It’s said that comedy acts as a mirror to a nation’s key preoccupations, and nowhere is this more true than on the stand-up scene.
Having been a fan for years, I’ve seen the art practiced in various settings and in various countries and it’s generally quite telling in terms of the national, or even local, psyche, I’d say.
In California, for example, they seemed, in my admittedly limited, two-year experience, to be obsessed with sex. I went to a good few stand-up sessions while I lived there only to be bombarded with dirty jokes of various shades of vulgarity that became passe in the UK – unless you’re a Roy Chubby Brown fan – at least twenty years ago.
I was even more astounded to see audiences laughing like drains at the various wits on stage who would almost randomly throw out ‘naughty’ words such as “penis”, apparently just because they could presumably in a bid to try and shock people. I stopped going in the end because I really just didn’t get it.
In South Africa, however, a central preoccupation, perhaps unsurprisingly given its history, appears to be race. While I can’t claim to be any kind of expert having only lived here for just over three months, it seems that key names such as Marc Lottering base quite a lot of their act upon it, although the theme does seem to be dwindling somewhat in importance among younger performers.
A middle-aged, coloured (or mixed race) guy with a distinctive white streak running through the front of his black affro, one of Lottering’s things is to play on stereotypes based on people from the Cape Flats area of Cape Town where he grew up as the son of a Pentecostal minister.
The Flats, which is a huge sandy expanse of land south east of the Mother City, became a dumping ground from the 1950s onwards for people designated as ‘non-white’ by the apartheid government, which forced them out of more central and western urban ‘white’ areas, in some cases to live in pre-built townships and in others, to survive in informal settlements.
Most of the relocated populations have since stayed put, and the numbers of people living there, in what look like poverty-stricken conditions, must be vast as the area stretches on for miles.
As amusing as Lottering is though, I’d argue that he’s a predominantly local kind of guy. Not only does he frequently break out into Afrikaans (the first language of many coloured communities in the Cape region) to emphasise a point, but quite a lot of his references would really be quite difficult to grasp unless you’d spent at least some time in South Africa and got to know its people a bit.
Another guy who’s more likely to make it internationally – and is already starting to do so actually – is Trevor Noah. The 29-year old, who was born to a black South African mother and white Swiss father, has just done a tour of the US following an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Already a household name in South Africa, key themes of his include race and ethnicity based on his mixed race heritage and experience of growing up in a Soweto township, although he also tackles such issues as class, crime, corruption and the political elite head on.
He’s also an excellent mimic of people of all races and backgrounds and does a mean impersonation of such famous personalities as Nelson Mandela and current president, Jacob Zuma.
Nonetheless, Noah did end up blotting his copy book a couple of months back after posting a controversial tweet following the arrest of runner, Oscar Pistorius, for the alleged murder of his girlfriend, Riva Steenkamp.
It said: “And the Oscar goes to – jail.” Which personally I thought was quite funny, but which was branded as everything from “inappropriate” to “sick” by outraged South Africans – an occurrence that just goes to show how humour is definitely in the eye of the beholder.
Anyway, in the wake of having spent a self-indulgent weekend watching various stand-up DVDs and YouTube videos, which included a white guy called Barry Hilton who apparently models himself on Billy Connelly and Richard Pryor and didn’t mention race at all (just to blow my theory out of the water), I decided to do a bit of research on it all.
According to a documentary about the local scene called “Stand Up Africa”, a nascent form of alternative comedy began to emerge in the country as long ago as the 1970s.
Mel Miller and Joe Parker were both folk singers who started making jokes a part of their act, more out of desperation than anything to try and grab people’s attention. And they found, a little sadly, that their gags were in fact more popular than their songs.
But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that stand-up really took off here and home-grown, rather than US or UK-generated, humour began to gain any credibility.
Things started to change when Englishman Mark Sampson and his wife Sam Pearce, an Oxford graduate with broad-based PR experience, created the country’s first cross-cultural comedy initiative in the shape of the Cape Comedy Collective in 1999.
To get things moving and encourage the next generation to try their luck, Collective members not only performed themselves, but also hosted ‘Comedy Lab’ workshops so that young comedians could learn their craft and share ideas.
These novices included current stars Loyiso Gola, who now headlines on the national satirical current affairs show, Late Nite News, on e.TV; and Kurt Schoonraad, founder of the weekly ‘Jou Ma Se Comedy Club’ at The River Club in Observatory, a suburb of Cape Town.
A primary aim of the Club was to furnish the industry with a regular venue to showcase both new and established talent as, since the renowned Independent Armchair Theatre closed down in 2008, there are all too few other options available.
But while the South African stand-up scene may only be a young one by UK standards – ours began in the music halls of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, while the first US-style comedy club, the Comedy Store, came to London in 1979 – it certainly seems to be a vibrant one.
And I, for one, can’t wait for the month-long Vodacom Funny Festival in June, if we can squeeze it in around an expected trip home, that is. Or the Cape Town International Nando’s Comedy Festival in August either for that matter….