Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Dear America, let's talk about Trevor...

Dear America,

This week I did loads of interviews, weirdly, about another comedian. Here's what I would say to you about it:

So some of your citizens, America, are going nuts at a few dodgy tweets from Trevor Noah, understandably, but not without irony. Bear in mind, they are from the same country that produces Achmed the dead Muslim guy puppet and the homophobia and sexism conventions that are comedy roasts. Of course the host of the Daily Show needs to be held to higher standards, but can we get some perspective please?

Trevor’s success is reason to celebrate. He is the product of 21 years of cultural adjustment in our country, and by the sounds of it huge shifts in the US. As Chris Rock tweeted “thank you Barak Obama”.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying don’t criticize. In fact the annoying thing about the U.S. Trevor crits is that they are so useless. Trevor’s hugely popular comedy here frequently relies on stereotypical depictions of black and ‘coloured’ (local term for mixed race, which he identifies with and then doesn’t as suits him) identity, and hyping up accents to make middle class people laugh, although this is interspersed between self-reflexive culturally aware brilliance. From what I can see what he does for you focuses more on the brilliance part. The fact is that he has jumped massive cultural hurdles to bring an international, Africanist view to mainstream US platform, and in so doing is breaking barriers we would never have imagined possible. Be honest, his Daily Show stuff so far has been brilliant and the genre has had plenty of white men.

You need to understand what a massive shift this is. Before 1994 doing stand up comedy in South Africa was the reserve of white men, because we had this little problem you may have heard of called ‘apartheid’.  In other words Trevor could not have existed before 21 years ago, or a while after for that matter, because black people were being given shovels, not mics. Many of them still are.

It also meant that until 21 years ago we had almost no progressive comedy audiences, outside of a relatively small clique of liberals, and then usually very white. There was basically no black stand up comedy, because speaking truth meant jail. When our current top black stand ups were starting out post-apartheid (e.g Marc Lottering, David Kau, Kagiso Lediga, and later Loyiso Gola) they played to almost exclusively white audiences, white audiences who had for generations been fed apartheid’s version of blackness.

In comedy you need to position yourself in relation to your audience. It gives you a stance to talk from, and a reason for them to laugh. The problem with this is that they can only understand you in terms that they relate to – it structures what options you have as a comedian. If you want to middle class white (and nowadays black too to be honest) audiences to like you with minimum effort then feed them the material full of simplistic ‘black’ (in SA read working class here also) accents  / stereotypes and they will scream and clap. To get them to rethink their opinions takes cultural gymnastics, something we have gotten very good at in my opinion.

For example back in the 2000s a top black comic called David Kau started a comedy show called “Blacks Only”, ironically named after apartheid signifiers. This roadshow now pulls in excess of 3500 people a time a few times a year around the country with very little marketing. Comedians now have space to build and develop acts, and to make a living out of telling jokes without needing to bend over backwards to deal with oblivious audiences. So, Comrade America, you had a bit of a head start, for the most part.

Our comedians are making enough money to travel overseas to spend enough time there to translate over insanely complex cultural gaps. Some here would ask why? They believe we should be more Africanist, which is a good point. In SA have 11 official languages, and extremely complex racial dynamics, so developing material you, America, will understand is extraordinarily difficult. Bear in mind, when your comics come here your world view has been explained to us over decades. You, on the other hand, have only just got a glimpse of us.

Trevor is a product of his own hard work and a collective effort that has spanned two decades of democracy. Think about that before you try tear him down please.