Getting into stand up comedy in South Africa has never been easier. Dozens of gigs around the country will let newcomers shoot for the stars with five minutes of stage time, and even more will be glad to have you once you have already put a few months of performances under your belt.
Despite this, it can be very difficult to get your start. Knowing what to do, and how best to go about performing comedy is very different from being funny at your local braai. With this in mind, we spoke to some of South Africa’s best comedic talent, to get the advice you need to go from stuttering newcomer to the country’s next Trevor Noah.
Without a doubt, the most common thing SA’s top comics suggest is simply being on stage as much as you can. Unlike with other professions, comedy is learned by doing it, and there is little as valuable as simply getting up in front of a crowd.
SA “Comic of the year 2019” nominee Robby Collins explains, “Just get on stage. That’s where it’s at. Be as comfortable on that stage possible. A relaxed comic relaxes the audience. And when you relaxed you feel freer to say what you want to.”
He advises you get on stage as often as you can saying the new comic should be aiming for five or six gigs a week. “And play all crowds. Don’t find a gig you get comfortable at and then never play other rooms. Got to learn to speak to all people. And not just yours,” he adds.
Fellow nominee at this year’s Comics’ Choice Awards, Chris Forrest agrees saying, “The more you’re on stage, the more relaxed & confident you’ll be, which is vital for good delivery. The more you practice, the more you know what works & doesn’t work. Also, you can refine your material in terms of timing & rhythm”.
Comedy has never been more popular, and as a result, there is plenty of stand up that you as a young comedian should be watching.
Comedian and 2019 SAFTA winner for “Best comedy actor in a TV series” Hannes Brummer suggests every new comic should become a student of comedy.
“A doctor can’t practice medicine without extensive knowledge of the human body and it involves years of study and practical application to achieve the necessary qualifications. While there isn’t a UNISA course on the intricacies of comedy the same principle applies. Merely watching the newest Dave Chapelle special over and over again doesn’t count. Comedy has a wide range of styles, genres, sub-genres, timings, rhythms and audience scenarios and you really should immerse yourself as if it is an academic field of study.”
Collins adds that studying like this is a great way to stay humble and keep developing.
“Watch everyone! Not just the comics you admire but everyone who has made a career out of it. Sometimes young comics get a hot 15 and stop being students to the game. Confidence is really important but an arrogant comic loses that edge when they think they know too much. I’ve experienced that within myself and others,” he says.
Brummer insists it’s about more than just watching stand up on Netflix.
“Go to gigs, watch the performances, talk about comedy, read comedy, read about comedy, write critically (don’t just be happy with a joke the moment it is on the page) and explore a variety of sources and styles,” he says. “Your practical examinations (ie gigs) demand a logical analysis afterwards as you search for the ultimate delivery. Sometimes yóú were sh*t, not the audience, and rethinking a set serves to make you wiser on how to approach the next one.”
Understanding the industry and respecting both the craft, and the people you are working with, and for, is going to be critical if you want to build a career in stand up.
For seven-time Comics’ Choice Award nominee Alfred Adriaan this extends to everything you do.
“Be easy to work with. Be on time and professional. Be respectful of the other comedians and don’t allow yourself to get dragged into the politics of the industry,” he says.
Brummer expands the idea even further saying, “I was once told the first rule of club comedy is to tip your barman well. There’s logic to this. A happy bartender or waiter has a surprisingly good memory – he tells other patrons how much he enjoyed your set and you can be sure your drinks will be speedily served next time you pop in at the venue. It also speaks to something greater – respect for the establishment and its staff translates to a respect for the patrons, which will come through in your set.”
At the end of the day comedy is a social job, and getting along with your fellow comedians and punters is going to be essential if you want to get further than just open mics.
“Be approachable and friendly, stick to time and shut your trap when other acts are on. You’ll miss out on a lot of pearls of wisdom if other comedians don’t like you,” concludes Brummer.
Comedy is a conversation, not a monologue
Watching comedy on Netflix it’s difficult to grasp just how much subtle interaction is happening between the comedian and their audience at any given time. They aren’t just up there reciting a written soliloquy.
“Comedy is a dialogue, not a monologue, the audience needs to feel like they’re an important part of the show, a lot of comics are over-rehearsed and go through their set without adjusting to what the audience is doing,” says Forrest. “This leads to the audience feeling alienated, and feeling like it wouldn’t matter if they weren’t there. Make a connection with the audience & listen to them”.
Adriaan explains that this ability is all about paying attention, and being prepared to change yourself to make the show work.
“Be self-aware. When the audience is not laughing adapt,” he says.
Multiple comedy award winner Ebenhaezer Dibakwane says that the ability to be yourself on stage is the single most important skill if you want to stand out. Telling jokes from your own perspective and your own unique style will make you stand out from the crowd who are writing the jokes they think the audience wants to hear.
“Once you understand the concept of a joke and how to write one, it becomes about learning to be yourself again, but this time on stage,’ he says. “This takes recording, revising, reflecting and rewriting, and a lot of stage time. Know yourself and what makes you unique and bring this into your comedy. After a lot of work, this magical thing somehow becomes a part of you.”