No Laughing Matterby Kavish Chetty / 22.08.2013
Lurking among the under-thronged aisles of this cavernous theatre – moments before Mass Hysteria begins – I recall a curious dictum from a forlorn Punch magazine I read three or four years ago: “Comedy is no laughing matter”. It’s a remark with an ambient resonance right now, a few weeks after that “rape-culture” joke, one of those radically interruptive episodes that force us to come anew to everyday life, reconsider the invisibilised, encoded practices of power inside the very flesh of the quotidian: our language, our relationships; our laughter. Laughter – as a natural and organic thing – has long been considered beyond critique (“I cannot control my laughter; how could I be reprimanded for bodily reflexes beyond my agency?” or, a personal favourite, “Laughter is a coping mechanism, a transmutation of tragedy into farce. How else are we to endure immiseration, if not by finding its lighthearted silver lining?”). In the next few paragraphs, I’ll join the heritage of suspicion. This is not about “humourlessness”, or about ravaging precious “coping mechanisms”. My analytic object is to elicit four comedic dispositions from the Mass Hysteria comedy festival, and think about them in terms of ethics and power. One thing emerges among all this: that in our age, nothing can be categorical; that comedy is a multi-textured pursuit – a mesh of authorial voices and characters, narrative constructions and individual jokes – which need to be picked apart carefully to reveal their enabling presumptions. Laughter is an ethical act.
The very name “Grand West” – to herald a casino which makes its profits by seducing impoverished classes at the fringe of Athlone and Elsie’s River – is this evening’s first gesture of irony, one which should not go unannounced, if the whole point of cultural critique today is to give body and material to the things which our culture makes invisible. “Grand West”, as a name, represents the very apotheosis of Eurocentric thinking – the desire to grant a “civilisational” prestige, evoking the image of courageously-fought-for frontiers and the grandness of its cultural arbitrators; the “wild west”, in this interpretation, becomes a moment for nostalgic and commemorative sighs; and to the underside is banished all the conquer and torment, the “document of barbarism” out of which this west was bloodily annexed. How very civilised, therefore, that one of the most tragic institutions of our city should be at the same time an apparatus for the immiseration of the working-classes, and an ideological monument to a triumphal civilisation. It’s doubly ironic, then, that we’re sitting in this casino’s “Grand Arena” at the thresholds of a comic anticipation, when perhaps threnody at this House of Victimisation might be a more politically-aware response. Is it possible to reconcile the location of a comedy show inside an under-class casino? Or is this another invisibl-ising practice of “civilisation”?
Four Dispositions of South African Comedy:
Mpho Modikoane is tonight’s opening act, and from my vantage, the most promising – and funny – of the roster. Mpho is uniquely positioned to bridge cultural divides, belonging to that embourgeoisied generation of the mid-80s, finding themselves, without preparation, thrust into model-C schools or the colonial neighbourhoods of the post-apartheid era (this is, at least, what I surmise from his act). South African comics have long accrued to themselves a “nation-building” task: bringing marginal cultures into contact with dominant ones, satirising the cultural mistranslation which results from their collision. Mpho does this admirably, drawing on that whole laughable high-school atmosphere of telling house-masters that you skipped school because you have “spiritual work” to do, or that you had to “go to the mountains” (coming-of-age). In this sense, he gives himself the task of interpreter, demystifying cultural practice while exposing the kinds of comic mishap that arises in a world of incommensurable cultures. You can sense a subculture of adolescent defiance in the things he says: like, using the cultural ignorance of white teachers to generate excuses for bunking school, or the cultural ignorance of its black protagonists in engaging with bourgeois culture – and he does this with a charming and hate-less persona, deepening youthful anecdotes to show their political significance without labouring the point. Comics speak a mass-accessible idiom that allows them, when they master it, to bring the complex of culture/politics into play in stealthy ways: “the personal is political” is the organising frame of all great comedians, but rarely do they have to say so explicitly. They unconsciously draw us into the vortex of everyday life, and in Modikoane, I detect a healthy comic disposition, which centres on cultural mistranslation as an illuminating drive for humour.
Kurt Schoonraad plays the persona of the “mid-life jock”, a figure of domesticated masculinity; the type of greazy “oke” who “accidentally” grabs younger girls’ asses at braais, in a fleeting, full five-finger caress. It’s a narrative style – from his haircut to his shambling posture – that he plays out with superb, rehearsed confidence: the kind of persona from which jokes about “putting crushed Rennie’s inside a steak dinner” to thwart the agitations of heartburn, become the hilarious preoccupations of a post-40 lifestyle. Importantly, Schoonraad distinguishes his mid-life jock presence as a narrative voice, an organising satirical voice to which his various characters are sub-divisions – so when he begins to tune coloured aunties at Virgin Active for wearing shower-caps in the swimming pool, there’s nothing malicious in it. It becomes part of a self-aware series of observations on, what my girlfriend calls, “the endearing bot-ness of being coloured”, not an advantaged critique of lower-class sensibilities. Schoonraad is always at the vertiginous cusp of being “lame”, and of mining stereotypes for all his material, but two important things: tonight, he gave a durably comic performance, and second, his use of stereotype is always contingent; he never represents his characters as being the only possible outcome of history.
