Behind the stand-up comedians at the National Arts Festival
The men and women who make us roar with laughter are themselves mustering a lot of courage
There are so many comedians at the National Arts Festival that if you sat down for every second stand-up, you’d still need to be a dozen people to see half of them. I watched only four shows as a way of gauging what people are finding funny, so I’m fully aware that I’ll be leaving out a lot of worthy names. But for the sake of being able to eat a meal once in a while and also maybe catch some jazz, I’ll only be responding to the sets I saw by Tats Nkonzo, Dylan Moran, Claudine Ullman and Rob van Vuuren.
Van Vuuren says he sees the court jester of earlier times as the first stand-up. This was a role permitting tricksters to speak truth to power. A joker could get away with saying anything because it was all in the guise of fun. “Comedy that has an element of truth in it hits home the hardest.” Van Vuuren sees stand-up as a way of “calling bull... on the status quo … pulling the veil away.”
Each of the shows had different targets for their gags, but one of the most popular marks was those in power, since it’s considered in bad form (“punching down”) to make fun of people who are already disempowered. This can, however, present the danger of considering all power as intrinsically bad, and lead to powerful people being seen as somehow inherently worthy of derision; which is not necessarily helpful in trying to build a stable society.
The three stock characters of ancient Greek comedy were the alazon, (a bragging, boastful imposter); his ironic opponent, the eirôn; and the buffoon, known as the bomolochos. Perhaps Van Vuuren most fits the role of the bomolochos. He said he started out as “the class clown” because he was short and had buck teeth, so he learned that he could be more popular by accepting his shortcomings (pardon).
His show (Again) uses an intensely physical comedy, strong mime work and extreme exaggeration of voice, body and clothing. It was by far the most absurd of the shows. Now and then he adopts the guise of an ordinary, everyday guy, who mocks pretension and pomposity, but he doesn’t really present a “persona” in the way that most comics do. He operates best from behind a mask.
In her show Artificially Infeminated, Claudine Ullman also takes on a series of exaggerated roles. The pompous braggart of the alazon is her “Gazza” character, an obnoxious high school rugby captain. Van Vuuren also finds his alazon in an arrogant building supervisor overseeing disastrous renovations, a man who won’t ever acknowledge any fault on his part.
For the most part, Dylan Moran (in Dr Cosmos) played the eirôn, a self-deprecating, intelligent and ironic commentator. He sometimes tricked audiences into identifying with an aspect of a gag, before reversing its direction, while keeping the banter flowing. His observational wit relied on a wonderfully precise turn of phrase (“Men are just there — like a fridge in a river.”)
Tats Nkonzo (Tats is Cancelled) also stayed with one persona. Similar to Moran, he presented a friendly, charming eirôn, making wry observations about systems of power being played out in SA, while subtly undercutting expectations.
From Nkonzo’s show, we learn that diversity is funny. It’s something to be celebrated, not berated. Many of his jokes rely on misunderstandings between people of different cultures, races and generations. In SA, he says, we are “constantly bumping up against things we don’t understand” and his comedy celebrates difference, while being sympathetic to people who are “caught in the middle”. These are people who find themselves somewhere between the extremes of angry rants and pontificating defences; people who really want to respond appropriately to the baffling challenges of our confusing society, but who don’t quite know how to handle everyday situations.
Stand-up is becoming a lot more than a person at a microphone. Tyson Ngubani is enthusiastic about the many new styles emerging, such as working with props and music. Ullman is also excited about the options available for stand-up which she came across in New York (where she did a set at the famed Comedy Cellar): “There’s dancing, improv, ventriloquism, mime, characters.”
At its heart, though, it’s still only one person facing a crowd and trying to make them laugh. Surely, one of the most daunting prospects imaginable. The terminology of stand-up is notoriously aggressive. Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves have pointed out that “dying on stage” is the worst thing that can happen while “killing” is the best thing — so a stand-up set is like a fight to the death.
On the other hand, Nkonzo made his audience feel part of a group, treating even his unwitting targets in the audience with sympathy. The stand-up comic is a host, they’re inviting you into their headspace for an hour to share their perspective, and there’s a fine line between allowing people to feel secure enough to be willing to be made fun of; and having an audience nervous and on edge, in fear of being publicly ridiculed.
Because, of course, every comic has subjects they enjoy making fun of. Some of the targets of derision included: politicians (Moran), Americans (Nkonzo, Van Vuuren), Afrikaners (Nkonzo, Van Vuuren), body issues (Ullman), parenthood (Moran, Nkonzo), sex (Van Vuuren, Ullman, Nkonzo), race (Nkonzo, Moran) and men (everybody).
I asked different comics whether they experienced a greater degree of self-censorship in the current “calling out” culture typifying hyperjudgmental millennials. For Tyson Ngubeni “the intention behind jokes is key, it’s important for the comic to be clear about who the butt of the joke is.”
Van Vuuren agrees: “It depends which side of the joke you’re on.” Stand-up can be terrifying: “The risk level is so high, because you’re exposing yourself. You’re not holding a mirror up to society, you’re holding it up to yourself, and in seeing you, the audience also see themselves.” In this sense stand-up is about being as specific and personal as possible about one’s own vulnerabilities.
Ngubeni also feels that stand-up is “a way to really engage with yourself as a human being in the world”.
As comics get older, they seem to gravitate more and more towards wanting to make a point, to convey a message they truly believe in, rather than just being contrary. Towards the end, even Bill Hicks wanted to speak about consciousness, and John Cleese is becoming ever more vocal about what he thinks is right.
Claudine Ullman says that she wants women “to love their bodies, even if they don’t conform to impossibly idealised types”.
Moran spoke about the importance of self-acceptance and tolerance, while Nkonzo’s take-home point was: “Find out who you are. Express who you are. Don’t be afraid to be cancelled.” For me, his was one of the most uplifting of the shows I saw.
Keith Johnstone said when he trains people in improv, giving them free rein to explore wherever their minds want to go, the first subjects people habitually turn to are the taboo themes of sexual and aggressive impulses. There’s an unleashing of all those feelings we’re not allowed to express in polite society. However, Johnstone goes on, if one keeps on allowing space to explore, one comes across an even deeper layer of suppression which lies below the desire and aggression; namely loneliness, and fear of isolation.
The best comics are able to guide us to this place of true vulnerability, to allow us to make friends with our fear of not belonging. Stand-ups are the most endearing when making fun of themselves and some of the most generous comics, such as Maria Bamford and Mike Birbiglia, make fun of their own mental instabilities.
In the shows I saw, Van Vuuren refers to himself as short, addicted to his cellphone and “less famous” than he used to be. Ullman presents her stage persona as desperate for praise and admiration, while Moran complains about not being respected by his children. The most honest and vulnerable thing each comic showed — underneath the braggart personas and exaggerated roles — was a real desire for acceptance and a genuine fear of rejection. Revealing this might take the most courage of all.