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Laughing all the way to the bank
27 Jan 2011
Surprise Mazibila

JUST under a decade ago, South Africa’s comedy industry was a dry joke. A comic could barely make a square living and telling jokes was best enjoyed as a pastime.

The comic industry has recently seen a growth spurt with the likes of Trevor Noah leading the pack. Noah has become the epitome of a successful comic, fronting TV commercials, releasing his own DVD, pulling one-man-show gigs and hosting his own TV show.

But the industry hasn’t always been this lucrative. “It’s been difficult to support a family on a pub-club gig alone,” says veteran comic and FHM deputy editor Alyn Adams. “It’s always been a profession where you have to make your own work, and the guys who do support themselves completely from com­edy rely a lot on corporate gigs, which take a lot of diligent networking.”

Behind Noah’s Cell C ads, endorsements and the birth of his TV show, Tonight with Trevor Noah, were other comedians reaching similar milestones.

Kagiso Lediga was put on Nando’s payroll to mimic Noah’s “CEO” role for the peri-peri chicken franchise’s TV ads. Around the same time, Lediga was also blessed with a TV show titled Opening Guys on Mzansi Magic. That was the beginning of bigger and funnier things.

The joke bug also bit etv, paving a smooth path for Loyiso Gola to host his Late Night with Loyiso Gola, alongside Eugene Khoza, Riaad Moosa and Jason Cope.

Joey Rasdien was also given a TV show, Rasdien, strictly for the Afrikaans market on SABC 2.

As if there were a corporate conspiracy to bankroll comedians, Nedbank hopped onto the bandwagon and Khoza was made the face of the financial house.

It’s worth remembering the hard-working funnymen who cultivated the playing field for the new kids on our screens. Barry Hilton has been on Savanna’s TV ads for years, pushing dry jokes for the cider brand. Then there’s David Kau, who was one of the key figures on the phenomenal Pure Monate Show. The legendary show helped launch the careers of most of the industry’s who’s who, including Lediga, Gola, Rasdien, Moosa, Jason Cope, Chris Forrest and David Kibuuka, among others.

Shonisani Muleya, affectionately known as Ashifashabba, also contributed his two cents’ worth. His show, Ashifashabba, was aimed at the middle to low-end black market.

Last weekend, the first Comics Choice Awards ceremony was hosted to acknowledge the cream of the industry. “I think that comedy is becoming accessible to more South Africans and seeing the change is very rewarding,” says veteran comic and Comics Choice Awards founder John Vlismas.

Vlismas believes the industry has come a long way and he attributes this to a number of factors. “There is a lot of talent, the audience is bigger than ever and we have comics crossing into mainstream media.”

However, Adams thinks the turning point in this industry came with the dawn of democracy. “The freedom of expression that came with the Constitution in 1994 was a big part of it. For the first time, people could get on stage and say what they liked without the risk of getting arrested. That really kick-started this stand-up boom.”

Growing as it may be, Adams thinks there’s still plenty of room for the industry to develop. He compares the South African comedy industry and its First World counterparts: “There must be at least 30 comedy clubs in London, the same in New York, and a strong comedy culture in all the major cities in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia. It’s crazy that we have one club in South Africa (Parkers Comedy and Jive) and five guys who do all the TV ads.

“But it’s encouraging to see how many young and small managements are keeping gigs alive, such as Starving Comics in Cape Town, the Durban School Of Comedy, and the Nomad Comedy in Joburg, among others.

“They provide chances for the newer comics, as well as the pros who aren’t ‘mainstream’.”

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