The same cannot be said of tonight’s most disastrous act, Joey Rasdien (if you’re unpersuaded that Rasdien is terminally unfunny, please hire Blitz Patrollie, should that piece of shit get a half-life on rental disc). Rasdien flattens the authorial voice and the voice of his characters into one national stereotype, creating a narrative confusion. He speaks in a broken English – and not one that’s well attuned to how English actually breaks down and is reinvented in vernacular cultures – and his whole act pivots on a feigned cultural stupidity: the idea that his coloured protagonist, who engages with science and academia, is too stupid to ever be a contributive member, and that we should be amused by this misprision. It’s the extreme point at which a coloured identity is reified as a national reality. “What kak is Higgs-Boson?” Rasdien asks, with those thick-frame glasses of the Urkel vintage still anachronistically covering his eyes as a marker of comic nerd-hood. There’s a kind of unease with comics like Rasdien, who prove that inelegantly-handled stereotype can often serve to flatten complexity and promote cultural superiority among the laughers. He also, while commanding the same narrative voice which presumes a metonymic expression of coloured identity, takes the piss out of Stephen Hawking for being wheelchair-bound – as if the coloured scientist, and his persona presumes a proximity to science, cannot fathom how a man without use of his legs could possibly give us a more expansive view of the universe. To add salt to this wound of disability, he then gives us the most noxiously bad impersonation of Hawking’s “digitised” voice. Rasdien, if you’re going to seek laughter among another’s tragedy, please summon the courtesy to at least get your caricature right, rather than giving us a performance absent of any thinking or technical capability.
John Vlismas is an exhibit of sociological intrigue. He is, in spite of his subject matter, enormously funny (this, largely because he has mastered the protocols of comic timing and delivery). After a few minutes on stage, Vlismas has already brought beneath his venomous satire, such figures as the poor, the disabled, those of non-heteronormative sexualities, albinos; in sum, the mass powerless of society. The motive of the able satirist might be the drive to “take the piss out of the powerful”, a political function. Vlismas uneasily joins the rank of Jimmy Carr and comics like him, who seem to make a fundamental misdiagnosis: by tuning the kak out of, say, poor people, you are not combating a rising tide of political correctness, a grand antagonism to limitless free speech, but rather contributing to an imaginative orthodoxy which already devalues the humanity of these people. Such a sense of persecution by “political correctness” is what animates propertied idiots like David Bullard, who, a few years ago, wrote of how Africa would have remained a cultural black-hole of genocide and non-innovation, had conquering Europeans not brought their mighty disciplines to bear on our primitive soil (he lives outside the idea that being able to make that value judgement at all is a feature of the colonial mind). Vlimas gets out of this bind somewhat, by exercising an awareness that that he is playing on the divide between tragedy/comedy, lulling his audience into a thrilled stupor before rubbing them up against the dark materials of which comedy is wrought.
But two interesting things happen during his performance, and they signal that the political-correctional imagination has made some advances: firstly, in the middle of a whipped-up anecdote he speaks of “gay people”, rather than “gays” (identifying humans by their “alternative” sexual orientation) or “faggots” (a slang of which Pryor and Murphy were most fond a few decades ago). This humanist appellation, “gay people”, is one that is out of keeping with the rebellious step of his delivery, and marks a moment where it is no longer safe for a joke to derive its humour from the more offensive designations for homosexuals – Vlismas is forced to say “gay people” against his stated ambition to offend. The second happens when, after tuning female Russian athlete (Kseniya Rhyzova), because of her “moustache”, Vlismas reaches a crescendo that screams as follows: “Shut your mouth you fucking bastard!” Isn’t the use of “bastard” there another signal? Instead of following through with humour deriving from the unstable gender boundaries of his subject, rather than some other slander which would take her lesbianism or “transexuality” as its organiser, he resorts to a mere “bastard.” What is happening in both of these moments, is that John Vlismas is auto-correcting himself; he becomes in this sense, a semi-reconstructed comedian, incompletely transformed by the emerging ethical voice of this century’s marginalised. Vlismas hasn’t sold out his principles, however: there’s still enough shit-stirring about the Caster Semenya controv, and riffing on Reeva Steenkamp’s death, he speaks of Pistorius taking “a vagina of that quality out of the gene pool”.
I shall spare the other acts of the evening, and spare the boredom of those who have had patience enough to make it this far, by saying: Casper DeVries belongs in an old-age home, a semi-isolated one where he can’t disturb the other retirees; Chester Missing is capable of some interesting racial/political commentary, which a profile of the ventriloquist in better suited to investigate; Ndumiso Lindi is an accomplished comic. Perhaps the exploratory and tentative notes of analysis above should be mere contributions towards a more thorough thinking-through of South African stand-up comedy, and the kinds of associations and dissociations it engenders. Regardless of the uneven quality of our performers, there’s a whole under-theorised terrain of complicity between laughter and the dispossessed that can only enrich our cultural and political understandings of this country.