Special report: Comedy in South Africa

By | January 18, 2011 at 3:08 pm | No comments | Features | Tags: ,

By Danny Lobell

Nostradamus predicted that when the world comes to an end in 2012, only those living in the land of the elephant will survive. While he might have been talking about India, there’s also a good chance he meant Africa. If he was right, the comedy scene there may be all that’s left to continue on the legacy of the great art of stand-up. As I learned on my trip out there, that may be not such a bad thing.

My introduction to South African comedy came from a joke done by a comic opening for me the first night at Parker’s Comedy Club. His name is Ronnie Modimola. He is a black South African comic whose act borders on alternative, with an avant guard-esque delivery. One of his jokes goes like this: “Twenty-five years ago I could not have preformed at a place like this, you know why, don’t you?” The crowd gets uncomfortably quiet. “Because I was five at the time!” The crowd erupts with laughter.

Johannesburg has so much crime that everyone’s sensitivities are heightened. Race is perhaps more touchy there than it is in the United States. AIDS jokes are played out, and people are more private. If you ask someone what he does for a living, they might not tell you. “I don’t want people knowing if I have money or not,” some will say. “I don’t want to get mugged based on my income after the show.”

As much crime as there is, people go on living, following some basic rules that to minimize risk, like keeping an electric gate and security cameras on your property or keeping your windows a crack open when you drive; it makes it harder for them to be smashed in at a stop light.

You always need to keep your wits about you, take note of who is in front and behind you. Don’t wear a watch in public. Don’t carry a lot of cash; and when you do keep some separate from the rest. While driving at night, if there’s no traffic coming, drive through the red light rather than stop and risk being carjacked. Keep some cash in the car to bribe cops. Don’t walk around town without purpose. If you seem lost, you’re a target. Be careful at ATMs. Have a friend stand behind you as a lookout. If you do get mugged, don’t make eye contact with the mugger and you may walk away alive.

With that all said, Joberg is an awesome place and there are a handful of people who wouldn’t live anywhere else if you paid them.

As the years pass and apartheid fades away into another chapter of history’s fuck ups, a new generation of black and “colored” African comics are born. The term “colored” in South Africa is not racist, by the way. It refers to a race of mixed race people. Colored comics have their own culture and slang and thus their own perspective they bring to the stage. They refer to themselves as colored and are proud of their unique heritage.

Comedian Danny Lobell successfully not getting eaten by a lion in South Africa

There are comics from Zimbabwe. Some are Zulu and others are African, descended from the Dutch settlers and the Boors. A South African comedy show includes a good amount of diversity without even mixing in the Brits and Yanks like myself.

But what really impressed me was the camaraderie amongst comedians both young and old. Support from industry to headline acts is something we don’t have anymore in the NYC scene. There’s no longer a love for the art and respect for the sacred fraternity that is comedy. The closest things other big cities I have played like LA and London have to offer are cliques. There are so many cliques and divisions— alt, edge, mainstream, older comics, younger comics, TV comics, UCB guys and so on and so on.

And with all this, the underlying factor in which we’re all connected in a very basic way seems to have been forgotten. One would be hard pressed to find a UCB NYU grad comic shooting the shit with a guy who plays Jersey bars and pizza shops. Yet, if either of those guys traveled to Paris as I have done and introduced themselves to a local comic there they would be met with open arms and warmth that even transcends French culture. Why? Because they’re comics and they’re fucked up in the same wonderful way as our buddy on the Chan de Lise.

I’ve always equated comedians to the X-men. Each is different and have their own powers, but work towards a common goal: to make a room of strangers laugh. Some have other goals, such as raising social awareness, but the connecting factor is that it’s all being done through laughter.

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Joe Parker is one of the few comedians that has been a career comedian since the 1970’s in South Africa. He withstood the challenge of exercising freedom of speech during an era where apartheid ruled the land and censorship was everywhere. Today, he owns and runs the only full time comedy club in South Africa, aptly titled “Parker’s Comedy and Jive.” It was there that I spent my first three weeks in the country headlining shows and getting to meet the local Joberg comics.

Much like the role Rodney Dangerfield played in the club named after him, Joe Parker often hosts the shows. From what I saw, you couldn’t ask for a more supportive club owner to new comics. Joe greets everyone with a smile and doesn’t seem to even understand the concept of exploiting new talent that come into his club. He puts an “open spot” on every show between the feature and the headliner. This spot is reserved for young comics to give the Parkers stage a try. How many people do they need to bring for this amazing opportunity to play to a packed weekend room? Zero! How much do they need to pay? Nothing. How many flyers must they hand out? None.

