/ 4 April 2008

Gagging on sex and race

“In the one corner we have some of South Africa’s funniest men and women, in the other corner — YOU!” This is the radio script of the commercial for this Friday’s Heavyweight Comedy Jam. To listeners it’s an amusing boxing analogy, but to the country’s top comedians warming up for the event it’s a very real challenge.

“South Africans make up an intelligent audience and one that is underrated,” says stand-up comedian Tumi Morake, who adds that she is “freaking out a little” in anticipation of performing at the jam.

Comedy magician Stuart Taylor or “that guy from Going Nowhere Slowly“, says although he is used to an hour alone with an intimidating crowd, the challenge here is “12 minutes with an audience of thousands”.

“I think it’s important to have honesty in your humour,” Taylor says. “If the audience sees you being honest in yourself they’ll acknowledge it. I always speak to personal experience. You put yourself out there and hope for the best.”

Comedian David Kau says he’s in for a treat at the jam: “I haven’t done white people in a while, and I have some things to tell whites.”

But these artists explain that taking the South African audience head on entails a carefully considered strategy:

“You start off telling jokes about white people and jokes about black people but after a while you realise that South Africans do have a collective funny bone,” says Morake. He says jokes about race provide “the easiest laugh you’ll get, but I think black people and white people are getting comfortable in each other’s space now.

“The jokes aren’t about how the black man is big and the white man is small. We’re tapping into the secret conversations that are taking place and bringing them out for a laugh.”

Asked if he thought South African comedy relies heavily on playing the race card, Taylor responds, “Sadly yes, though I like to think I don’t do it myself. Hopefully one day we’ll get to a point where it won’t be the staple diet of comedians. The two top things are race and sex, which too often rely on crudity rather than the intellect. A good comedian will make the audience laugh but also make them think about why they are laughing.”

“It’s hard to maintain being funny,” adds Kau. “Material must always be fresh, though I find black audiences are more demanding in that regard. White people don’t mind if you repeat yourself.”

Morake also believes that comedy is a craft that needs work. “A gag gets better every time you do it, but it needs to evolve and you always need to come up with new material.”

Comedians are not only fighting for laughs on the night, they fight for the industry, which they feel is gaining momentum.

“For a long time we’ve been regarded as the janitors of the entertainment industry,” says Taylor. “Comedy is seen as cheap entertainment — there’s one guy up there and he’s got a mike.” Yet although the comedy scene has grown in recent years, smaller gigs do suffer and Taylor believes that the staple diet is “big shows” like this weekend’s comedy jam.

Kau is in agreement. “Comedy in South Africa is branded and name driven. Few people go to a comedy show just to see comedy. They want to see a certain person, or follow a certain event.” Kau moans that audiences are less into risk and will even call around to establish whether an unknown is going to be “funny”.

With the rolling blackouts, presidents on trial and petrol hikes, locals are in dire need of a comedy fix. Wise comedians will naturally profit in times of uncertainty and conflict.

The Champions Heavyweight Comedy Jam takes place at Emperors Palace on April 4. The line-up includes Chris Forrest, David Kau, Darren “Whackhead” Simpson, Martin Jonas, Koolerbox, Stuart Taylor, Tumi Morake and Krijay Govender. For bookings go to www.computicket.co.za or call 011 340 8000