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Laughing At You

by Sihle Mthembu / 17.01.2011

Haters like Malema should be honorary members of the white community because “they’re good for nothing else, besides being on the money!” This is a joke by the way. I’m watching live comedy. There is no laughter. 200 people shrug in silence. Then someone laughs. At the comedian. Not with him.

I’m reminded of a line in Woody Allen’s grave masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): “If it bends it’s funny, if it breaks it isn’t.” This should be written in the still-wet DNA of anyone dreaming of becoming a comedian. Comedy, like Business Class or S&M, is not for everyone.

Here are some pointers.

Ineffectual bad language used to no real comedic purpose is lame. The great Richard Pryor had a foul mouth but he backed it up with dizzying flights of imagination and a humane sensitivity to weakness and doubt that made your heart go out to him. Plus he was funny. Maybe the funniest ever.

Now just about everyone up there curses for the sake of it. Like punctuation. Stand up routines have become the stuff in between the swearwords. Comedians seem to find it hard to be funny without tsatsarag tendencies and whorehouse language. Now I have nothing personally invested in a curse free world. You should hear me around taxi drivers at busy intersections. All I’m saying is rude has its place, but there’s so much more to being funny. The kind of funny that lasts. That gets you working full-time. That brings whole families out. The kind of funny you build a lifelong career on. This takes everything you got. More than the low speech of mean streets.

Remember Woody Allen’s “I Shot a Moose” routine? It’ll still be funny long after we’re gone. How about Cosby on grandparents and teachers? Or George Carling’s brilliant unpacking of the “Seven Words you can Never say on Television”. He turned vulgarity into a strategy to blast narrow-mindedness. Enough irony and satire to launch a hundred million T-shirts.

Of course the content of jokes is important but often comedy isn’t so much about the material itself as the delivery. I remember seeing the sadly departed, much-missed Bernie Mac on Def Comedy Jam. In bleached jeans and all. His delivery was sublime. “You don’t understand!” was his catchphrase and he’d say it in a kind of lilting, aggrieved and accusing way that was just perfect. Kagiso Lediga on Loyiso Gola’s Late Night News is developing nicely. We wait in anticipation for him to say: “This place is shit, Loy!”

And I’m really tired of comedians re-cycling the same jokes in different ways. If I want comedy based on other people’s work, I’ll save my money and YouTube old Nando’s ads. There is nothing worse than expecting a good comedy night out and being left with a supersized feeling of déjàvu! Where did I hear that before? I doubt anyone wants regurgitated viral jokes doing the rounds in comedy bars. Beer works like magic on an audience but even beer can’t make an unjoke funny.

So anyone who wants to be a professional should mirror-practice until they can’t stand the sight of themselves (self-loathing is essential to good comedy – look at Dane Cook – he loves himself and he sucks). Then earn your chops in front of actual, discerning humans (who are unrelated to you or sleeping with you or beholden to you in any way). Finally read a lot of books on re-incarnation. How else do you prepare for a thousand painful deaths?

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