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SA comedians put power in punch lines



IT was a warm Friday morning in Braamfontein, a hip neighborhood here. Inside an airy loft with views of the Nelson Mandela Bridge, a young television crew was assembled around a conference table, in heated debate about the coming week’s broadcast.

“The question is, can we cover Je Suis Charlie without offending everyone? And alienating Muslims?” asked an executive producer, a lanky man with short dreadlocks.

“They key is to relate it back to here, to free speech in South Africa,” insisted another member of the team, wringing her hands.

“I’ve got it!” he pronounced. “Let’s have the whole segment delivered — in blackface!”

The whole room erupted in laughter.

It was hardly seemly behaviour for serious journalists.

But they aren’t. They’re the mock news team behind Late Nite News With Loyiso Gola, South Africa’s weekly answer to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. The South African show, which draws a million viewers each night a new episode airs, a sizable audience here, and last year was nominated a second time for an International Emmy, has galvanised a thriving comedy scene in South Africa that provocatively stretches the limits of what can be laughed at in the post-apartheid era. It’s a scene that includes Trevor Noah, who made his debut as a correspondent for The Daily Show in December.

“Until this show, no consistent black voice had been on a television channel poking fun at the government,” said Kagiso Lediga (36) a co-creator and executive producer, over brunch with a fellow executive producer and the show’s host, Gola (31).

“We have made it OK for black people to feel like they can oppose something in government,” Gola said.

Lediga went on to say that the ANC’s attitude has been this: “We created you — we gave you freedom — so you have no right to question us.” Gola added, “It is really so important to cultivate a culture of questioning people in power, a culture of satire.”

Late Nite News With Loyiso Gola does both, uproariously. There are one-liners as Gola delivers the news. (“Stop killing people whose views you don’t agree with,” he admonished religious extremists on a recent episode; “that is America’s job.”) There are mock infomercials, like the one for seminars led by a white South African on how to “milk” apartheid. (“Have you found yourself under siege by white people lambasting you for being late for meetings that happen at unreasonable hours, like 10 in the morning?” he asks. “Then sign up for ‘Blame Apartheid’ classes!”)

To interview top politicians, there’s a “political analyst” who is actually a puppet named Chester Missing, delivering lines like, “The ‘new South Africa’ is apartheid without the guilt.” And there are skits parodying President Jacob Zuma, like the one depicting a media frenzy following Jesus’ arrival in Africa, inspired by Zuma’s boast that his party would “rule until Jesus comes back.”

“When we first started, everyone thought: ‘Have you gotten death threats? Faced a blood bath?’ ” Lediga recalled. “But in fact we’ve never gotten disapproval from government. They love the show. They come on the show. They see the show as a platform where they can defend themselves.”

The road to a comedy renaissance in South Africa was rocky, to say the least. For decades, comedy was the white man’s domain — blacks who made incendiary jokes in public were liable to be arrested. And it was steeped in racist tropes. The country’s most beloved comedian, Leon Schuster, was known for slapstick-style routines performed in blackface. When Lediga and Gola began doing stand-up more than a decade ago with jokes about apartheid, their audience was almost entirely white; both the entertainment scene and entire neighbourhoods were still de facto segregated.

“You’d get onstage, and they’d say, ‘Who is this black guy and what is he doing?’ ” Lediga said. “And, ‘How dare he make jokes about this stuff?’ ”

By the time Late Nite News With Loyiso Gola came along in 2010, there were hardly any taboo subjects left for comedians. Or were there? Is there a topic the show’s writing team simply won’t touch?

“No,” Lediga said flatly. “But we check each other. If I was on my own, there would be a joke about Mandela dying of AIDS.”

What about Trevor Noah’s “drunk Mandela” standup routine making the rounds on YouTube, the one in which Noah stumbles around onstage?

Lediga shrugged. “Everyone and their grandmother in South Africa has fun with the Nelson Mandela voice,” he said.

Gola added that the key is to maintain an independent stance and to be an equal opportunity lampooner.

“I grew up in the old South Africa, where the police and military vehicles were a presence every day. Where what you say could land you in jail very quickly,” said the club’s owner, the comedian Kurt Schoonraad. “So to have reached this stage 15, 16 years down the line, where we’re able to criticize openly like this, it’s a huge step forward in a democracy.”

“When we bash the ANC we get those white people who are like” — he switched into an Afrikaans accent — “ ‘I just love them!’ ” But he continued, “The same people, when we get into the opposing party and white privilege and all of that, they’re like: ‘Whoa! I thought we were brothers!’ We’ve got enough balance that we’re not in danger of being in that Chappelle space. We upset everyone.”

He also argued that agency — who has the power — is critical. Take a recent controversy involving Chester Missing. The puppet is “colored” — the South African term for mixed-race — but his handler is the white comedian Conrad Koch, a fact that incensed critics who have called the act a modern-day blackface routine. Koch fired back in a thoughtful blog post, but for Lediga there was no issue: “We the black writers are the voice behind the puppet — we write the script. We have the agency, not the white handler.”

Schoonraad noted that the insider-outsider dynamic can also work in thornier ways. He cited a British couple who wanted a refund “because I used the word ‘colored’ in my act,” he said. “But I have the right to use that word; I’ve earned it — I am it.”

He added: “Internationals get offended by these issues because they’ve been made to be hypersensitive to them. We live with those issues every day, so we’ve become a little more accustomed to dealing with it, rather than avoiding it completely.”

Schoonraad reflected on the club’s sold-out crowd, and the country’s comedy scene as a whole.

“Comedy and pain: It’s a thin line between the two,” he said. “And South Africans are excellent at producing comedy because, well” — he paused to consider — “we know the other side very, very well.” – NY Times


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