It's official. Stand-up comedians are the new rock stars, writes Charl Blignaut
It was starting to seem like a bad idea - the trip to Emperor's Palace casino to watch the stand-up. I should've known by the signs. The angry purple clouds and flashes of lightning of the Highveld storm as we arrived. The overweight Indian chap on stilts when we got inside.
David Kau, the emcee for Blacks Only, barely manages a smile when I go backstage and the others just fiddle with their phones and chew on chicken drumsticks. By the time we reach the auditorium, the photographer has turned surly and someone has made a very large mistake. There must be, like, 4000 chairs out.
But here they come, late and in droves. Ample-bosomed girls with a Louis Vuitton on one arm and a paunchy rich guy on the other, geeks, kasi crews, nine-to-fivers, even some white folk. Just a few seats at the front are open.
"It's always the free tickets that don't show up," quips Kau. "B Block is the middle class. C Block, Zwelinzima Vavi loves you. Thank you for spending your last cents when you could've bought school shoes."
Half a dozen young male stand-ups later, and even the photographer's laughing - if not jumping out his chair and pummeling his thighs like the guy next to us. The new comics aren't telling a rapid string of gags anymore. They're telling stories, relating what happened on the way over, with parts in vernacular. The joke is dead.
Kau was one of the comedians who killed it.
"My first gig 10 years ago there were 3000 white people and the two black people I'd invited. That was the face of comedy." He created Blacks Only for comedians to be able to work in their mother tongues and they've gone on to generate a considerable volume of material in a uniquely local idiom.
Reading up before interviewing Kau, I see his pet hate is "people visiting me backstage before a show". Raised in Kroonstad by a prison warder mother, Kau has performed for the president. He even made a joke at his expense. It was Valentine's Day and he said he struggled to choose a gift for just one wife; he didn't know how the president managed it.
JZ was delighted and told the comedian afterwards he was poor if he could only afford one wife.
Kau and Kagiso Lediga were central to the stand-up revolution as co-creators of SABC1's Pure Monate Show (PMS) in 2003. Their sketches brought the absurd to primetime and spawned a new generation of headline comedians, DVDs and indie movies. That, in turn, brought audiences, sponsors and hard, cold corporate cash.
On your TV at the moment Trevor Noah is the Chief Experience Officer of Cell C, and so Nando's made Lediga their Chicken Excellence Officer. Joey Rasdien harasses shoppers for Kalahari.net; Eugene Khoza is the Nedbank guy; Barry Hilton fronts Hunters Dry. PMS was as influential as Biltong and Potroast had been for white stand-ups in 1976.
Developed while test patterns were still running, Biltong and Potroast was copied from a British format. In fact, South Africa's stand-up roots are British. Cabaret and comedy acts came to tour the colonies and, in Pieter-Dirk Uys's words, a "cluster of tired, imported British stand-ups were hanging around" from the 1950s.
Mel Miller was South Africa's first bona fide stand-up star, developing his early routines in 1964 as part of a folk band.
Biltong and Potroast comedians, he says, performed for SABC censor Ronnie Wilson a week before taping. "No politics, no mention of God, not allowed to say 'bloody'."
One day Miller slipped in an unapproved joke and SABC didn't use him for two years. It was a stock gay gag: Nelson, dying on his flagship, asks his first mate to hold him. First mate (camp): Fifteen years on this damn ship and now he asks!
I expect Miller to be a kind old uncle, but I forgot that all good stand-ups are renegades. He swears like a Hillbrow whore and calls me "sweetness". He says that during apartheid his phone was tapped and he'd answer with, "F*** the government, hello?" He was badly beaten by security police after a gig one night. "In the old days I was a communist, now sometimes I'm a racist. I decided long ago, to hell with it, I'll do as I like," he says.
Comedian John Vlismas mentions that Miller wants to do an autobiography called "No one Throws Their Panties at the Comedian" and my ears prick up. If stand-up comedians are the new rock stars, then someone will have thrown some. This is the only true test of rock-stardom.
"I'm not panty-throwable," says Loyiso Gola when I ask. He's munching on chicken in the green room of his set for e.tv's Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola. "Maybe you should ask Trevor (Noah)." I'd ask Noah if I could find him. I've tried for days. I was at his set yesterday but the shoot was suddenly cancelled.
Gola started out at school, helped up by the Cape Comedy Collective and smacked on the bum by PMS. He co-produces his news spoof show with Lediga and features talent from PMS - David Kibuuka and Riaad Moosa. They're living proof that you can make original comedy for TV with the equivalent of a Hollywood Port-a-Loo budget.
"How come every TV I'm watching, when I switch to e.tv it looks like I'm watching on a cheap TV?" quips Vlismas.
It's not just e.tv, of course. I enjoy M-Net's Tonight with Noah, but my eye keeps being drawn to the line behind his head where the set's glued together. What's changed is that comedians now produce their own shows, but 35 years on TV remains a blessing and a curse. It's exposure, but you check your controversial material at the studio door. The comedians swear on Gola's show - the beeps when it's broadcast are part of the humour.
I corner Kibuuka to ask about the panties. "Nope. None. But I have a theory. It's because it's hard to take your panties off when you're sitting down. Dunno. Maybe ask Trevor."
In the corridor I'm so pleased to see Moosa that I hug him. I'd left messages, but comedians are very busy at this time of year. Corporates want them for Christmas lunches and they're paying up to R25000 as long as you agree to their rules, which are not dissimilar to the broadcasters': "No swearing, no political jokes. No jokes below the belt. No jokes about belts. No jokes with punch lines," smiles Moosa. "But in my community it's anyway no swearing, no sexual material."
