The business of creative destruction

2014-08-03 15:00

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The Savanna Comic’s Choice Awards show just how big the industry has become. Grethe Koen talks to three nominees about their need to entertain

If you ever needed proof that comedy’s thriving in South Africa, consider this: Loyiso Gola isn’t stressed about declining an interview.

We’re hanging out in Braamfontein with the best writer nominees ahead of last night’s Savanna Comic’s Choice Awards.

“You guys [referring to journalists], I know how it goes,” says Gola. “When I ask you to interview me in November [when his new show is coming out], you’re going to say: ‘Nah, we interviewed him in August. We don’t want to cover him again.’ So I’m going to take a rain check on this interview and hope we can do it properly in November.”

Gola has a good grasp of how the media works – but then again, comics are not stupid. In fact, they’re more often than not the cleverest people in the room.

Kagiso Lediga, one of South Africa’s most recognisable and pioneering comedians, is positive about where the industry is going

“There’s even a Comedy Guild starting, which will mean we’ll actually get healthcare, rights and structured working hours,” he says.

“We’re at a stage now where comedians are using each other for shows. Five to six years ago, it was a one-man thing. Now we actually have a proper industry,” says fellow nominee Christopher Steenkamp.

Steenkamp, who writes for Loyiso’s Emmy-nominated Late Nite News (LNN), has a Jesus-esque beard – he actually played Jesus in an LNN skit. He says he stopped shaving when he became a full-time writer and promised he would never be pleasant to look at again.

In today’s fraught terrain, is there anything that is off topic for a comic?

“No, nothing. Unless it’s like?...?satanist paedophiles?...?really, there’s nothing,” says Lediga. “You know, you find out if there’s something that’s off limits only when you’re saying it on stage.”

“What’s off limits is validating assholes’ existence,” says Steenkamp. “You don’t want to give people like [Freedom Front parliamentarian] Pieter Groenewald or [Afrikaans singer] Steve Hofmeyr stage time. Fascists and apartheid apologists will have to work pretty hard to get our attention. The best thing you can do for these people is to ignore their existence.”

At times, it seems comics perform a public service. They frame alarming or depressing events so we can digest them through laughter.

This takes a certain level of intelligence.

“Comedy is kind of a social pathology we have within ourselves,” says Steenkamp. “The need to be the smartest person in the room – and have people know it – is not a healthy thing. And even satire is not a healthy thing. Satire is a destructive thing.

“What we do is that we maim people who are messing up. We kick you when you’re on the

ground. And it’s up to society to build what we break down. We’re essentially in the business of creative destruction. We break people’s ideas and perceptions of things.”

“It’s an unmasking,” adds fellow LNN writer Camilo Saloojee, who has joined us for the interview.

“Because there is this truth that we read about in the newspapers – but it’s not the truth, per se?...?it’s not what we’re talking about among each other. It’s the type of honest conversation we’re having with the audience, literally in your living room – except it’s coming through your TV.”

South Africa is ripe territory for comic material. But Steenkamp and Saloojee feel that comics aren’t the enemies of officials or politicians, and that there is a friendly symbiosis there.

“My favourite quote by Oscar Wilde is ‘if you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you’,” says Saloojee. “We love Thuli Madonsela, who said ‘speaking truth to power is an act of friendship’.”

Politicians know they need comics, which is probably why Conrad Koch – who conducts scathing interviews with the use of his puppet Chester Missing – does so well.

“It’s basically a puppet talking to another puppet – except a political puppet. I think that’s sometimes lost on [the politicians],” says Saloojee.

But the pair aren’t derisive of politicians.

“You build a relationship with the people you’re talking about,” says Steenkamp. “Like Kagiso, he loves [ANC secretary-general] Gwede Mantashe. You can’t have 140 episodes and not know your subjects. And [Cosatu general secretary] Zwelinzima Vavi, I know Saloojee loves him. There’s a warmness there.”

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