- Guy goes into a bar ...
30 May 2012|
Some white South Africans were highly offended when DStv's Comedy Central Africa channel broadcast a clip of Johannesburg stand-up comic Daniel Friedman doing a song about whites that satirised racial stereotypes. Simple stuff about watching rugby and braaiing sosaties.
The bit that really got up their noses was the silly verse "I've got small genitalia and one day I hope to emigrate to Australia" - and it wasn't just the contrived rhyme they objected to.
"The song was gentle self-parody. I'm white myself," says Friedman.
The Broadcasting Complaints Commission had the sense to dismiss the complaints but Friedman was subjected to a cyber barrage of insults.
"People said I wasn't white, I was Jewish. Well okay, I'm not blonde and blue-eyed. Maybe I look a bit Middle Eastern ..."
Of course there's no knowing how people will react to your cynical wit.
"John Vlismas [the comedian] says you have to develop a thick skin in this game. I learnt that at one of my first shows - a night of comedy at Cool Runnings in Victory Park, where I decided to do stand-up without my guitar. Big mistake. Packed house and by the time I finished there were seven people left. When that happens some people never try stand-up again."
But Friedman did, and his singing comedian persona Deep Fried Man was voted Best Newcomer at the 2011 Comic's Choice Awards.
He also became the first white person to do stand-up on Blacks Only, the Jo'burg show that comic David Kau launched in 2005 with a name that was a reverse word-play joke from the apartheid era. (Whites do sometimes take part.)
"South Africans can now say whatever they like about each other - and anything else," says Friedman. "And black comedians are just as outspoken as whites. David Kau and Kagiso Lediga have over the years single-handedly created a space for black comedy and it's becoming the most successful in the country, with the biggest audiences."
There's one area that's so sensitive in SA Friedman won't touch it. "How do you joke about something as horrific as rape?" But for him as for the rest of the country's comics, it's open season on crime, race, class, SA's variety of accents and so on.
"Audiences want you to go to places they would never go themselves in polite conversation," says Marc Lottering. "But it's all about balance.
"You can give anyone a hard time, as long as you do it fairly. Some white audiences still struggle to laugh at themselves, and sometimes older black audiences are touchy about religion. It depends on their social norms."
The most open-minded cities are probably Durban and Pietermaritzburg, in the view of the comic who calls himself SA's funniest Jewish-speaking Xhosa comedian, Nik Rabinowitz - "though it's hard to tell the difference between open-minded and stoned".
He thinks the section of the population that laughs most easily at themselves is in Cape Town. "Where do you think the acronym LMVTU - Lag My Voor Tande Uit - originated?"
Nowadays nothing is forbidden territory, says Tats Nkonzo, the musician who in a comic duo with Rabinowitz earlier this year cracked up Baxter audiences in Cape Town. "It all depends on your approach. The aim is not to offend but to probe, challenge and most importantly entertain. Everybody laughs at themselves. It just depends on who makes the joke."
Young, urban, mixed-race audiences laugh most easily at themselves, says comic ventriloquist Conrad Koch. But having studied social anthropology and psychology - he has a master's degree from Wits - he laments the fact that our comedy often goes along with the prejudices of the society we live in.
"We have a long way to go on that front, both as comedians and as audiences. When you start out as a comic, making people laugh is difficult, and I too have done plenty of stereotypes in my time.
"But the trouble is that if you listen to how the usually middle-class comedy audience laughs, it's the racism that gets the applause, not the thinly disguised comedy line. People sometimes think 'It's such an accurate portrayal'. Really? Are we not just back in 'All black people sound the same' territory?"
Zulu is one of the languages Koch speaks, and his worst stage moment was when he ran out of Zulu material in front of 30000 people at Ligwalagwala FM's birthday party in rural Mpumalanga. For once it wasn't funny.
What sets Koch apart from his colleagues are his fast-talking puppets. One is the coloured cynic Chester Missing, who appears on the e.tv political satire Late Nite News (LNN) with Loyiso Gola.
The puppet spits out barbed views on everyone from Julius Malema to Jessica Leandra, the model whose racist remarks recently caused a Twitter storm.
While it's refreshing for South Africans to see Zuma & Co lampooned in their living rooms - especially after SABC canned the clever political puppet satire ZA News - LNN does tend sometimes to come across as a watered-down version of the American Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.
Sadly it all comes down to budget. LNN's backstage collection of brainstorming comics must be a fraction the size of Stewart's.
Gola, a polished stage performer, grew up in Gugulethu and after 10 years in the business has developed the requisite thick skin. "Comedy is like anything else - there are good days and there are not-so-good days. You just move on to the next thing."