Front-rankers wank in the front row

When is a foul-mouthed bore with a taste for urinals more than a foul-mouthed bore with a taste for urinals? When s/he’s a fully paid-up comedian in the Danger Zone at the Smirnoff International Comedy Festival, that’s when.

Now in its fifth year, this hugely successful funny-folk festival has made marvellous strides. Time was when local stand-up was a fitful, fall-down sort of affair, but since impresario Sam Hendrikse sniffed the coming comic breeze in ‘97 and launched this event, humour with a local habitation and a name has truly come of age.

It was great to witness this week at the Baxter Theatre an audience of ages, shapes and hues seldom seen together at live entertainment events. How exciting that this cross-over Cape audience laughs heartily at each other — fat, thin, gay, straight, Indian, black and Anglo (to take a cross-section of joke butts that got the big laughs during my visit).

For me, the real disappointments were the international comics: snappily assured in stage manner, yes, but peddling the same tiresome loo-seat/masturbatory humour as last year — and the year before that. (Foreign comedians, apparently, are sedulous wankers; or at least, they assume other people to be.)

Granted, sex/toilet habits are topics that travel well for mirth-makers unfamiliar with local mores, but don’t we all have more in common than that?

One of the festival staples is the Mainstream/Danger Zone dichotomy — one set of comedians in the theatre, the other, more risque, in the concert hall — and sadly the distinction really makes for a stream of toilet-wall drivel in the latter venue.

And, gee, don’t buy tickets for the front row; in both venues you’ll be subject to the standard stand-up’s stand-in for humour — that is, picking on people a mere metre away: ‘Where’re you from? What’s your name? What were you doing in the bathroom, Jamie/George/Kev?”

On the night I was in, the MCs in both the main and concert hall — the amiable Steve Amos (United Kingdom) and the irritating Russell Peters (Canada) — unblushingly repeated these tried-and-tested routines. Among those who bored this writer were Ninia Benjamin, a lav-pantongued harpy from London, and Dave Fulton, the sort of Beavis and Butthead soundalike who erodes planetary faith in the United States’s ability to display clear thought. Simon Evans, also English, disarms with a wit drier than the driest sherry.

The locals, by contrast, shone: Conrad Koch has blossomed into a magnificent, surprising ventriloquist, whose routine with Ronnie, his Scottish sex-maniac cloth-headed comic (a satire on the overseas guys?) brings the roof down. David Kau, offering a caustic take from Jo’burg’s townships on whitey foibles, steadily hones a sharp talent — though his material needs more careful shape.

Cokey Falkow, a manic Capetonian with a rooster’s hairdo and a raunchily hilarious set, has moments of inspired lunacy (his routine about Madiba in the Robben Island showers was wickedly sublime).

Yet the evening’s high point came late and from overseas — Canada of all po-faced places. Mike Wilmot is a vast, gravelly voiced comic, with a style somewhere between early Tom Waits and late Shelley Berman whose set evinced the most extraordinarily toe-curling raunchiness —and was very, very funny indeed.

Why? Because Wilmot didn’t simply rely on certain key topics/words/noises to stand in for humour. For timing, finesse and phrasing, he won hands down. He was funny because one sensed a mind reworking the base matter of dull experience — in a word, one sensed wit — and the laughter he evoked was of that deep, seriously gut-churning kind.

Also, he didn’t pick on that hapless soul in the front row, not even once. Come the sixth Smirnoff comedy fest, could we have more like him, please?

Catch local and international comedians at the Fifth Smirnoff International Comedy Festival, Baxter Theatre Complex, Main Road, Rondebosch, (021) 685 7880, until October 20. Barry Hilton hosts an all-star spectacular in the Main Theatre on October 14. Book at Computicket.

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