Comedy vs Musicby Andy Davis / 21.11.2011
It was about halfway through the set, sitting on top of a rickety scaffolding watching a collection of “the best” South African comedians at the packed Carnival City big tent when the realisation hit. Comedy, in this country, is infinitely more original, relevant and sustainable than music. Let me tell you why.
In comedy you have to regularly produce entirely original material and most of it turns on the quirks, anachronisms and eccentricities of the South African condition. It is 100% in and of this place and invariably revolves around race; the elephant in the corner of the room we call the Rainbow Nation. And to quote Loyiso Gola: “There’s no black in a Rainbow.” Then look at music, the bands that thrive in this country sound like they come from California, they sing about trite shit like love, hooking up, the club, pennies in the snow and cadillacs, drawing heavily from western trends and contemporary styles. But can you picture a South African comedian getting on stage and riffing on Bill Hicks or Eddie Murphy? Can you imagine the special derision that would be reserved for a comedian who tries to straight-facedly pass off a fake American accent like so many of our musos do? South African musicians (and I speak in sweeping generalisations directed mainly at pop music here) are bogus copycats of the highest order, adding nothing to the cultural discourse of our times. Helping nought to unpack and or resonate with the “South African condition”. Merely churning out international simulacras designed to pluck an emotion and echo a stronger original, and in one fell swoop ctrl alt deleting our culture. Clogging the channels with this musical cholestrol and causing the real South African music to dwindle on the sidelines in a kind of unsustainable economic anaemia. At best they’re original cover bands. But if you’re a regular Mahala reader, you’ll know this one.
But there was a time in the late 80s when sounding South African was fashionable. Granted we were on the receiving end of a global cultural boycott. Strange then that our “pop” music forged new and original ground. Whitey bands like Via Afrika and éVoid took their cues from Johnny Clegg, Siph Hotstix Mabuse, Chicco Twala and Brenda Fassie. They tapped hard into the township bubblegum scene, taking cheesy international synth pop sounds and reinterpreting them locally. And let’s not forget James Phillips and the Cherry Faced Lurchers, The Kalahari Surfers and Sankomoto. What have we got in this vein today? Freshlyground and Hot Water, both largely dismissed as “tourist bands”. And old guard musicians like Vusi Mahlasela, Hugh Masekela, Oliver Mtukudzi, Philip Tabane et al, stuck in the jazz/traditional genre definition doldrums while the Blk Jks are deemed too experimental for mainstream air play while Spoek Mathambo and Die Antwoord have gone overseas where they’re at least appreciated… nah, fuck it, South African music could learn a shit ton from South African comedy.
Take for example, that evening’s MC, Mark Banks, as the coach of the Bafunny Bafunny team. He kicks off with a gag that plays on a Chinese accent and it’s a shocker! It klangs to the floor and so he quickly follows it up with some toilet humour about hotel soap and farting bubbles. He’s losing the audience. People are hardly even smiling. So he rips into the late arrivals in the front row. There’s no hiding in comedy. If you’re shit you’re shit and there can be no doubt. Thankfully he eventually vacates the stage for Nik Rabinowitz. At least with kak comedy, you know where you stand.
Nik Rabinowitz, on the other hand is very good. His comedy basically revolves around his ability to conjure a vast array of different South African accents and play them off against each other. In this way, he exposes and addresses South Africa’s foibles. His routine moves beyond mere relevance and pinpoints the very sweetspot of our discomfort with one another, as a nation. It’s vital mirror mirror on the wall shit. His set takes in everything from the Black Management Forum to a comparison between this and the apartheid government’s approach to the Dalai Lama. “Tibetan, what kind of tan is that? White or black, man?! See the moffie in the orange dress, no visa for him!” And he gets us laughing at everyone from Pieter De Villiers (“we played the Samoans, I’m just not sure which ouens?”) to an imagining of Survivor in Eldorado Park. It’s classy, on point material that cracks the belly chuckles and acts as a kind of soothing balm to the fucked up socio-political context of living in South Africa. As disparate and antagonistic as we are, as a country, the laughter binds us. And the fact that Nik speaks a near faultless isiXhosa goes a long way to showing us (whiteys) some kind of direction forward. Find me the contemporary pop song that does the same.
Alas Mark Banks returns to stage as some kind of interloper, cracks some more kak jokes to a pained silence and vacates the stage for Ndumiso Lindi.
Lindi’s comedy, surprise surprise, also plays on South African race relations, just from his perspective, kind of a suburban advertising creative milieu, like the old one about being the only black guy at a white party. Until another black guy arrives. And the one about how there are no black people in fairy tales. He then goes on to rip off Nigerians, and it all gets borderline xenophobic, before dipping into rugby, traffic, cultural heritage and invariably white people and the old one about how when you’re black and scared your English leaves you. The big issue with Lindi’s comedy is that he doesn’t have fresh gags. He’s like a musician constantly touring the same material, year after year. And while you might get away with churning out your hits week after week in the music biz, comedy audiences need the fresh shit. Lindi ends off with his scathamiya version of “Nkosi Sikelel’i”. And it works really well. He’s got a great voice and should develop this further, but seriously, it’s pretty unacceptable for a comedian to tell the same jokes you saw him drop at a gig a few months before.
