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From Trevor Noah to Loyiso Gola: The country is cracking up

David Smith

There's a new form of nation-building in town and the new generation of comedians is laughing all the way to the bank.

Jokers in the pack: Comedy has gone mainstream in South Africa. (Lisa Skinner)

Trevor Noah is one of the new kids on the South African comedy block, providing escapism and a different perspective on the nation’s problems.

“Contrary to popular belief we are in a working democracy — I know this because I’m still alive,” comedian Trevor Noah tells an exuberant full house in Johannesburg.

“You laugh, but it’s true. Try and go do these things in Africa somewhere. They will shoot you in your first week. You can’t be making jokes about the president, drawing pictures of him with showers coming out of his head. You would have been dead a long time ago.”

Noah (29) spearheads a generation of South African stand-ups who have become wildly popular, providing not only escapism but also a different perspective on the nation’s problems. They tackle race, class, crime, corruption and the political elite. As court jesters tweaking the nose of the powerful, they are quite possibly helping to keep the nation sane.

Noah’s latest show, That’s Racist, runs the gamut from road tolls and shark attacks to the Marikana mine massacre and the bedroom antics of the president. Back from a successful spell in the United States, he is scathing about foreigners’ ignorance of Africa: “Many people think it’s a dark continent covered with dust and flies. They don’t think we have technology, roads or airports; just aeroplanes landing in the bush and 1 000 black men catching the planes.”

There is a need for light relief. South Africans have undergone sombre introspection of late with the economy slowing, unemployment sky-high and, worst of all, violent unrest that included the killing of workers at the Lonmin platinum mine in August.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the nation appears to be looking for reasons to laugh rather than cry.

Noah’s tour sold out in nine cities in Southern Africa, including a run with minimal pre-publicity at the 1 100-seat Lyric Theatre in Johannesburg, and was well received at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. The Comedy Central TV channel launched about a year ago. Ticket sales at Parker’s Comedy and Jive at Montecasino, Johannesburg, are up roughly 35% on last year.

“It’s still in the early stages but there is a bit of a boom,” said Joe Parker, who opened the club four years ago. “There’s a lot of new talent around.”

Eighteen years after the end of apartheid, race still permeates almost every aspect of life and comedy is a prime example.

Beyond stereotypes
“Race is an easy target,” said Parker (62). “It’s a bit of a cop-out because it’s too easy: a black guy goes on stage and tells jokes about whites. Maybe we need to get outside and look beyond the stereotypes.”

Comedians in South Africa enjoy a constitutionally protected right to free speech that artists in many other parts of Africa can only dream about. But there are some taboos.

“Comedians here don’t talk too much about paedophilia and religion,” said Parker, who has been in the business for 40 years. “I’ve noticed US comedians talk about rape. I imagine using that word on stage in South Africa would create a silence.”

On a Monday morning in Linden, Johannesburg, the team behind Late Nite News, a satirical TV show that attracts about one million viewers a week, is polishing this week’s script.

Seven contributors — five black, one white and one of Indian descent — sit around a kitchen table with three laptops, two iPhones, an iPad, a BlackBerry and a box of cigarettes.

The script is read through by South Africa’s answer to Jon Stewart: 1.98m-tall presenter Loyiso Gola, who grew up in Gugulethu, outside Cape Town. “Sometimes it was very evident my parents were trying to make ends meet,” he recalled.

“Who was having a good time in 1994? I was a quiet, skinny child that people picked on a lot. My friends still don’t find me funny; my mother still says this guy’s not funny. My confidence grew when I started doing drama.”

Gola, who did his first stand-up gig in 2001, has watched comedy in South Africa go mainstream. “In 11 years I’ve seen the changes. In Durban I did 10 people, I went back and did 80, then went back and did 1 000. I don’t think it’s a passing fad.”

The audience demographic is changing too. “When we started it was mainly white audiences; now 20% white would be surprising. There’s a growing black middle class so it makes sense.”

No sacred cows
Gola (29) has toured with a show titled Professional Black. He added: “We’re talking about these things on stage and at dinner tables, but if I go to the United Kingdom, race is barely touched on. It stops a lot of dialogue. Culturally, we’re dealing with race much better.”

Conversely, he noted, South African comedians are far less comfortable tackling religion than their British counterparts. In politics, however, there are no sacred cows and lampooning the president is a formality. “South Africa is one of the few places where we can,” Gola said. “If we and the press keep doing it, it will be normal. Satire has to become a normal thing.”

Sitting in the director’s chair in the Late Nite News studio is Kagiso Lediga (34), who helped to create the show in September 2010.

“Being a young democracy, this is a new entertainment,” he said. “South Africans have a need to laugh at themselves. It’s been very reliable: you go to a Trevor Noah show and you know you’re going to laugh your arse off and maybe get laid.”

Race is inevitably a rich source of material, Lediga said.

“It’s our therapy coming out of our history. I don’t know if it’s entrenching or breaking the stereotypes. But black people are getting into historically white spaces so there is always something to say.

“In a comedy club, making fun of the ANC, it was assumed those were white laughs. But it’s general: it’s also a middle-class exercise. The middle class bitches about the same things.” — © Guardian News & Media 2013

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