Last year, Comedy Tourism checked in with the red-hot stand-up comedy scene of South Africa. Three years earlier in 2008, then-film student David Paul Meyer traveled to South Africa in search of a thesis topic and found a subject who would turn his school project into a full feature documentary. Meyer’s film You Laugh But It’s True, formerly titled Township to the Stage, profiles the early rise of South African comedian Trevor Noah, as he prepares for his first ever one-man show “The Daywalker.”
Meyer completed post-production on the film last year and just recently secured an international distribution deal with First Hand Films. In the meantime, he is still promoting the film at screenings and festivals throughout the US and Europe. So far, the response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive. The film made its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival. At International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the largest doc fest in the world, You Laugh But It’s True finished in the top 20 for audience votes out of 300 films. It also received the jury award from the New York Friar’s Club Comedy Film Festival last year, and recently played the 2012 Boulder International Film Festival where the festival director listed it as one of her top five films.
In the midst of his increasingly hectic schedule, David Meyer took some to speak with me about the comedy in South Africa, Trevor Noah and the upcoming release of his film.
How did you first become interested in the stand-up scene in South Africa? What were some of the names you first heard?
A little back-story here. In the summer of 2007, I had just finished up my first year of graduate school at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. I had started thinking about what I wanted to do for my thesis film… I randomly bought a copy of Vanity Fair magazine, which I never read. It caught my eye because it was their special Africa issue, with the mighty Bono himself as guest editor.
I started reading through the magazine and was blown away by the articles. It wasn’t your typical coverage of the continent, at least not what I was used to hearing about. I had been conditioned by stories of poverty and hopelessness, stories that treated Africa as just one homogenous region of despair. But now, I was reading articles about artists, writers, and entrepreneurs and together they painted a wonderfully diverse picture of Africa.
Why hadn’t I seen more positive stories like these? I was inspired. I had my idea for a thesis. I wanted to tell a different side of the story.
So I spent a year researching. One thing that stuck with me from my research, though, was a recurring pattern of Americans traveling to various areas of conflict in Africa and always being surprised by the sense of humor — an almost irreverent sense of humor that sustained them through their tough situations.
At the same time I had been interning for a production company in Los Angeles, and one of the talent managers had given me a project where I scoured the Internet searching for undiscovered comedic talent. It finally sparked an idea in my head: I wonder what the comedy industry is like over there.
I had already scheduled a meeting with an acquaintance from South Africa who was in LA. I gave him my comedy in Africa pitch, fully expecting him to think I was crazy, but instead his face lit up with a smile and he said, “You should talk to my cousin! He’s very involved with an emerging stand-up scene in Johannesburg!” He also mentioned comedians Barry Hilton and David Kau, but said I should seriously talk to his cousin, a guy named Rabin Harduth.
Three weeks later I was on a plane to South Africa.
When you first arrived in South Africa, how did you go about researching the comedy scene?
Rabin was my guide when I arrived, but the trip started out rather badly. I went to an amateur night where the comedians were basically reading jokes they had printed off the Internet. I was pretty discouraged.
It was under these circumstances I finally got to meet Takunda Bimha, who at the time was managing a small group of comedians. We sat down for coffee, and in that hour I went from despair to feeling like I may have found my story. Takunda showed me a Wall Street Journal article that had just come out the same weekend I arrived in South Africa, featuring Loyiso Gola, Kagiso Lediga, David Kibuuka…and Trevor Noah.
Takunda introduced me to these comedians from the WSJ article, and he, Rabin, and I went to a couple underground comedy spots that week. One at a jazz club on its off night, the other in the basement of a reggae bar. At the time, venues like these were all there was for stand-up comedy in South Africa — no full time comedy venue existed.
What are you impressions of the comedy scene in South Africa? Is there a noticeable separation between stage and screen?
The rise of comedy in South Africa has been nothing short of meteoric. From the time I spent there in 2008, until the present, the scene has exploded with new comics. Where one-man shows were once few and far between, you now see them happening all over, practically every month.
TV is a bit hit or miss, and sometimes it can be tough to find quality comedy programming. In the last couple years though, there has been a decent increase with both Trevor and Loyiso Gola hosting their respective late night variety shows, and David Kau hosts “So You Think You’re Funny,” a Last Comic Standing-esque program.
Note: Here’s a clip I found of episode one of Kau’s show.
At the same time, there’s still a really long way to go. As far as I’m aware, there’s only one full-time comedy venue in Johannesburg right now [Note: Parker’s Comedy and Jive Club], and I think that may be the only one in the country. Very few people can call themselves fulltime comedians, and those that do mostly earn their money doing corporate events.
How would you describe South African humor now that you have spent so much time there?
