Comedy is no joke for SA's comediennes

Thenjiwe Moseley is using social media to give her SA fans glimpses of her comedy, though she mostly lives in the UK. Picture: Siya Meyiwa
Thenjiwe Moseley is using social media to give her SA fans glimpses of her comedy, though she mostly lives in the UK. Picture: Siya Meyiwa

Are South African women really able to make a career in stand-up? Gugulethu Mhlungu finds out

I meet Thenjiwe Moseley on a cold autumn morning the day ahead of her appearance in her friend and fellow “laugh technician” on Celeste Ntuli’s show, Home Affairs 2, at The Lyric.

I had met her before, as a committed consumer of her hilarious YouTube videos, especially her #MySangomaIsTheBest clip, which I will show to any and everyone who says they haven’t seen it.

The KwaZulu-Natal-born lawyer-turned-comedienne says she took a roundabout journey to a full-time comedy career.

She has just returned from the Cannes Film Festival, where she was performing, and where she was honoured by The Producers Network, which recognised her as a talented emerging producer.

“I’m old, but also new [to the industry]. I studied drama at Natal Technikon aaaaages ago, and graduated in 1998 – then started in comedy, but there was no comedy scene really, so it wasn’t working out. I went to America to work as an au pair in 2000 and then went to England, where I ended up staying longer than I had planned. I studied in England because I wanted a real job.”

But is comedy not a real job?

She laughs and says: “Uyabona, this mentality ekhaya that you need to get a real job ... so I studied law and got a real job. But I still wanted to talk and still wanted to stand in front of people and get a bit of attention-nyana.”

She practised law for a few years.

“I went back on stage in November 2012. I was actually out with my other learned friends and we went to a comedy club and they kept saying: ‘You can do this! Get on stage!’” One of her friends did the right thing and spoke to the promoters behind her back, asking them to give Moseley a five-minute slot.

“I went on and never looked back,” she says.

When she became a finalist in the UK’s Funny Women comedy awards, she realised this was what she was supposed to be doing with her life. She quit law at the end of 2013.

“As it happened, my friend, who I went to Tech with back home, had also gone back to comedy. My friend Celeste Ntuli.”

As if on cue, Moseley’s phone rings. Ntuli will be joining us a little later.

“So when I came back home, Celeste said: ‘You’re getting on stage! You must come and do comedy.’ So I was very lucky I already had a friend who was an established comedienne here.”

Moseley, who lives in London 80% of the time, started testing the local scene. She did five minutes at Sway and was hired for a full set. The same happened at Parker’s comedy club.

“I wanted to do my comedy for people at home and I thought, there’s social media, so I am able to give my fans here comedy without being here all the time.”

She’s had so many requests for a DVD that producing one is among her current projects. “It means people can have my comedy without spending their data streaming me.”

Celeste Ntuli arrives and joins us. She is animated without being silly, warm without being overfamiliar, serious without being dismissive, with an expression that looks perpetually ready for a big laugh. It’s hard not to warm to her.

She looks at my shiny gold earrings and says: “Those are very pretty.” Moseley draws her attention to my equally over-the-top Chanel-bottle cellphone cover and Ntuli gently mocks me. “Ngiyabona ukuthi uthanda izinto wena! Ngiyazi nje ukuthi ufake i-panty eline-ribbon eyinqeni. [I can see you like things! I can tell that you’re wearing fancy underwear with a ribbon on it.]”

Ntuli has taken time to chat between shooting new episodes of Isibaya. She joined the cast of the drama in 2013 to play Siphokazi Zungu, the oldest of Mpiyakhe’s wives.

Although she’s finally been given the stand-up props she deserves in recent years, she is no newbie. “I’ve been in comedy since 2005. It started in Durban. I did SABC1’s So You Think You’re Funny in 2009 [where she ended in the top 10] and I have been doing comedy professionally since 2010.”

Ntuli has performed at many a major comedy festival, including Blacks Only – twice. She, Tumi Morake and Anne Hirsch represent some of local comedy’s A-listers. We know it’s been a struggle for women to pitch on the men’s playground, but that’s not the main thing she and Moseley want to talk about.

“Comedy is social commentary ... It has never not been about looking at ourselves,” says Ntuli.

It echoes something Moseley said earlier: “Comedy is truth, so it’s easy. Whether I am performing for a predominantly white crowd in London or doing a YouTube clip for my people at home, I’m telling my truth.”

Ntuli says “comedy has always been a serious career”, but it was only when comedians took charge and started organising their own events and employing other comedians that it was taken seriously.

I ask Moseley whether it pays as well as her law career did. She pauses, then says: “You can do well with comedy. It’s similar to being a freelancer. You can have a very busy month, then nothing the next. But we have a lot of comedy clubs opening, which gives comedians a chance. This week alone I’ve had three sold-out performances.”

Ntuli believes there’s room for plenty of growth. “For instance, we still haven’t had a proper comedy movie. We still have no comedy magazine. There’s room for new comedy shows.”

Moseley adds: “There’s still work to be done, especially for women. Men will tell a particular joke and be told it was awesome, but let a woman do the same and they’re ‘brave’.

“There’s still a lot women have to deal with in the industry. For instance, if a man says he’s a comedian, people believe him immediately. But women must prove they are, in fact, funny.”

On the same weekend as the Home Affairs 2 performance, comedy lovers were treated to the one-woman show from Ugandan actress and internet sensation Kansiime Anne. Ntuli agrees with Moseley when she says: “The amount of comedy on offer this week alone, on the same night as our show, just goes to show how hungry South African audiences are for comedy.”

She concludes: “All the people in the space are serious. Comedy is not a joke any more."

The 2015 Savanna Newcomer Showcase featured two new funny women among the 20 stand-ups who had five minutes to do their thing on stage. We decided to meet them.

Karmen Naidoo

Durban-born Naidoo says she got into comedy because “I was always the funny girl growing up and had friends who encouraged me to go on stage”.

Naidoo says: “I didn’t actually know what comedy was about. I thought you just got on to stage and made people laugh.

But it’s actually a lot of work ... You need to know about performance styles, current affairs, who you are as a performer and, most importantly, write your material. It’s not just about getting on to stage and talking to your mates.”

Naidoo, who has given more than 60 performances since starting comedy in September 2013, says: “I think I am finding who I am on stage, and the most exciting thing is being able to stand on stage and make people laugh.”

Naidoo is a mechanical engineer by profession and runs a company called Indi Comedy, which she says helps new comedians develop their craft.

Noko Moswete

Limpopo-born Moswete (31) says she used to watch sitcoms and wanted to “act funny”. But then, she says: “I realised that I didn’t need to do comedy acting to be funny. I started going to comedy shows and after a while approached another comedian about how to get into the game.”

Moswete does most of her performances in Sepedi and, like Naidoo, has learnt that comedy is “a serious business. You write, you rehearse, you prepare...”

Although she would like to do it full time, this former lecturer is currently training to be a teacher.

“I don’t think art is secure enough to do full time at the moment. I want to become a professional teacher and those two things aren’t different to each other because I get to talk to people either way.

“My plan is to keep performing and start looking at putting my comedy online because I also want to get into TV."

Based on the newcomers’ performances, the industry votes for the best act, which is announced at the 5th Annual SA Savanna Comics’ Choice Awards on August 15 at The Teatro at Montecasino

Follow Gugulethu Mhlungu on Twitter

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