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Hilarity Meets Social Equity - Jo Randerson's Topp Accolade

07 Dec 2023

One of the most prolific contributors to Aotearoa's creative community reflects on securing the $15,000 prize that honours the legacy of some of her humour heroes.

The award may be new but when two icons of Aotearoa's creative community lend their name to it - the impact is immense.

The Topp Prize - christened after the exceptional talents of Dames Jools and Lynda Topp - is designed to honour artists "making Aotearoa laugh with an out-of-the-box approach, whether that comedy takes place on the stage, on the screen or in a completely unexpected comedy space altogether."

Presented for just the second time, the $15,000 prize has been awarded to one of the most loved members of the performing arts community - performer, comedian, writer, clown, director, multi-media artist, theatre-maker, filmmaker, leader, advocate, and moderator Jo Randerson.

Randerson told The Big Idea "The Topp Prize means heaps to me - Jools and Lynda are legendary heroes on my performance landscape, the way they advocate for change, challenge unexamined prejudice and celebrate who we are. 

"This is a total honour to receive this prize, and I'm grateful to the huge community of inspiring artists I work with because arts is a team game. We have such a strong creative community in Aotearoa and I'm looking forward to connecting with our new government about how we can ensure artists thrive, alongside everyone else in this challenging time. 

"We need gags and songs to get us through, and to out truths that are hard to speak. The Topp Twins are total field leaders in doing this. Also, they have GREAT outfits.

“The phone call came out of the blue, it was a total surprise; I saw ‘Jools’ Ipad’ join the Zoom call and was like… wait, whaaat? No way!”

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Jo Randerson. Photo: Matt Grace.

Recognised for her unique creative expressions through so many outlets, Randerson has built a formidable reputation by making a difference at community, regional and national levels through her art and activism delivered with plenty of comedic punch. 

The Topp Prize will join a list of other accolades acquired through a stellar career that has spanned four decades and shows across Aotearoa and the world. 

The former Billy T Award nominee also has the Robert Burns Playwrighting Fellowship, an Arts Foundation New Gen Award, an ONZM and the Bruce Mason Award for playwrighting bolstering her CV. Her innovative approach also secured her the inaugural Golden Gibbo Award at Melbourne's International Comedy Festival (alongside brother Jeremy) and adds to her 2023 trophy tally after winning the NZ International Film Festival's Best Short Film for her Hey Brainy Man

But Randerson's more than just a creative powerhouse. She uses her voice and actions to spotlight social justice, equity the place of arts in the economy. That includes putting her money where her mouth is - her company Barbarian Productions was the first performing arts organisation to be Living Wage accredited and has provided income for a huge amount of independent artists, performers, designers, makers and technicians over the last 22 years.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Randerson is currently finishing her new non-fiction book Secret Art Powers, about to open a new show U R Back as part of the Wellington Fringe, and creating a new comedy show with her family called Speed Is Emotional.

Lauren Whitney, Chief Executive of New Zealand Comedy Trust that oversees the Topp Prize, states Randerson "has been a pillar of Te Whanganui-a-Tara’s creative scene since the '90s. Jo has taken comedy into all areas and genres of the arts and her revolutionary work is as revolutionary today as it was when it was first created. 

"Her generosity, her activism and relentless work to support others across the arts has made a true impact, not just in the capital, but nationwide and across the globe. I can’t think of anyone else that would create a hilarious walking-tour experience with the Grim Reaper to give his reputation a makeover!”

Randerson follows in the footsteps of inaugural winner Chris Parker - who is among the huge number of performers whose careers have been supported and bolstered by her creative touch and generosity.

He acknowledges “Jo Randerson is such an incredibly inspiring, unique and nurturing figure in our comedy scene. I personally feel so lucky to have got to work with her early in my career (directing Parker's breakthrough show No More Dancing In The Good Room) and her guidance and artistry inspired me to be the comic I wanted to become, not the comic I thought I had to be. 

"But this isn’t just the case with me, Jo has fostered this relationship with so many talented artists in our industry who I’m sure would feel exactly the same. From Banging Cymbal Clanging Gong, the wedding dress shop she set up opposite parliament in the lead-up to the Gay Marriage vote, to helping set up the incredible community space at the Vogelmorn Bowling Club. 

"Jo’s work always sits in that beautiful spot of vital, political, community-driven and always so funny!”

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Dames Lynda and Jools Topp with the Topp Prize milk bottles. Photo: Supplied.

Parker was one of the judges on this year's panel convened by Paul Horan which included fellow comedian Rhys Nicholson, NZ On Air's Amie Mills, NZ Comedy Trust board member Gemma Gracewood, Playmarket's  Salesi Le’ota and playwright Sam Brooks.

As well as the cash grant, the Topp Prize comes with two iconic milk bottle lolly artworks from Simon Lewis Wards - housed in a double hot pink crate to match Camp Mother’s pantsuit. 

Having an award that carries their name means a lot to the Topp Twins themselves. “We are honoured to have our legacy acknowledged alongside kiwi comedy legends Billy T James and Fred Dagg. As young performers, we were not afraid to stand up for what we believed in and incorporated these issues into our live shows. 

"Being out lesbians in the early 80’s singing country music through comedic characters, the Gingham Sisters was probably one of the most diverse combinations of political comedy in the world, and to have an award honouring those qualities means so much to us.”