Life’s Goodby Yusuf Laher / 09.10.2009
Going into the Nando’s Durban Comedy Festival on Tuesday night, I didn’t know what to expect (besides comedy). And often, obliviousness yields the best results. All I knew was that the shows have been selling out. Fast. Which is very unlike Durban. “Apparently, Durban’s the only city in the whole world that Robbie Williams didn’t sell out,” Australian comedian Kitty Flanagan reminded me during our interview. A fact that, as a city, we should be proud of. Nothing wrong with good taste.
By 8:00pm, Sibaya’s iZulu Theatre was packed. A timid looking sound guy approached the mic for soundcheck. “Mic test, one two. Can I get some more lows? Do you hear that echo?” he asked, running through the regular timid soundman routine. Then, all of a sudden, he turned into Police Academy’s Sgt. Jones. Only better. George “Gorgeous George” Avakian’s the name, and beatboxing’s the game. The dude was incredible, knocking out five sounds at once as, collectively, the audience went, “God damn, how the hell’s he doing that?” It was some of the most realistic-sounding beatboxing I’ve ever heard. You’d swear a CD was playing.
Hosted by massive Canadian comedian Angelo Tsarouchas (the guy looks like a cross between Meat Loaf and Peter Griffin), the festival was full of top quality international acts: from Egypt to Australia. But the standouts were Ugandan born, South African based comic David Kibuuka, of Bunny Chow fame, and Jo’burg’s Trevor Noah.
I caught up with David Kibuuka after the show… and found out about his out of court settlement with Spur, his band that never plays live and a new book about a guy with super-hearing.
So how do you go from being a Finance Honours graduate at Wits University to stand-up comedy?
I can’t believe people still ask this question. Okay, I was working at the Spur in Krugersdorp, as a waiter. Very prestigious job. They say I was fired, I say I resigned. There was an out of court settlement but I can’t discuss the terms, because I still want that money. I was in a band and we wanted to go to Cape Town. Being the bandleader, I had to come up with an idea. John Vlismas had a comedy competition where you could win R10, 000 and I thought it would be an easy way to get money for the band.
I take it you won?
What’s the name of the band?
We don’t have a name, ‘cos we don’t perform live.
Isn’t that the essence of being a band?
We record stuff, we just don’t release it. We play it to our friends. One of our major problems is we battle to play in time, which, apparently, is quite a big deal in the music industry.
Being an Honours graduate, I take it your bit about dyslexia is made up?
It’s made up but it’s real. Put it this way, I have dyslexia but not to the extent of going to a therapist. Not to the extent of my live show. Sometimes I write backwards, I don’t know why.
And how do you balance reality and fiction in your act?
There’s always a spark of reality. You see, mild dyslexia’s just not funny, so it’s more of an extrapolation of reality. But if it’s not from truth, the audience can tell and it’s not funny.
What kinds of things inspire you to make fun of them?
Like learning disorders?
Dyslexia’s always funny. How is a grown man not being able to read and write not funny? The whole thing’s funny. My dyslexia is what messed up my timing, with the band.
So do you carry a joke notebook around?
It’s not a good idea. I used to write notes on my phone, but it became a mess. I’m a very “written” comedian, whereas Trevor (Noah) tends to tell what happened to him. I’m more about how it could have been. Everything’s neutral. Like a snake. Snakes are neutral: black people run away from them, Indian people make them dance. It’s all about your own point of view. Things happen. They occur. A flat tyre isn’t funny, but then the second tyre bursts, and the third one… After a show, people come up to me and go, “I never thought of it like that.”
Like… horses sleep standing up, right. So if a horse falls down the other horses will come up to him and go, “Yo bra, you need to get up!” And he’ll say, “Help me up.” And they’ll go, “We can’t, we don’t have hands.” Things just occur to me. Like I invented the travel agency.
What do you mean?
Well, one day I thought, “What if I bought all these tickets in advance and sold them later, for more money?” For a while people used to say, “Look, there goes the guy who invented the travel agency 50 years after it was invented.”
With comedy, do you think some things are off limits or is nothing sacred?
You have to make it funny. The more volatile the issue, the funnier it has to be. I don’t have very volatile bits. There’s the bit about Islam. If I’m doing a Muslim show, I end with it and they love it. I do a tester early on, just to see how many Muslims there are in the crowd and make sure they’ll know what’s going on later.
