Peeking through death’s door

On my solo night out to watch comedian John Vlismas performing an early rendition of his new show The End, I sat right at the back of the Peter Toerin Studio Theatre at Montecasino in Johannesburg. It was a Thursday night, the place was half full, but the mood was electric all the same.

A comedy veteran of 25 years, Vlismas “fired on all cylinders”, having a constant go at the first couple of rows without breaking his stride, while getting rather philosophical about the topic of death.

“I talk to the front two rows during the shows,” he says about his two- part show that was inspired by the death of his father. “It’s very interesting because people need help with this thing. One guy was crying near the end and I invited him backstage. He had lost his mom and was just really upset. We spoke for a while.”

Vlismas is seated across a table from me, looking younger than his 46 years. His back is against a corner, his eyes dart from me to his active phone to the patrons ambling in and out of the restaurant. It is a frenetic state of awareness, I imagine, similar to his on-stage persona. In a brisk conversation, we deal mostly with his writing process and his ruminations on what comedy has given him.

“I don’t work with writers as in they write material. I work with writers where I like speak to people and we brainstorm and it’s more conceptual,” he says. “So we had lots of conversations. Liesl Coppen sent me some notes. I made notes. She made notes on my notes, but that was very much in a conceptual phase. And then I draw mind maps. That’s my big, like, way of constructing a show.

“If you saw the show on Thursday [it’s second night] and come back you’ll see that it has kind of tightened up, because I found a tight argument about the human need for dealing with death.”

Vlismas’s modus operandi is to pull together various theories — in this instance about death — and then filter them through his own sensibility, which is concerned with shaking his audience out of their comfort zone and sense of respectability. There is a lot of calculated shock, in which he provokes “people to bring out the reaction that they have got, and then you attack that. So you kind of hammer people in the beginning, break those things down and then you kind of get to a much better place. I’d argue that the audience is more receptive the further into a show you get.”

In the show’s second half, Vlismas slows the pace down, allowing for granular reflections about grief.

“With this show I decided to tell a story,” he says. “Like, there’ll be sad parts of that and there’ll be happy parts of that. There’ll be inappropriate parts of that, but what I’m not gonna do is be funny at all cost of the other content. When you’re doing a show to remember someone, you owe it to that person to also be true to that there is a sad side. Pieter-Dirk Uys always told me — and I love him so much for being such an amazing artist — he said to me one day, ‘You must always put some spikes among the fluff.’ I kind of knew what he meant, but with this show I really understood what he was getting at. My work has changed fundamentally going forward.”

At least in that early rendition of the show, there was a distinct slowing down — or subversion rather — of the expectation to laugh, so much so that one could have felt part of a TED Talk audience.

That is not to say that Vlismas is no longer funny, but more to state that he has reached a point where laughter is no longer the primary point.

As a segue, he tells me the story of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, a Netflix comedy special in which she apparently “deconstructs why comedy has been bad for her … It’s brilliant, and it’s not all funny. Some of it is angry, some of it is outrage. I watched that and it gave me permission to break the format. Then I watched Patton Oswalt. His wife died … at a young age, recently. He vanished for a while and then he came back with this special called Annihilation, where he discusses his wife dying. Again, I just found them to be so amazing and format-breaking specials.”

The death of his father is not the only major change in Vlismas’s life. He has sold all of his stake in Whacked Management and Publishing, the company he was a key figure in establishing, remaining, primarily, as a client.

And, in the interests of “disrupting himself”, he has also made more concerted moves towards academia. He is in the second year of his MBA and he is part of a business that teaches upstart bankers tools for sustained happiness.

Seeing Vlismas flit from heckling his audiences to connecting sombre thoughts about his old man’s death, while throwing the odd glance at the autocue (which was a kind of rolling mind map), was like watching a man who has been on autopilot for a good 25 years.

As he tinkers with his own formula, one has to admire what it has taken to pull off such an innings.

The End runs until June 2

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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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