Nando’s has established itself as “the official sponsors of funny”, claimed Sylvester Chauke, the company’s marketing manager. Just as well in a country in which corporates take themselves seriously; so seriously that beer giant SABMiller took Laugh It Off to the Constitutional Court — and lost.
I was talking to Chauke at a branch of Nando’s in Sandton where Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian-American comedian, and David Kibuuka, a Ugandan-born comedian, were talking ahead of the Nando’s Jozi Comedy Festival at Montecasino, Johannesburg, this weekend.
Ahmed has appeared in several American television shows and movies; his family emigrated to the United States when he was an infant. Kibuuka came to South Africa when he was 10 and he has opened for comedians Barry Hilton and John Vlismas on their tours.
“Our history with comedy goes a long way,” Chauke said. Nando’s role in the comedy festival “talks to the personality of the brand. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.” Other people, the subjects of much of their humour, sometimes do.
Just before the elections in April Nando’s television advertisements featured a puppet of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema “demanding change” after buying a meal. “They are being disrespectful to African leaders. Why didn”t they use Helen Zille? It’s the worst racist advertisement ever,” Malema said at the time.
Chauke said the food chain has come to be known as the “social commentary brand”. Nando’s, he said, will continue to uphold its “troublemaker status” by commenting on what’s going on. What if someone were to poke fun at them? “If they make fun of us, we’ll also make fun of them,” Chauke said.
Ahmed tours the Middle East quite a lot and finds that “we Arabs take ourselves too seriously”. While on a comedy tour in Kuwait he was warned not to make gags about politics, sex and religion. “I was left with no jokes,” he said.
Another time he was told by a Middle East-based promoter that no swearing would be allowed during his routine. Baulking at this censorship, he and his comedy partner negotiated; they explained that their gags depended quite a lot on swearing. The organiser relented somewhat: “Here is the deal: each of you can have two fucks.”
In Lebanon, Ahmed recalled, it was different. He complained to the tour promoter about how all over the Middle East he had been censored. “Ahmed,” the promoter told him, “here you can say whatever the fuck you want. What happens in Beirut stays in Beirut.” To which, he responded with pithy wit: “What happens in Beirut goes on Facebook.”
Looking back wistfully at the gaffe-ridden George W Bush era, Ahmed said Barack Obama is rather difficult to make fun of: “We are waiting for him to slip.” Agreeing, Kibuuka said that Jacob Zuma is fitting into the presidential role quite seamlessly and, like Obama, was proving to be boring. There was a time, said Kibuuka, that whenever Zuma was on the news, he would eagerly wait for Zuma to slip up. “Now he talks about economics. He’s boring — he’s turning into a nightmare for us comedians…”
Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, isn’t an object for Middle Eastern comedians’ jibes. Although I am sure there’s a lot Ahmed could find funny about a president who retains his youthful looks because of his repeated visits to surgeons, Ahmed doesn’t satirise Mubarak — he doesn’t want to be thrown into one of Cairo’s infamous prisons. Nor will he make over-the-top gags at Islam. “I don’t want them [Islamists] to burn down my house.”
A country’s ability to laugh at itself, in many ways, is indicative of the level of freedom that country enjoys. A country that is able to laugh at itself is, more often than not, a free country. But it’s not that Arabs have no sense of humour. Ahmed is repeatedly told: “You are very funny, but don’t make fun of Arabs. Talk about the Mexicans, Jews and others.”
Laughing at others is easy; laughing at yourself is not. By learning to laugh at that which is sacred perhaps we can make the world a more habitable place.
Steve Best (UK), Dean Edwards (US), Kitty Flanagan (Australia), Trevor Noah (South Africa) and Angelo Tsarouchas (Canada) will perform at Montecasino until August 23. Book at Computicket. For more information and show updates visit www.comedyfestival.co.za