When people here ask me what I’m studying in the United States and I say “the history of humor and satire in South Africa,” they react in a number of different ways. Some—usually, in my experience, non-South Africans—comment awkwardly and gravely that it’s quite a specialized topic; some, like the very Afrikaans proprietor of my guesthouse in Johannesburg—who immediately thereafter pulled out her phone to show me a video of Leon Schuster’s tokoloshe prank—marvel at my choice and want to know more about what brought me to my topic. Oftentimes, the conversation drifts further towards abstraction than what I’m entirely comfortable with. People here acknowledge that South Africans love to laugh—and make no mistake, this is encouraging—but the idea that laughter is a valid area of study is novel, inspiring questions in people that they may never before have considered: what is laughter, anyway? What can it do for a person, or a group of people, or a country, at a certain moment in time? Do foreigners find South African humor funny, or does it strike outsiders as parochial and esoteric?
I spent most of last week in the picture-perfect little city of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape attending the National Arts Festival, which in my opinion ought to be a bucket-list item for anyone in the world who’s interested in the performing arts. The sheer number of different performances, from jazz to dance to serious theatre and stand-up comedy is positively dizzying. You could literally spend every day for eleven days sprinting from school gymnasium to church hall from 10:00 A.M. to midnight without a break, and never see the same performance twice. Someone could write a fine journal article or even a dissertation about what it means for the National Arts Festival to be in Grahamstown—which was built under bloody circumstances following the dispossession of the local Xhosa-speaking population, with its grand Anglican cathedral and huge stock of English-style boarding schools with manicured lawns. But that’s not my intention in this particular post. What I want to do here, having seen about fifteen different comedy show over the past week, is record some observations about my positionality and the significance (or insignificance) of humor at the current moment in South Africa, as a necessary preface to my further work this summer. Earlier I said that often discussions of humor tend more towards abstraction than I like, and it’s true. I’m not embarking on this project to confirm or debunk Aristotle or Freud or Bakhtin or any of the other great scholars who sought to answer the question of why humans laugh. I’m not there yet, and probably will not be for a long time. But as a white, heterosexual male born in the United States and seeking to position myself as an authority on South African history in general and the history of humor in particular, it’s vital for me to take stock of my position and my internal biases.
Stand-up comedy is a good place to begin to do this, since oftentimes one’s own biases and presumed position are unexpectedly exploited for comedic effect. What comedians call “audience work” consists of asking questions and making assumptions about people who would probably rather be left alone, but who invite being called out by sitting in the front few rows of the venue. Like much of the comedy I witnessed, audience work often succeeds when the comedian makes extravagant assumptions about the person being called out—assumptions far beyond what is empirically obvious to the performer but often, through the magic of stereotype, assumptions latent in the minds of the other audience members.
To cite an example from my own experience, a comedian (in this case Rob van Vuuren) sees a white couple near the front and asks where the man is from; when he answers “East London” (a medium-sized city in the Eastern Cape), the comedian remarks to uproarious applause that the woman next to him must be his sister. Now, the comedian doesn’t literally believe the man is in an incestuous relationship, but the joke lands because the audience recognizes East London as a boring, peripheral place where the implication of inbreeding serves to underscore that peripherality. It’s also perhaps significant that the objects of the joke were white; as an American I’m familiar with the trope that poor whites from the backwoods are incestuous, and just as in America I doubt whether the same logical jumps could be made if the subjects of van Vuuren’s attention were black.
One of the things that fascinates me about humor is the way it allows the ordinarily inexpressible to be made explicit. Outside a comedic context, the idea that white people from East London are probably in bed with their siblings could be considered mean-spirited, classist, and perhaps even racist. Indeed, part of the humor comes from the gravity of the charge: how many of us, in our ordinary lives, have accused total strangers of inbreeding? But because the ludic nature of stand-up comedy allows stereotypes to be discussed explicitly—often by performers who are themselves the objects of such stereotypes—it creates space that can be used to subvert or reinforce prejudice.
