Comic Loyiso Gola’s ‘Unlearning’ is superb storytelling, but just that

In early March, rapper Da Les and friend Saso shared their annual all-white party flyer, with the requirements for the women being “hairdo, waxing, manicures and pedicures”. The pair received major backlash when it came to the “waxing” request, so Saso took to Twitter to apologise for the inappropriate invite. 

In the same month, Adidas posted a photo of model, professional pole dancer and choreographer Leila Davis showing off her armpit hair, the first in a series that shows new Adidas athletic wear made in partnership with designer Stella McCartney. The campaign was received with much endearment and praise from body positivity activists, but there were those who tugged in their disgust, with one comment being, “So now not shaving armpits is empowering women? This only shows that they are lazy and dirty … just shave ur armpits, it’s unattractive to men and women.”

In his Netflix special, Unlearning, the first for an African comic, Loyiso Gola brings this kind of backward thinking to disrepute; he shepherds us through the reasons behind our beliefs, behaviours and even aspirations. Where do they stem from? He spades at these postulations by shoveling down to their roots. For instance, he says women only recently started shaving; how, about a 100 years ago, Gillette had to sell blades to women because the men had gone to war. The campaign convinced women to shave, a practice that is still enforced by the likes of Da Les and Saso in 2021. 

This is but a leaf from Gola’s Unlearning. In a topical-cum-anecdotal approach, we travel with him from his four-year-old self, who started a strike at kindergarten to free Mandela, and his school life with his white delinquent friend, Seth Langley, who convinced him to “blow shit up” (literally), to his life in a Muslim school where he won a fight because his opponent followed a religious rule at the wrong time. The journey is filled with nuggets of unlearning through constant questioning. 

Gola’s Unlearning is a pivotal piece that speaks to the zeitgeist; an age where everything that does not seem to serve our wellbeing, regardless of its provenance, is put under interrogation. Unlearning calls us to ourselves, allows us to laugh at our own ignorance and encourages us to uproot it. 

I watched this special for the first time with a number of friends. There were sprinkles of chuckles until the twenty-second minute when a hail of hilarity befell us (that poop in suitcase gag was side-splitting). This was followed by drizzles of more chuckles until the very end — a reprise twist of the “poop in a suitcase” gag. 

I then read the transcript of the special, and then watched it again, alone. 

My litmus test for good comedy is the reading of the text. Can the comedy stand without the comic’s performance? Is it funny without the physicality? Is it the text or the performer that is funny? Or is it perhaps both? Or maybe, as is sometimes the case, is it the performer who is failing the text if the performance thereof is not funny? 

Gola’s text failed him as a piece of comedy. 

At most points, Gola sets the premise, feeds us the subversion of expectation and just when the laugh is about to land, he trips on his punchline and collapses the joke. A very confusing collapse because Gola is an ardent technician, a true scholar of the craft of comedy. He even said in a recent radio interview, “I really just love doing stand-up, I’m obsessed about creating funny. I can tell you why something is funny, that’s what’s more interesting to me.” It is a love that is evident in his previous works. For instance, a gag from his 2018 feature on the Australian Tonightly with Tom Ballard:

Premise: Another thing, there’s this big cricket scandal now…
Subversion: Which I don’t care about because cricket is not a real sport to me. It’s like golf; golf is not a real sport.
Punchline: I just believe that if a fat person can beat you at a sport, it’s not a real sport.
Tag: I’m not saying that fat people shouldn’t play sport; I’m just saying they shouldn’t win. 

Another display of his clean understanding of the craft is found in his 2018 set Live at the Apollo:

Premise: For me the referendum was silly because you guys wanted to leave Europe. It’s physically impossible for you guys to leave Europe.
Subversion: Where are you going to go? Because you’re not welcome in Africa … You are not welcome! (pause)
Punchline: Fool me once!

His white privilege gag on his 2020 Netflix appearance was very technical and achieved laughs where laughs were placed on text. Gola is a craftsman who seems to rely heavily, to his work’s detriment, on his text but neglects his performance. Comic timing and delivery can save the stalest of text from the abyss of awkward silence. These two elements, achieved through the training of the performance muscle, were quite amiss in Unlearning.

Gola’s style of comedy — more conversational than performative — has caused conflict in the country regarding his abilities as a comic. The style has become akin to Dave Chappelle’s and is quite successful. Chappelle had mastered the three-step gag-after-gag-typhoon-of-laughter technique but came back with a conversational approach where he harnesses the audience’s tension through heavy content and a thick silence, which, when he chooses to release it, a reverberating wave of laughter sweeps over all the silence. Gola is seen attempting this tension technique a number of times in Unlearning, but his wavering timing and delivery failed him. 

My humble opinion is that he took too big a risk with his content approach for such a monumental moment in African comedy history.  

The tragedy with Unlearning is that it is not good comedy. The question thus becomes, “What then can we classify Gola’s Unlearning as?” My response is, “superb storytelling”. 

In this special Gola is a stellar raconteur, a remarkably relevant conversationalist and an all round great guy. Unlearning stands stout as a stunning Ted Talk, one that audiences need to experience, but not with an expectation of laughter. It is an edification of their world view, and is certainly a learning on how to unlearn. Do yourself the justice of streaming it.

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