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Colour and comedy: Getting over the race gag

‘It’s like the gay horse on Viagra that just refuses to go away.” That was how comedian Kagiso Lediga introduced a 20-minute set that was pretty much about nothing but race at the recent Africa Stand Up in Johannesburg, a package show that featured comics from across the continent.

For a man who has spent his “whole life doing the race gag”, Lediga was only mockingly apologetic, but his preamble signalled what fellow comedian David Kibuuka called the end of the race gag.

“We’ve seen the first phase of black stand-up comedians and a lot of racial jokes are funny and that’s great, but now everybody has seen them,” said Kibuuka outside 34 Seventh Street in Linden, Johannesburg, where his colleagues were piecing together an episode of Late Night News with Loyiso Gola. “Now it has to change. We still have about a year to milk this race thing, but then it’s over, or maybe not.”

Kibuuka, who was emceeing what was the second instalment of Africa Stand Up, cracked a joke about how Nelson Mandela would be a terrible kidnapper because of his signature voice. A new twist to an old staple; it was funny but after the show he confessed to receiving a tweet that read: “we loved your jokes but how about jokes with no Mandela and no race”.

A freedom-of-speech-but-watch-what-you-say tweet from a paying customer is surely the post-apartheid equivalent of being shown the tarred road from a window in John Vorster Square. But then Kibuuka thinks I’m being alarmist. “Why an audience member is ­saying don’t talk about race is because they’ve heard a version of the same thing,” Kibuuka said. “They want the jokes to be incredible. ­Daywalker [Trevor Noah’s one-man debut DVD] was so good in that it introduced South Africans to telling their own experience. When I watch comedy, they have jokes about everything.”

My premise, which Kibuuka seemed at pains to dispel, was that a degree of “conformity”, to use Lediga’s vocabulary, seeps into the content the more mainstream a comedian becomes. Noah, South Africa’s runaway comedic success, is a quintessential example.

White sensibilities
If one tracks the tone of Noah’s act from Daywalker to Crazy Normal, one gets a distinct sense of a comic pandering to white sensibilities. The black people of his shows are awkward: flinching in the shower as though they are not used to water; the women have ugly spotted legs. On his American debut on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, his mom, in the voice of a shebeen floozy, screamed: “Ooh, I don’t care, I want a white man, ooh.” His dad was, well, a normal Swiss guy who just loved his “chocolate”. Though every race grouping is equally susceptible to caricature, most of our English-speaking black comedians operate in a space where whiteness is normal and education was an act of assimilation. This can be seen, for example, by their use of accents.

At his peak, we got a righteously indignant polemic couched in incisive, ­streetwise humour from Richard Pryor, but from many of our own comics you get a sense of clamouring for the same cesspool of stereotypes.

If you hone in on the many acts that took to the stage at Africa Stand Up, you got, more or less, a continental version of this condition. The idea of romance, for example, as propagated by Nigerian sensation Basketmouth, is still offset against its “normal” European construct. The African man on his first date practically has to demand a kiss from his woman; it does not arrive intuitively. And when they do kiss, the woman does so awkwardly, with her eyes wide open. In Salvado’s Ugandan village of Ombokolo, women have pubic hair sticking out of their buttocks, so that when you complement her hair, you get a puzzled “which hair?”

In Eric Omondi’s Kenya, women follow their men to the ATM and stand guard to hear how long the machine buzzes for in order to determine his eligibility.

However, it’s not all blackface without subversion. In one joke, Salvado performs a week-by-week narrative of the dilapidating weave. Basketmouth states that the only time he has seen white people afraid is when the consulate clerk says: “I’m afraid I can’t give you the visa.”

Some of the more progressive racial analysis of the night seemed to come from Lediga, the self-proclaimed master of the race gag. Lediga is an equal-opportunity comic in the sense that every race group gets an equal share of his jaundiced stare — sometimes all in the space of one gag. His now classic fart gag, in which he is outed by the only other black person in a Melrose Arch lift who only wants his white buddies to know that he didn’t fart, is a fine example.

Another one, based on a childhood myth that white babies fell from ­aeroplanes, sees him telling pram-pushing domestic workers that they “got their wish now”. As opposed to projecting black people as mere objects for other’s ridicule, Lediga offers us, in a moment of unguarded laughter, an opportunity to reflect beyond the joke. After all, what is humour if it does not reach into the subconscious.

The same stereotypes
London-based Malawian Daliso Chaponda, who is featured on the Africa Stand Up bill, agreed that Lediga’s was a necessary sleight of hand. “A lot of people just do it the same way, it’s the same stereotypes like ‘black people can’t swim’. Kagiso did it differently.”

 “Comedy is about playing piano with the stereotypes, but it’s how cleverly you use them.”

On the reaction to his race gags, Lediga is typically biting. Speaking in between takes of another ­episode of Late Night News, which he directs, Lediga said: “Certain parts of the room freak out, arses tighten and some people want to kill themselves. You pick on the white people, the black people go ‘Yeahhh’. You turn it around and white people go ‘Yeahhh’. But as a South African black man, you can’t not talk about it. Before it used to be an ‘us against them’ type of thing. The enemy was apartheid, white people put us in townships, but now … I don’t know, we’re more middle class and we go to the same gym so you try to be more incisive.”

But the ultimate example of what happens when a comedian tries to move beyond the objective of laughter is Zimbabwean media entrepreneur-turned-comedian Carl Joshua Ncube.

Ncube, still rough around the edges on stage, ended his set with a beguiling non-joke about President Robert Mugabe in which the punch line doesn’t arrive, a symbol of the tightrope of unifying a Zimbabwe where notions of dominance have been upended.

“In Zimbabwe race is such a huge thing because the tables have turned. A white person is subjected to a whole lot more racist behaviour from black people because of the historical background,” said Ncube.

“Sometimes, you’re dealing with what isn’t a mature comedy audience, we haven’t reached a point where a Ndebele comedian can make fun of a Shona audience and get away with it. I try to unify the stereotypes and tell the joke, but it takes away 40% of the sting.”

So if you can ignore the raging gay horse in the room, then you can perhaps accept that comedy’s only obligation is to be funny. If not, you may want to tweet the comics some suggestions at the next show. They might find the hints useful.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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