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 encountered this poem in the basement of the Wits Art Museum one Saturday morning a few weeks ago, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I had to know more about the author of these haunting lines. It turns out that the man who wrote them, 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 made a name for himself as a poet in the 1960s. He married across the color line (in Botswana, where it was legal) and suffered from schizophrenia. In 1993, according to the sources I could find, he “disappeared.”

The words are short and simple but leave us with a powerful image. What does it mean for our narrator, the victim of the poem, to be the judge of his audience? Jensma wrote this poem in 1972, at the height of the apartheid era. The South African economy was booming and white supremacy seemed invincible. If we apply this context to the poem we might observe that systems of oppression require constant performance on the part of both torturer and victim, oppressor and oppressed. But what struck me most was an image familiar to me from watching stand-up comedy: the unspoken, inarticulate urgency of risky jokes, jokes that temporarily unmask the unpleasant realities of power. Audiences in those moments want more than just a fun night out. What do they want? It can be dangerous to ask that kind of question.

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. It was a Blacks Only Comedy Tour event, at the massive casino monstrosity called Emperor’s Palace, near Johannesburg’s main airport. The tickets were expensive and I didn’t like the venue at all: I was seated only a few rows from the very back of an enormous convention center ballroom. It was a sold-out show: 3,500 people in stackable plastic chairs on a flat convention floor. If it wasn’t for the six big screens hung from the ceiling I wouldn’t have seen a thing.

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 such-and-such, I immediately pigeonhole that tradition in a way that can never stand up to scrutiny. If comedians thought like that the world would be a much less creative place.

Maybe my stance will change by the end of my travels here, but for 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 to the absurd. After all, this is a country where so many unreconcilable things somehow manage to coexist. 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. 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 listen to things they would avoid hearing about otherwise. Yet humor also has limits. To quote Chester Missing, speaking to a hushed auditorium after goading Koch, his ventriloquist (the only white comic in the line-up) to apologise for apartheid on the spot, “You see that? Absolutely fokol has changed.” Naming absurdity disarms it for a while, but resolves nothing.

Conrad Koch holds a master’s in sociology and received a raucous reception that night (David Kau, the host, opened by taking a racial census of the audience, asking each of the four apartheid-era racial groups in the audience to cheer and be counted—probably 95% of the audience was black). Koch is almost certainly the most politically relevant ventriloquist in the world—Chester Missing is a household name with a prime-time network TV show and almost 400,000 Twitter followers. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that South Africans have an appetite for ventriloquism. After all, as anyone will tell you, the place 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. Eventually Koch decided to turn Chester white, to avoid the charge that he was indulging in blackface. Judging by the audience’s laughter at Emperor’s Palace, his fanbase seems to have accepted this.

Koch uses his “whitened” puppet to call attention to the inadequacy of his work. He leans in to the fact that his satirical attacks on South African injustice do not negate his privilege as a white performer, any more than his audience’s laughter can assuage their pain over continuing injustices or alter their position in the society. The depth and rawness of South Africa’s historical wounds makes for an intensely existential comedy. The louder the laughter, the sharper the pain; pain which is no less necessary for being futile.

We find the same paradox in Jensma’s poem. His narrator wants to please the people watching, perhaps hoping that doing so will cause his 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 pass judgement, and a jester to reassure it that there are no consequences; comedy demands recognition, but not repentance. Like moths to a porchlight, the dance continues. Living in a country where so much seems unresolved, it seems fitting that South Africans would be more comfortable than most with loose ends.

Laughing in Grahamstown: Participant Observation and South African Comedy

The bucolic surroundings of the Albany Bowling Club, one of the main comedy venues at the Festival.

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.

The Grahamstown festival is enormous. Here are some posters slung across the atrium of the 1820 Setters National Monument (like I said, one could write an article…)

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.

Grahamstown is a gorgeous little place to be sure, but screams “colonial” from every cobblestone and charming pub

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?

The town is rather pretty from above as well. This was taken from the Settlers’ Monument as well.

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.

The Cost of Interdisciplinarity: Reflections on the Need for Cultural Criticism in DH

What is the purpose of good teaching? What is the purpose of good scholarship? I have to confess that as I read yet another set of readings focused on the radical promise of digital humanities, I found myself wondering again about the position of “DH” vis a vis other academic institutions, and whether the current state of the discourse is as insular as the readings suggest. What is it about the digital that invites such fetishism, from both critics and allies? To echo Alan Liu and William G. Thomas III in their discussion of digital humanities “centers” at universities, the construction of digital humanities as a discipline outside “traditional” academic departments feels increasingly pernicious to me, otherizing and exoticizing what should be firmly in the main stream of humanities discourse.

