I didn’t receive that particular memo, but I believe comedians telling actual jokes went out of fashion some time around 1992.
After that, observational humour became the thing. “Did you ever notice…” followed by a series of riffs on relatively funny aspects of everyday life that the comedian has noticed.
That’s stand-up comedy today. One man in a blazer and jeans wreathed in a follow spot chatting about some peculiar things he’s noticed.
Make no mistake, that can ridiculously funny. But there is a forgotten style of comedy, one that started going out of style around the time Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David began observing things.
I know, I know. So unhip. It makes you think of Liza Minelli, Fred Astaire, Nataniel and Rocco de Villiers.
But the other night I watched a cabaret show so funny that tears of mirth were squirting out of my eyes like I had hypodermic syringes in there.
The show was Completely Nuts with Gino Fabbri. And fashionable or not, cabaret or one-man show, song-and-dance, whatever you want to call it, it was complex, layered, edgy, intelligent and as entertaining as anything in South African comedy today. It was also pretty silly. Intelligent low-brow, if there is such a thing.
The show is a one-hander, starring unheralded triple threat Mr Fabbri playing a series of characters in sketches of about 20 minutes each, featuring impressions, songs, pastiche and that forgotten part of the comedian’s art, jokes.
Ask any comedian to tell you a joke these days and he or she will say, “I don’t really tell jokes”, which has always struck me as odd. It’s almost like they feel jokes are beneath them.
Not Gino Fabbri. On Wednesday night, in the guise of coloured hustler and booze enthusiast Virgil September, he told a joke that had multiple layers, phases and levels of meaning. It lasted a quarter of an hour. It was poignant and philosophical but ultimately unpretentious, a bit crass and fuckin’ hilarious.
You could sense the audience’s unease when Fabbri kicked off the show as Latin lover Minuto Peniso – wearing a wig, a pair of Spanish dancer’s pants and a sock in his underpants.
“Is this what it’s going to be?” you could feel people asking themselves. And the answer is yes. That is how it was going to be. A man wearing various wigs telling risque, borderline politically incorrect jokes.
But that is a brave thing to do. To not only embrace a non-hipster art form (Fabbri will not be hosting the Daily Show any time soon), but to push the boat out, to skirt the edge of race, social and gender politics with it.
The minute Fabbri appears in his coloured character, the audience of Joburg professionals squirms visibly. If this isn’t blackface, then it’s a close philosophical cousin.
But it soon becomes clear that we are in good hands. Fabbri – and producer/manager and writing partner Gary Hemmings – are every bit as politically aware as more widely known purveyors of race charicature like Conrad Koch or Nick Rabinowitz, say.
This isn’t some reactionary, neo-racist nudge-nudge show. It’s sophisticated, intellectually stimulating cabaret posing as the dumbest, most wet-yourself-funny slapstick you’ve ever seen.
The characters are not equally deep. Minuto Peniso is played as a cliche, but Virgil September and Ruan Hollywood are fully realised, so that their human frailties have us empathising as much as pissing ourselves.
What starts out as an essentialist generalisation becomes a highly specific encounter with a unique character. Once Fabbri has efficiently introduced us to his characters, he unlocks their comedic potential and sets them free.
There are apparently five shows’ worth of material in the Hemmings/Fabbri arsenal, comprising a few dozen characters. For each performance they select the bits they think will work best. It’s a modular format that has worked spectacularly in their rural stronghold of Port Elizabeth, where their Centrestage Productions brand is omnipotent.
But with this foray up to Johannesburg, they are breaking out of the regional and corporate market. They played to full houses every night of their Gauteng run.
That they played at various Barnyard Theatres in their Gauteng season is instructive. This is mainstream theatre, designed to fill venues, to entertain hundreds at a time and to make money.
Gino Fabbri is a welcome addition to the SA theatre scene – though he has actually been doing this for ten years already. Before that he was drummer for internationally successful SA rock band Eminent Child.
The drumming surfaces at a couple of junctures within the show – during the Evolution Of Drums coda and during Ruan Hollywood’s performance of Toast. Here Ruan delivers a percussion solo playing a toaster with a fork. It’s also the highlight of the show.
Lowlights are there too. There’s an Indian character that failed to blow minds. the Latin lover was derivative and indeed much of the material is. Not for these guys the angst over stealing jokes. Probably most of the jokes are stolen from somewhere. Or adapted. Reinterpreted. Localised.
And this is what comedy always was, before stand-up happened. Comedy was men telling jokes they’d picked up from other men over the years. In the same way as you get rock, folk and jazz standards in music, you also get comedy standards. These are classic, much-loved jokes you’ve heard half a dozen times before but you don’t mind hearing again, told properly.
And tomorrow, around the water cooler at work, you’re going to have a go at a couple of those jokes yourself, and butcher them to pieces.
Fabbri and Hemmings – who also write much of their own material – are keeping this joke-telling tradition alive. That thing of ordinary people telling each other jokes. Somehow this has fallen away a bit as stand-up got more popular.
It’s almost like we decided telling funny stories was something best left to the professionals. But there is something incredibly democratic about hearing a well-told joke about a oke kakking in his bed and thinking, “I’m going to tell someone that joke tomorrow.”
This is contemporary cabaret in the old-school style. Okes making jokes. Singing songs, being risque. But it’s deceptively well calculated. It toes the line of multicultural diplomacy without labouring the issue.
And ultimately it is funny as hell. There’s a point, as tears of hilarity pour out of your face during a skit by a man pretending to be a German scientist, where you wonder, “What is the political correctness on this?” and then you realise, that actually you don’t care. Fuck it. Let’s just maar laugh.