The Collaborators

Despite being populated by independent stand-up artists, the vibrant SA comedy scene is rife with collaboration. That has been the key to its success.

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This piece first appeared in Wanted magazine

By Hagen Engler

The Late Nite News brainstorm room at the Diprente offices in Braamfontein is an intense place. In an operation this size, the writers, producers, directors and the actors are often the same people. And they are all passionately engaged in making an insightful, comedic comment on South Africa’s freakish current affairs.

The Emmy-nominated show is nothing if not topical, so it works on a super-short production cycle. Friday is for viewing the archive of current news clips and planning sketches, satirical news stories and the like. Then scripts are written over the weekend to be shot on the Monday for broadcast on the Wednesday.

This Friday morning, content producer Simo Mngomeni is contextualising the clips from his seemingly encyclopaedic current affairs knowledge while the team feels out the material. Key steps are determining where LNN stands on particular issues, and then working out where the funny lies in each particular story.

“What are we saying?” is a common question.

Show frontman, the eponymous Loyiso Gola of Late Nite News With Loyiso Gola fame, is indeed a dominant figure. He stands riffing, recounting some happenings during the run of his one-man show in Cape Town, and opinionising from his considerable height. He is directly involved in deciding what he will or will not say on screen.

“Sometimes I have to veto,” Gola says later. “I have to say, ‘Those words are not coming out of my mouth’. But that doesn’t happen often.”

Show producer and director Kagiso Lediga is more relaxed, but keeps up a relentless volley of one-liners, trying out jokes and angles.

“Corruption by itself isn’t funny” is the consensus, but corruption with a twist can be. A civil servant who allegedly embezzled department funds, then made a sex tape with the office video camera is looking like a promising topic this week.

Likewise the EFF and their ongoing parliamentary squabbles. “Julius is the gift that keeps on giving,” Lediga remarks.

At one point the DA’s provisional spy tapes victory looks like a banker, thanks to leader Helen Zille’s Lion King pose with the evidence bag on the steps of the North Gauteng High Court.

But gradually it becomes clear that the week’s abortive coup in Lesotho is the way forward for LNN. Someone who’s been to Lesotho reports that, “It’s just guys chilling.” And so gradually an angle emerges.

It’s something to do with Lesotho being too irredeemably small time and laidback to ever organise a proper coup. Guys start riffing on that, and soon things escalate. “Eish. We’re going in hard on Lesotho this week,” becomes the consensus.

This morning’s brainstorm also involves SA Comedy Newcomer of the Year Loyiso Madinga. At stages it devolves into a total bunfight, with seven people screaming at each other in mirth.

Then Lediga – like Gola another SA Comics Choice laureate – drops a Lesotho one-liner about baked beans and the wheels fall off completely. There’s about 60 seconds of helpless laggies fits. Yip, Lesotho’s the one.

Whiteboard notes are made about who will be writing what. And with that, another wicked two hours of LNN brainstorming comes to an end.

This is collaborative comedy at its most intense. But comedic teamwork is evident all over the SA comedy scene.

“Comedy is at its best when it’s collaborative,” notes Gola. “That’s how it works worldwide.”

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(From left) Loyiso Gola, Deep Fried Man, David Kibuuka, John Vlismas, Kagiso Lediga. Photo: Aubrey Jonsson

He describes how stand-up comics are constantly watching each other’s routines at shows and then offering advice on how to improve their bits. “I’ve given people jokes before. If it’s something that’ll go well with one of their other jokes.”

It’s a paradox that stand-up comedy, which seems such an individual, ego-driven pursuit, actually thrives on community and networking.

“Comics need each other,” says musical comedian Deep Fried Man. “The way a stand-up gig is structured means you can’t do it alone. We generally only do about 7-15 minutes of material. That’s not enough to sustain a whole night, so you need to collaborate. On every comedy night there are different roles. You need a headliner, an opening act and an open-mic slot.”

John Vlismas, one of the architects of the modern SA comedy scene, explains how this collaboration even crosses international borders. “This year at Toronto’s Comedy Festival I went over with Mpho (Mpho “Popps” Modikoane). Popps didn’t have a slot, but (New Zealand comic) Jarred Christmas and I each had 15-minute slots. So we agreed to each give up five minutes of our slot, so Mpho could get 10. We cleared it with management, and then we rocked.”

