By Jock Anderson
- James Robert (James) Elliott
- 50 on 31 October 2014.
- Entry to law
- Graduated BA, LLB at Auckland University in 1987, LLM at Cambridge University in 1990. Admitted to the bar in 1990.
- Mediaworks Holdings Ltd, Auckland.
- Speciality area
- In-house counsel responsible for contracts for television and radio programming, content supply, partnerships, brand funding, sponsorship and marketing.
Chatting for an hour to in-house lawyer and professional stand-up comedian James Elliott – without him cracking a joke – should be enough to bring the house down.
He may not have a high profile in legal circles but as a comedian, MC, columnist, radio commentator and gag writer James has a wide following – from entertaining heavily armed troops in East Timor to helping legal living legend Bernard Brown pose quiz questions.
“As a little guy at boarding school (Kings College in Auckland) my defence was to make the bully laugh then run away…”
After Auckland law school, spells with Simpson Grierson and Russell McVeagh, and dropping himself into the world of comedy, James joined Bell Gully as the oldest junior in their corporate team.
In between he learned to punt, play croquet and Royal tennis at Cambridge University’s Charles Darwin College as well as picking up his master’s degree, while his then wife, lawyer Tracey Walker (he’s now married to lawyer Rachel Colley), got her masters at London University.
“I did debating at school, went in for speech competitions and mooting at university. I saw myself as an advocate getting into litigation, but never got the chance to be up in the front row.”
After Bell Gully he did three years as in-house lawyer with media company APN (publishers of the New Zealand Herald), followed by seven months with Coca-Cola Amatil, before joining MediaWorks in June 2012.
[Think sorting contracts for The Block and X Factor].
“Comedy seriously happened after I came back from the UK in the early 90s.”
“I rang up the Classic Comedy Club in Auckland and gave it a go on beginners’ night. No audition, just four to seven minutes stand-up. I got a good response and they told me to come back and do it better.”
“Comedy was an emotional bungy jump. I was doing a bit of MC-ing at weddings and the like but this was random.
“I prefer stand-up … there is no safety net and it is the hardest, purest form of any public speaking you can do.
“A high rate of GPM (gags per minute) wins the audience and laughter is the only measure of success.
“Hecklers can be useful, provided they aren’t drunk. You can work as a team off a heckler. The worst reaction is when the audience don’t care - at least a heckler cares and, no, I haven’t planted one in the audience.”
Now a regular performer at the Comedy Club for more than ten years, the Club’s profile says James brings his “off-beat observational wit to subjects large and small. But mainly it’s frustrated musing of a middle-aged white guy muddling his way through the new millennium with all the passion and presence of an enraged hamster.”
James writes his material out in detail but does not follow notes. “I’m precision focused … It’s the legal thing - word order and choice of words matter to me…”
“You develop wordsmith skills from law, the meaning of language and the precision that comes with it, but I don’t have a stream of legal jokes.”
“Writing for TV3 comedy game show 7 Days, people are not all that interested in legal jokes…”
His corporate performances are different to stand-up.
“It’s important to be topical with a corporate audience, and do material about the paying client. With Fonterra it’s milk jokes … for Mike Pero it’s a monologue about mortgage broking … they love it.”
“I grew up watching Morecombe and Wise and the Two Ronnies.”
“My solo stand-up heroes are Eddie Izzard - who has a surreal comedy intellect, breadth of material, incredibly broad reference material - and the well-read and learned Bill Bailey.”
“I don’t do profanity. Early on, comedy godfather Mike King told me off for swearing too much and said I was too good for that. There are times when profanity is right, but it’s finding a balance.”
James and Mike King organised concerts with other entertainers and comedians, including the late Ewen Gilmour, for New Zealand and United Nations troops in East Timor in 2000 – an experience he says is the pinnacle of his career.
It wasn’t long after Kiwi soldier Leonard Manning was killed in an ambush and tensions were running high.
“Our audiences were sitting there in full battle dress, with rifles at the ready, guys coming and going on patrol … At one performance the stage was on a stack of live ammo boxes … It was an amazing experience seeing the work of our troops.”
Every two years James helps Associate Professor Bernard Brown (now 80) – “a true renaissance man” - set questions for the Legal Research Foundation’s fiercely-contested quiz night at the Northern Club.
“Lawyers and judges turn up and I have licence to be fairly irreverent so that is a lot of fun.
“Bernard Brown knows everyone’s pecadillos and all his stories are true."
One poser at the recent quiz asked what receipt did Prof Brown write a particular question on? Answer: JB HiFi.
James might even see the funny side of being chatted to by a Scottish scribbler - but only if there’s a high GPM rate in it…
Footnote: Prof Brown’s latest book of verses - Fearing the Kynge - is launched at Auckland’s Old Government House on 4 November, right after the running of the Melbourne Cup.
Jock Anderson has been writing and commenting on New Zealand lawyers and New Zealand's courts for several decades. He also writes the weekly Caseload column for the New Zealand Herald. Contact Jock at email@example.com.