A few minutes before the start of John Vlismas’s seventh one-man show, One Lucky Plebeian, there is a mini exodus from the front row as several patrons escape from the view of their would-be character assassin.
As I consider joining the migration, comedian Kedibone Mulaudzi’s words echo in my head. ‘At club level he can pick on a person and go on and on,” he said to me earlier that day. ‘At one point one guy started crying. And this was a paying customer. If you cross his path, you’re on your own.”
Indeed, Vlismas’s ruthlessness behind the mic is both his strength and weakness as fellow comic Brendan Jack once pointed out. But this is not club level, I think, consoling myself and resolving to stay put. New material is just about that — new material, right?
In a few minutes Bevan Cullinan, a long-time Vlismas collaborator, steps on stage to warm up the crowd. He makes a smug comment about ‘the Tesson crowd” (referring to the venue) who appear stiff. He lays the dysfunctional, junkie vibe on thick, relating an acid-fuelled roadtrip where his mate earned the nickname ‘shithead” after heading a piece of excrement he mistook for mud.
He goes on to tell a long-winded ‘Dutchman” joke before capping his short set with a phallus-obsessed physical theatre-meets-slapstick mime to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It all seems heavy-handed, but the crowd has loosened and laps it up.
In a few minutes Vlismas emerges, looking surprisingly thin and short in a black T-shirt with matching jeans and hideous, black leather, thick-soled shoes. His look is topped with tattoos, earrings and a zany haircut hidden under a black fedora hat. In mock self-consciousness he announces that he knows he looks like a gay serial killer, who will either fuck you to death or sing you a song. ‘What else can I do? I refuse to carry a weapon.”
Earlier, backstage, I had sneaked a peak at a mind-map draped over a dressing room table, with words and phrases like ‘camel toe”, ‘vagina”, ‘white people”, ‘Hindus never complain” and ‘reincarnation” scrawled on a large sheet of paper.
Vlismas carried on about ‘pussy” for a while and moved on to cartoonish claims of his sexual prowess before dwelling on white people who whine about everything. But the bit about Hindus who never complain — and reincarnation — must have slipped his mind.
When he touched on black people, it was with a sleight of hand far removed from his renowned viciousness. Besides being the bumbling muggers evocative of the hopeless thugs in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, black people were either portrayed as indestructable, sympathetically as caddies or generally avoided.
Even Zuma, the super villain, got off lightly, mentioned only in passing as the criminal president who took time off the arms deal to ‘fuck an Aids patient”. ‘It’s difficult being a satirist because you run the risk of being perceived as a racist,” he says backstage after the show. ‘I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh I heard you were saying this about …’,” he trails off. ‘If I’m at a club and there are a lot of black people, I’ll be harder on them. That’s why tonight I picked on Jews and golf-playing businessmen, because there were more of those.”
If Vlismas subscribes to the adage that the best route between the set up and the punchline is the shortest route, then on opening night the meandering jokes peppered with quick-witted improv were signs of a comic still wading through a maze of new material. In the quick post-mortem that took place as Cullinan and Vlismas walked back to the dressing room, the former confessed to the show being all over the place.
As the audience was none the wiser, I would have to concur with Cullinan that ‘it was all over the place in a good way”.
‘With new material, it’s difficult if you haven’t found the narrative,” Vlismas confesses. ‘You also have to find that happy anger and it must be coherent.” Chris Rock once suggested that each performance is a quest for the perfect show, holding up Richard Pryor’s Live in Concert in 1979 as an example. As Vlismas said: ‘Tomorrow I will do it again to a different audience. Every audience is different and it makes for a different rhythm.”
Yet for him ‘it’s more about the energy of the audience than the perfect show”.
While Vlismas admires Rock, especially for his incisive views on the American presidential race and ‘his ability to hold an audience”, their styles seem vastly different. While Vlismas might react to a snigger in the audience and slip in several one-liners on the way to a punchline, Rock tends to pummel them from afar, behind the safety of over- rehearsed lines.
With so much venom being thrown at the ‘Investechies” and the botoxed Sandton housewives who practise their tunnel vision at the robots, I wondered whether Vlismas’s performance was a cathartic act of biting the hand that feeds him.
‘My family is self-made,” says Vlismas, who grew up in Durban. ‘They started off with no money and they’ve done well over the course of their lives. In Zim, where I lived until I was eight, we were three families sharing a house. At one point they ran a fruit juice company, but they’ve owned cafés and restaurants. My old man doesn’t even wear a wedding ring because he works with his hands, so we certainly have no connection to the people I talk about.”
While he’s versatile enough to do any audience, his perfect customer is one who is open-minded, resilient and slightly cynical. ‘They have to have a reason to laugh,” he says. ‘I don’t want to generalise but comedy is not supposed to work in Sandton. There’s a level of self-involvement with those people where it’s like you’re bothering them from their drink.”
Given how many corporate gigs he does, I ask him how he rationalises playing up the foibles of the society that pays his salary. ‘It’s not my job to rationalise it. You have to ask the audience why they keep coming back for more,” he reasons. ‘But I think my intent is clear. It’s not malicious. I’m not a hate-monger. All I do is ask questions that nobody else asks. But I don’t stand on the grassy knoll as the assassin; I include myself in the attack.”
Vlismas, who last year won the best stand-up of the year at the inaugural South African Comedy Awards for his last one-man show entitled Gay, Black and Immortal, plans to take his show around the country, but is concentrating his work on a TV show for a local channel, the name of which he won’t reveal.
As for the Comedy Underground in Melville’s Cool Runnings, expect that to stay dingy, sweaty and raucous. ‘That’s what comedy clubs are like everywhere in the world. They are a hole in the ground that’s not too clever, not too big. The people don’t make a lot of money but that is where they come to jam.”
One Lucky Plebeian runs at the Tesson Theatre (Civic Theatre Complex) until June 22