Loyiso Gola on Juggling Identity and Jokes

Loyiso Gola is a part of a new wave of international comedians making stronger footholds in the American comedy scene. Gola recently joined forces with executive producer Trina DasGupta in producing Vimeo’s next original comedy special, Loyiso Gola: Live in New York, in which Gola employs his unique perspective to blend intellectual and simply observational aspects of his life into one hilarious whole.

Gola, who has been twice nominated for an Emmy, stars in South Africa’s source for political satire Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola, and has won South Africa’s Comics’ Choice Award, brings fresh perspectives to familiar topics. As Gola and I discussed below, he was raised on American pop culture but is distinctly outside of it. His exposure to the political and cultural climate of South Africa, isolated within itself but more generally on the mend, adds to his appreciation for the power of comedy to build bridges and strengthen bonds.

I recently sat down with Gola and DasGupta to discuss the special, striking the right balance of jokes and personal narrative on stage, and (as DasGupta particularly emphasized) the coming wave of international perspectives on the American comedy scene.

When did you guys tape the special?

September 28th. That’s when we recorded it at House of Yes in Bushwick. It was great. I really enjoyed it. I’d never been to Bushwick, so it was cool to just go in there and just do jokes.

And you found the crowd to be receptive?

Yeah, I’d been working on that material for a long time, so it was good for them to just… They were onboard from the first word.

Good to hear, because I feel like if I were in that position, one of my concerns, I imagine, would be transitioning from one comedy scene to another.

Yeah, the cool thing is that in South Africa, we have a very diverse group of people. We have eleven languages, so each part of the country has a different nuance, so you have to adapt to that. So adapting for me is not too big of an issue. I play all over the world, London, Finland, wherever. Also, America has such a huge pop culture influence on the world that there’s a big connect there, as opposed to any disconnect.

And from what I’ve seen so far, you touch on a lot of hot-button political topics as well, right?

Yeah. I talk about a lot of political… I mean, I do also think that politics is embedded in everything, so whatever you talk about to some degree is political, but I specifically talk about issues that some people might consider, “Oh that’s a bit taboo” or “we don’t discuss that.” I kind of dive into that sometimes, but not really aggressively. I chat about it.

Sure. I feel like New York might even possibly overlap in certain ways that would be receptive. Like the way New Yorkers tend to receive things that might be considered taboo elsewhere might–

Yeah, that’s true. New Yorkers kind of get into it. They’re not deterred by the odd, awkward conversation.

Right. Was that one of the reasons you selected New York as the taping location?

New York is pretty much the capital of comedy. So, where better to do the special but New York? It’s also just a good challenge to kind of go “Hey, let’s go to a place I’ve never really performed and challenge myself and the audience.”

Career-wise, do you intend to always be based out of South Africa?

My goal is to remain South African worldwide. I would like to have my foot in every country that allows you to have a comedy career. America, Britain, Australia… all the English-speaking countries. There’s no one place that I want to be based in. I just want to be where I have to be at any given time. So, if I have to be in Australia in April, that’s where I’m going to be. If I’m in London for six months, that’s where I’m going to be, but I don’t particularly have a… I’m a nomad, man.

Have you found in your travels so far that anywhere is particularly difficult to tell your jokes?

I think for me, if they speak English, I’m fine. I’ll figure it out. For me it’s usually the language barrier. But overall it’s usually fine, I don’t encounter problems.

Do you ever perform in the other languages in South Africa?

I’ve also performed in my language, which is Xhosa. But the thing with comedy, you think in a particular language. So as much as I speak Xhosa fluently, because of my education I think in English. So it’s very difficult to translate what you thought in English into another language, because languages… They come with culture and nuances that might not necessarily translate.

Right. And comedy is like its own language within a language.

Yes. So you don’t want to complicate it. You want to make your point as straightforward as possible, and that’s kind of the point of comedy.

How is the comedy scene in South Africa right now?

There’s a big, booming scene right now. A lot of people are coming out more to see standup as opposed to other forms of entertainment, there’s comedy every night, which wasn’t the case probably fifteen years ago. But now it’s a booming industry. In the future you’ll be seeing a lot of other acts out of South Africa coming to these parts of the world to tell you jokes.

How far back does standup in South Africa go, to your knowledge?

