You know you’ve made it when they name an award after you.
In fairness, the Topp Twins ‘made it’ a damn long time ago, but this morning’s announcement of a new award named after the national treasures - on their birthday - is definitely a major honour.
Just as fellow comedic icons Billy T James and Fred Dagg AKA John Clarke have prestigious gongs in their names, Dames Jools and Lynda Topp have lent their monikers to the new Topp Prize, provided by the New Zealand Comedy Trust.
According to today’s announcement, the brand spanking trophy - and $15,000 - will be presented annually to a practising individual, duo or group with a strong, clear and unique voice and a generosity of spirit; a person or group making Aotearoa laugh with an out-of-the-box approach, whether that comedy takes place on stage or on screen.
“We are so happy to be associated with this exciting new award. Comedy isn’t just about stand-up — it’s also for people who may like to sit down,” says Dame Jools, never missing a beat.
“The award acknowledges the diverse forms that comedy can take,” Dame Lynda chimes in. “We are thrilled to have this award named in our honour — if I was a younger comedian, I’d love to win this.”
This is not one of those awards you can apply for. Immensely respected local comedy trailblazer Paul Horan - one of the co-founders of the NZ Comedy Festival - will chair the selection panel that will be announced in the coming months. From there, the recipient is informed of their selection and asked if they will accept the prize, one that can only be awarded once to each recipient.
Horan told The Big Idea “we are putting together a thoughtful process where we look at everyone who is using comedy to express what they need to say. This is where the ethos of the Topps is really informative. They were involved with so many causes but deployed comedy with a skill and effectiveness that put them at the centre of our culture.
“So we will convene a small group of rotating judges who will chat it through. It's going to be fascinating.”
In keeping with laureate-style awards across the Aotearoa arts community, the Topp Prize’s designed purpose is to bestow prestige and recognition. While the Billy T and the Fred awards are entrenched in the NZ Comedy Festival and judged on live performances, the Topp Prize is more about acknowledging a body of work and will be awarded at an event in September.
Horan points out “comedians are everywhere in our media and the public now see them as an important part of the NZ entertainment and arts scene - that's great.
“But recognition of great comedians by their peers, celebrating them for their skill and impact has never been a major focus. This is mainly because comedy is still the most informal of industries. There are no government supported structures to fund, organise or train comedians as there are with other art forms.
“We have built our own sustainable structures with a fraction of the outside help that other arts enjoy. So we have been too busy building to reflect. The Comedy Guild and NZ Comedy Festival do amazing jobs but this award is a next step to elevate the best that we can be to remind ourselves of what good comedy means.”
Horan is thrilled to be part of an award that celebrates the iconic duo, who he says “represent the best in New Zealand comedy - they not only invented their own genre, but they altered the way we think of comedy in this country.
“They combined warmth and conscience to create a way of laughing that could only happen here. The Topp Prize will elevate the innovators and the risk-takers so that the core of our industry stays true to the Topps’ comedy ethos.”
The Topp Twins performing at the Comedy Gala. Photo:Supplied.
Their inimitable entertainment style has entered its 40th year - shining a light on real New Zealand without the need to resort to insults. There’s always been a kindness to their style of laughter.
“Our motto has always been ‘Amuse, Never Abuse’,” says Dame Lynda. “To put something down you don’t need to know anything about it — but to send something up you have to know everything about it. To be truly funny often requires looking at the world in a different way and this award will foster and reward that.
“We are excited to know the Topp Prize may help encourage the next generation of funny truth-tellers.”
Every award has an origin point - and Horan is acutely aware the inaugural recipient will set a benchmark for the years to follow. how important is the choosing of the inaugural recipient for setting the benchmark.
“The trouble we will have is that it’s intrinsic to comedy to poke fun at people who want to be seen leaving legacy and benchmarks.
“But this award will be about celebrating people who do great work, get comedy to work for them and seek to change comedy and our culture for good. Like Jools and Linda they shift things by drawing on something in themselves to make great, singular work.”