“Imagine a gay…” the comedian opens his set, already the audience is in stiches. Clearly ‘a gay’ anything is, in and of itself, a joke. “…police” – he punctuates before leading his loyal audience in laughter. He tells the story of his gay policeman. They lap it up; they want more. “Or imagine a gay…” he obliges to their wishes – again they die with laughter, “newsreader.” He punctuates, the house roars. They can’t get enough. The gay paramedic also enters the fray – the joke never gets old. It is all hyperbole. The exaggerated gestures are repeated over and over with seemingly undiminishing margin of utility. The motif remains the same throughout; the joke is in the ‘gay’. What the gay does or says really is just cherry on top. All the imaginable stereotypes are employed uncompromisingly. The gay – ha ha ha ha!
But the comic means no harm; his is not to spread hate speech – he assures us. He simply tells it as he sees it. I give him that; we only see as far as the shoulders we stand on allow us, and if one is perched on the diminutive shoulders of patriarchy well, what else can he see? He says the things we are too afraid to say. Indeed, he is right: we hate gays! This is what our laughter and our “eya neh o bua nnete ba jwalo” mean. It is our sign of approval. We, the dicked variety of the miserable lot, hate gays because they make women of us. Oh, not to forget, we hate those too. Especially the fat ones. And the dark ones – the not “yellow boned”. And by god the sluts! Especially the sluts. Nothing grinds our balls as much as women who sleep around. And the men who don’t are such idiots! But equally the wives are such prudes though; they should learn a thing or two from their slutty contemporaries – especially blowjobs and arse-fingering. How else do they expect to keep a man faithful if they are forever worried about the ironing, washing, cooking, child rearing and general strengthing that they are supposed to champion if they ever want to keep a man?
Huh? No dear reader, do not be confused, these are just jokes. You think too much – who said it needs to make sense? Yes, women must not slut. Men must as a matter of necessity (don’t be a wet blanket and ask slut with who). Wives are boring; they should be more like sluts. But women must not slut! It’s just for laughs goddamnit – we don’t mean anything by it.
Or do we? Of course we do. Comedy, as Jason P. Steed teaches, is never innocent:
“Nobody is ever ‘just joking. Humour is a social act that performs a social function…the joke itself is a way to define in-group and out-group, through assimilation & alienation. If you’re willing to accept ‘just joking’ as defence, you’re willing to enter the in-group where the idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable. In other words, if ‘just joking’ excuses racist [homophobic, misogynistic] jokes, then the in-group has accepted idea of racism [homophobia, misogyny] as part of being in-group.”
If the jokes that elicit greatest laughter are those that are homophobic, misogynist, colourist, slut and fat shaming, and even wife-shaming; we need to pause and reflect on where we as a people hold the people we joke about. Because surely we do not hold them dear; for if we did we would’ve been scandalised if anyone stood on stage and launched a series of gratuitous attacks on them – whether or not in the name of ‘just joking’.
So what exactly were we saying with our laughter? Gays – well, they are a joke. Women – cars that need to be bought after a few months of test-driving. Fat women – to be slept with if and only if the night is way over the age of maturity. Women sluts – homewreckers that homemakers need to emulate. Wives – a boring albeit necessary inconvenience. Men sluts – to be accepted as they are together with their cars, mansions and wealth. Men who are not sluts – another broke joke. Laugh your blackness off!
Where are we? How do we get to these sad conclusions?
Well, Bloemfontein decides that the 12th of August is as a good a day as any to shun its philistine stench. The Performing Arts Centre of the Free State (Pacofs) hosts a jazz session, just a stone’s throw away the restaurant Bee Zar cooks up a poetry session, and five irate phone calls and a war of words with a taxi-driver away Showground’s Violet Hall has comedy – a national tour of Mashabela and Salesman. All in one evening; tough decisions have to be made. By some warped blasphemous reason that somehow places jazz on the same level as any other art I decide to drop the jazz session (as this is a fortnightly event) and do two hours of poetry rounded off by the comedy. Night set.
The gay shaming sneaks up on me at the poetry – the otherwise able MC, a comic “sometimes” as he introduces himself, is the one that opens with the “imagine a gay…” gag. A few cringe – the full house rips itself in laughter. He attempts a slight at the women – but because I am in what I imagine to be a safe space; I hear him stumble on an important existential dilemma. His girlfriend, he says, is one of ‘those’ women who shave off their eyebrows only to pencil them back on. In this gag, the excited girlfriend shaves off her brows and draws on happy one for their night out. I imagine a clown; concealing what is real in make up to present a happy face to the world. The real is unpredictable; it might just let on the anger and pain. The pencilled in eyebrows are constant. I progress from clown to blacks – concealing our real landless pain in pencilled in aspirations for fame and fortune. I go back to the girlfriend; she probably has nothing to be happy about and nobody likes an angry black woman, so she must pencil in her happiness. Otherwise the poetry shindig goes by without too many noteworthy cringing moments. Off to the comedy!
We spot a white-owned taxicab. As we are busy negotiating the price we notice a black-owned taxicab, we abandon the coalition talks without ceremony and go buy black. Those blacks couldn’t give half a damn; we are invisible as we stand by the car while they continue with their conversation. Eventually, after some prodding, they relent and do us the favour of taking our money and transporting us.
