‘Can Zulu really be that funny?’

2008-07-31 00:00

Monwabisi Grootboom made a very interesting point to me the other day.

“When we think of entertainment, we think in English, and therefore assume that the entertainment itself has to be English,” he said. I pondered this, then realised that his observation was quite right.

Who is Grootboom? He is the executive producer for Wow Entertainment, a company that is putting the African back into South African entertainment.

I met Grootboom at his company’s most recent gig in Pietermaritzburg, the 99% Zulu Comedy Show, last week. I went, not too sure what to expect, and returned full of appreciation for what could easily become a dying art — if not for the likes of Grootboom.

“Basically, what we do is help people to embrace their culture, and to reaffirm the use of our mother tongue,” he explains.

Not to say Grootboom is turning his back on “Westernisation”. Far from it. As it turns out, he played a role in luring international laugh-master Chris Rock to Durban earlier this year.

The 32-year old Grootboom is simply trying to celebrate the indigenous languages of this country and provide a platform for young entertainers to make a living using their mother tongue.

“It’s not racism or anything, we are just embracing our Africanness and saying that you can create something by sticking to Zulu or Xhosa, or any other language in South Africa,” he says.

But it has not been an easy road. Although the 99% Zulu Comedy Show now enjoys a cult following in KwaZulu-Natal, with packed auditoriums of well-clad suburbanites interspersed with people from e-kasi, all there to enjoy colloquial comedy, the man behind the magic says it has not been easy getting here.

“For sure, the hardest thing has been attracting sponsorship. Not just from big corporates, but also from local government and private sector companies.

“You see CEO’s in the crowd, enjoying the show and surrounded by the very audiences they are trying to reach, and yet not many have jumped on board.”

Grootboom is quick to point out that the media have played a sustained and crucial role in the popularisation of the comedy shows, with Ilanga, Ukhozi FM, Echo and The Witness jumping on board as sponsors.

Wow Entertainment is Grootboom’s passion, and the happily married father of two girls has been very careful as to who carries the torch on stage.

The comedy line-up is continuously growing and he reveals that before prospective stars hit the main stage, he sends them out to “workshop” venues such as universities and Durban’s BAT Centre to hone their skills.

“The 99% Show is well known, and people now arrive with expectations,” he says. “When we started four years ago, we only had shows in Durban, but people would come to the show from places like Ladysmith and Newcastle.”

With demand increasing, Grootboom has embarked on a tour, taking the cream of the crop, such as the hilarious local star Simphiwe Shembe, around KwaZulu-Natal. Beyond that, there is also a Xhosa version going to the Eastern Cape.

Long term, Grootboom hopes that he can launch the show nationally, using the same simple recipe of a region’s mother tongue.

Someone asked me what the show was like and if Zulu could really be that funny. I had my doubts, but last Saturday reminded me just how hilarious the Zulu language can be. It is hilarious, almost to the point of ridiculous. Ours is a vivid, colourful, even violent language, but man, is it funny. I mean, what other language can poke fun at the way the letters “n” and “y” sound when put together in words.

The four comedians on Saturday covered a broad range of subjects, including the seemingly endless number of taxi ranks that have sprouted up in Pietermaritzburg.

Politics was another popular topic, with the plight of Zimbabweans described as so bad that they have to drink Borstol medicine in clubs to get a high.

Marital affairs were also on the agenda, as was the level of stupidity one must have to date a Pirates fan — who are apparently the most patient idiots on the planet, having won nothing significant for ages.

As Grootboom says, it is pointless even trying to translate the gags into English. Some things are best left original, and Grootboom’s simple concept looks like it will go from strength to strength.

The man:

Age: 32.

Location: Now living in Durban, Grootboom was born and bred in Port Elizabeth and resided in Johannesburg before moving to KwaZulu-Natal.

Education: He studied public relations at UCT, and also worked at the university for a while after graduating.

Interests: An avid sports fan, Grootboom admits to being a WWE fanatic, much to his wife’s frustration. He supports Mamelodi Sundowns and, coming from the Eastern Cape, he follows rugby passionately. He drives a VW Jetta R and a BMW 1 Series. Grootboom is married with two daughters.

Occupation: Wow Entertainment executive producer (ie, he does everything).

Inspiration: Grootboom is a born-again believer. He also cites veteran comedian Sam Hendrikse, from Cape Town, as the man he aspires to follow — because he has done it all.

Grootboom says he hates dishonesty, and instead finds inspiration from those unsung heroes who make a small difference in other people’s lives without seeking the limelight.

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