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Rolling in the deep: Humour is the sunshine of democracy and South Africa basks in it

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Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

Laughter takes the sting out of chaos, and gallows humour emerges from repression and neglect.

If there is a universal shield against the blows of life, stupidity and the grinding teeth of bureaucracy and politics, it is humour.

It takes brains to be funny enough to observe human foibles in their fullness and absurdity, turn this into a mirror for an audience to gaze into long enough to pass through, feeling collectively saner on the other side.

The 21st century has seen a proliferation of keen wits in the English-speaking realm – prophets in a time of universal weird who have gained international renown.

Trevor Noah, Wanda Sykes, Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle, Hannah Gadsby and many more – rock stars of truth, shakers of mind shackles, providers of collective release.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was a comedian prior to being elected to office and immediately plunged into World War 3.

However, any chaser of a good old spasm of cleansing laughter understands its shadow. That flatline when the humour or headspace is lost on you when others wipe streaming tears from cheeks while rolling in the isles or guffawing on the couch, device in hand.

We are not talking reels of skateboarders smashing their guavas on a steel railing, cats in cooking aprons or Marelize cycling into a rugby pole.

We’re talking proper smarts. Nando’s ads smarts. Smarts that defang malevolent politics, people and business, take the sting out of chaos and fear – Humanum Subversivum.

Perhaps because we have 12 official languages, South Africans have developed a unique, dark and universal sense of humour, which is amplified by social media platforms.

These short-burst comedic creations show a homegrown 13th language.

In other words, we are all going through the same shit. Whether it is politicians, our parents, our teachers, our siblings, our cultural differences, the price of food – we’re in it together.

Lockdown prompted many to showcase their funnies to a potential national and global audience. Memes were created showing up stupidity, ditties composed of silly regulations and, for many, these were a release beyond the unknown horrors of the Covid pandemic.

Rolling blackout skits, jokes and memes

The grid shutdown in South Africa has spawned an entire industry of rolling blackout skits, jokes and memes, too many and too frequent to pin down long enough as the next insane news cycle moves on.

South Africa has an astounding choice of successful established comedians – too many to name and too many up-and-coming, lest someone is left out – who pack out venues, big and small, in the real world.

It is on the internet and TikTok in particular where ordinary, clever, funny people, the vast majority of them young, leapfrog to attention and possible real influence and effect.

TikTok is also dangerously awash with the debris of the 21st-century human mind untethered. Much more so than Twitter, which is morphing into a homeland for angry, deluded trolls.

Much of  the content, disturbingly contrary to what we believed was our species’ will to survive, indicates quite the opposite. We are our own worst enemy, we have come to learn.

Here conspiracy theorists, anti-science soothsayers and self-appointed gurus predict doom and darkness. Comedy air-freshens the room.

You have to pan TikTok for the gems. They keep changing, moving fast, but that’s the shizniz model.

It is here that young South Africans, who are often criticised for not being generally politically or socially engaged, prove otherwise.

Search comedians in South Africa and TikTok will turn up for you loads of options, much of it gallows humour. Nothing and no one is spared.

This particular type of black humour has been traced back to the 1848 revolutions that spread across Europe in resistance to established monarchies.

It is in times of severe stress and trauma that societies deploy humour to counteract oppression and unfreedom; that’s if they still possess it, in the eye of the storm – the ability to deploy laughter.

Tyrants don’t laugh

Sociologist Antonin Obrdlik was of the view that gallows humour is a measure of resilience and morale on the part of people who are being controlled, oppressed or neglected.

Tyranny has no sense of humour and it was Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who was of the opinion that the political joke was a relic of liberalism and had to be dealt with.

Those who told jokes in Nazi Germany were branded “asocial”, with Goebbels proclaiming it a crime, punishable by death according to Article III, section 2 of the 1941 code (the Reichsgesetzblatt I).

Prosecutors used the following to determine sentence: “The better the joke, the more dangerous its effect; therefore, the greater punishment.”

Author and psychologist Nicole Force, whose research is contained in her book Humour’s Hidden Power: Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve, quotes theorist Martin Armstong on the function of laughter:

“For a few moments, under the spell of laughter, the whole man is completely and gloriously alive: body, mind and soul vibrate in unison … the mind flings open its doors and windows … its foul and secret places are ventilated and sweetened.”

One such example was the uniquely South African take on Twitter when a gang of heavily armed hijackers was shot dead by police in an operation in Mpumalanga.

Above a news pic of the police van parked near a taped-off stretch of road where several bodies lay strewn, some South African wit announced: “At least they died doing what they loved.”

Everything right and wrong, all there in one shared observation. DM

Marianne Thamm is the assistant editor of Daily Maverick. Her new show, Round of Applause – South Africa Still Standing, celebrates the strengths of South Africa’s democracy. Tickets are available here.

This article first appeared in Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.

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  • Fred Pheiffer says:

    Excellent article — as usual — thanks, Marianne. Among the TikTokkers, Sami Hall is my favourite.
    However, you do Marelize disfavour by grouping her among the slapstickers. Yes, her accident was sheer goofiness, but her mother’s exasperated reaction to her daughter’s clumsiness made the video so funny. And gave the nation an expression to use for similar totally avoidable calamities.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Beautiful piece Marianne. The trouble with the unfunny joke that is our beloved SA is that suspending the truth while we laugh, tends to defuse the pain, and we forgive what we shouldn’t. Trevor Noah manages a balancing act of laughing at his own hangmen because his personal story lampoons and ridicules the utter stupidity of his hangmen. He gets away with it, the rest of us are just pissed off.

  • Jacqueline DERENS says:

    Thank you Marianne Thamm to remind us than laughter is the best medecine to keep alive and healthy. When I read you book : Hitler,Verwoerd,Mandela and me I thought you were a very bold and funny lady for choosing such a cheeky title !

  • Bernard Katz says:

    The part on “Tyrants don’t laugh” is brilliantly insightful.

    • T'Plana Hath says:

      Nowadays, and particularly in South Africa, the Kubler Ross model for processing grief has SIX stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance … memes.

  • Fred Pheiffer says:

    Just watched a clip featuring the much-missed Robin Williams. He relates how he once participated in a German comedy show. The presenter asked him why, in his opinion, were there so few German comedians. He answered, “Have you ever thought that you might have killed them all?”
    Cutting very close to the bone, I thought, but still.
    Williams didn’t say what the reaction of the audience was.

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