Table Talk

Comedy doesn't run away from dark issues: Marc Lottering gets serious

24 February 2019 - 00:00 By Leonie Wagner
Marc Lottering and his true love Aunty Merle.
Marc Lottering and his true love Aunty Merle.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

For most philanderers, affairs are fleeting. Marc Lottering is the exception. Cape Town's Afro-flaunting comedian is having an affair that began in 1998 and has continued to grow stronger with every gig.

It was 21 years ago that Merle Abrahams, from Belgravia Road in Athlone on the Cape Flats, first captivated Lottering. The comedian loves her so much that a tattoo on his left arm bears the name "Aunty Merle".

OK, it was a decision made after several tequilas, but it's not one he regrets.

Two months ago Lottering and friends played a game of one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, more, only in their case the "more" would be a tattoo. They agreed that it would be something meaningful. He made his decision without hesitation.

"They are very cool at tattoo parlours, and I walked in with the hair so they were expecting this really cool tattoo of some skull with blood running from the eyes and I said 'Aunty Merle'.

"The guy was a bit confused and thrown by it but here I am and there it is. Aunty Merle is a very significant aspect of my career and I have a lot of respect for the character. I'll always be connected to Aunty Merle," says Lottering.

The coffee shop in Rosebank, Johannesburg, is full and it's evident in the frazzled look on the waitress's face. Lottering chalks it up to the rain, but his patience and amusement at the situation stop when she gets his rooibos tea and croissant order wrong.

It may be the month of love, but there is no love for the croissant. Lottering says, "I don't know where they think they are, that was a piece of bread."

He's not usually like this. He says he has been dealing with a technical issue ahead of his show that night. At the mention of his comedy act his eyes glow and his stale croissant fades into oblivion.

Lottering has brought his favourite aunty upcountry to introduce her to Johannesburg. Aunty Merle The Musical takes its final bow this afternoon at the Joburg Theatre.

The show has garnered four Fleur du Cap nominations and had three sellout seasons in Cape Town.

For Lottering, the musical deals with very "dark and serious" issues, such as the relationship between a domestic worker and the children of the family she works for, homosexuality, interracial relationships and domestic violence.

"Comedy does not run away from the dark issues. It runs towards it and it is born out of it. So many comedians make Gupta jokes or state capture jokes. Those issues are hectic but we know that people in the audience are also grappling with it and we all live through it, so we have to talk about it. The challenge for the comedian is ultimately to make them laugh after you've given it to them. "

KOEKSISTER CHATS

The birth of Aunty Merle was organic. Having grown up with strong female figures, Lottering was often exposed to the koeksister chats of his mom and her friends. The moment he included a bit of Aunty Merle in his stand-up comedy routine, he says, it resonated with the audience because "everyone knows an Aunty Merle".

Lottering says that the moment he became privy to the banter of his mom and her friends, he instinctively knew that their bitter-sweet stories needed to be shared.

At every performance he would carry a red headscarf in his back pocket, waiting for the perfect moment to don it as Merle Abrahams from Belgravia Road, Athlone, on the Cape Flats.

One night the audience was so receptive that Lottering felt brave enough to introduce them to Aunty Merle. He did seven minutes with the now infamous red scarf and that cemented their affair for years to come.

I knew that there were stories that needed to be told that were not being told about people on the Cape Flats in a way that was not talking about stabbing or drugs or no teeth
Marc Lottering on the birth of Aunty Merle

"I knew that there were stories that needed to be told that were not being told about people on the Cape Flats in a way that was not talking about stabbing or drugs or no teeth, because there are other aspects to people's lives as well."

His affinity with the character goes deeper than the opportunity to wear heels (which Lottering says he quite enjoys).

Having survived more than 20 years in the industry, there is an air of reverence around Lottering. Passers-by in the coffee shop stop to greet him and promise to watch his show.

There is a sense of hesitation when first encountering the multi-award-winning entertainer - do you curtsy, shake his hand, or smile and wave? But he pulls in for a hug, a familiar hug, much like the one your favourite uncle gives at the family braai.

'BIGGEST MISTAKE'

Lottering hasn't had a squeaky clean path to the top. He recalls his "biggest mistake", an encounter with the law. In January 2004 he was arrested for drunk driving after crashing into a stationary vehicle in Sea Point. He pleaded guilty and was fined R3,000.

He took to the stage to perform a one-man stand-up comedy show called Crash. He hails that recovery process as "interesting" and says he believes his fans forgave him because he was able to walk onstage and talk about it in his act.

"It's not just in the business of entertainment but also in life, you wise up with bruises and you get plastic surgery, cover up the bruises and move on. It's quite cool to fall down a lot. I found that people tend to take your advice more seriously if you can speak from experience."

It's not just in the business of entertainment but also in life, you wise up with bruises and you get plastic surgery, cover up the bruises and move on
Marc Lottering on making mistakes

Lottering will be back in Johannesburg in June for his stand-up comedy show at Montecasino, aptly titled Not a Musical. Later this year he'll be in another play, but says it's too soon to discuss the details.

For Lottering the "sheer magic" of theatre is that the feedback from the audience is immediate.

In his early days Lottering thought of himself as a "funny storyteller", but it was only when others labelled him a comedian that he somewhat reluctantly accepted the title.

"With my stand-up ... when people are screaming with laughter while the thing is happening ... there's no money that can buy that kind of feeling. The response from the audience is the most important thing; it's the oxygen for every performer. It's what we crave. With comedy, when the audience isn't screaming with laughter, there's a problem."

Before leaving the restaurant he makes sure to chat to the woman who sat next to us. Earlier she had promised that she'd go and watch the show. "God heard your promise. I'll be looking out for you in the crowd," he jokes.

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT MARC

•  Born Marc Eugene Lottering in 1967

•  Grew up in Retreat, Cape Town

•  Was 30 years old when he first took to the stage to do comedy

•  Did his first stand-up show, “After the Beep”, in 1997

•  Father was a pastor at a Pentecostal church, which was where Lottering developed his singing and keyboard skills

•  Aunty Merle is based on his mother

•  Has an older brother, Tony

•  Worked as an usher at the Baxter Theatre while studying law at the University of Cape Town

•  Has 17 one-man stand-up comedy shows to his name