After 20 years, Josh Drummond checks in to see how the legendary kid’s show What Now is doing with less Simon Barnett and more Mexican stereotypes.
I do believe you think what now you speak,
But what we do determine oft we break.
– Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2
I’m not sure why I decided to watch What Now. In a couple of week’s time, I’ll be 32. That’s roughly double the age I was when watching What Now was something I had long stopped doing. Perhaps there’s an element of nostalgia involved. Every few hours, a major motion picture is released that is a reboot or retread of something from my childhood – Jurassic World being the latest example. So I’ll use being on-trend as my excuse to find out: What is What Now now?
What Now started in 1981 on TV One as a pre-recorded Saturday show with Steve Parr. He would later go on to co-host Sale of the Century with his moustache. According to Wikipedia, What Now featured “segments covering morning keep-fit exercises, sketches involving recurring characters such as complaining old man Clive Grumble, simple recipes by Alison Holst, trivia from Frank Flash, law and safety with Constable Keith and Sniff, interspersed with regular cartoons.”
It actually sounds a lot like breakfast telly, if you replace Clive Grumble with Paul Henry. Since then it’s moved to a Sunday morning live show with a studio audience of kids, and it’s stayed that way ever since. The format works: What Now is consistently one of NZ telly’s top rating shows. In the week of 11-17 June 2015, it pulled 65,200 viewers – not bad for an 8 AM Sunday show.
Today’s show starts with the theme song and everything is wrong. I feel like Crocodile Dundee presented with incorrect cutlery. That’s not the What Now intro! THIS is the What Now intro! It’s supposed to feature Simon Barnett wearing an earring and dodgy shorts!
I love the old theme song, which was Get Out of Your Lazy Bed by UK jazz-pop band Matt Bianco. What Now was a weekly ritual in my family, and the theme became deeply ingrained in me. There was something invigoratingly zany about it, a bit like a Split Enz B-side. To this day, if I need to get up early, I’ll often find myself humming a few bars from it (“Get up, get up, get up / get out of your lazy bed”).
The theme song ends and we go straight into a rap by What Now’s presenters, outlining various rad things about today’s show. It’s set to the tune from Will Smith’s Getting Jiggy With It. Brilliant! Wonderful! 90s as hell! The presenters – Ronnie Taulafo, Chris Kirk, and Bianca Seinafo – are actually good rappers and the kids love it. They’re cracking up. This is what What Now does best – an unabashed sense of fun and the ridiculous. Today’s episode celebrates World Juggling Day, which is apparently a thing. The hosts begin juggling. They all drop everything within seconds.
The first item is a Skype chat with a champion junior netball team, who reveal the secret to winning (it’s “Just like trusting each other and working hard and all that.”) They get a cap and a bottle of gunge for their trouble. What Now has always been good at this sort of thing. As far as I can tell, a big piece of their reason for being is getting Kiwi kids telling their stories on the telly. It’s Kiwi Kid Current Affairs, disguised with a healthy dose of fun, and gunge.
The giveaways are still going strong. Later, the presenters offer kids the chance to compete in a ridiculously tricky competition. They have to use a reverse vacuum cleaner to hover a spiky ball through a series of hoops. The most hoops wins a popcorn maker. At the same time, there’s someone on the line, and whoever’s on the phone when the kid in the studio wins gets a popcorn maker as well. I’ve got my eye on some good looking lego.
I wonder if modern technology has made it easier to get through on the phones. Back in the day getting through to What Now was a matter of luck, and it probably still is. The phone lines jammed every time, and you’d get used to hearing the following message: “The New Zealand Emergency number is ONE, ONE, ONE. Please hang up, then lift up your receiver, and dial ONE, ONE, ONE, slowly and carefully.”
I became a master of listening to the clicks at the other end when I dialled and re-dialled the What Now freephone number. If you heard just one click followed by a ring, you might as well hang up. This indicated you were about to be put through to either the emergency number message, or another telling you that “this call can’t be connected at present, because of overloading.”
The overloading had to do with half the kids in New Zealand dialling at once, so getting through was pretty rare. Sometimes the stars would align, you’d hear a series of clicks, and then someone in the What Now Christchurch studio would pick up. This would usually score you a hat at the very least. If you were even luckier, you’d get put through to the presenters and could compete to win a proper prize.
I still remember the first time I got through. The competition was to remember the colour of a gymnast’s hair band from a previous clip. I got it right when on the phone to the operator but – for reasons that have everything to do with being seven years old – changed my mind when I got through to the studio. The host took pity on me and let me go with my first answer. I won a swag package based around Fido Dido, and a T-shirt with a rad glow-in-the-dark What Now logo that was at least three sizes too big for me.
