Colourful World of ComedyA BLACK man, a white man and an Indian walk into a comedy club…. That might be the start of a great joke, but writing a punch line able to make them all laugh is a tough act in this diverse nation. Stand-up comedy has blossomed over the past few years, with the Soweto Comedy Festival and Blacks Only Comedy established as regular events and several of their comics routinely performing one-man shows. But, for some, the scene is still juvenile in the quality of material, with comics of all colours winning easy laughs by trotting out racial stereotypes.
It’s easy to poke fun at the very obvious differences between us, since our culture influences what we laugh at and even the way we laugh. Yet the classier comedians of all colours disdain playing the race card.
Kedibone Mulaudzi founded the Soweto Comedy Festival and runs NuBreed Comedy, which stages workshops for wannabe comedians. His students are encouraged not to resort to tired black-versus-white clichés.
"Jokes about our differences are dying out," Mulaudzi says, and win the biggest laughs from "comedy virgins" watching stand-up for the first time. "It’s easy to digest because they recognise it. But it’s lazy comedy. More mature comedy audiences don’t want to hear those old jokes, they prefer it when you get on stage and talk about personal stories rather than black-versus-white stereotyping."
Yet many black comics still insult their own race because, until recently, the lack of black venues saw them performing to white crowds that enjoyed that material. "What’s sad is that some black comedians got used to doing comedy that makes fun of black people because if it’s a 90% white audience they’ll laugh," he says. "If you do smart humour people will laugh and one or two will come up and say nice show. But if you do black and white humour all the whites will say well done. A good joke is a good joke and it doesn’t matter what colour you are. You need to make everybody laugh— that’s when you can call yourself a comedian."
That said, black and white reactions are undeniably different. Most whites will squirm at a colour joke until they see the black guy next to them laughing uproariously. Even watching a black audience is funny, with their unbridled laugher contrasting with the gentle chuckles of a more restrained white crowd.
"When blacks laugh, they really laugh, they stand up and go wild. White audiences are very reserved," Mulaudzi says. Even so, he would rather play a mixed crowd: "I don’t prefer a black audience or a white one — I just want a comedy audience."
Singing comic Tats Nkonzo says there’s a reconciliation that takes place with mixed crowds. "It’s a great opportunity to expose people to different cultures. It may be years before Sharon the white girl visits Diepkloof, but for the few minutes she is listening to me, I can take her there."
He says there are universal truths but when a comic addresses cultural nuances unique to the demographic of the audience, the crowd eats it up. Nor do we all laugh at the same thing. "Bosso ke ngwana o kenang creche ka bursary," Nkonzo says, then: "Only 3,759% of your readers got that joke."
While most blacks see comedy as a relatively new calling, Nkonzo argues that comedy is communicating for the sake of making people laugh, and all races have done that for years: "The question then becomes, was Adam a darkie or a whitie?"
The rise of the black urban comedy movement is the healthiest thing to happen to local comedy, says Afrikaans comic Hannes Brummer. "They’re not just performing in the townships to black audiences, they’re performing in white areas, and that’s done a lot because comedy is supposed to assist in closing the racial divide and it’s doing it quite nicely." Brummer doesn’t think stereotyping the races is necessarily bad, since it’s generally based on truth and can help us understand each other if it’s done well. "Sometimes the black and white thing in comedy is very valuable. It’s a great way to help draw people closer together and understand the cultural differences. You still find really stereotyped jokes like blacks can’t swim, Indians haggle for money, and Afrikaners are ignorant, but the tone is not as aggressive as in the past, it’s just mocking the idiosyncrasies between the races rather than attacking people. But if it’s just done for cheap laughs it’s not good comedy, it’s just making the easiest joke."
Brummer believes black comics have a tougher job than their white counterparts: "It’s easier for whites to perform to a black audience using English and Afrikaans than for black comedians to use vernacular with a white audience because our understanding is pathetic. B lack comics are trying to express themselves in a second language and still get the nuances and timing right."
Ndumiso Lindi agrees, saying his act "flies at a different level" when he’s performing in Xhosa rather than translating his thoughts into English.
Many black comics are now performing in their native language, but that limits them to an audience still too small to be viable, Lindi believes. Yet this is huge progress from the early years, when black comics tailored their acts to amuse a chiefly white crowd.
Mel Miller has been performing for 48 years and believes some black newcomers are degrading the art by perpetuating racism instead of showing genuine wit. Guilt from the apartheid legacy has made such humour very one-sided: "There’s a ‘Blacks Only’ comedy show but imagine if I did a ‘Whites Only’ show — I’d be roasted. If a black comic jokes about whites then people laugh, but if a white comic jokes about black culture, he’s a racist. We can’t say black people’s culture is this or black people do that. Once I was considered a communist, now I’m considered a racist. It’s not true — I hate everybody equally."
The stories comics weave are changing as those born after apartheid don’t have such racial divisions to recount. Yet, a kid growing up in Soweto has very different experiences from a kid in Sandton. That is changing the divide from black against white to "haves" against "have-nots".
"Human beings are notoriously lazy. We take the path of least resistance and, at the moment, we’re still playing the race card," says comic Vittorio Leonardi. "To not acknowledge there are dividing lines between every race is ridiculous, but it’s slowly turning into a dividing line between the haves and have-nots. Acknowledging it is one thing, but if you are using hackneyed stuff it’s not advancing who we are. The past happened, but if we don’t try to move on, society is never going to change."
Leonardi tweaks his routine to suit the audience, not to introduce racial gags but to cover subjects familiar to that crowd. "In a predominantly coloured venue, I can do material about hip-hop music, but I can’t do that for a white audience because not enough will get the reference."
Lindi agrees that reading the audience is essential. "If I perform in Durban for an Indian audience, then in Soweto for a black audience, I’m not going to do the same stuff. It’s a cultural thing." The real art doesn’t lie in making fun of people, but in finding your own voice, he says.
Miller puts it more succinctly: "Just be funny," he growls.
* This article was first published in Business Day.
Main photo: Arnold Pronto