These alliances will leads to reciprocal gigs in London, Joburg, and perhaps back in Toronto next year.

Gola – already a veteran of a few trips to New York – knows this kind of networking is what makes the comedy world go round. “A guy you met at one show will call you up and get you on stage,” says Gola. “Later you get him on stage. That’s how comedy works.”

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the mid-Nineties, before LNN, before the Comics Choice Awards, before three-storey billboards on the M1, the SA comedy “industry” consisted of about five white guys.

SA had enjoyed a brief flowering of comedy in the Seventies, when the hotel cocktail-bar circuit thrived, and Biltong And Potroast was an early TV staple. Subsequently the likes of Mel Miller, Joe Parker, Casper de Vries and Mark Banks kept the comedy flag flying, such as it was.

Then, around 1995, John Vlismas and his mates Alyn Adams and the late Shaun Griggs started holding a few improv and open-mic comedy nights in Durban. The response was favourable – not least because the three of them had irresistible, sparkling wit and an iconoclastic attitude bolstered by the freedom of a democratic South Africa.

They started the Durban Poison collective and began touring the country. Within a few years they’d moved to Joburg, where they became mainstays at Hysterix in Randburg, SA’s “first purpose-built comedy club”. That folded, but Vlismas then began hosting Da Comedy Underground – a loose, Sunday-night comedy show beneath the Melville Cool Runnings that become a key driver of the scene.

International stars like Chris Rock and Pauly Shore played the Underground, but its greatest contribution was the sheer number of SA comics that passed through its dingy doorway. Sets were often impossibly short, and dozens of established and aspiring comedians might perform in a night. Between sets, comics lurked backstage smoking cigarettes, trading jokes and analysing each other’s material.

Today Vlismas, through his Whacked company, manages talent, produces TV and puts on several comedy shows a year, including the Savanna Comics Choice Awards. This ambitious awards show sees comics honoured by their peers and is also a surreal variety spectacular starring the industry’s finest.

“In a lot of ways, the industry was founded on collaboration,” says Vlismas. “And we keep collaborating. At the Comics Choice Awards, for instance, even though I’m a producer, it’s not like I write the show. We ask comics to submit ideas for sketches and then they perform them. All we’ve done is build a jungle gym that everybody can play on.”

Soon after Vlismas and co. got going in Durban, the Cape Town comedy scene blew up.

Ironically for a city often derided as an outpost of whiteness, many of South Africa’s finest black comics have come out of Cape Town. David Kau made his first brave steps into the comedy limelight as the only black face among 44 comedians at the 1998 Smirnoff Comedy Festival in Cape Town.

Before then, Marc Lottering was already putting on his unique one-man shows. With Stuart Taylor and Mark Sampson, he founded The Cape Comedy Collective, at the Armchair theatre in Observatory, which also provided a platform for many emerging comics. Their Comedy Lab workshops also helped many young comics hone their skills.

Kagiso Lediga, another comedic product of the Cape Town scene, came up alongside Kau and the likes of Tshepo Mogale, Riaad Moosa, Kurt Schoonraad and Chris McEvoy.

Quite a bit younger than these guys, but no less enthusiastic, was a 16-year-old prodigy named Loyiso Gola. He used to hang out at comedy nights, soaking up experience and crafting his uniquely abrasive but lovable stage persona.

Lediga recalls a moment when Gola’s mom approached the older comics and asked them to stop letting Loyiso on stage. He was spending all his free time in comedy clubs, and was in danger of failing standard-nine maths!

Friendships forged on the Cape scene saw the launch in 2003 of SABC TV’s seminal Pure Monate Show. By now many of the crew were in Joburg and this In Living Color-esque vernacular sketch show revolutionised SA comedy. Its multilingual, authentic material earned a large township following and helped drive the racial transformation of comedy, which today is almost complete.

Pure Monate was directed by John Barker and executive produced by Lediga. It starred Lediga, Kau, Gola, Moosa, Cokey Falkow, Jason Cope, Joey Rasdien, Ronnie Modimola and David Kibuuka, making it in some ways the Wu Tang Clan of South African comedy.

Like the Wu, PMS members went on to launch their own projects. Unlike the Wu, PMS folded – lasting only two hilarious seasons.