In terms of describing South African humor, the term “no sacred cow” comes to mind. Race is certainly a hot topic, which makes sense considering Apartheid only ended there in the early 90’s and the country has only had democracy for about 18 years. Furthermore, with a country that has 11 official languages, the cultural differences are pretty evident — which makes for great comedy fodder.
How did you connect with Trevor Noah specifically?
I first saw Trevor perform in 2008 at a jazz club. Takunda introduced me to him afterwards, and I was able to sit down with Trevor and conduct an interview a few days later.
Can you speak to the career evolution you observed while documenting Trevor? What happened between 2008 and 2011?
As one comedian in South Africa put it, Trevor is a supernova. As fast as the comedy scene in SA has grown, Trevor’s career has grown even faster.
When I first met him in 2008, he was doing bit corporate gigs and performing in tiny clubs. Now he sells out the biggest venues all over South Africa, and headlines at comedy clubs all over the US.
He recently appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno — the first comedian from the ENTIRE continent of Africa to ever do this — and received a standing ovation.
Right now he’s touring the United States with Gabriel Iglesias’s Stand Up Revolution Tour, performing for thousands of people at a time.
What kinds of adversity did Trevor have to face while coming up in the stand-up world? Is there a lot of competition in that community?
He has dealt with an extraordinary amount of adversity, both personally and professionally. We touch on that a lot in the film. In terms of the stand-up community in South Africa, there are comedians who get along really well and others who can’t stand each other.
And Trevor is certainly a controversial guy. You don’t have the kind of success he has had in such a short amount of time and not make a few enemies along the way.
Tell me about your involvement with his one-man show “The Daywalker?” Was it a right-place-at-the-right-time scenario that you happened to be following him as he was planning the show?
Definitely that sort of scenario. After my initial trip in 2008, I spent a year developing the project. It was tough staying in touch with the comedians I met in South Africa, I think most of them didn’t believe I would return. When I came back at the end of 2009, it just so happened to coincide with the lead-up to The Daywalker.
So, how did The Daywalker do?
Well, telling you would give a big chunk of the movie away…
Describe your relationship with Trevor. Has it changed much since you first met him?
Yeah, it has changed drastically. When I first met him, I thought it would be extremely difficult to get access to him for the documentary because he was so busy and focused on comedy — and he would probably tell you I was too goofy or something along those lines.
Now I count him as one of my closest friends. He’s back and forth between South Africa and the US these days. When he first came to LA, he stayed in my spare room and now he lives right down the road from us.
We’ve also continued to collaborate professionally. I produced and directed his latest stand-up comedy special “Trevor Noah: Crazy Normal.” We also worked on a few comedy sketches together, one of which has played at several comedy film festivals.
Our friendship is the thing that came out of the documentary that I value most. How’s that for sappiness!?!?
Who else is really changing the face of South African stand-up comedy right now?
I’m a huge fan of Eugene Khoza, both his stand-up and his acting. I had a chance to direct a few sketches that he and Trevor starred in, and I was blown away by Eugene’s acting ability and comedic timing. He’s just a funny, funny dude, and the people love him. He’s going to be huge.
I also admire the work that Kagiso Lediga does. He’s gone from performer to producer and has turned out some really awesome film and TV projects. Loyiso Gola, Dave Kibuuka and Tumi Morake are great as well. David Kau has done a lot to groom young comedic talent in South Africa, and has been a great ambassador for the industry.
How long did you spend in South Africa to complete the film?
I cut a shorter version to satisfy my thesis requirements, but the focus has always been on the feature. All told, I spent around six months in South Africa filming, and post-production on the film took a little over a year.
Any funny stories from filming that have stuck with you?
Wow, there are so many. Driving there definitely took several years off of my life. Comedian David Kibuuka dropped me off at a car rental place once. He watched me struggling to drive an old school, 3-speed, manual transmission VW Golf out of the parking lot — he later commented I had some “serious Borat vibes” going on. Of course, I stalled the car out in the middle of the road a few minutes later and had to be pushed to the shoulder by some guys selling fake watches in the streets. They were extremely friendly!
What are your plans for releasing the film?
We just signed a deal with First Hand Films, and that is official now. I don’t have any more details right now, but the plan is to release in the second half of 2012.
Will the film be shown at any upcoming screenings or festivals?
We have a couple Los Angeles screenings coming up, one at USC in April. There is a festival we will be playing in New Jersey, and a couple in Europe. We’re still waiting to hear back from a few more festivals as well.
Do you plan to continue documenting stand-up comedy in South Africa, even after you are done with this film?
Trevor and I have talked about an African continent tour where we document the comedy industry in other countries. I have several narrative projects lined up in South Africa as well, I look forward to continued collaboration with the comedians over there.
And, I will always be a fan!
As of this article’s publication, You Laugh But It’s True does not have a scheduled US release. But, you can check out the film’s blog to learn more about the story, get updates, and find out when it might be playing near you.
Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.