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The Art of Funny

The Art of Funny

by Hagen Engler / 28.08.2013

Comics Choice Awards: When you push the boat out, please give me something to cling to!

Richard Cheese, Richard Cheese, Richard Cheese. Insane in the brain in the membrane. White kids rocking chains. Some girl from the radio station. Rape me again. Soy un perdedor, I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

We’re in the nosebleed seats where we can just about get Twitter, but to be honest we’re ready for Comics Choice Awards to start already. Ready to start laughing. Ready to cathartically blow away the bullshit, to flush our systems of the stress, frustration and pissed-offness. The traffic tension that a trip out to Montecasino always generates. We need this. It should be funny!

It should be funny, but is it?

It should be hilarious! A fat lag, a proper jol! We should be pissing ourselves. Weirdly, I don’t think we ever totally get there. And when comedy is weird, there’s something else going on. What it is is, the Comics Choice Awards are an industry awards evening. So there’s a sense of “This is for us, but you can come watch if you want”. And there are a lot of jokes about jokes, and comedy about comedy.

While as non-comedy-industry people this might not officially be aimed at us, it does give an insight into how comics see themselves. But also, when people are paying, they have a right to expect entertainment. There are laughs, sure. Chuckles, chortles, guffaws. But that liberating joy of hitching your trailer to a comic on a screaming roll and just wailing along with him, that utter transcendent magic… That proves elusive.

Perhaps we’ve just misunderstood what the Comics Choice Awards are. If you’re into stand-up comedy, you’re not going to really get your rocks off here.

Instead, what you get is concept.

Comedy, like the ANC, is a broad church. And for every Malusi Gigaba and Aaron Motsoaledi, you get a Benson Fihla and a Mathole Motshekga. Huh? You don’t get my reference? Now you know how we felt on Saturday at the CCAs! We haven’t felt that dumb since we got 18% for Economics I.

We got the irreverence of the comic’s prayer at the beginning, even if the joke about fatness and biscuits dates back to the 1980s at the latest. Then there was a mime. Well, a musical mime, with a sidekick on drums. We don’t quite understand her, and hoped she’d go away, but it turned out she was a recurring character so we were forced to try wrap our brains around this surreal form of humour.

Comics Choice

And we needed our surreal skills in chunks. The Art Of Funny was the theme, we found out later. And this was plenty arty. Pretty soon there were free-runners rampaging around, then gunshots and hand-to-hand combat. “Free runners use walls created by authorities as a canvas to celebrate freedom and rebellion,” read the text. Then the blue mime and her mate were back for a solo on the triangle.

Just as we people started audibly WTFing, MC Chris Forrest made his appearance. Well not his appearance because he was represented by a two-story screen avatar. His deadpan delivery didn’t exactly rouse the audience from our slightly confused funk. But at least Skhumba managed that, with his take on kissing as a racial signifier. Then Anele was out to present the Waldo for Savanna Audience Choice to Sifiso Nene. The problem with winners’ bits is they spend the first half of their bit in shock because they’ve just won, then have to get off as they hit their stride. He had a cool one about outside toilets that put a smile on our confused face, but then it was on to something else.

Funny

This was a video insert starring “Gigz Mthembu” railing against the dominance of female comics in the industry. Huh? Oh, right. It’s ironic satire. Okay, we get it.

Then “Swedish comic Magnus Magnusson” appeared to satirise foreign comics in South Africa. You know, how they always do a bit about robots? Like a lot of self-referential comedy about comedy, this was more clever than funny. In fact some in the audience were squirming.

Luckily Schalk Bezuidenhout, who nabbed the Savanna Newcomer Award, has a calm, easy style that brought us back to familiar territory with a thing about his mom and then a Jack Parow caricature. Then Barry Hilton came up to collect his Lifetime Achievement Award. His humility and gratitude was palpable. His material about how blacks talk so much louder than white people was deeply old-school.

schalk

Generic, then. And clichéd. But seeing as he helped define the genre and create the cliché, he probably gets a pass. We weren’t expecting surrealism from him.

There was no shortage of that, though. The next two-hander skit featuring a white rhino patient on the couch with her black rhino psychologist. There were some stinging barbs once we’d grasped the racial allegory, but it didn’t seem to have a punchline. Or is this style not supposed to have punchlines? Who knows! We were increasingly feeling like we weren’t quite qualified to be watching this.

A challenging watch is what this comedy awards was, and it was with some relief that we beetled out into the glorified smoking area known as “outside”, where we determined that the Springboks were drawing with the Argies 10-all just before halftime.

At least now we knew that bizarreness was the vibe, so the dance-off between the hip-hop crew and the flower-arranging grannies came as a pleasant introduction to part two.

