If your family’s television ever happened to be on TV2 between the hours of 3pm and 6pm at anytime during the 1990s you might have had the pleasure of being brainwashed by one of New Zealand’s finest comic duos: Jason Gunn and Thingee. Their high pitched hypnotism is responsible for a whole generation of Kiwi kids growing up believing that if your eye falls out you can just put it back in again. While Jason’s grin is still valuable to TVNZ, what about his old partner Thingee? He wouldn’t meet me, but over the phone he told me his somewhat sad, yet inspirational story.
Walter Wurst arrived in New Zealand in 1992 as a fresh faced 18 year old lad from Sacramento, California with ambitions of making it large in the Kiwi film and television scene. However, his strong accent, glass eye and huge nose weren’t popular among casting directors at the time, so his ambition took him as close as he could get to the camera. He never realised that this burning ambition would nearly burn him to death.
“I was working as a cleaner at Avalon Television studios and had just washed and dried the whole Playschool crew in one of those massive industrial washer/dryers. I climbed inside it because Gemima had her hair caught in the centrifuge. It was really warm in there, snug as a bug in a rug I was, it had been a long day and, foolishly, I fell asleep.”
Just how the door shut and the machine turned on remains a mystery to this day, but one hour and 5000 revolutions later, Walter had suffered such high temperatures that he had shriveled like one of his hometown’s grapes. In fact, his injuries were so bad that when he did make it onto TV screens around the country, audiences took him for a puppet.
“That hurt a little bit. I mean, who wants to be taken for a puppet? However the reality was that I was on TV and people loved me for who I was.”
And love him, they did. Whether he was the cute creature for the adoring kiddies, easy laugh for the alcoholic parent or surrealist puppet for the cannabis laden student, Thingee always maintained a great sense of humour despite his severe physical disfigurement.
“Whenever I needed a laugh, I just had to look at the bloke next to me,” he says referring to his co-host and close friend Jason Gunn.
“I thought I was shriveled and disfigured!” He laughs.
Walter admits that after being Thingee for so many years, he sometimes forgets about his life, pre-dryer.
“When I burst out of that polystyrene egg in my network debut it was like a rebirth for me, and in some respects a little bit of Walter was lost that day.
“My birth certificate says Walter, but the public call me Thingee. When I say Walter, you say Thingee! Walter! Thingee! Walter! Thingee!” He sings down the phone. I put my hands in the air as he asks, and we exchange ‘Walters’ and ‘Thingees’ for a good minute.
But there is no crisis of identity going on here, just a man who’s been around a dryer a few too many times. Ironically, he is now a sleeping partner in a dry cleaning business, proof that you can take the man out of the dryer but you can’t take the dryer out of the man.
He can still be heard on early morning talk back on the Rotorua airwaves, occasionally making prank calls to Jason, his buddy for life.
“He’s (Jason) a true professional and I wouldn’t be where I am today if he hadn’t come down to the laundry to borrow my bucket.”
It was Jason who discovered Walter in the throes of death and then got him on the After School show as soon as possible after sensing a quick wit resided behind the ugly American’s dilapidated body. Jason and Thingee were inseparable for a large part of the 1990s until producers rather hastily dumped the diminutive comic. Rumours circulated that debauched post show parties involving sex and drugs were to blame. He vehemently denies the sex claims and doesn’t harbour any ill feeling over his axing, admitting that he just couldn’t relate to the average Kiwi kid as society seemed to leap light years ahead chasing the next fad. “I’d like to think that kids watched our programs and learnt absolutely nothin except how to laugh. The hosts these days reflect the kids that are watching them: selfconscious, superficial and full of shit.”
Sour grapes? Perhaps. But he goes on, singling out the new age Kiwi kid, who he thinks is too conscious of the world, forgetting about the simple things and seeming to be constantly redefining the word childhood. Walter has a lot on his mind and uses his nightly talk back show to vent his shriveled up fury.
I notice a repetitive glassy clunking sound in the background while Thingee talks.
“Thingee, are you bouncing your eye on your desk?” I ask him.
“Can you hear my eye?” he replies.
I say yes and the bastard hangs up, probably in smug comfort knowing that all I really wanted to talk about was the most talked about eye in Kiwi television.
So remember Thingee. He was unlike any television star ever to grace our families’ televisions, for he was washed up and dried out before his career had even started, and for that we should take our hats off to him.