Comedy, that cruel mistress

Whoopee. Africa’s first ever Comedy Central roast, featuring Steve Hofmeyr, Afrikaans ideologue and sometimes singer, facing a panel of people saying humorously nasty things about him and each other. The tacky venue, Gold Reef City, was entirely appropriate. The roasters were a mixed bunch. Some were there for their ability to be funny, like Trevor Noah, David Kau, Anele Mdoda and John Vlismas. Others appeared to be there mainly because they were homosexual and apparently someone has to be the butt of gay jokes (Casper de Vries and some dude in a kilt).

The women appeared to be chosen for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with their sexual pasts or plump presents, a bit like the hand-picked morons on Big Brother. Minki van der Westhuizen, dressed in a skintight dress that made her look like a condom stuffed with smug leeches, was chosen to provide dramatic intensity (will she uncross her legs or not, and if she does, will she be wearing underwear?).

Amazing that you can spend much of an evening laughing, and end up terminally depressed by the experience. Sitting trying to write about this, in a funk of despair, I reach out to our news editor and asked him to give me back my will to live. "Ag, don’t let Steve get to you!," he expostulates. "You don’t understand!" I scream at him. "That's the problem! Steve was the only empathetic person on the stage! That's why I want to kill myself."

Seriously? Endless jokes about how women are fat sluts is considered great comedy? A sample, Casper de Vries to Anele Mdoda: "Anele, you look like an obese Madonna who ate all her adopted children." Is that funny? Possibly. Trevor Noah to Anele: "Your career is moving so fast. Pity your metabolism can’t keep up." Ok, that’s got a classic humour trajectory going I guess, the complimentary buildup followed by the sarcastic undercutting. But over and over and over again, it becomes less about the titillation of political incorrectness, and more about entrenching viciously sexist stereotypes.

Some more, just to give you a flavour for the tenor of the evening. Noah again: "If Kuli Roberts was a kung-fu master, her style would be Drunken Vagina. Her vagina is so big, it has its own car guard." Noah also tells Roberts she's a slut and a has-been, and "her liver is so black, it could get a tender". Heh, actually, that’s pretty funny too.

These are the milder soundbites. What’s the point of this roast thing? Another devious American invention to impose frat boy culture on the world? "We invaded Iraq so that Muslims can once again have the right to make fart jokes." David Kau probably put it best when he said, "Once again, I'm here with a bunch of South Africans trying to do shit they saw on American TV."

And yet, and yet … I laughed. When Anele Mdoda said, "If Satan and Hitler had a child, Steve, and she was a girl, she'd still be a better man than you". And then again, when John Vlismas said, "Minki is a national treasure. Must be nice to know your body of work is measured in gallons of semen."

Funniest gibe of the night was about Hofmeyr's potential defence of the quality of his music: "Steve, you'll say you have lots of fans. So did Hitler, Steve! In fact, the same fans!" I can't remember who made that crack, and a caveat is in order here. Some of these quotes aren’t exact, because the speed of delivery meant I had to take hurried notes. But they’re pretty true to the spirit of the night.

There were some notable failures. Minki van der Westhuizen's stilted delivery was painful to experience, and there was a pathos to her funniest line. "Thank you, Steve. If it wasn't for you, I'd be the dumbest blonde in South Africa." To quote the great Homer Simpson: "It’s funny because it’s true".

Kuli Roberts was pretty awful, spending a lot of time playing with hair extensions that appeared as cheap as her gibes and as fake as her stage persona. Sample humour, in response to Noah introducing her as a coke-addict slut: "Trevor Noah needs to remember that beautiful Xhosa women like me made people like him." Wow, zing. Although not as bad as David Kau, who seems to make a career out of claiming people steal his jokes, telling us "Anele has a perfect face for radio". Dude, you didn’t steal that joke, you inherited it.

In truth, there was rather too much comedian in-house banter, and not enough about Hofmeyr. You guys are brave enough when it comes to plumbing the depths of Kuli’s vagina, but not one of you has the balls to make a farm murders joke? Tsk. I’m disappointed. What differentiates Hofmeyr is not his sexual misadventures, but his status as the boere Malema. He's a man who stokes the fires of Afrikaner separatism for ends which must at times seem opaque, if not devious. If we can be funny about that, then we’re laughing with a purpose. Insert dick joke here, why don't you.

And at the end of the evening, when Hofmeyr had his chance at the last word, he rocked the stage. He was dismissive of the attempts to roast him, pointing out that this was just business as usual for someone who has built his profile on scandal. "So when does the roast start? I've made a career out of ending Steve Hofmeyr's career." A tweet from @shaunwewege put it succinctly: "Weird, we have a dig at a media whore by hosting a whole evening's televised entertainment with said media whore as the focus."

The motto of the Friars Club in New York, who are credited with originating the roast as we know it today, is apparently: "We only roast the ones we love." I'd go further and say that the act of roasting someone is an attempt to render them lovable. Do I really want to love a guy who feels the need to say the Sharpeville Massacre wasn’t a human rights violation? Do I really want to feel the warm, comforting glow of misogyny made normal by laughter? Alas, the answer is probably yes. The genius of comedy is the way it makes us confront the uncomfortable truths of human nature. The evil of comedy is how many people think that laughing at something makes it go away.

Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisroper

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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