This week I began to read a collection of plays by the influential South African actor and playwright Stephen Black. Black is remembered as the first professional actor in South African history, and his plays like Love and the Hyphen (1908), Helena’s Hope, Ltd. (1910), and Van Kalabas Does His Bit (1916) oscillate wildly between low brow comedy, melodrama, and sophisticated exploration of heady political themes in a country still reeling from the South African War (1899-1902), knit together for the first time as a single political unit. From questions of class and status to latent tensions between “Boer” and “Brit” to women’s suffrage and the political rights of black people (some of whom were allowed to vote in the Cape province but not elsewhere), Black’s plays and their wild popularity have a lot to tell us about early twentieth century South Africa, but because he never published them he was largely forgotten after his death in 1931.

I am able to read these plays, of course, because half a century later the literary critic Stephen Gray edited and published the volume I am reading. Working at the University of Witwatersrand in the dark days of the P.W. Botha administration, he introduces the collection by recounting his experience reviving Helena’s Hope, Ltd. at the university’s Performing Arts Centre. Mixed-race theatrical companies had been less than two years before, and Gray recounts vividly the process by which Helena’s Hope, Ltd. forced his actors to reconsider the history they had been taught in apartheid-era South African schools:

Although all of the players were Johannesburg residents, another first was encountering the hard fact that, after generations of education in the Transvaal…almost no information about, for example, the dispossession of the agriculturalists, the advent of taxation, the Battle of Johannesburg between Boer republican and British imperialist, the rise of capital in the city, the enfranchisement of White women and the disenfranchisement of Black men, the Land Acts preceding 1913, etc., etc,—it is a long list and these are all crucial issues in Black’s play, had seeped through to them. For them, coming to an understanding of these issues through the script and in the rehearsal room was tantamount to a re-education in their own immediate past.[1]

Preparing and performing Helena’s Hope Ltd. challenged Gray and his actors to confront a history that had been buried, to resurrect on the stage a world of discourse that had been foreclosed and repressed by apartheid society.  Far from a mere exercise in antiquarian drama, Gray’s troupe at Wits confronted a text that challenged their ideas about the past, present and future, all at the same time.

The readings for this week all stress the need for digital humanities to confront questions of difference.  Whether emphasizing the potential contribution of Asian-American studies, intersectionality, or feminist research ethics, each reading is at pains to save digital humanities from itself (or a stereotype of itself, perhaps).  Yet each of the ideas the readings laid out are each two to three decades old, largely innovations of the 1980’s cultural turn.  What does it mean that even at this late stage scholars in the field of digital humanities are treating such established (if perhaps not predominant) ideas as potential paradigm shifts?  Is digital humanities really so out of touch with current debates in the disciplines out of which it comes?

Certainly valuable work is being done, as the readings describe.  Moya Bailey’s Misogynoir book project is a genuinely cutting edge contribution to our understanding of the online presence of trans women of color, and it provides a useful model for future activist scholarship engaging with online communities.  But the tone of the readings for this week led me to wonder whether the prevalence of digital humanities “centers” outside academic departments contributes to a sense that DH is separate from debates and developments in more traditional disciplines, a disturbing suggestion that the much-vaunted interdisciplinarity of DH is, in some way, holding the field back, kin to the “retro-humanism” Roopika Risam’s article alludes to.

Stephen Gray’s presentation of Helena’s Hope, Ltd.  exemplifies a multi-modal approach to scholarship and pedagogy that does not involve the digital.  It does the things that we ask all great pedagogy (and great digital humanities scholarship to do): to present something not otherwise easily accessible in ways that challenge and illuminate our understanding of a particular context.  Keeping digital humanities outside the mainstream of academic life maintains a unique, innovative culture of DHers across disciplines and departments, but at the cost of keeping DH marginalized, fighting for legitimacy among jealous, insecure university departments led by academics easily disposed to suspicion.  The more readings I do for this class, the more I find the air of exceptionalism surrounding digital humanities to be damaging.  The presence of computers does not necessarily mark a paradigm shift in disciplines that have always engaged in multimodal research and multimodal productions.  Instead, digital humanities should embed itself in established disciplines; after all, it’s not as if DH spaces are the only ones facilitating interdisciplinary projects.  In the long run, the goal must not be the creation of academic space for a sui generis digital humanities, but the full integration of digital methodologies and engagement with various fields in the humanities.  If an entire field, such as women’s studies, needs to move in a more digital direction, that debate should be going on at the central venues of the field, not at the periphery or among an academic subculture.  If digital humanities is valuable, and digital cultural criticism is necessary, there is no virtue in being on the sidelines.  This is especially critical given the considerable expense of digital humanities projects.  Only when great digital humanities scholarship is considered as simply great scholarship, and great digital pedagogy considered great pedagogy, will the fight be won.

  1. [1]Black, Stephen, Three Plays, Stephen Gray, ed. (Craighall, South Africa: Adriaan Donker, 1984): 31.