The Great S.A. Comedy Odyssey Begins: Chester Missing, Wokpo Jensma, and the Meaning of Laughter

i toss my head off
i cry with agony
that they may laugh
but they only stare

i show them my bum
they still stare
i tell them a joke
they stare

ah, i get it
i must be their judge

—Wokpo Jensma

I found this poem in the basement of the Wits Art Museum one Saturday morning a few weeks ago. It stopped me dead in my tracks. The man who wrote it, Wokpo Jensma, is one of the great enigmas of South African cultural history. Born in 1939 in the Eastern Cape, he studied at two of South Africa’s leading Afrikaans universities and rose to artistic prominence in the 1960s. He married across the color line in Botswana and suffered from schizophrenia. In 1993, according to the sources I could find, he “disappeared.”

Jensma wrote this poem in 1972 at the height of apartheid’s golden years, when the economy was booming and white South Africa seemed invincible. What does it mean? A person, stripped naked in an earlier stanza by a group known only as “they,” interprets this as a humiliation, despite feeling “no shame, no cold.” Trying to play along with this abasement, the narrator tries all kinds of tactics to make the crowd laugh, but they only stare. “Ah, i get it,” the person finally concludes, evoking the language of jokes, “i must be their judge.”

A view of the stage at Blacks Only, April 6th, 2019. It was a sold-out show.

I’m thinking about this in the context of a comedy show I saw later that day, the Blacks Only Comedy Tour, at the massive Italian-ish resort monstrosity Emperor’s Palace, near O. R. Tambo International Airport. There’s a lot I could say about this show. The tickets were expensive and I didn’t like the venue at all: I was seated almost at the back of an enormous convention center ballroom. It was a sold-out show: 3,500 people in stackable plastic chairs, the vast majority of whom were seated on the same plane. If it wasn’t for the six big screens throughout the room I wouldn’t have seen a damn thing.

The comedy, though, was fantastic. The lineup was a mix of comedians I had seen before, comedians I knew of but hadn’t seen, and comedians I’d never heard of before. I had seen Mojak Lehoko, for example, in Grahamstown back in 2017, where he put on a terrific show about South African history involving flipchart paper (this was also where I saw Conrad Koch, the man behind the inimitable puppet phenomenon Chester Missing, for the first time). David Kau was the host of the night’s events, a very famous guy (125,000 Facebook fans), whom I’d never had the chance to see before. Thabiso Mhlongo I’d seen just last week at Parker’s Comedy and Jive in Fourways, and I remembered Suhayl Essa’s performance at Poppy’s restaurant in Melville from my last visit to South Africa. Still, comedians like Mo Mothebe, Abuti Lolo, and Q Dube, were totally new to me (Celeste Ntuli, a big name I haven’t seen in person, was also in the lineup, but I had to leave before she came on).

People often ask me what sets South African comedy apart from comedy in America or in other countries, and I never feel like I have a satisfying answer. Laughter is one of the things that unites us as a species; almost everyone, the world over, likes to laugh, even if they have different ideas and theories about what laughing means. And of course laughing never means just one thing: it usually means many different things all at once. But if I say that South African humour (or French or women’s or queer humour, for that matter, is [blank]), I immediately pigeonhole that tradition in a way that can never stand up to scrutiny.

Maybe my stance will change by the end of my travels here, but for right now all I feel I can say is that South African comedy is special because it’s from South Africa. First and foremost, that means an overwhelming concern with diversity. Diversity of race, diversity of language, diversity of culture; diversity of truths, even, in an era of fake news. South Africa’s incredible diversity lends itself easily and uneasily to the absurd. This, after all, is a country where so many seemingly unreconcilable things coexist together in one place. It’s a country where some of the most crushing poverty in the world exists cheek-by-jowl with some of the most ostentatious wealth, and where former oppressors and formerly oppressed are expected to live together in harmony. It’s a country where the ruling party officially espouses socialist rhetoric while bolstering one of the most monopolistic and influential corporate regimes in the world. By laughing about it, South Africans name that absurdity and make it less powerful, less intimidating.

Comedian Sne Dladla performs at the Protea Hotel Fire and Ice, Johannesburg, April 27th, 2019

When people are laughing, their guard is down, after all, and they’re prepared to hear things they would avoid otherwise. Yet humour also has limits. To paraphrase the puppet Chester Missing, after he goaded his ventriloquist (the only white comic in the line-up) to apologise to the audience for apartheid, “You see that? Absolutely fokol has changed.” Naming absurdity disarms it for a while, but doesn’t resolve it.

Conrad Koch, who holds a master’s in sociology, received a raucous reception from the overwhelmingly black audience (David Kau opened the show with a house-wide racial census, after all, asking each of the four apartheid-era racial groups in the audience to cheer and be counted). Koch is almost certainly the most influential and politically relevant ventriloquist in the world—Chester Missing is a household name with a prime-time network TV show—but even as I write it I realise the irony there. South Africa, as anyone will tell you, is full of “ventriloquists”: “white monopoly capital,” “Gupta puppets,” “tenderpreneurs,” and “Stratcom spies” are just a few of the terms used in everyday language to describe people who are not acting straightforwardly, but on behalf of more sinister forces. Years ago, Chester Missing himself used to be visibly black or Coloured, creating an explicitly racialized puppet/puppeteer dynamic that brought questions about South African whiteness and the post-1994 status quo to the forefront of Koch’s act.

This is not to say that all of South Africa’s problems fall along tidy racial lines; far from it. But a key unresolved tension in Koch’s act is the fact that his satirical attacks on South African injustice cannot negate the facts of his privilege, any more than the audience’s laughter at these injustices can assuage their pain or change their position in the broader society.

We find the same tension in Jensma’s poem. Jensma’s narrator wants to please the people watching him, perhaps hoping that doing so will cause their abasement to end. Yet their desires are mismatched; the crowd wants a “judge.” And this is, in many ways, the dilemma of comedy: the audience usually wants both a judge and a jester. A judge to recognise and validate pains and difficulties that too often go unacknowledged, and a jester to deflate that pain and frustration with jokes. Nothing is resolved, but we’re left still wanting more. Like moths to a porchlight, the dance continues. And in a country where so much else seems unresolved, it seems appropriate that stand-up comedy would be so popular.

That’s my initial two cents, anyway. Stay tuned as I (hopefully) do a better job of updating this blog in future. I’m only at the beginning of what I hope to be a great adventure.