South African comedy

Sitting in a Jo’berg deli, eating the entire Jewish breakfast paraphernalia while simultaneously chain-smoking, is one of South Africa’s longest standing comics. His VW parked out side has “Mel Miller Live and Gatvol” painted down the side. “Gatvol” means “pissed off” in Afrikaans. At 50 he still does 200 gigs a year. He’s a big guy. “You and me” he says to another fatttie in the audience “have fought anorexia and won”. And since the early 1960’s this ex-folk singer has been lumbering onto South African stages and going on the attack.

“In the late eighties at a gig here in Jo’berg I did a routine about why the President should give the cabinet some spliffs to calm them down. Afterwards in the car park four heavies jumped me, took me to the police station in Hillbrow and beat the shit out of me. I was very anti-government. I still am. Then they said I was a communist. Now I say something against the government, I’m a racist”.

With his own roly poly charm he’s has the air of a genuine foot stamper. No breast beating, no mission, no Bernard Manning-like money spinning, niche carving, cynical defiance of the Aunt Sally of political correctness. Merely some pretty good jokes and a pretty bad attitude. Of the right wing in South Africa today he says, “Figure this. They’re against abortion and for the death penalty. Spoken like a true fisherman I say, throw ‘em back when they’re small and kill ‘em when they’re big”. Ouch.

Despite appearing on stage in a cardigan and doing a good impression of your strange friend’s nasty dad, he is really a child of the sixties. Being able to say what he wants matters more to him than any offence it might cause. And he’s a comic not a politician. He rails against attempts by both left and right to ban things.

“Don’t try and ban this book ‘The Pink Agenda’ because it’s anti-gay. These ideas are only dangerous if the government starts practising them. Two intellectuals and a ferret with a wooden leg would have read Salman Rushdie if they hadn’t tried to ban it.” And then apropos of nothing, “If you didn’t know Blair, from his voice you’d think he was gay”. And then he gives it to the Mbeki government for their attitude to AIDS. “If AIDS is caused by poverty then Freddie Mercury must just have schtupped poor people”. He is reminiscent of George Carlin, the original American hippy comic who made anger his trademark. Which just goes to remind one that the Americans invented stand-up comedy.

And you can see that most clearly in David Kau. At 23 he is South Africa’s “first black stand-up – “supposedly” he says a little wearily. And the comic he most admires in the world is Chris Rock. There are no role models for him in South Africa. The first stand-up gig he ever saw, he was in. He was spotted doing sketches as a drama student and he ended up at the closing gala of the Cape Town Comedy Festival in October 1999.

His mother is a prison warder and he doesn’t know his dad. Talking at the end of a long night of seemingly hundreds of comics at Cool Runnings comedy Club in Jo’berg, which felt like any of the hundreds of comedy clubs one has ever sat in from Melbourne to Los Angeles, he says rather balefully about his dad “He doesn’t exist basically”. His family has never seen him perform. And he has not yet returned to his roots in the “average, beleaguered working class town ship” in Kroonstadt a small town in the Orange Free State, to do the returning hero gig. He has always performed to mainly white audiences “Stand-up is a white form of entertainment”; he says “It’s not odd playing to a white audience because that’s where I started.”

On stage in his yellow sock hat, he has a permanently surprised look and a leonine sexiness that reminds one of his heroes, Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy. In some ways he is an American. But he has no time for their sentimentality about Africa. “Whitney comes here and talks about Africa as the motherland. Well America sure is the fatherland then. Because the USA has been fucking Africa for years.”

But for all his American style, only in crime ridden and oh so recently racially segregated South Africa is it really funny for a young black comic to say. “Any white women in the audience? I don’t want your house, your car keys, your wallets. I just want a coloured kid.” His will be a truly uncompromising career in a new country. And between David Kau and Mel Miller South Africa has finally got black and white telly. Welcome to the new South Africa. Oddly the stand-up is a bit like America.

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