Besides Bunny Chow, what other films or TV shows have you worked on?
Font. It was terrible. It went to six episodes. I wrote 15. I also wrote The Pure Monate Show years ago, but saying that’s starting to feel like saying I wrote Santa Barbara. I think I just have to let it go.
Is film and TV something you’d like to get more involved with?
I’m focusing on the band at the moment (laughs). No, I’m writing a book.
What’s it about?
A guy that gets super-hearing. He eats a fish and, bang, he’s got super-hearing.
Sounds a bit Douglas Adams-ish?
That’s what everyone says. But I hadn’t read any Douglas Adams, so I went and read some. My book’s more bizarre, I think. If it seems like someone else could have thought of it, I leave it out. All the characters in the book want to be characters in other books. So they try their best to be good in my book. The working title’s The Wild Mind Of…
What do you think of local TV?
It’s a resources and allocation thing. People just don’t have enough time. When I did Font, I was writing an episode a week. Completely on my own! That’s insane. Then I’d take it to the actors and they’d just insult me. Because of the Internet and box sets and stuff like that, local TV’s constantly being compared to an international standard. We used to just have SABC 1, 2 and 3, and the rest we didn’t know about. When you don’t have the resources, work with what you have. Take Flight of the Concords. They thought, what do we have: this weird band and our manager Rhys (Darby). And they made a low budget show about it. You know, a show like Desperate Housewives gets big in America and in South Africa they think, “We want a Desperate Housewives.” But in America, something happened beforehand that made the show culturally relevant. You can’t force it. Why not make a show about Steve Hofmeyer’s manager? What’s going on there? What’s really going on with Steve? We don’t know.
Sounds funny already. Did you watch District 9?
Yes. I thought it was fantastic.
They had the right resources and allocation then?
Yeah, of course: Peter Jackson. But I thought it was great. The Nigerians were hating, just like the Kazakhstanis were hating when Borat came out and the Eastern Europeans hate James Bond. But someone’s always going to get picked on, get used to it.
On stage, on a good night, do you ever feel like a rock star?
But I’m going through a spiritual revolution at the moment. I used to be addicted to alcohol and strippers. You can write that. It’s just a lifestyle choice. One day I told my friends, “I’m quitting drinking,” and then I ordered a round of drinks. They were like, “When?” So I said, “Tomorrow.” And I did. It’s all about cost versus benefit. I’m sure heroin’s a fantastic high, but the cost is you lose your life and your family. With alcohol, the cost was just outweighing the benefit. We gig all the time and you go out every night. So someone will come up to you, say they enjoyed the show and insist on buying you tequila. For them, it’s their one night out for the week. For you, it’s your third. I do drink non-alcoholic beer though, which is extremely hard to find in Durban.
Any advice for anyone interested in getting into comedy?
First of all, you’re either a comedian or you’re not. I don’t know how it works. You know how people say, “By the grace of God, or by the grace of God you were born healthy?” It’s like that. If you can’t do it, you can’t force it. But if you discover you can, it takes a lot of work to get your act to that painful laugh, you know, where you’re laughing so hard it hurts. It’s all about wording, and wording takes work. Precision takes practice. If you go, “Um…” it can ruin a joke, because comedy’s all about the flow. The rhythm. No one likes to practise: from Diego Maradona, to Pele and the guy playing six a side on Sunday afternoons. It takes discipline. But if you can stick to writing three times a week and rehearsing every day, the world really is your oyster.
Last question, do you ever get confused with the Ugandan founder of Modern Batik Art Painting, David Kibuuka?
Yeah, all the time. You thought I was gonna go, “No, who’s that, right?” He’s from my village. I met him. He lives in Canada. Digitally, he kills me. He’s a lot bigger than I am. He told me that his friends were asking him why he made a low budget South African film (Bunny Chow) without telling them. And my friends kept asking me why I hadn’t told them that I was into painting, and actually really good.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that life’s good. Write that. Life’s good and I’m grateful. People like to bitch.
*The Nando’s Durban Comedy Festival runs ‘til Sunday October 11. Tickets are available from www.computicket.com.