Then a video contribution from Pieter-Dirk Uys’s Bambi Kellerman to the tune of a Kurt Weill showtune sarcastically pointed out that Jacob Zuma “Can’t make up his mind”. By now, though, pointing out our president’s shortcomings feels a bit like outrunning a fat kid. It’s just too easy.

Mpho Popps Modikoane then clinched the Blackberry Breakthru Act Award and did an entertainingly conventional stand-up bit about township suicide bombers.

Pops

Then our mates the blue mime and sidekick were back for something that seemed to fuse physical theatre with Evita and a xylophone solo. There’s probably a name for it, but we didn’t major in drama so fucked if we know what it was.

Kagiso Lediga then scored the Times Comic’s Pen Award. Some pissed dude near us had clearly been trying to drink the show funny and failed, so he voiced his disapproval. It’s not really about what we think, though. Comics’ choice, mos. Kaggie’s got skills. We really should have got to that movie of his, hey.

Then our highlight of the evening. Zambezi News! A Zimbabwean satire on that country’s media propaganda and apparently inept and sycophantic journalism, it comes off like a Zim version of LNN, but funnier. Proper brave skills to Comrade Fatso and Outspoken.

Gavin Kelly then appeared for an acceptable stand-up bit, before Robbie Collins came up to accept Trevor Noah’s Comic of the Year Award and we were almost done.

Funny

Just enough time for Forrest to do another self-reflexive, postmodern, meta-comedic bit rehashing every single comedic cliché in the South African stand-up canon. “So, black guys have got big dicks. What’s up with that? And white people. They can’t dance. What’s up with that?”

We got it, but was it funny? More awkward, to be honest, particularly as the people around us didn’t seem to get it and groaned and mumbled through the entire piece, which then segued into a surreal coda out of left field. A musical number, apparently from Les Miserables.

We looked up the lyrics. Coming at the end of a superbly produced show that was quite clearly comedy for comics, they appear to hold a message for the assembled men and women of this industry.

“Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is life about to start
When tomorrow comes!”

Les Mis

It appears to be a rallying call to the comics of South Africa to take the country’s comedy scene into a brave new world of funniness, to shake off the shackles of post-apartheid cliché.

Come on, John Vlismas appears to be saying – for this must all be his vision. Come on, let’s stop doing versions of the same material, the racial typecasting, the cultural observations the hackneyed jokes about the same local peculiarities. Let’s push the boat out! Look what can be done! The possibilities are endless! Set your mind free, be surreal, be weird! Try something different!

This is a noble exhortation, and Christ knows we could do with something beyond, “If that was a black guy, he’d be all…” or “Where I come from, we’re all about…”

But where does that leave audiences? While in the long run we might benefit from a more sophisticated comedy scene with avant garde material, half of why we laugh is because we identify with what the comic is saying in a visceral, if slightly parochial sense.

So we might have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the brave new comedic world John Vlismas envisages for us. I suppose we’re due.

The show itself was incredibly well produced by Taffia Keight and Mr Vlismas, and the direction by John and Dani Hynes was international standard. This was more comedy-inspired theatre than stand-up, which we came expecting but fuck it was well done. What this show also does is get you to take the SA comedy industry seriously. It’s as good a show as their colleagues in the music and theatre industries are capable of.

Comedy

Also, this is an industry event and for comics a special occasion. You sensed the people having the most fun here were the comics themselves. But for a few days now, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about this show, and what it means. It clearly has some power. So bring on the new surrealism, I say.

But please, comics, just give it a local hook, something familiar we can cling to. As an audience member, I don’t mind being challenged. Please just leaven the weirdness with something I’m used to. That awards show gave me a think headache! I don’t think the blue xylophone lady would necessarily fly at the Garden Route Casino.

We are simple folk and slow to change. So by all means take us into the future. Just go easy on us. Make sure you keep us laughing.

That is still the point, isn’t it?

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RESPONSES (11)
  1. Stu says:

    The comics spend most of the year giving the low IQs what they want, and pandering with material that the masses can latch onto. I am delighted to hear that they take one day a year to make each other laugh. The only problem here is that they sell tickets to the general public instead of keeping this gig that they all clearly love in house.

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  2. Matthew Eriksen says:

    Why do you insist on allowing this man to write for you?

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  3. Johnson says:

    Basically this review just reads, “I am too stupid to truly appreciate what happened there”. Hagen there are plenty of things that are “clever” and are also “funny”, they just have to be pitched to people with the intellect to understand them. The clever ones will laugh at the clever jokes. Given how often you are at comedy events you must have a smart comedian friend, or two, who can explain the clever jokes to you?

