‘And then I said “Grandpa, I’m not doing that to grandma, she’s family!”’
The 20-something-year-old stands before a silent audience in a small Johannesburg venue, strained smile and wide eyes scanning the crowd for a friendly face. He finds none and only continues to stand there, punchline all run out and with no laughs to show for it. A few audience members shuffle uncomfortably in their seats while others offer up forced laughter to cut the tension. Eventually, after what seems like a lifetime, the MC for the night takes to the stage again, putting the young comic out of his misery. The South African comedy scene is a small, but active one, and it’s entirely fascinating too. Collectively, it’s produced a good crop of well-known performers – Marc Lottering, Loyiso Gola, Nik Rabinowitz, Tumi Morake, and most notably, Trevor Noah. If the recent Joburg International Comedy Festival is anything to go by, we’re also a country that attracts a number of internationally renowned comics. We have a healthy amount of emergent comics too. At a glance, there is Schalk Bezuidenhout – famous for his parodying of small-town Afrikaans complexities – while Tyson Ngubeni is becoming well known for his side-splitting sets that put forward shrewd commentary on issues such as colourism and Afriphobia. Lihle ‘Lindzy’ Msimang has a knack for satirising South African tropes, while comedic troupe Thenx Ladies are fast gaining traction for their unique blend of stand-up comedy and musical performance that shines a light on contemporary politics, media and more. There are many more stand-up comics in the country, and each week, another open mic night sees a handful of young performers try their hand at the craft. But as it goes, not all of them cut it.
It’s a tough gig, stand-up comedy. Of the few shows I’ve been too, I’ve seen countless comics bomb, and it’s always just as cringeworthy. It’s so common in fact, this act of unintentionally embarrassing yourself on stage, they’ve come up with a term for it – ‘dying’. It’s an apt term. How else can you describe the act of taking to a stage in front of a group of people all expecting you to make them laugh, and proceed to fumble your way through a few sweaty, laughless lines before driving the final bit home to a decidedly stony-faced audience? There’s no coming back from that. Quite simply, you ‘die’. Still, as I watched the 20-something-year-old comic slink off stage that evening and head straight for the bar, I felt bad. Bad for not laughing even though I didn’t find him funny. Bad because he had found the courage to stand in front of an audience with the hopes of making them laugh and he had failed terribly. Bad because, really, he is a performer and I am an audience member and it is as much my job to be entertained as it is his job to do the entertaining. Or is it?
There’s a strange dichotomy that exists between performer and viewer, and the commonly accepted understanding of it is that the performer is to put on a show and the viewer is to gaze upon that show and quite simply, love it or hate it. Certainly, the viewer should always understand it, and through that understanding, make their judgement. It’s far more complex than this, of course. When we really interrogate the politics of performance, we find that it all comes down to power. Most of the time, the one viewing a performance will hold the power and can yield it how they please – either celebrating or condemning the artist. Sometimes, when you are feeling a little out of your depth and are perhaps made to feel uncomfortable by a performance, you could say that the tables have been turned and that the performer is the one who holds the power. But again, it is far more complex than this.
When we sit in low-lit cinemas or in the teared rows of expansive theatres, what is it that we most often do when we are unimpressed by an actor on the stage or the silver screen? We walk out. No matter how bored to death we may feel, or how appalled we may be by a performance in such a setting, we will almost always choose to walk out rather than stand up and berate a performer or vocally express our disappointment. This is not to say that performing artists never experience such antagonistic reactions to their work, because they certainly do in many instances, just not as often as they would in less formal settings. Like at an open-mic comedy gig for instance. So why is it that we exercise our power as audience members in certain settings, but choose to dampen it in others? My thinking is that it’s largely to do with the space in which we are viewing a performance. I recently noticed this strange navigation of power during a trip through Hartbeespoort in the North West earlier this year. My partner and I had stopped at a busy weekend market for lunch and decided to grab a drink at a small restaurant that overlooked the part of the market housing a packed out beer garden. From the restaurant, we could see a musical performance taking place below where an amateur singer-songwriter tried her absolute best to entertain the drunken crowd filling up the beer garden. She did, for the most part, but a few overzealous (and overindulgent) crowd members took it upon themselves to tell her just how much they disliked her performance.
‘Play the other one!’ one of them would shout at her mid-performance. ‘Where’s the drummer?’ another one would slur. To her credit, they seemed very drunk and she seemed unperturbed by it all.
A week later we went through to a comedy show in Johannesburg’s Melville to see a friend perform, and this is where I saw the 20-something comic fail dismally. And it was at this small show for aspirant comedic performers that I truly realised just how strange the space of stand-up comedy can be, with all of its ‘dying’ and its strange, shifting power dynamics. Because as much as I saw comics try and fail in front of a despondent audience, I also saw comics really come alive on stage, drawing on the flux-like state of power inside the room to subvert the performer-viewer relationship, and at times completely topple it. Imagine my surprise when, after the failed comic slunk off stage, another equally shy and awkward young comic took his place. As he fumbled through his set in the same clammy and unrefined manner as the performer before him, I watched the audience slowly turn against him like they had with many of the other performers. Only this time, they lost their power.
‘Was that not a good joke?’ The comic asks the audience.
‘No, it sucked,’ responds a man towards the back of the crowd, causing a few audience members around him to snigger.
‘Oh? Well, why don’t you come up here and tell it better?’ the comic shoots back. ‘I mean, I’m already laughing just looking at you.’
And just like that, the comic got his power back. The heckler, clearly stunned and embarrassed, shrunk into his seat and the comic, with a renewed sense of power, launched straight into his next joke. At the end of it all, his set wasn’t a complete success, but it was at least salvaged by one hell of a comeback.
While the informal nature of stand-up comedy may allow for us to more immediately exercise our responses to a certain performance, it also completely breaks down any notions of a powerless or unresponsive performer we hold onto. And once we let go of those notions, the performance really gets good. So if you want to be entertained, go see a movie. If you’re hoping for something a little more intimate, why not visit the theatre? But if you’re looking for something a little different, and entirely immediate, you’d do well to head down to the next local stand-up comedy show.