The collaborative ethic that helped relaunch SA comedy in the 90s and early 2000s is still alive and well, and the relationships built along the way are what keeps the scene strong. This infectious spirit has also captured the popular imagination, to the point where comedy is now an established part of South African culture.

“It’s growing, hey,” notes Lediga of South African comedy. “Everybody’s doing it now. And they’re good! I was judging a company stand-up show the other day and the guys were amazing. Amateurs!”

As PMS came to an end, David Kau – possibly the Method Man of the Pure Monate Wu Tang – launched the Blacks Only Comedy Show. This was a massively successful live show, mainly showcasing black comics, with lots of vernac material. The show has run for more than a decade, happening several times a year in cities across the country.

It has inspired similar comedy collabs like 99% Zulu Comedy, 99% Sotho Comedy and of course 99% Xhosa comedy.

The Pure Monate RZA meanwhile, aka Kagiso Lediga, had an idea for another show…

Loyiso Gola had an idea too. His was for a satirical political commentary show in a similar vein to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Kagiso wanted something with more sketches – and was considering Riaad Moosa to host it.

Then Gola and Lediga got talking and the idea for LNN began taking shape – a combination of political commentary and topical sketches. A pilot was shown to to immediate acclaim.

The show was picked up! But other elements still needed to fall into place. One of these was the role of David Kibuuka as the show’s roving reporter. Kibuuka had to be wooed by Lediga and Gola.

“It was classic, recalls Kagiso. We always joke about what white tastes David has, so we used that when we had to convince him to join LNN. We sent him this gift pack of Bon Jovi albums and merchandise. I don’t think it was even the originals. It was like A Tribute To Bon Jovi.”

This proved the clincher, and today Kibuuka is a star. His catchphrase, “It’s shit here, Loy” is a staple, ideally with him standing in front of a pic of a bland parking garage in Ferguson, Missouri.

Back in the LNN production trenches, it’s Monday morning. The scripts having been written on the weekend, Monday allows a couple of hours for read-through and tweaking, before shooting. This morning, time is tight.

Loyiso and Kibuuka are leaving for New York at 2pm. Deep Fried Man’s musical guests, Shoowop Shop, have to leave at noon. Kagiso has to leave to do some personal admin, so content producer Karabo Lediga will direct.

It’s interesting to witness the Gola-Kibuuka chemistry in the “live crossing”. During studio filming, the two are placed barely two metres apart, Loyiso at his desk, and Dave in front of his green screen, delivering their lines off the teleprompter and bellowing as if they’re half a planet apart.

The show comes together remarkably painlessly. The Shoowop Shop and Deep Fried Man nail their song in two takes, while Loy and Dave do likewise. Then they beetle off. Dave and Loy to play New York, Kagiso to sign some papers.

“That’s not even a busy day,” says Kagiso. “The worst are when there are news developments over the weekend and we have to rewrite scripts from scratch on the Monday.”

“The most important part of LNN was getting the tone right,” says Gola. “Even if we were criticising government, we didn’t want to be seen as whining. It all came together when we came up with the morale index. That crystallised the fact that we were speaking with the interests of the country at heart.”

It’s interesting that despite the unbridled, uncensored, sometimes unhinged political satire of LNN, it’s hard to identify a party-political slant.

The comedy is primary, even if it’s comedy that makes you think.

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Photo: Aubrey Jonsson

Later, at the Jolly Roger in Parkhurst, Deep Fried Man takes a call from his agent. His hanging-out-in-pubs time is in short supply. He recently did 14 comedy gigs in a week. During his run at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown he did 28 shows. He’s busy.

His musical contribution to LNN has done his career no harm. But he’s conscious that all comedy success comes from building strong collaborative relationships with his fellow comics. “We don’t succeed at each other’s expense. We succeed together.”

“Comedy is like a brotherhood. We’ve got each other’s backs. Sure there’s politics and bitching, but when it comes down to it, we’re there for each other.”

This piece first appeared in Wanted Magazine.

Writer, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach. I've been involved in 30+ book projects - for myself and for clients, partners and colleagues. Experience in marketing, PR, advertising, television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Former editor of FHM magazine. Currently Director, Editorial and Content at Ogilvy PR, Johannesburg. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). @hagenengler

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