The Fringe theatre is empty when Loyiso Gola walks through an hour before his show. Ticket sales have been slow on weekdays, despite his repeated spots on radio. Through the concrete and florescent hallways of the Joburg Theatre basement, the comedian sits in a dressing room. The light bulbs that frame the mirrors are switched off and only Gola’s iPad, iPhone and the steamer to iron out creases on his pale blue suit sit on the bench. He pauses mid-sentence and repeats what’s on his mind. “I just hope the ticket sales are good… because it’s a business and you need to break even.”
Gola, a regular on the stand-up circuit and host of the weekly political satire show Late Night News (LNN), started performing as a teenager in Cape Town. Well-known comic Marc Lottering visited his school, Zonnebloem Nest, and Gola was asked to warm up the crowd. “He didn’t know what he was doing at the time but he literally did a stand up routine that blew the crowd away,” says Lottering. “I quite hated having to go up after him. I still do.”
Since then he has become one of the country’s best-known comics. He’ll go to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival this year for the second time and is on the line-up at the Montreal Comedy Festival, the world’s biggest. He was the driving force behind LNN, which has achieved remarkable success and brings a new audience to the country’s political discourse with its acerbic take on the week’s news.
Gola’s tall. Almost two metres tall. He has a deep voice and the right amount of arrogance to test material without the crowd feeling sorry for him. That’s what Lottering saw at Zonnebloem Nest. The experienced performer told him to start writing down his gags and come to the Comedy Club. Gola memorised a set – he doesn’t like to improvise – and gave his first show to an audience of over 100 at the Armchair Theatre.
When he had to follow around a professional to get a taste of working life, Gola spent his job-shadowing week with comics like Riaad Moosa and Stuart Taylor. He got back to school, and his teachers didn’t think comedy qualified as a real job worthy of spending a week observing, so they sentenced Gola to detention.
Years later, he’s made a career as an entertainer, but the audience for his new solo show, Professional Black, which runs until 12 May, is less than half full. He starts with a Gupta joke he mentioned in the dressing room. The funniest thing about the whole scandal, he says, is that the Guptas spent millions chartering a plane from India and hiring private security only to take the wedding guests to the tackiest place in South Africa, a man-made beach at Sun City.
Unlike LNN, Gola’s solo show isn’t all politics. He cuts across the norms of living and growing up in post-Apartheid South Africa – connected to the rest of the world but with its own specific nuances – to point out the humour in the everyday experience. There’s a Zuma joke, but he focuses on relatable issues – growing up in the township, living with different races in the suburbs, call centres, and his travels abroad.
The small crowd was in stitches. He told the story of when Comedy Central documentary makers asked him how he felt when Nelson Mandela was released. He was fucking pissed off, he told them. He was a boy; the stores were all closed; he couldn’t by sweets and all that was on TV was Mandela’s release. He didn’t know the event’s importance. It’s not exactly what the filmmakers were hoping he’d say.
On stage, he’s confident, engages the crowd and moves smoothly between jokes. He imagines trying to tell South African mineworkers, who have little choice but to sweat underground just to send money back home, that Londoners actually travel deep underground in the Tube for fun, or just to get from A to B. Off stage, he’s confident and funny, but also serious, contemplative and seemingly distracted.
Despite the poor turnout to his show, Gola still wanted to deliver his best performance, he says the morning after the gig. Waiting for a takeaway coffee in Braamfontein café, wearing a camel jacket, green trousers, and red sneakers, one of the dozens of pairs he owns, he flicks through the café’s vinyl LPs. He only returned from London a couple of days earlier, went straight into his solo show, and is on the way to the weekly LNN brainstorming session.
He doesn’t like to sit down and work on new material, but he takes notes when a joke comes to him. Often they arrive when he’s on the stage. “I have sooo much material,” he says when asked why he’s doing another Professional Black show. “If I write a one-minute gag every day, that’s a one-hour show every two months.” He then repeats the equation, factoring a joke for every two days.
In an upstairs boardroom in Braamfontein, he joins the LNN crew to talk about next week’s show, episode one of season seven. He listens and laughs more than he talks. They’re thinking about the Gupta scandal, an issue so vast they can use it to explore a span of political controversies. Daniel Friedman (Deep Fried Man) looks over his laptop to make a joke. LNN producer Karabo Lediga laughs and turns the conversation. David Kibuuka says “that’s blazing” and throws a joke of his own. Kagiso Lediga smiles, builds on it, and describes a possible skit to portray the whole mess.
The routine repeats. It’s like a diary meeting in a newsroom where all the journos are on crack and everyone’s got the giggles. It’s like being locked in a room with every class clown from high school but they’re actually getting work done instead of making fart jokes.
“I don’t want to live in a country where there’s no satire,” says Loyiso near the Metro FM studio, after one of many radio spots to promote his new show. LNN, or something like it, was a long-time ambition. Gola wanted to push the boundaries, see what sort of free speech democracy would allow. Occasionally, the show gets some flak from the public, but politicians treat him like a rock star, he says, with one exception – Julius Malema.
“We as a country have to think of our own creative ways to get out of the situation we’re in,” he says, while fans and friends wave and approach. “We don’t want a guy with the best fucking struggle history. Cool, you went into exile, but it’s 2013. I need a fucking toilet!”
By mixing some of the country’s most serious issues with comedy, Gola has shot to the top levels of South African comedy. He won’t say it outright, but he has his sights set on making it oversees. He just returned from a holiday in London where he was hanging out with other comics and performing. “The UK is where you go to be a better actor. The US is where you go to get famous,” he says. After watching the successes and failures of others abroad, he knows he needs a plan and is working on a strategy to give himself the best shot.
If he has the time to get to know a place, he can always come up with material, he believes. Rather than take stock of his success he looks at each development as progress. “I think this is the start of the beginning.” DM
Professional Black runs at the Joburg Theatre until 12 May.
Albert Einstein worked as an electrician at Oktoberfest 1896.