Next up, Stuart Taylor brings it from a coloured perspective. But it’s all very suburban, and not lekker rof taal burbs meets die vlakte. He talks about white culture and gardening. He has a gag that compares Pick ‘n Pay with Shoprite for fuck sake. And you know it’s not going to take long before he starts trotting out that How To Train Your Husband kak from his one man show. All in all it’s like watching him do covers of his own material. And while it’s not good and it’s not fresh, no one can argue that it once was, and it’s all entirely original and local.
Finally, heavyweight comedian Loyiso Gola gets on stage and he looks stoned. He kicks his set off by ripping off Brakpan. “The white people here are just fucken ugly.” Then he takes a dip at old people. He’s kind of a bit too smug. But it’s funny in an arrogant, peacock-ish kind of way. “My mom’s full of shit.” He says, then talks about wanking babies and men getting pregnant. Next up he digs himself a hole with the racially diverse audience by dissing our patron saint, Nelson Mandela. “White people love Nelson Mandela. But don’t be fooled, the next black man you lock up for 27 years will kick your ass. We’ll nationalise your balls.” He then goes on to describe Julius Malema as “that one drunk uncle.” And finishes off with, “white people don’t march, they send emails.” It’s funny, edgy, dark shit. Skrik wakker comedy. And it’s all fresh. No LNN fong kong repetitions here.
A kid called Eugene Khoza steps up and does the whole promiscuous black man thing. “Every man cheats.” He says. “You think you’re a zebra, no you’re a cheetah. Those stripes will wash off and we’ll see your spots.” He then claims that black people don’t play “footsie-footsie” and that a chisa nyama is the best way to erase the smell of your infidelity. “Wors not Chanel 5”. By the end of his set he finds his groove.
“What’s up with Jenny Crws-Williams? Does she know she’s on air? Not in her living room.” And then imagines Mandela writing Long Road to Freedom. “Year number 10 these fuckers are serious.”
And then the guy who I thought represented the Parlotones of the local comedy scene takes the stage, fucking John Vlismas. But damn he was on fire. For years Vlismas kind of came across as a malcontent. An angry, potty mouthed weirdo whose comedy played as much on being mean as being funny. But if this show has anything to go by he’s getting all expansive and humble in his old(er) age. There’s a kind of one-love sensitivity creeping into his set and it actually makes it a lot better. He kicks off with:
“Fuck it’s good to hear laughter in Brakpan I lie awake at night worrying about these okes.”
His set is a masterpiece of relaxed timing, and he’s still got those trademark knives when talking about Eugene Terreblanche. “ET why are we sad that the one oke who hated everyone got killed by the okes he hated.”
These days Vlismas saves his bile for the politicians who are, “fucking all of us. Least info biggest opinion.” He then goes on to reminisce about his gran talking Fanagalo to her gardener: “See he respects me because I speak his language.” She says. “No gran he’s scared of you because you stole his country.”
The set receives tumultuous applause. People are literally getting to their feet and giving him a standing ovation.
And that brings us to Cell C comedian Trevor Noah, the big dog, the headline act. Trevor kicks off talking about his stratospheric career and his recent tour of the USA. “America is amazing, not. One woman looked like she ate all the babes. They’re not all stupid. But a lot are. Malibu is like a Cape Town vibe without the under current of racism.” And that’s where the laughs came in.
But for Trev it seems like being the face of a major cellphone network has had an adverse effect on his comedy. Maybe all that airtime made him feel like some kind of messiah with a message to spread. The dude can be kak funny, but he chooses to spend the rest of his set giving a speech about reclaiming the k-bomb. “It’s like the apartheid used condom. On the floor. Kaffir. It just slipped out.” It’s edgy and visceral subject matter, but it’s just not very funny. It’s kind of devolving into a South African self-help talk. And I guess that’s the risk one runs with race comedy. It can become a kind of comical rainbow nation seminar.
But unlike music, there’s no hiding in comedy. If your material is crap, no one is going to laugh and you’ll just make everyone feel awkward, or in Noah’s case, averagely entertained. But when it works, it’s like a gift to humanity. A blessing to society. A gig where you leave laughing, buoyant, happy and united. Music, on the other hand, is emotive. You can get all misty eyed to a riffed sound without really engaging it. Musicians can conjure emotions with a D minor and hide behind their instruments and pretend to be deep and artistic and brooding and sensitive while ripping wholesale on a slew of influences. Comedians actually have to work their material.