11 Oct 2023

Vale Cal Wilson

Image: Andrea Huelin

A tribute to Cal Wilson. 

“I’m so lucky. I feel like I’ve scammed it. I’ve scammed it. I’ve done what I love, my whole life. How lucky am I? I get to do what I like, and I get to have experiences, and I get to take my son places. I went to Singapore and Hong Kong and Montreal for work and got to take my family, and how amazing. Like, I’ve nailed it.” — Cal Wilson 

Cal Wilson was a fearless pioneer of comedy across Aotearoa and Australia, making her mark early as the inaugural winner of the prestigious Billy T Award in 1997 alongside the late Ewen Gilmour. 

A writer, actress and stand-up comic, Cal was a much-adored member of our comedy community. The NZ Comedy Festival team, our Trust Board and her peers are devastated by the news that someone so kind and brilliantly funny has passed so suddenly, having achieved so much and yet with much more still ahead of her.  

Cal co-founded the Christchurch-based Court Jesters improv group in 1990; with them, she won a World Theatresports title in 1994. Still going to this day, the group and its Scared Scriptless nights have been a formative part of and inspiration for many comedians’ careers since. “It trained me. It trained me how to be funny and how to read an audience and it made me really fearless,” Cal said of her Ōtautahi improv days in an interview for the landmark Funny As series. “I still look back on it as being such a fantastic time. We were so lucky. Like, we didn't realise how lucky we were.” 

Cal came of comedy age at a time when women were few on New Zealand’s stand-up scene, which itself was in its infancy. A feminist on and off stage, she forged bonds with and pioneered pathways for other funny women, and inspired many more here and across the Tasman to take the mic. “We should all be in the room, we’re all funny, get us all in here!” she told Funny As. “The friendships with Michele and Justine… it’s so lovely that we’re all still performing now… I love diversity on stage, I think it’s great that we’re all in our late forties or our fifties and it’s so great that we’re not invisible, that we haven’t become invisible like we’re supposed to. I love that people in the audience are seeing themselves on stage, and so that’s why it’s so exciting that there’s so many more people of colour on stage … we reflect the audience and that’s so exciting.”

Cal was a fixture of Aotearoa and Australian screens for the past four decades, writing and performing in comedy shows such as Skitz, Telly Laughs, Pio!, The Panel, Pulp Comedy, 7 Days, Have You Been Paying Attention and Whose Line is it Anyway. Her dramatic work graced series including Duggan and Street Legal, and she was a highlight of reality and game shows including Spicks and Specks and The Great Australian Bake Off.  

We’re incredibly proud of the work Cal did in Australia, not just on the screen, but on stage in her first loves of improv and storytelling, which she never left behind. “Going to Australia, I couldn’t pretend to be Australian, because I was a Kiwi. I’m a New Zealander. I don’t know enough about Australian life to fake it. I think the advantage for me, being an outsider: you get to look at things a different way. You can reflect them back to people in a way that they’ve not thought about before, because they’re just used to it. That, I think, is an advantage. Also, I just couldn’t be anyone else other than me.” In that vein, Cal’s most recent work on screen was helming the Aotearoa episode of the SBS series, Who the Bloody Hell Are We?, a groundbreaking documentary on Australian identity.   

Cal was one of a kind. She fully inhabited her unique style and unforgettable voice and never stopped finding ways to bring joy. She was renowned for her distinctive look, which combined her love of colour, vivacious patterns and excellent hair. During a Covid lockdown, Cal created headdresses using doll parts and Christmas baubles to delight her online fans — a project beautifully captured in a painting by Cairns-based artist Andrea Huelin, which won the Packing Room Prize in this year’s Archibald Award

The outpouring of love and loss for Cal is a tribute to her natural, free-flowing generosity and open heart. She mentored so many people throughout her life—not all of whom saw themselves as comedians, but Cal knew they would fit alongside her on stage. 

“I think the thing is that as a comedian, you can only be how you are. You can’t be funnier than you are, and you can’t be someone that you’re not, because the audience knows if you’re not being authentic.”

Cal was one in five million. Our hearts are with her husband Chris and their son, her wider comedy whānau, and the many friends she made all across the world. 

With kind thanks to Augusto for permission to use excerpts from Cal’s ‘Funny As’ interview, which is available in full on NZ On Screen. Please credit where applicable.