We must be careful here, however. The open-ended and audience-dependent nature of stand up comedy can make it dangerous to interpret from afar. Mojak Lehoko, a young black comedian from Katlehong (a township south of Johannesburg), asserts at the beginning of his show Rewriting History that he doesn’t want “the land” back, delving into stormy waters—the emotive politics of South African land reform. Citing his lack of agricultural expertise, Lehoko says he wants a business that cannot fail no matter how incompetent he is, like a K.F.C. franchise in Soweto. The audience laughs because Lehoko seems here to confirm a stereotype about black South Africans’ love for chicken. But is the laughter as simple as that? Are black members of the audience laughing because the statement is true or because it is ridiculous? Is it a laugh of pleasure or of pain? Are other members of the audience laughing because, as a black performer, Lehoko has given them permission to laugh at what otherwise might be considered a racist assumption? Very possibly some members of the audience are getting a kick out of having their prejudices confirmed. At the same time, though, the absurdity of the whole situation can elicit its own laughter. One of the remarkable things about laughter for me is the way it serves as the common physical manifestation of multiple emotional and cognitive responses. For the few seconds that an audience laughs about incest in East London, or fried chicken franchises as a form of reparation, the stereotype in question seems to hang in the air, both true and untrue—real and ridiculous—at the same time. Jokes that strike so close to the bone—that allude to real, raw social issues—defy straightforward interpretation.
Such jokes might appear either liberating or oppressive, depending on the context and depending on the eye of the beholder—indeed, one can laugh at those laughing at a joke when the joke is so obviously awful. But regardless of what a joke “means,” I want to argue that when it “lands” a liminal space opens where the commonplace is rendered absurd and multiple interpretations are possible simultaneously. Relatively safe discursive space appears in a way that rarely seems to happen in the course of more serious discussion. Inhibitions are lowered, and suddenly thinking about social problems and prejudices becomes pleasurable instead of frightening. In a country like South Africa, where social inequality and cultural stereotypes dominate so much of the subtext of everyday life, comedy can grapple more directly with certain issues than other forms of discourse. Yet the same foundation of playfulness that facilitates such frank discussion also acts as a limitation on that discussion: how can play be play if it has real consequences?
One of the key challenges of studying humor consists in recognizing its limitations, and those of one’s own interpretive power. As a white American with fairly extensive knowledge of South African popular culture, slang, and current affairs, at the Grahamstown Festival I found myself in an awkward position of privilege—laughing at jokes whose punchlines I understood, yet free of the complexities of actually being South African. At Loyiso Madinga and Schalk Bezuidenhout’s excellent show, Broken English, I audibly laughed at a reference to the Pure Monate Show, a television sketch show that aired from 2003 to 2004 and helped launch the careers of many well-known South African comedians. Madinga noticed my laughter and remarked that he had never seen that joke elicit such a response from a white person. He asked me about it onstage, and I was forced to come clean: when I admitted I was from America he (along with the rest of the audience) was understandably confused. He had interpreted my laughter as that of a white South African, and while the revelation that I was foreign served to prove his point that white people did not watch the Pure Monate Show, when other comedians learned that I was American, some felt compelled to explain certain jokes to me that, as an avid follower of South African news, I already understood. Of course, in the age of Donald Trump the knowledge that I was American could also draw a different kind of attention from comedians; both Rob van Vuuren and Conrad Koch called me a refugee and made jokes about “getting over the wall” to arrive in South Africa.
Given the uniqueness of my position, why should anyone trust what I say about South African humor? As far as the Grahamstown festival is concerned, I can at least say that I was present in the moment, able to gauge both my own reactions and those of the audience around me. However, as I continue this week with my archival investigations at the National Library of South Africa in Cape Town, I am reminded of the difficulty of engaging with historical humor. Though the words may be written in the pages of a newspaper or in the fragile leaves of a stage play manuscript, comedy is about so much more than printed text. Context and delivery are absolutely crucial to understanding humor, and the specific details of how and why certain people laughed at certain things almost a century ago are, to a certain extent at least, lost forever. At the same time, however, I believe the deep contextual work that is the historian’s stock-in-trade can allow us to make valuable inferences about the laughter of the past. My position as an outsider in South African society will require me to interrogate my own reactions constantly, yet it also affords me a unique vantage point outside that milieu. Time will tell whether my efforts are successful, but I leave Grahamstown confident in the historical importance of South African humor and—quite frankly—in awe of the talented comedians who made my sojourn at the National Arts Festival so very rewarding.