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Being Funny Is A Serious Business

Nick Cowen wonders if Trevor Noah’s success will help other local comedians abroad.
Image: Trevor Noah Image: Trevor Noah

For most South Africans, seeing comedian Trevor Noah host The Daily Show – one of the most-watched and influential weeknight satire shows in the United States – borders on the surreal. Hearing news that he’s just bought a R130-million apartment in New York with his earnings from the show is a source of national pride.

Noah’s story of against-the-odds success is well documented in his autobiography, It’s My Life (a must-read). But it’s all the more remarkable because South African stand-up comedy isn’t especially well supported at home, and few – if any – of our comedians have made it to the ranks of the international comedy elite before.

At the time of writing, there are only four dedicated comedy venues in the whole country – two in Johannesburg, one in Cape Town and one in Krugersdorp (most towns in the UK and US can boast one venue, if not more). That’s not to say other bars and clubs don’t host comedy nights, but if you’re on the hunt for a guaranteed good night out, your dedicated nights are limited.

At least, that’s the state right now. So, what does Noah’s success mean for the rest of South Africa’s comedy scene?

Takunda Bimha, who used to manage Noah, says many of our most talented comics will benefit purely from the inspiration he brings.

“There is a next generation of comedians who, before Trevor, saw the limit as doing your own one-man show or booking a big theatre,” says Bimha. “Trevor has taken the bar and thrown it up. Now you have home-grown comedians who will head to New York. Who will get on stage. Who will hustle gigs because they know now what is possible.”

Even before Noah landed the top job of critiquing Donald Trump every night on TV, the landscape in South African comedy was evolving, Bimha says. There has always been a lot of talent; acts such as David Kau and John Vlismas are world-class, but more and more local comics are starting to stretch themselves and go for the throat on topics they may have avoided before, due to South Africa’s complex social and political climate. This can make them more effective – and funny.

“Comedians are social commentators. They put the mirror in front of society and they say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on around us right now’,” says Bimha. “Race is always a major topic in South Africa. Politics – we have a robust political landscape – sex and relationships, too, will always be talking points.

“Technology has also had a huge influence. We’re a lot less insular than we were at the turn of the century. We live in a connected universe, so now you find comedians talking about American politics more than they would have, say, 10 years ago, and audiences responding in kind.”

New comedians hitting the circuit not only have higher ambitions, but Bimha says they are more likely than their predecessors to look at comedy as an art form. Rather than simply trying to please a crowd, they’re prepared to take more risks.

“The scene has become far more competitive,” says Bimha. “There’s much more diversity in terms of subject matter and material, because every new comedian is trying to find their own identity, find their own voice.”

All of this has made the quality of comedy available in South Africa far better for punters. Not every stand-up may end up hosting The Daily Show, but South African audiences will reap the benefits of their trying.

4 comedians to follow

1. Yaseen Barnes

Barnes started crafting jokes on Twitter and then took them on stage. Deadpan, yet charismatic, he has a style that is unique on the circuit.

2. Schalk Bezuidenhout

With his self-deprecating humour and sharp, observational comedy, Bezuidenhout is fast becoming a household name – at the ripe old age of 23.

3. Tats Nkonzo

Most musical comics produce groan-worthy fare, but Nkonzo is worth watching, not just for his talented playing and fantastic voice. He’s sharp, funny and scathing, even when he’s belting out a ballad.

4.  Khanyisa Bunu

Since quitting her job as a teacher, Bunu has come on in leaps and bounds on the comedy circuit. Her strong work earned her the Audience Choice gong at the Comic’s Choice Awards.

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