This is pure nurturing of new and aspiring talent. Joe goes up and tells the crowd, “I started doing comedy in 1977 and here’s a joke from when I started” (he adds in an easy not so great joke and the crowd responds to it accordingly with snickers and groans). Joe then explains that everyone starts somewhere and the crowd is in for a treat because they’re going to see someone start tonight. He asks to please be very supportive and don’t give him a hard time because “if you do I will come out here after him and rip you a new one and it will be very embarrassing for you.”

Then he goes, “Now please give a warm Parkers welcome to….” The new comic goes up and does his thing. Joe stands at the bar, watching and chuckling from time to time. If the comic is good, Joe will help him move up through the ranks of his club and eventually start giving him paid work.

One night an improv troup was booked and one didn’t show. After the other troup members reminded Joe of the games they would be doing, within a few minutes he was out there rockin it with the troupe on stage. I was very impressed, but that was just the beginning of my comedy journey through South Africa.

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Dave Levinson lived in Cape Town. He had been pursuing a career as a stand-up for the past few years but wasn’t achieving the professional success he had been hoping for. One day he packed his baby and his lady in the car and decided to make the move to Joberg. Things changed quickly.

He started getting better bookings and landed a TV writing job for South Africa’s first late night interview talk show. Their version of “The Tonight Show” is called “Tonight with Trevor Noah.” Trevor is one of South Africa’s quickest rising stars and his comedy act landed him a series of jobs on radio and children’s television before he finally hit the big time with his own talk show.

One interesting thing that led to Noah’s rise to fame was a bit he did on stage. It’s a common premise– poor cell phone service. Trevor did a bit on how bad the phone service in South Africa was and singled out one company, Cell C. Some execs from Cell C saw his act. Realizing that Trevor’s popularity was growing, there was the potential that this bit would become a PR nightmare.

To avoid that, they hired Trevor as the face of their new ad campaign focusing on how they would be changing their ways. What this amounted to was Trevor’s face on billboards, TV, and online. Wherever you are in South Africa you can’t go long without seeing Trevor’s face. This is a sure sign that comedy is working its way into South Africa’s mainstream. The influence that comics have there and potential to change things through social commentary is tremendous.

There are other signs—like the amazing underground scenes booming in Joberg and Cape Town. Comedy rooms are popping up in restaurants, bars and nightclubs. The best of the comedy rooms in Johannesburg happens on Sunday nights at a place called “Cool Runnings.” Each week, crowds pile into the basement to watch comics develop their material. It had a feel somehow reminiscent of playing a room like the Comedy Cellar in the West Village of New York.

It’s a bohemian crowd of young, pot-smoking artsy kids. The shows are fantastic. I had the pleasure of playing one and got a chance to sit down with the man behind the room, John Vlismas. He was incredibly sharp-witted, smart, and super funny on stage. Mr. John told me a story about how Chris Rock popped in and did a set when he was in town. He almost threw ice at Rock when he burned the light by forty minutes (throwing ice there when people really burn the light is the room’s tradition). But Chris’s bodyguard caught John, grabbed his ice-filled hand, and made him drop it. He laughed because he didn’t understand the old no throwing ice at Chris Rock rule at the time. Looking back, he said he’s very glad it didn’t happen.

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Next stop for me was Cape Town. I landed a few gigs there and was eager to check out their scene. It was almost as if Cape Town was LA and Joberg was NY, so it was a refreshing change of scenery.

The good people that run the Cape Town Comedy Festival, creator Sam Hendrikse and project manager Lauren McGregor, are responsible for bringing Chris Rock to South Africa to do shows. They really have great intentions for developing the local talent out there and putting South Africa on the comedy map in a big way. They were passionate about what they do and are working hard at making all the shows a great success.

Rock filmed a piece for his “Kill the Messenger” HBO special out there. The festival is now in its 14th year. Each year the festival celebrates comedy in South Africa by having some big shows around Cape Town featuring local and international acts. You might know some acts from this past fest: Ian Bagg, Orny Adams and the man I just introduced you to, Trevor Noah. For more on the festival check out their website comedyfestival.co.za.

I was asked to headline a show at a place called Zula bar. The show was the festival’s kick off for the local talent competition. This is where the local unknown comics from Cape Town get a chance to compete and have nice slot in the festival each year. The show was packed and the crowds were loving the comedy like it was free heroin and they were junkies. I watched the local acts and was amazed by the level and diversity of the talent I saw there. One guy that really impressed me was a scrawny little dude from Zimbabwe; he was missing a front tooth from. His name is Siyabulela Seya. And as it turned out, he actually
wound up winning the contest.

