During my first week in town I turned up for a Wednesday night show in Observatory, a bustling student neighborhood just outside Cape Town. I had been in touch with the show’s host, Gino, but I didn’t know whether I’d be performing.
“You here for the comedy?” The guy at the door asked. I started to pull out some money for him.
“Yea,” I said. “Do you know where Gino is?”
“He’s outside. Wait, are you on tonight?”
I explained that I’m a comedian from the States.
“Oh, well then you’re definitely not paying,” he said, putting away the pen he was going to use to mark my wrist. “I’m Phil, by the way.” He extended his hand.
We got to chatting about comedy in New York and in South Africa. We talked about how difficult it can be to get started on the New York ladder. About how a South African wouldn’t have much of an advantage, because New York gets people from all over. About how promoters and venue owners sometimes take advantage of desperate newcomers, by forcing them to bring their own guests and charging them to perform.
“I’ll die before I see that happen in my town,” Phil says, shaking his head. “Uggh. It makes sense though, the way they do this. Cause it’s becoming cool to be a comedian. So people want to do it, and they take advantage.”
We talk a little about Trevor Noah. His name on at the tip of everyone’s tongue around here—he’s right up there with Oscar Pistorius or Jacob Zuma. We talk about how quickly he climbed the ladder in the States and started living a life even American comedians can’t dream of.
Inevitably, he asked, “So how long are you in Cape Town?” The subtext of this question felt a little like, what are you doing here?
I’ve gotten good at this part. I’ve got a short answer, a long answer, and a short answer that prompts a question that prompts the long answer. I gave that last reply to Phil, and he asked for the longer version.
“So this is going to sound like the plot of a bad movie,” I begin. “Basically, a multi-millionaire left an endowment for university graduates to pursue a cross-cultural project…”
After I had finished my spiel, Phil said, “Dude. That’s amazing.” Then, after a pause: “You are just oozing white privilege right now.” We both laughed. Out of nervousness I laughed too long.
“I’m joking, dude,” he said.
“But it’s true,” I replied.
Phil shrugged, as if to say that old thing about how true jokes are the best kind.
Still, in general, my back story doesn’t go over too badly here. Many South Africans are tired of wide-eyed Westerners who come to do non-profit work. “I was just about ready to explain why we don’t need your help,” one person at a bar told me. “I was just lining up my stop trying to save the world speech. But you’re just here to tell jokes in danky bars,” she said. “Which is strange, but I guess that’s fine.”
Phil went over to the bar to try to get people inside before the show. I walked outside and found Gino, who offered me a bro-ish handshake, which I awkwardly accepted. That’s my way with comedians. They are so deeply informal, and I struggle to match their ease. My effort is generally enough. They see that I’m trying. “Wanna do a quick 5 tonight?” Gino said. He introduced me to the comedian running the line-up, and he took down my name and wrote me in. It was as simple as that.
I hung around outside with the other comedians for a few minutes, checking back inside to see if the room had filled up, seeming awkward and not caring as much as I once would have. I’ve grown accustomed to the routine of showing up without friends and with a funny accent and a strange back story, so the suspicious glances and who-is-that? vibes bounce off me a little more easily than they used to. Occasionally I remember that I’m supposed to feel uncomfortable when I’m alone in a new country and about to perform, and then I do. But then I get distracted and I stop worrying about it.
A few minutes later the comedians head inside. Phil has made his way around the bar and the windowless room with red paint and heavy artificial lighting has filled up nicely. The first thing I notice, about the crowds and the comedians, is the diversity. My last shows had been in Ireland, in front of crowds whiter than printer paper. And even in Cape Town, the more expensive coffee shops and tourist destinations recommended in the New York Times (where I’d spent some time earlier in the week) are disproportionately white—apart, uncomfortably enough, from the staff, who are mostly black.
But the comedy room was different. It was a mix of internationals and locals, as I learned from the host’s questions to the crowd.
I wasn’t sure where in the line-up I would fall, because no one had mentioned that to me. “We just call everyone up, one by one,” one comedian explained. But I was happy not to be called early on. By watching from the back, I could get a sense for what worked here and what didn’t. In particular, I wanted to see how the race jokes would play—or whether they were off-limits for white people or foreigners.
That fear turned out to be misguided. Most of the comedians—regardless of skin color—dealt with race in their jokes. They were freer about it, less worried about offending people than American and European comedians. And the crowd laughed generously, at the comedians, themselves, and each other.
Of course, on paper, I can’t do the comedy justice. To describe the humor would be to suck the joy out of it. But I felt like I was witnessing the kind of open discussion and acknowledgement of racial issues that America sorely lacks. It wasn’t happening in a fancy political forum or university classroom. It was happening in dank bar at a comedy show, with a mix of people that probably otherwise wouldn’t be in the same room, listening to one guy after another talk about race and class and laughing about it. Laughing about our sordid past, its painful legacy, and the little racist things that we see every day and can be so hard to talk about.
Despite this, I was nervous about my own political jokes. I had seen white Afrikaners have no trouble, but the only foreigner, a British comedian, had struggled a bit with some darker material.
Of course, though, I had to tell them. The freedom of having a fellowship is that I don’t have to worry whether it’ll get me booked again. And hey, if they don’t like me, I’ll leave the country in a month anyway.
I walked up stage and soon felt quite comfortable. Stages are stages, microphones are microphones, and stand-up is stand up, even on a different continent.
The lighting was intense, as it often is, but I tried to squint and make out the faces of my first South African audience. I never get over the excitement of a punchline, especially in a new place. I love that moment when you hit that twist, and an audience breaks out in smiling eyes and a range of laughters, from bellows to shrill notes.
My absurdist jokes played the same as they did in Europe: maybe nonsense is the same everywhere. My political jokes about empire and colonization played similarly to the way they did in Ireland, as opposed to the way they played in Britain. The South African crowd didn’t go so much for the bits about the colonization of America, but they loved my joke about imperial white people.
These comedy sets go quickly when they’re fun, and this one went very quickly. I sat in the dark again, in the back, and gave some high fives to some of the other comedians. The easiest way to feel comfortable in a comedy room is to have a good set.
After the show, the comedians invited me to hang around out back. We talked for a while, about how difficult it is to get stage time, about trying to make ends meet at a comedian, about jokes that make us laugh so hard we want to piss ourselves. We talked about getting the wrong gifts at Christmas as kids, wondered how the hell Mitch Hedberg managed to make his material work, and good shows we’d had in other cities.
I took a cab back home and went outside to the balcony. Cape Town goes to bed early. A few lights flicker here and there, and in the distance I can make out the silhouette of Table Mountain. It’s a city with its own rhythm, a place totally foreign to me. I shivered for a second, thinking about how far I was from home, how few people I knew here, and how long it would be before I would be back.
But I calmed down as I thought again about the show. In Cape Town, as everywhere, comedians are trying to figure their shit out, tell good jokes, get laughs, and feel understood. And I’m trying to do those things, too.