The presenters are full of energy, almost manic. I don’t know how they do it, considering they’ve probably woken up at 5 AM. It’s the kind of job that would require about a nose-bag of cocaine, but this lot seem a bit more wholesome than that. I like the balance of race and gender – it seems well calculated and reflective of the audience. Ronnie Taulafo takes several opportunities to drop some Samoan language into his bits, and it all feels completely natural and unforced. That’s got to be cool for the Samoan kids at home.
Next segment! What Now caters for short attention spans, which suits me just fine. It’s called “Egg Heads”. Kids sit in an egg tent thing and answer the question “what are you trying hard to improve?” Answers vary. Some are trying to improve at school, others at backflips. “I tried to not break anything this year, but I did not succeed because I broke my legs,” says one girl, too lightly.
Back to the studio. The pace! If I do a full blow-by-blow this post will be the length of War and Peace, as What Now is just under two hours long. I won’t do that, but by God there’s solid content on this show. Grey Lynn primary kids have done a trading scheme, starting with a loaf of bread, and they’ve made their way up to a sleepout. They’re trying to raise funds for a house for victims of the Nepal earthquake. It’s basically kid Campbell Live.
Ronnie goes nuts – more so than any of the kids with him – to the news that Disney on Ice: Dare to Dream is coming to New Zealand. I’m beginning to remember why I wanted to be a What Now presenter when I was a kid. These guys don’t just dare to dream – they’re living their dream.
It doesn’t seem to stop with What Now. Quite a few What Now presenters have gone on to become firmly notable kiwis. Michele A’Court is a kickass comedian and writer, Tamati Coffey a former presenter and Labour apparatchik, Shavaughn Ruakere has had a stint on Shortland Street, and Jason Gunn needs no introduction. As well as being a bona-fide kid’s telly star throughout the nineties, he’s currently the secret mafia don of children’s TV. He and his wife Janine run Whitebait TV, which is the production company behind What Now. That’ll be why What Now isn’t greatly changed from its 90s heyday – the same people are running it.
Back on the show, Can We Juggle Wit It is in full swing. It turns out that the centerpiece of this week’s episode is an online competition where kids get to vote for the hosts to juggle (insert object) while wearing (insert ridiculous costume). Currently, Chris is to juggle raw eggs dressed as a scuba diver, Ronnie to juggle ice cream dressed as a disco dancer, and (disconcertingly) Bianca is to juggle cacti while dressed as a baby. The potential for injury is intriguing.
I am reminded of the way that the six o’clock news keeps audiences baited with teasers – if you watch to the end, you get to see the adorable waterskiing hamster. They could take a leaf out of What Now’s book. I would kill to see Mike Hosking juggling cacti dressed as a baby. With the infotainment direction that TV news and current affairs is heading in, it’s not far off.
Ronnie and Chris then dress up as Mexican stereotypes for a live competition segment, which is obviously super racist. This costumed malarkey happens reasonably frequently and it’s obviously in good fun, which makes it very surprising that Twitter hasn’t had an epic bitch about it yet. Take the beloved, retired character Camilla the Gorilla, who I honestly thought for some time was actually just a man-sized golliwog.
I expect the only reason someone wasn’t publicly shamed into oblivion over this inadvertent racial faux-pas is because the sort of people who enjoy getting upset about things on Twitter don’t get up at 8 AM to watch children’s television.
The game the presenters are so racistly presenting is called “Use Your Head” and it involves gunge! Slimy colourful gunge! Gunge flows through the veins of of any Kiwi kid raised on What Now, and being gunged is an obsession that often lasts throughout childhood and (non-kink-shamingly) into some people’s adulthoods. The substance has been a mainstay of What Now and other shows around the globe since it was invented in the 1960s, probably as an industrial lubricant for nuclear ships or something. Who cares, it’s awesome.
Past uses for gunge have included being covered in it, and that’s about it. On today’s show, three kids have to catch balloons full of gunge in colanders strapped to their heads. Lucky buggers. I never got to gunge, or be gunged. This particular nostalgia trip comes with a side order of bitter regret. I suppose I could buy some of the key ingredient, an industrial powder thickener called Natrosol, and quietly gunge myself into oblivion at home.
The way things were going, I risked full regression to childhood, having requests for “rad Lego sets” already turned down by my wife. As it is, my on demand stream entered an eternal buffer and I had to quit the show. I will never find out if the presenters can juggle cacti whilst in nappies, though I suspect that they probably can. I haven’t gotten to Phone and Away, the show’s current parody of Aussie soap operas. If it’s anything like the old Serial Stuff, it would be sly, brilliant and genuinely hilarious for all ages.
The premature end to my viewing is curiously fitting. We always had to turn What Now off after an hour to get ready for church, which is probably why I became an atheist. As far as I can tell, the show still very much has it. I loved it, but only a 10 year-old could tell me if the show’s actually any good for the intended demographic. I don’t have one of those, but I know where I can get one. I’ll ask my wife. When we do get a 10 year old – in 40 years or so – I hope What Now is still around for them to watch.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.