A Country Of Comedy – Funny Facts

Charting the “history” of the South African comedy industry is no easy task. Where does one start, post 1994 or from the 1970s with the Biltong and Pot Roast series, or even before that, the 1960s?

Books on the early history of Cape Town talk of a stand-up comedian entertaining the public opposite the City Hall on the Grand Parade in the early 1900s!

SA has a rich comedy history that cannot be summed up in one article. And until the whole story is told, let’s start with some SA Funny Facts, in brief…

We start in the 1960s, with the popular Bloemfontein comic, Al Debbo. A product of a Lebanese father and Afrikaans mother, Al Debbo took the comedy industry by storm, firstly in the movies and later as a stand-up. Debbo was active in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s and was recognised as a lifetime achiever at the Comics Choice Awards of 2011. Sadly, he died a few months later.

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The advent of television in South Africa saw the creation of the Biltong and Pot Roast series, a weekly comedy battle between local South African and UK immigrant comedians. The series developed a cult following and made comics like Mel Miller, Dennis McClean, Eddie Eckstein, Cyril Green etc. household names. The series ran for about five years from 1975 to 1980.

The series had created comedy stars that went on to develop an industry of comic entertainers, some of whom are still active in the industry today.

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The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown was an ideal platform in the 1980s and early 1990s for political statements, using all forms of theatre. In the early 90s, the comedy stage was dominated by the musicals of David Kramer and Taliep Petersen, while political satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys, had made a name for himself as a fierce anti-apartheid satirist.

Post national general elections of 1994, we saw an explosion of the art form and the 1995 Grahamstown Festival saw an avalanche of stand-ups plying their trade at the country’s most important arts festival.

What followed was a further expansion in the art form. The first major Comedy Festival was created in Cape Town in 1997 by comedy entrepreneur, Eddy Cassar. Sponsored by Smirnoff, it ran at the Baxter Theatre until the liquor brand moved on in 2004. A year later, the Cape Town Funny Festival followed, sponsored by Jive.

In the early days of the Comedy Festival, many top international acts were presented on the Baxter stage, including Jimmy Carr, Ross Noble, Steven K Amos, Adam Hill and a young Trevor Noah, who returned to the Funny Festival in 2014.

Comedians became the new rock stars and were sought after as corporate entertainers and television presenters. A travel TV series, which showcased the entire length and breadth of the country from the comfort of a red 1960s Chevy, aptly titled Going Nowhere Slowly, solidified the careers of two young comics, Stuart Taylor and Kurt Schoonraad. The TV show ran from 2000 for five seasons.

Taylor, like numerous other comics in Cape Town was a graduate of the famous Cape Town College of Magic in Lansdowne, which does such good work in the Cape Town community. Ventriloquist Conrad Koch, hypnotist Andre Grove, and comedian Riaad Moosa are also graduates of the College.

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Stuart Taylor’s boyhood passion was magic and comedy but his parents insisted on a university education beforehand. This is a common phenomenon in the South Africa comedy industry. Conrad Koch holds a master’s degree in industrial psychology, whilst Riaad is a medical doctor. Marc Lottering had a promising career in advertising before the stage came calling. Taylor graduated from the University of Stellenbosch with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and Animal Physiology. Part of his practical studies involved the insemination of cows, a fact he uses to great effect and disbelief in his live shows.

Comedy clubs opened throughout the country, with two permanent clubs in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Joe Parker, the doyen of South African comedy opened his club, Parkers, in Montecasino whilst Cape Town comedy icon, Kurt Schoonraad converted an old pump house at the V&A Waterfront into the Cape Town Comedy Club, the focal point of comedy in the Mother City.

Numerous comedians plied their craft in the form of theatre from the stage. Alan Committie, once a school teacher, has a huge following for his hilarious one-man shows. Casper de Vries and Mark Banks also earned their reputations as theatre comedians.

It is quite evident that many important characters have been omitted. Barry Hilton, Mark Sampson, Soli Philander, John Vlismas all deserve mention, as do many others who have dedicated their lives to the art form. David Kau, Trevor Noah and so many others have done so much for the development of comedy in South Africa.

But that’s a story for another day…