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  4. James says:

    Totally agree with this review. Last year’s CCAs were edgy and interesting. This year they were flat and confusing. The mimes were apparently something related to Les Miserables, though I never got that (someone explained this to me). Yet Alyn Adams’ award speech last year was also culturally heady, but everyone could follow it with ease. A performance is only as good as its communication.

    The acts felt quite random and I never saw the theme resonate in any of it. Ultimately, were it not for the acceptance speeches, the evening would largely have been a waste. Some bits were great – the opening act and the segment about Zimbabwe were hilarious. But it was a far cry from the excellent show they put on last year. Look, I understand that it’s more about the industry – and there was plenty of that to be had at Barry Hilton’s Grilling. But this just did not match the levels that the CCAs have set for itself.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    I must agree, this is awful writing.

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  6. CarryOnLover says:

    The irony for me was that apart from the newcomer guy, the winners of all the awards were doing the very simple racial stereotype jokes that the show itself was so against. Barry Hilton’s set was straight out of the depths of Apartheid, and Popps’ “What if suicide bombers came from the twonships?” bit was so tired half of America was doing it in the 80s.

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  7. Alyn says:

    An honest and eloquent opinion, Hagen – from the “we didn’t go to drama school’ perspective, I totally get your experience. Being in the nosebleed seats couldn’t have helped.
    I suspect CCA *is* very mired in a surreal industry in-joke, and will remain so for some time – registering costs a fair whack, so I reckon comics see it as ‘our party’. As for making sure paying customers also get a laugh, I think it will evolve in time to a paying audience that comes *prepared* for the fact that it’s in-jokey and bizarre. Many would no doubt be former drama students, now involved in professions that pay.
    And if okes who aren’t into that stop coming, well, they’ll still have many other gigs to go to for the MOR stuff, even the Garden Route Casino. If the 1800 that do show up are happy, let’s not begrudge them their one gig a year when they get to be insular and elitest.

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  8. Andre says:

    Hi James, or should we call you by your real name Hagen, in this case it was very much a case of the reviewer being a little slow on the uptake and not the communication of the themes. I was there and actually found the messages a little heavy handed, but I see now I was wrong, as the point was clearly missed by Mahala’s reviewer.
    The show had two themes. Firstly it was called “The Art of Funny”, and secondly the opening title sequence directed us to view the comedian as being similar to the Parkour runner who uses barriers to create new forms of expression and doesn’t get stuck.
    In the vein of the first theme we saw the two French mimes who effectively were the backbone of the show. The artyness of clowning and mime is undoubted, and the superlative duo made sure we were reminded constantly of the fact that comedy is an art form, which develops over time and which constantly changes as generations pass. The Grannies vs Krumpers sketch did a similar thing, as the artyness of the two scenes eventually saw the Grannies evolving and learning the new art form.
    The second theme was more obvious. We saw Chris Forrest’s magnificent ending in which he took all of the stereotypes we see every day on stage and did them in the same format for what seemed an age. Initially the crowd were laughing, but Chris pushed it further to the point where the theme was uncomfortable and he had to be forced from the stage – the message was clear, these stereotypes have run their course. This was reinforced by Magnus Magnusson, who while yes, opened his show with a jab at international comedians, was clearly a lot more. Dressed in 90s clothing, with a very 90s MTV opening, his set quickly devolved into racial stereotyping of Scandinavians. Magnus had obviously been a big act in his day, but had become mired in old tropes, rehashing stereotypes for the only crowd that will now listen – The Parkers audience. The message was again clear – the time of the stereotype has passed, and a while ago. Again this was once more reinforced with another sketch. We watched a “black” and “white” rhino chat to one another using every stereotype of their matching races – but what is the rhino? Going extinct. As I say, somewhat heavy handed right?
    The closing was a song from Les Mis the lyrics of which were “Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people Who will not be slaves again!” With the information bill at white paper stage the use of the clearly artistic song from one of the world’s biggest musicals brought both themes together. New barriers are being set up, they are there to be leapt over. Lets not stagnate, lets not sit still, let’s develop. It was a call to the comedians to step up and to use their talents rather than become mired in old hack jokes, and I think the vast majority of the crowd understood that. I hope the reviewer learns to put his basic literature training to good use the next time he goes to a show that is clearly a lot more than the eye could initially perceive.

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  9. Pisskop says:

    Did the reviewer not notice “gigs mthembu” was one of SA’s most famous comedians Tumi Morake in drag? Being in the cheap seats must have really hampered the view of the satire.

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  10. debongz says:

    actually i think most of you but not all of you…are tackling the writer with out the ball. just read between the lines, for that matter everyone is entitled to his own opinion and that is freedom writers have ( you can be subjective and or objective ) when you want.

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  11. Andy says:

    straight up debongz, whoever thought comedians and their fans would be so touchy?

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