Cape Town & race – Thriving on race humour

2012-02-11 09:35

When is making jokes based on skin colour acceptable?

Recently one of Cape Town’s most beloved comic sons, Marc Lottering, posted a tweet that read: “Cops just arrested beautiful, decent people on Camps Bay beach for consuming alcohol. White folk! What’s this world coming to?”

The quip, gently parodying race in the province, is evidence that if there is one space South Africans feel comfortable enough to confront this incendiary topic, it is through humour.

Race may be a minefield, but it is also a gold mine for Cape Town’s comics if the jam-packed parking lot at the Baxter Theatre in Rondebosch – where most of the top comedy names perform – is anything to go by.

Top dog at the moment is Nik Rabinowitz, a white, Jewish, Xhosa-speaking comic who combines political satire and stand-up in his routines.

Rabinowitz deftly navigates the complexities and nuances of power and racial stereotyping by “straddling”, as he puts it, a safe middle ground.

“Usually conversations about race or religion in South Africa are polarised into right or wrong, good or bad.

“I think humour offers a comfortable middle ground. Not everyone agrees with how I do it though.

“Often I get criticism from white lefties or Joburg intellectuals who say ‘you can’t do black accents like that’ or people who call into Redi’s show (Redi Tlhabi’s slot on 702 where Rabinowitz presents the weekly Week That Was) and say [to her] ‘you are a coconut laughing with this racist”.

Rabinowitz plays with notions of racial identity using sometimes-absurd devices, for example how a dog in Sea Point barks differently to a dog in Athlone or Gugulethu.

He gets away with it because he is an “insider/outsider”: for example he will try to get white English-speaking audience members to pronounce “difficult” Xhosa names like former SAA boss Khaya Ncqula, while drawing Xhosa-speakers in on the joke by translating it into a series of wild clicks that clearly mean something else entirely.

A few years ago the sold-out comedy show, Three Wise Men, directed by David Kramer and featuring Rabinowitz (a Jew), Riaad Moosa (a Muslim), and Lottering (a Christian) allowed “mixed” Cape Town audiences to laugh WITH and not AT specific stereotypical characters and the hilarious assumptions they made about each other.

Ventriloquist Conrad Koch, who is also a social anthropologist, is another white comedian who is able successfully to negotiate the complexities of race using a “coloured” puppet, Chester Missing, who has become a well-known character on the LNN with Loyiso Gola on e-tv.

“For Chester to work he needs to be of a higher status than me and that way I can undo assumptions people make about race.”

Chester constantly complains to Koch about being controlled by white people or Koch in particular and gains the audience’s empathy in his attempts to escape this.

For Capetonian Stuart Taylor whose show, Money’s Too Tight To Mention, opens at the Market Theatre in Joburg at the end of March, race features more ­
co-incidentally than deliberately.

“It’s not something I focus on but it’s there in the stories I tell. The reason why comedians can get away with a story involving race is because we don’t have an agenda while a politician always does.”

Lottering says that when he started out 14 years ago race featured much more prominently in his routines but audiences now seem to be “over it”.

“Before, I’d do something along the lines that coloured people love chip rolls while white folk tuck into a lovely summer salad.

“When I threw things like that around on stage, South Africans laughed along with me. They were not stories with fantastic punch lines, but merely exaggerated observations.

“I now find that I no longer spend so much time talking about different race groups. My stories (I think) are now more about funny South Africans, rather than funny coloureds, blacks or whites”.

For Shimmy Isaacs, one of the few black women on the comedy circuit, who hails from the small town of Worcester, the laughs are more about “cultural differences” than race.

In her autobiographical comedy show, Allie Pad Funny Worcester, Isaacs hilariously recounts her working-class mother’s fury when she invited a new white friend to dinner.

Isaacs talks the audience through her household’s tradition of “portions” (because of tight budgets) in relation to the “help yourself” buffet she encountered at her white friend’s home.

“I think that people understand each other’s cultures more so I like to think my humour is based on the observations I make about difference seen through this lens.

“I think you can make people uncomfortable if you mention race,” she says.

» Thamm is a freelance journalist and social commentator

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