The difficulties of loving stand-up comedy

Comedian 1: Apparently, Jacob Zuma can’t name his successor – Why?  Is his successor a number?
Comedian 2: “I’m a white girl, so I can’t dance, but at least this is my real hair”. She adds, “If I’ve offended you, you can twerk on outta here.”

Comedians are often walking a very thin line – one joke could ruin the whole set, sometimes you have the wrong joke, sometimes it’s the wrong crowd. In such instances, how do you know when you are taking something too far? What are the limits? The pressing question (I’d imagine) is when is it too soon to make a joke about Oscar? How do you recover when the punchline misses the mark? These are the questions that keep me awake at night (well, sometimes).

I’m interested in the politics of stand-up comedy shows, mainly because they can seem so apolitical. Everyone is just there to laugh because laughing is nice and we want nice things. Then everyone goes home. Simple. But there is a lot going on, power-wise, if you can afford to sit in a big room and pay someone to make you laugh. There’s a lot going on when the audience is predominantly middle-class; when the jokes are about PVRs and panicking about crime. There’s a lot going on when the comedian talks about travels to the UK or Australia and his audience can relate.

At the same time, I’m interested in the politics of comedy because it’s making me uncomfortable to think about what I laugh at and what I don’t. On a day like today, when it seems like 100% of things that happen on Earth are horrible and not funny, I find myself questioning what (or who) I am really laughing at.

Fatigued by the unfunny

A popular formula in stand-up seems to be to appeal to people’s politically incorrect leanings: a lot of punchlines are about fat people, black people, women, queer people, etc. With this formula, you push the boundaries a bit, playing on established stereotypes. Maybe it’s popular because it’s safe: because it’s what people were thinking, but were too ‘afraid’ to express.

For me, this formula is lacking. All it really is, is throwing marginalized people under the bus. The method is tired, which is why the jokes are tired. The punchlines in this category – the ones about about Zuma, black women,  fat or disabled people – don’t amuse because they don’t require imagination. I’ve heard them already: the only difference is that before, they were dressed as slurs.

Stand-up is political to me because it’s a form of storytelling: it’s representation. I’ve been fascinated by the power of storytelling for a long time. Stories have the power to influence ideas and, in turn, human relations are determined by those ideas. That’s why it matters to me to think about who tells a story, how they tell it and for what purpose. Perhaps I’ve found myself disappointed with comedy because the stories being told don’t push enough buttons. A joke about Zuma overshadows the fact that apartheid is the reason he was unable to access education. The joke about black women twerking, told by a white woman, just reminds me that white women don’t have a great track record when it comes to showing up for black women.

Possibilities for challenging the status quo

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Last Sunday, I caught Tyson Ngubeni’s show The Dark Ages. In it, Ngubeni jokes about the colourism he’s experienced and his brushes with xenophobia, resulting from him being mistaken for a foreigner.

The stage was decorated with flags from different countries and marred by posters containing slurs like amakwerekwere. Again, I was on edge. This time it was because xenophobia and colourism are so touchy, I struggle to discuss them in day-to-day conversations. I sat nervously, trying to manage the weight of my expectations, wondering if Ngubeni would take the conversation where I hoped it would go: to the depth of the difficult place.

I thought The Dark Ages was honest and well-delivered. Ngubeni deviates from the tired-trope formula, using humour to ask questions, as opposed to playing on stereotypes. On top of that, The Dark Ages re-orients  the dominant narratives: it exposes the mistreatment foreign and dark-skinned Black people experience, explicitly. I think this critical approach to comedy is what I’ve been missing in the jokes about gay men or fat people or women. Ngubeni uses his positionality as a dark-skinned, South-African to challenge complicity. It’s refreshing, considering the multitude of comedians who poke fun at issues like racism and classism just because

Later on in the week, at The Very Big Comedy Show, I was intrigued by a group of black women, Thenx, who featured briefly. In their musical skit, they sang about the land issue, belting out – to a predominantly white audience – “You know it don’t belong to you”. The crowd seemed more than a bit uncomfortable when they started singing about the k-word, and I was shocked by their honesty.

After this encounter, I was compelled to watched their sketch comedy show Thenx Presents Aza-Nya is Five-To, which didn’t disappoint. In it, they address topical issues like patriarchy, media censorship and economic inequality through vibrant satire and song. Touching again on the matter of inequality and redistribution, they sang, “There’s a huge cake we’re supposed to share [but] the ones with the knife don’t care.”

Thenx’s confrontation is in your face, in all senses.  The peak of their performance is when one of the comedians addresses members of the audience directly, asking why we should ‘keep’ Aza-Nya (South Africa). A woman in the crowd answers, “Because it’s a nice country”. A younger man and his friends respond,”We need to work together. We need to build together”. Sharply, the comedian, asks “A nice country for who? Who is we?”. She’s not going to let us get away with falling back on the myth of the rainbow nation: the promise of unity which has obscured the face of injustice for so long. Rather, as Thenx closes, they call upon the ance-stars – Biko, Sobukwe, Malcom X – reminding us of the legacy of those who have struggled for the realization of true justice. “We know it’s time”, Thenx say.

There is so much room for more of this type of work. There’s so much potential to push the boundaries. I hope, that despite the constraints of trying to make people laugh for money, upcoming comedians can develop new concepts for their sets. As a fan of stand-up, I long for more of this kind of comedy: the type that pushes us all to question what we laugh at after the curtains fall. 




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