Moosa studied medicine, but practises comic healing. His breakthrough was Strictly Halaal . "Muslim people came in droves. With that new audience, my culturally specific material started coming through." He's even organised Muslim comedy festivals.
Another consciously Muslim comedian is Joey Rasdien, a man who can make you laugh just by asking a waiter where the toilet is. It's about delivery. He spews a freestyle sermon into my dictaphone: "That bra of Delmas. He lost his tiger and he was surprised? It's a bleddie tiger. It's not a dog. It's not like some auntie crocheted a tiger outfit for the Boerboel. Put this on, you're going out, Blackie. Who has tigers in the house? Where you gonna put it? Next to the tree?" He's the first local stand-up with a sitcom - Rasdien on SABC2. "In the past it was comedians wanting to be on TV, now it's TV wanting comedians," he says.
But not necessarily female comedians, even though Anne Hirsch won SABC1's "So You Think You're Funny". We have precious few female stand-ups. South African men show off, swear and talk about sex, but it's generally still not culturally acceptable for women to do it.
It's said that to be a successful female stand-up you must be bigger than the boys - fat, Jewish or lesbian, preferably all three.
Tumi Morake is none of the above. She's the country's first big-name female stand-up and she's a mother, wife and academic.
She orders the chicken for lunch and I come to the conclusion that without chicken there would have been no revolution.
"I've been studying drama and feminism because the point is autonomy, expressing myself in my own language on my own terms," says Morake. Her honours practical was about menstruation.
"The last taboo. Even Aids makes it onto a soapie but my period is not discussed. Why can't you even touch a box of tampons, dude? Menstruation is not contagious. And saying it must be that time of the month. I want him to sit down and explain to me what he knows about my time of the month because, in fact, I'm emotionally difficult all year round."
"Stand-up's like music now, there's a genre and artist for everybody from sokkie-sokkie to hip hop," says Barry Hilton. But the one thing all stand-ups have in common is they were baptised by rowdy audiences in comedy clubs, most likely Comedy Underground in Melville. The club's turned 10 and promoter Vlismas is like a proud father whose kids grew up and started a punk band.
"I tell first-time performers, I'm not looking for you to destroy the audience with your inimitable wit. I'm looking for an original voice," he says over breakfast in Blairgowrie, where he also runs a management agency, the Comedy Choice Awards, writes newspaper columns and teaches scuba diving.
Stand-ups like to say theirs is the hardest job in the world. I'm not sure the brain surgeons would agree, but anyone who thinks it isn't a real job should take a look at Vlismas's CV.
He's a weapon on stage. Emceeing at Underground, he builds the audience's bravado by attacking them.
"Nthabiseng? What does that mean? 'Makes us happy?' Ah, so you were named in the moment of conception." He comes from a line of dangerous comedy that can be traced to Lenny Bruce.
We get the stand-ups we deserve and make heroes out of them because they say what we're too shy to. It's a powerful freedom, expression. Telling the president he's a "playa". Comics test the limits of our liberties.
Vlismas was up for hate speech, Gary Busey got kicked off Twitter, Lenny Bruce was convicted of obscenity. They question our manners, cultural traits and stubborn beliefs. "Why do kamikaze pilots wear helmets?" asked George Carlin. Good question.
Then there are the stand-ups who try to make sense of a funny country. "There's tension between old and young, genders, races, classes, religions," says Eugene Khoza - the new comedian most of the established stand-ups rate as the next big thing. "Our job is to make people understand one another."
Most importantly, they make us laugh. As Uys says: "We spend our days gasping at the horrors. If we didn't have laughter to let the air out, we would explode."
Vlismas has another theory. "The monkey walks towards the lion and the other monkeys chatter in nervous excitement. That's apparently where laughter comes from. We need a monkey to walk close to the lion."
Vlismas, at least, looks like a rock star, which is the closest I've come to proving my theory. I've given up on Noah. It seems the rumours are true - he's arrogant and unreliable and fame has gone to his head. They say he doesn't like journalists and I'm not surprised, given a spurious story about him plagiarising material and the CellC bellyflop. Noah allegedly was paid more than a million and was the only winner in what some called the worst ad campaign of the decade.
What happened was CellC saw Noah on Youtube, ranting about their poor service and immediately co-opted him as the face of their clients' gripes. They were quick off the block and refreshingly open to criticism. Not. The Daily Maverick exposed the Noah clip as a set-up to kick off a R150-million campaign. A small integrity problem ensued.
But Noah is the new Marc Lottering - who was the new Mark Banks who was the new Barry Hilton who was the new Mel Miller. I suspect some comedians are a little jealous of his overnight success in relation to his still-young repertoire of material. I also think the online punters who called the CellC thing "Noahgate" shouldn't hate the comedian, they should hate the joke.
Then his agent rings up and says Noah's waiting for my call. It's a lot, I say to him, to happen so fast, giving him a chance to admit he's overwhelmed. Noah scoffs. "I've been lucky enough to experience overnight success for five years. I've been on TV for 10."
Most comedians were the class clown, but Noah was the dispassionate rebel. His mother is Xhosa, his father Swiss and he grew up without luxuries. I don't find him arrogant at all - just bad at keeping appointments. I almost forget to ask him the crucial question. Has anyone ever thrown their panties?
"It happened once - when I was opening for Julio Iglesias. The woman must have thought I was Julio." Aha! That settles it then. Stand-up comedians are the new rock stars.