Inside South Africa’s Young Comedy Scene

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What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)

The legacy of the apartheid in South Africa is not exactly a barrel of laughs. Since the dissolution of this inhumane system of legal segregation, South Africa has still seen its share of woes. War, drugs, crime, AIDS. These are a few buzzwords around which many western folk build their perception of Africa’s southernmost country. Foolish it would be to ignore the problems SA faces, but equally foolish to let these issues alone define your perception. After all, one man’s “danger” is another man’s excitement.

And the burgeoning comedy scene in South Africa is pretty damn exciting.

In a country where 20 years ago “comedian” was not a known profession, comedy in South Africa is still a bit like the Wild West. In New York City, the hippest comedy nights take place in the backrooms of bars and restaurants, the basements of bookstores, and makeshift performance spaces. In South Africa, nearly all comedy shows happen in this type of venue. There are few fulltime comedy clubs, and no real “circuit” for stand-ups to play. Even the most elite comedians must hustle.

Humor has long been a tradition for South Africa, so it stands to reason that freedom was the spark waiting to ignite a new comedy culture. However, a strict observance of political correctness initially kept any raw comedy movement at bay. As comedian Trevor Noah points out in an interview with Punchline Magazine, comedy as a proper “industry” has only been around in South Africa for 12–13 years.

And this purported industry has been quite kind to Trevor Noah thus far. Recently he was tapped to be the host of South Africa’s first late-night talk show aptly titled “Tonight with Trevor Noah.” Of course, South Africans’ habits tempered aspirations Noah may have had to mirror the format in US/UK. As he points out in the same interview, South Africans don’t watch television at 10 PM. So, “Tonight” airs at 7. Here’s a clip from last October:

Noah has also made headway for comedy in the cineplex. His stand-up film “Daywalker” actually made it to theaters — one giant leap for comedy-kind according to his peers. If you’re not caught up on your South African politics, jokes from the following trailer for the film might not hit with you. But it’s impressive to see how polished he is for someone who has only been doing stand-up for 4 years.

Trevor Noah sees comedy as an industry in South Africa. Some of his peers would balk at this word. In fact, popular satirist and stand-up Loyiso Gola did just that in a recent interview with Juicy Africa TV — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Loyiso Gola was part of a groundbreaking sketch show on SABC TV called Pure Monate Show, which means “the absolutely delicious scrumptious show.” Middle-class boys with good education, at least according to a WSJ article on the rising comedy scene in SA, the comedians behind Pure Monate wanted to make a show in the vein of Saturday Night Live — and take their country’s politics and culture to task. With the green light from state-owned SABC, 2003 saw a show that would explore South African taboos with an unprecedented candor. As the article pointed out, had the comedians on the show been white they would have been swiftly fired and the show axed. Instead, the boys were allowed to play, at least briefly, and some of South Africa’s top comedians of today were “born.”

Unfortunately, many viewers were not quite ready for the new freedom of expression exercised on the Pure Monate Show and it was cancelled in 2005. Luckily, almost all parties involved continued on with their comedy careers.

David Kau, a co-creator of Pure Monate, David Kibuuka and Kagiso Lediga starred in the pseudo documentary Bunny Chow in 2006. If Trevor Noah’s Daywalker was the first chapter for South African comedy in film, this picture was the indie prologue. Check out the trailer here:

It failed to wow critics internationally, but saw local success perhaps because it seemed to be a direct line to the energy of a young and hungry generation. A generation ready to move past the politics of yesterday and laugh their way into the future. Or, maybe just ready to say something different.

Naturally, with the emergence of comedic talent in the aught decade, came the emergence of savvy management. Takunda Bimha manages many of South Africa’s top comedians. A lawyer-turned-mogul, Bimha recently co-founded Podium a comedy management and entertainment company, dedicated to finding and creating opportunities for his funny clients.

