Epic Journey

How Universal is Comedy?

We’ve only been in Johannesburg for 36 hours and we already find ourselves diving headfirst into the crackling South African comedy scene.  Here, we’re told, stand up comics are like rock stars and tonight we found ourselves sharing a table with some of the biggest.  Evert van der Veer, head of Comedy Central Africa, invited us to a taping of their latest stand up special, at the country’s top club, Parker’s Comedy & Jive.  On the bill:  a Nigerian, an American, a South African comedian and comedienne—posing the unspoken question:  Is Comedy Universal?

basketmouth poster

Watching the folks at our table, the answer would seem to be “yes.”  Laughing appreciatively across from us was the popular Joburg comic, David Kau, who stars in a film opening this week, Blitz Patrollie, a cop caper written and co-starring one of the comics we’ve come to meet, Kagiso Lediga.

Meanwhile, the show at Parkers opened with perhaps Nigeria’s hottest comic, Basketmouth, riffing on some universal themes: sex, relationships, and the difference between the races–here of course, between Blacks and Whites.  The folks from Comedy Central told me the audience was an unusually rich mix of races; rarely, I’m told, would you see such a diverse crowd in one room—perhaps underscoring the point that comedy can bring us together.  I found it fascinating that both Whites and Blacks were whooping with laughter–but at different jokes.

Next, two local up-and-coming comics, Mel Jones and Chris Mapane, got the crowd pumped up—especially when Mapane pointed out that even among Africans, Nigerians are outrageously loud and argumentative.  Indeed, a large group of Nigerians got so loud, Basketmouth had to shush them to be quiet.  “It’s a secret—that Nigerians are so loud they can interrupt a comedy special.  Let’s keep that our secret,” he clucked.  Who knew?

But what about the American comic, Griff?  He came from Atlanta with his entire family in tow—his mother, wife, mother-in-law, wife’s hairdresser, wife’s hairdresser’s husband—and his biggest laughs came when he talked about a theme absolutely universal: his mother.  At times though, Griff’s American material seemed to throw the crowd, but apparently not his accent.  “American culture is global culture,” one young woman told me.  “We watch US sitcoms every day, so the accent is 100% understandable.  It’s the Nigerian accent and Pidgin we can’t understand!”

Someone pointed out that the difference between African and American comics is that U.S. performers swear a blue streak, and its true—I was surprised to find the Africans hardly dropped an F-bomb all night.  On May 2nd, another American comic will take the stage at Parkers:  Stand Up Planet’s Hasan Minhaj.

poster parkers

Stay tuned to find out if an Indian American comic from California can discover the universal themes that will make an audience of South African Whites, Blacks, European ex-pats, Nigerians and the odd American or two laugh out loud.

Join Hasan Minhaj, John Vlismas, Mpho “Popps” Modikoane, and Loyiso Gola on stage at Parkers Comedy & Jive, Thursday, May 2, 8 p.m. in JohannesburgGet your tickets here.

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