South African comedians find pandemic balance

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It’s a Monday night in Johannesburg, the time when comedy sessions usually take place at Cocktail on Six in the Melville district. The club is divided into two rooms: one for customers to relax and wash away the cares of the day, the other a space reserved for comedy shows.

In the second room, the first act of the night is Suhayl Essa. As he takes the stage, it’s visibly obvious that he hasn’t performed in front of a crowd in a while. He quietly paces the stage back and forth to take the temperature of the room.

His comedic routine leads to his legacy and the limitation of career choices: “When you’re Indian, you either become a doctor or a salesman of cellphones and electronics,” Essa says in one of his punchlines.

Before pursuing acting as a profession, Essa practiced medicine. He also grew up in a politically conscious family run by activists from the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal.

As with Essa, the South African brand of comedy draws on the country’s tumultuous and racial past. This trend has seen the post-apartheid comedy scene galvanize around the country’s complex identity politics.

Pioneers such as David Kau, Kagiso Lediga, Joey Rasdien and Ronnie Modimola continued to develop it beyond stand-up and into various mainstream television formats, including the Pure Monate Show.

personal touch

But Essa’s generation has taken over to add an extra layer where realpolitik coexists with personal stories. At its core, this is tied to a prevailing storm of global themes such as gender inequality, cancel culture, and mental well-being, among others.

At Monday Comedy Nights, the extension of this zeitgeist also manifests itself through a slew of female comics whose routines chronicle how they navigate comedy and the world at large.

The life of a comic is perpetually centered on performance. Between crafting material in small clubs and large arenas, the impulse is to connect with a reciprocal audience whose energy determines whether a joke lands or not.

In South Africa, the years 2020 and 2021 have upset this ritual between comics and the public because of the Covid pandemic which has seen many rooms closed.

The entire industry – made up of talent and promoters – was in freefall due to strict lockdowns. But following the eased restrictions in 2022, the industry is rebuilding from the ground up.

Versatility

Like most artists who generate hype with an online presence in the name of creating a personal brand, comics are also cross-platform creatures. This trait inevitably peaked during the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns.

The result? They created podcasts and Youtube channels to maintain some semblance of activity and entertain their captive audience.

This is the case of Essa, which started with simple social media like Facebook and Instagram, then moved on to YouTube and more recently to Tik Tok.

“Ten or 20 years ago, comedians focused on other forms of media to get their name out there,” he says, adding that comics these days “live in a time when people are most distracted, then you have to be in front of them all the time.” time.”

Comedy providers can fall into a situation where they perform 24/7, which becomes problematic in the long run.

“Is it sustainable as a long-term way of life? You see a lot of people coming out of the ‘influence sausage factory’ background quite damaged,” says cultural commentator Andrew Miller.

“The challenge for all types of creatives and for comics is that your life becomes the performance if you’re going to do online, offline, reality TV, etc.”

In the wings

Struggling to find its bearings, the business of laughter owes a lot to the work done behind the scenes.

Monday Comedy Night is one such event where the organizational aspects such as advertising and reservations are handled by the duo Gavin Kelly and Emile Alexander. Both believe that culture must be kept alive at all costs.

“We’re literally building the industry with our bare hands right now,” Kelly told the Africa Calling podcast.

As the local comedy ecosystem prepares to wake up from a two-year slumber, every part of the machinery, from comics to audiences and organizers, agrees the scene is alive and well.

We still laugh.

This was originally heard on RFI’s Africa Calling podcast.

About Mitchel McMillan

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