We alight by the glass-walled hall. It’s already two-thirds packed. There is no clear entrance nor ushers to assist; we round the hall with the rest of the confused patrons until we find a queue and thus observe the first commandment of black life; “Thou shall queue.” We are in, and again we observe the commandment to get our drinks and eats. We are almost at the tail-end of the long and narrow hall. A low hanging ceiling means the plastic chairs are all on the same level and the stage is barely half-a-metre off the ground – those who didn’t keep African time are counting their blessings. The rest of us can hardly cast our eyes past the bobbing head in front of us.
Khaukhau hosts – ably so. First on the line-up is Free State’s social media sensation Shaun Dihoro, he picks up where the MC-Comic-Sometimes of the poetry show left off; “have you seen a gay…” – we are already putting through our claims at Avbob. He, foreshadowing the comics to come, rips off American comics and common jokes, seldomly to great effect. Almost as if handing over the baton; has a go at the women, and of course – as any self-respecting man with the microphone must – offers some unsolicited advice to women on how to avoid the violence he unleashes on them.
Luckily Khaukhau curves the baton. He does comedy that does not seek to shame. Taking common phenomena turning it on its head. He speaks of how fallism impacted our daily lives; pastors commanded #DemonsMustFall, parents demanded #DishesMustFall. He teases – not shames – our churches and their peculiarities, skilfully juxtaposing these. This is where Summary takes over later on, but not before he has a playfull go at fat people hating on skinny people and two-left-footers on abomajaivana. After of course dazzling us – or at least those who could steal a glance – with his dancing skills. He says he came on stage to confess his sins, and delivers his set in impassioned fits reminiscent of a person in the spirit. He concludes in a rather distasteful sarcastic demonstration of his conspicuous consumption capacity (not, I must stress, wealth!).
For his last set Khaukhau – the ultimate star of the show – again dazzles. This time he takes hip hop styled beef to gospel: Sechaba vs Teboho. He brilliantly – and boy can he and Summary sing – paraphrases the popular hymn “Dichaba Tsohle Tsa Lefatshe” (#68 Sioneng) as Teboho’s diss track to Sechaba. This gag launches him nicely into an exploration of South Africa’s largest music genre and naturally God and again the churches. He keeps with the music theme, but this time visits the mountain kingdom and its dealings with South Africa’s musical influences, wherein he closes off with a hilarious Famo rendition of Emtee’s hit “Roll Up”. One almost wishes he’d release an album with Famo renditions of popular music.
The headline acts take to the stage together midst great excitement in an on and off manner which promises much. After a little back to forth, including some semblance of popular democracy, it is decided that Salesman will go before Mashabela. He starts off with a mini preaching service, very much welcomed by the crowd. “Basadi” is a word that escapes his mouth as much if not more than his catchphrase “botsisa!” He dishes out the advice; how to deal with past relationships and the staple how to keep a man. But mostly what to do with one’s vagina. My sympathetic ear catches him, in his own crude way, saying don’t essentialise sex. I reluctantly – coz at this stage I already know where this train is headed and I wish not to board – agree; why must one be defined by sex? With who, how much, when, how often, where. The nonsensical hierarchy, which at the bottom has the slut woman and seshomane and at the top the maiden and playboy, can only fall once sex no longer defines a person. However, this is as far as I can go sympathising with him and his partner in shaming Mashabane.
The latter doesn’t even ascend the stage when his turn comes, he walks the crowd picking on the sometimes reluctant women to prove his shaming points: the yellow bones are stupid, for their God-given role is pleasing men. To illustrates he randomly picks out these yellow bones to ask what they do. Sure enough, as with most black people, not much success in their lives. One lady, however, is bold enough to state that she is an engineer – ‘you wish, masepa a hao!’ Mashabela would have none of it, the house is in raptures. The non-yellow bones (i.e. ugly) are smart for they have no choice as no sane men would have them – one of the picked on dark and (un)lovely states she’s a lab technician, point proven! We applaud.
Continuing with the show and tell he picks out the exciting sluts, all apparently seated on his right. And from the left his picks out the boring wives with the turn-off birth stiches. We all pray he doesn’t pick on our party – but anyone else that isn’t us is fair game and we laugh our heads off.
To cap off the show and tell, he picks out a woman who has the young, fresh and tight vagina (one – he says – of the only two available vaginas) from the crowd. The girl, after mild protestations, stands and allows herself to be showcased as the prime specimen of premium pussy. Mashabela is boldened enough to ask she takes off her pants to cast away all doubts, she laughs and to our collective disappointment sits down. The yin is done. Now he goes off to find a woman that exemplifies the old, tired and wobbly vagina.
At this stage I’m lucky enough to escape into my head to explore why my disgust is displayed as boredom – my companions constantly castigate my boredom (an inalienable right this I might add – no less legitimate than anyone’s enjoyment)? Why does my face register mere disinterest and not disgust? Is the treacherous thing betraying my true feelings? Can I really claim to be enraged by all this? Do I feel the chills I felt for instance at the poetry after Mogale Sidibe’s electrifying performance? I guess my ask is; do I feel or merely know that what was going on was wrong? Because, with the possible exception of the diabetes-ridden low-libido small-dicked pussy-petrified sissified ossified seshomane (light slap, I know), none of the shaming was directed at me. My face risks to expose me – what if I laughed inside and didn’t even notice it? As a cis-het-male in a heteronormative patriarchal world, is my default setting not to hate women and gays?
No it cannot be – moremogolo go betlwa wa taola. I need to remake myself in an image palatable to my ideological leanings. Like the MC-Comic-Sometimes’ girlfriend, I need to shave off these eyebrows that seek to expose me. This little missive serves as my eyebrow pencil: look at me y’all, I am seething with rage!
First published in The Journalist as “The comedy of shaming is no laughing matter”