I got to work with so many interesting acts when I was there. But perhaps the one that left the biggest impression on me was an 81-year-old man by the name of Brian Alexander. He went by the name, “The Wandering Hobo.” The Wandering Hobo would come in to the room while the MC was on stage, coughing and wheezing and smelling terrible. You could smell him from the other side of the room when he entered. He would start stealing drinks off people’s tables and the MC who was in on it would stop his act and address what was going on by acting like there was a security breach.

Somehow, a homeless man got into the club and he asked to have him removed. Then Brian from off stage would say he would leave if could go up and tell a joke. The MC would pose it to the crowd, saying, “What do think? Should we let him?” The crowd that wanted a train wreck would go nuts and say yes and on would go Brian. He would proceed to crush on stage. The crowd, knowing they’ve been fooled, would go crazy with laughter and applause.

The Wandering Hobo and Danny Lobell

If there were a South African Andy Kaufman award this guy would have taken it home in a second. After the show he and I chatted. I learned that he had been doing this act for over 30 years and in that time he never washed that outfit so that it would smell authentically awful. Talk about commitment to the bit.

He told me that he had done shows where he would set it up with a tour bus that he would be lying on a park bench covered in news papers and the bus would pull up and offer him a ride. The people would be annoyed at first with the driver until he’d hijack the bus speaker system and do his homeless act and kill.

He would do cruise ships where he would sleep on the life boat on board until he would be discovered by someone on the ship mid-cruise. He’d then surprise everyone with his act. He was a true performance artist and funny as hell. I was sad to learn that after I left he died, but I hope his legend will live on in some part with this article. I was amazed that at 81 he was still doing it with such conviction and dedication and killing it. I also learned later that in real life he was actually a very wealthy man. What an amazing guy.

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Mel Miller, another one of South Africa’s old timers, went to jail for doing his act during Apartheid for speaking out against it. You could say he’s South Africa’s Lenny Bruce.

During Apartheid the country was so insulated that you couldn’t get tapes from the United States. Mel would smuggle tapes of Carlin, Mason and Pryor into South Africa and study them. He would pass them around to all his comedian contemporaries to hear what was out there. It was their only exposure to comedy in the outside world. Despite being an older man, he was on the scene working out new bits and killing on stage. I went to his house and interviewed him about his life and career (also available on the YouTube page I created).

There were so many great acts out there and a magically supportive awesome comedy scene. I talked to sketch groups, improvisers and a guy named Bevan Cullinan who does an awesome character called Gary the Tooth Fairy that writes really truly funny ads.

Bevin started as a stand-up there and became an award-winning commercial writer and director. When I asked him why he chooses to stay working in SA rather than making the move to the US or UK to do comedy commercials (with his portfolio and his accolades it shouldn’t be too tough for him) he responded, “I find that they are a lot looser here in terms of what you can get away with (with regards to comedy) where as working somewhere else making funny commercials they tend to muzzle you.”

The tooth fairy character was an ad campaign out there that did so well he turned it into a stage show! I went to his office and he was kind enough to give me some time and show me a lot of the projects he was working on- amazingly creative funny stuff!

My entire time in SA was an incredible experience; I wouldn’t trade it for much (maybe a ton of money because I need it these days). There are so many of the younger acts that I thought were so great but I can’t have this article go on forever. I’m going to name a few you should check out.

Grant Willy Wilson is just starting out but has such a good mind for comedy and film. I’m sure he’s going to be huge if he stays with it. There is also Ndumiso Lindi, Kedibone Mulaudzi, Nina Hastie (one of about 10 female comics in the whole country), Felix Limumba and Ryan Whittal. I met a girl named Lindsey the White Girl who is one of only two black female comics in South Africa. She was so funny and something about her reminded me of Calise Hawkins here in NYC who I also find super funny. She and I talked after the show about how similar Zulu is to Orthadox Judasim.

Warren Robertson has a cool blog about Joberg called “Kill or be Killed.” I wish I could remember all the names of the awesome comics. On a continent that has been mined for gold, oil, diamonds and precious stones I would not be surprised if great comedic talent was next. South Africa and its comedy scene will live in my heart forever.

Danny Lobell is a stand-up comedian and writer based in New York City. Learn more about him at dannylobell.com.

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