldn’t talk because he had a really bad sickness, so he didn’t say anything the whole time that we were all shuffling around awkwardly waiting for our turn. Then he sat down at the desk and was just hilarious. So many witticisms and an excellent read of the script. It sounds like a cheesy American Idol line but he truly gave nothing until the lights came on. I remember thinking, ‘This guy is a freak’.”
That first impression has hardly changed. “He’s like a really nice robot or alien that’s programmed to do everything super well, think really logically and be really complimentary and encouraging. He is a freak, and I mean that with absolute love and respect.” (He might actually literally be a freak: apparently Mulligan’s wife, a trained psychologist, doesn’t know if he’s an introvert or an extrovert, as he registers strongly as both.)
There are times when Mulligan’s chummy charms could be a liability, though. Part of his job involves semi-regular interviews with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who he considers a friend since they first met in London years ago. “She came to a comedy gig I was doing and came up afterwards to introduce herself.” Does that relationship make it harder for him to be impartial, as a broadcaster?
“Early on, the tendency was to go harder on her than I otherwise would have,” he says.
“The tone of our conversations should be the same as conversations with any minister, which is a friendly chat that you would have in a social environment where you’re unafraid to ask them a hard question, when it needs asking.”
“We were just as friendly with Bill [English] as we were with Jacinda in the lead-up to the election. You can criticise us for that, sure, but I don’t think you could say we were easier on one than the other.”
Mulligan was one of the first journalists to ask Ardern if she felt she had to choose between having a career or a family, which was criticised by many as sexist. “I knew she would be fine with it, so perhaps I didn’t think long enough about how much it might annoy other women,” he says.
Both Mulligan and Lloyd say The Project NZ, now about 300 episodes in, is in a constant state of evolution, recently losing co-host Josh Thomson and gaining 7 Days’ Jeremy Corbett. “We probably change one thing every night,” says Mulligan.
One significant change happened in April last year, when Mulligan departed from the show’s jovial, fast-paced tone to deliver an impassioned monologue that went viral, shared more than 5000 times on Facebook.
No longer doing comedy, Mulligan said “we should be embarrassed” about how little funding the Department of Conservation gets, as our native animals are “eaten, starved and choked out of existence.”
He was going out on a limb but Mulligan says “I’ve learned that if I really feel strongly about an issue, other people will too… people will sense the truth and authenticity behind it.”
His op-ed inspired Lloyd to pen her own monologues about issues she’s passionate about, like te reo Māori and casual racism. Together, they’ve deepened national conversations and gotten much closer to achieving what a social media poll couldn’t.
Mulligan, for his part, is now known in conservation circles as a “ratter” or rat trapper, and regularly receives photos of dead rats, trapped by inspired fans.
Although Mulligan claims he feels no pressure to use his platform to effect social change, he’s continuing to tackle uncomfortable topics on The Project.
“I’m working on something that’s been really tricky at the moment: I want to talk about guys using porn. I’ve got this strong sense that it is totally fucking with us, fucking with our brains, with the way kids learn about sex, not to mention all the gender issues around it. That’s a massive thing to take on at seven o’clock.”
Talking about so many important issues, for so long, on multiple public-facing mediums, five days of the week, seems like an extremely stressful and exhausting way to live your life. But Mulligan claims to have never had a single day where he felt like he couldn’t be bothered going to work.
“Everyone does a bit of TV and radio these days,” he shrugs, as if stating a harsh, universal truth. “I find both jobs really energising. My normal life is pretty quiet: I’m at home with the kids and my wife and watching TV. I guess I think of radio and TV as my social life.”
He still doesn’t think of himself as a famous person, although he seems acutely aware of the fact that he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, and isn’t allowed to make one for himself. “Life as a media celebrity in New Zealand: unless you’re outraging people on a regular basis, people really just treat you like you don’t exist. It’s not that hard.”
I ask whether, having spoken to so many New Zealanders and told so many local stories for years, he’s learned more about the shape of our country, or been surprised by the people in it.
He looks into the middle distance, silent, for an amount of time that feels comparable to an excruciating koala hug. Then: “To be honest, I never think about what it all means and how it all adds up. I’m just thinking about how to get through the next 10 minutes.”
Photos: Reagen Butler