Since Pure Monate, Loyiso Gola edified his comedic status with his 2008 show Loyiso Gola For President. Here’s a clip:

He currently hosts Late Night News with Loyiso Gola for E-TV, which is a Podium Entertainment production. Here’s a recent promo for a live broadcast:

Well, if you were still wondering if making fun of the apartheid is off-limits, that should’ve answered your question. (Hint: The Answer is No). And for a feel of what the regularly broadcast show is like, here’s another clip.

Arguably, this is South Africa’s answer to The Daily Show meets Onion News Network — but it still feels quintessentially South African.

Gola’s peer, the aforementioned David Kau, co-created the very popular Blacks Only Comedy Show and has hosted many television programs. He still plays comedy shows around SA and (segue alert) recently posted this video “Brooklyn FTV Comedy Nights” to his Youtube page.

Gives a great feel for what these comedy nights are like. And, now you see Loyiso Gola balking at the whole “industry” word I was talking about? More importantly, this is a tiny glimpse into that comedy hustle I was talking about earlier.

Another major player in South African comedy is Kurt Schoonraad. After joining the Cape Comedy Collective in 2000, Schoonraad went on to host Crazy Games for 3 seasons, appear on the popular travel TV show Going Nowhere Slowly, and make numerous other appearances on South African television. And, you know, in his downtime founded the Jou Ma Se Comedy Club in 2008. This weekly comedy show at what is regularly the Riverside Café is a staple in Cape Town for new and old comedians. He’s put up two one-man shows, Spiders & Mayonnaise, and more recently HomeGroan (wacka wacka, folks).

Here’s some regional humor from Spiders & Mayonnaise about moving from “the flats” to Ottery. And just to clear the air, “coloreds” refers to people of mixed origin in South Africa and is not considered a derogatory term.

And then there are comedy acts less concerned with politics and cultural observations. They’re more about being straight up wacky.

Take for example, Corne and Twakkie. The hosts of The Most Amazing Show, these guys are kind of like a Tim & Eric/Borat/Die Antwoord lovechild. I don’t really know what else to say, so just roll the tape:

They took their act on tour in 2010, and more recently made esoteric promotional videos for the MK Awards, which are kind of like South Africa’s MTV Music Video Awards.

You also have the recent winner of the Audience Award from the inaugural Comics Choice Awards: Gary the Tooth Fairy. Creator Bevin Cullinan is not just a comedian, he’s also a director. Here’s a video in which he directed and starred in 2009, featuring his famous character.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get goofier…

Lip-syncing Whitney Houston’s famous power ballad isn’t exactly new territory, but seeing a grown man in angel wings and make-up giving it his all? Try not to crack at least a smile.

It’s hard to imagine Gary the Fairy prancing around South African Idol (yes, that “Idol”) and someone like Loyiso Gola occupying the same “industry.” Then again, Pure Monate Show was not above the costumes and physical humor:

What’s impressive to me about the current comedy scene in South Africa is its entrepreneurial spirit. The Capetown International Comedy Festival is already a veritable institution — and there are many more comedy festivals and comedy awards shows popping up every year. Legendary comedian Joe Parker opened the first true comedy club in Johannesburg called “Parker’s Comedy and Jive.” And while the elite may dominate the airwaves, there’s a community of hungry young comedians exercising their right to speech in whatever establishment will have them on any given night of the week.

Community may be the wrong word. The frenetic, inventive energy of South African comedy is also its problem, at least in the eyes of some of the young and hungry. There are many pockets, but no unifying structure. A “scene” but no real industry. Most comedians still cannot financially survive on their craft alone. In fact for those who do make money, the majority of their comedy income comes from corporate gigs — which require comedians to keep things nice n’ clean. In effect, tamping down that free expression that has allowed comedy in South Africa to finally flourish.

Hopefully soon, someone will take the initiative and figure out how to infuse comedy with the key element that will make it a true industry: profit. Judging by the field of contenders out there, I think it’s only a matter of time.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.