It goes back a long time, but it was also very isolated. Where I’m involved it’s probably the early 2000s, where there’s guys who are coming out all over the place and the audiences are growing. And they’re becoming more diverse and more… Because you must remember we come from a history of separate spaces. So as soon as that kind of dissolves away it allows a lot of other things to manifest, which is comedy in this particular case, right? So if people can meet up in different spaces they can laugh at the same thing.

Absolutely. And I feel like that’s something that really translates well into the comedy scene here as well.

Trina DasGupta: There’s definitely a bunch of stuff about apartheid and what that was like, and how that’s translated in terms of languages Loyiso speaks and how people interact. There’s a lot of stuff about race. There’s a lot of great reflection from the outside in terms of some of the challenges we’re having here today in his work.

Gola: Yeah. There’s a lot of things that perplex me about this place. Like how is there not free education? How are you spending this much money on a war but not education? But that’s not what I wanted to get into.

Sure. You mentioned earlier that you have a connection to America through pop culture, but you’re also experiencing it outside of the epicenter of American pop culture. So whereas we’re kind of blind to our own culture because we’re just in it, I imagine it might look a little different from your perspective.

Well, it’s just interesting how Americans are not aware of how powerful they are in the media. Because you live in the media that you consume, but you don’t understand how that influences little girls and young men in the middle of, say, Gabon, whatever the case. So, it’s far-reaching.

I mean I grew up on American culture, pretty much, whether it be the music or whatever the case is. So that’s why when I come here it’s not like… It doesn’t hit my system to the point where I don’t know what’s going on. I have a vague idea what the narrative is and what the politics are and what the economics are. But also I never want to be the guy coming from wherever and just judging everything. No one likes that. But I do just touch on things.

Yeah. And it’s also through the narrative of you, right?

Yeah, definitely. Which is the important narrative if you’re watching the special.

It’s interesting, I feel like there’s such a weird balance in New York’s comedy scene between needing to be thoroughly exhibit yourself as a unique individual on stage worthy of being heard and also an impatience where it’s like, “Please tell it to us in the form of very concise jokes.”

Gola: Yes. There’s a great juggling act that you have to do when you are trying to do that because you want to give a part of yourself to the audience, but you also you don’t want to give it in the form of poetry. No one likes that. So, you kind of have to dig deep and find the funniness in yourself, which for me is the recipe for good standup. A person who can just tell you about themselves in a very funny way. And say something uniquely personal. And connects and resonates with the audience. And that builds audience.

And this show is quite, if I would put it in an article, it’s an opinion piece… There’s a big part of me that I talk about: my upbringing, and my interactions, and just that kind of stuff. And it’s quite an opinionated thing, but it all comes from my perspective as me, so there’s a great deal of me that I leave on stage. So, if people don’t get the special, I’m going to be like, “Oh, so you didn’t buy me.”

DasGupta: He handles other topics really well too, and I think we have this in our lives where it’s not all politics, all the time. We might think about an issue, but then he comments on the thing that counts us down to cross the street and just how that’s different, or the experience of the internet here versus the internet in South Africa. He does a nice balance between the two, so that you don’t feel like you’re being hit over the head all the time. They’re just having a good time. Lots of people left the taping and said to me “Wow, that really made me think, but I had so much fun.” And that’s really the crux of who he is and what he does. And that makes him really interesting.

Gola: Everything she said.

DasGupta: He keeps me around for a reason.

How did you guys come together to produce this?

DasGupta: I started my company three years ago with the goal of helping global comedians break into the US market, so I work with a lot of artists and we did our first sketches with South Africa, so we did our first sketches with them and then David Kibuuka, who is good friends with Loyiso and writes for The Daily Show, introduced us. We’d been talking about doing something for two years now, and then Vimeo approached me saying they wanted to do a special and I recommended Loyiso.

Glad it finally came together! Any plans for the coming year? Are you anxious about being done with the special at all? I know a lot of comedians find it stressful because they feel like they’ve “burned” that material.

I get excited in writing new stuff. I love the challenge of creating a whole new hour. Back home I’m about to start touring my fourth hour, it’s basically like eight years. So, on average I write an hour every year and a half. I just got to keep pressing on. That’s what I enjoy the most.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.

Loyiso Gola on Juggling Identity and Jokes