Comedy in South Africa: A Dangerous and Life Changing Excursion

I was warned that I will probably get stabbed when I asked the hostel front desk clerk how to get to my show in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was very aware that there were some dangerous places in South Africa, but apparently the show I had that night was in one of the roughest neighborhoods in all of Johannesurg, called Braamfontein. The clerk at the desk told me if I walked around the streets at night I would be stabbed or robbed for sure and maybe killed. He told me I would be a fool to go. An Australian staying there told me he was stabbed and robbed there. In broad daylight! So after the clerk repeatedly warned me not to go, I just called a cab and headed over to the show anyway, because I love performing. When I got to the show the crowd was nice and hip. A nice mixture of white and black africans. All the comics were talking about very provincial material, african lingo, speaking in other languages and giving me the occasional side eye, confused as to what the hell I was doing there. I went on stage a little nervous not sure how the crowd would react, but the show went well. When I finished I was ready to leave and head to bed as it was very late. I reached into my pocket to grab cash for the cab and realized I was all out. I asked the one eyed door man where an ATM was and he said it was about 5 blocks away. I was officially scared. I've been to rough neighborhoods in the U.S., but this was different. There weren't cops patrolling the streets, I was on my own. I started walking and after a few blocks I was being followed. I started to walk faster and so did they. I sprinted to the ATM. It was out of service. I noticed another one across the street, and ran over to it. The guys a few blocks behind me were now about a block away walking very fast. I was scared and excited at the same time. I live for this kind of stuff. The ATM worked. I pulled out the money and one of the guys walking towards me started to grab something out of his jacket and I ran to a taxi and jumped in and yelled at him to drive. I was sweating. Happy to be alive. I literally just risked my life to perform. This made me realiz how much I truly loved my work.

With this new sense of pride and meaning in life, I was ready to take on my upcoming shows I had in Johannesburg. I performed at Parkers Comedy Club in the Monte Casino had the greatest performance of my life there. As I was grabbing a shot of brandy that was bought for me by a gracious audience member a friend and fellow comedian Dumiso Lindi grabbed me and told me we had to go immediately. I was to headline a show 30 minutes away in a township area. A township (in South Africa) is a suburb or city of predominantly black occupation, formerly officially designated for black occupation by apartheid legislation. Visually speaking, this is a very poor area where many people live in very small homes made of tin roofs and wood. They make trailer parks look fancy. As we arrived at the show, I walked into the main room and heard a comic on stage telling jokes in another language. I suddenly got very nervous and thought, "what the hell am I going to say to these people? I can't relate to them. My material is going to bomb here. Bomb hard." I've traveled to a number of different countries adapting well to the local culture and customizing my performances to the people there. But I was mentally blocked here. No idea how I was going to pull this one out of my ass. I was getting paid and booked to headline this show. I thought, "Ok, I'm just going to do a short set then get the hell out of here." I was going to grab a drink to calm my nerves when the host called my name. Oh shit. I ran over to the stage, shook his hand and stared at a sea of confused, yet intent africans. I had no clue what I was going to say. I knew none of my material would work here. I started to talk and do some crowd work. Silence. I told a few jokes I wrote about their president. Silence. Fuck. I was panicking. I looked over at the comics to my left. They were zoned in, intently listening, expecting something exciting to happen, as if i was about to juggle. Well, I wasn't.

After about 6 minutes of brutal silence, something in my brain clicked. I realized what I was doing wrong. I realized what I had been doing wrong in comedy all along. I wasn't bombing because my material, not because my voice, or my crowd work. I realized, I was only doing comedy for me. It was always about me. Me, me, me. I thought about how I've always been very selfish in life. Everything from dating to friendships to comedy. I always put myself first. The audience knew I was only up there for me. I had never felt that before. I got away with this for years in the U.S. As this ran through my brain, time kind of stopped. I realized for the first time, I wanted to do comedy for them, not me. Comedy wasn't about me anymore. It wasn't about pride, or self worth or feeling loved and appreciated. It was about giving back to them. You could see these people had struggled their whole lives. Some struggle to get water and electricity. Many of them don't eat enough and have never heard of an iphone. I looked into their curious eyes and smiled. I knew my comedy could actually make a difference in their day. I knew I could make them forget about the bullshit they had to go through every day. I knew I could make them happy for 30 minutes. That really meant something to me. It was the first time comedy really had a tangible worth to me. I felt alive. 

I started talking again and the next few minutes flew by as we were all laughing. It was applause breaks, groans, laughs and hollers. I was doing something I never thought I would do. Putting others first. This show was about them now, not me. This performance was a huge turning point in my career. It was the landmark set that defined my comedy and style. It was the set that made me who I am on stage. When I go onstage now, I go onstage for the audience, not me. I have since carried this on to other areas of my life and have become a much more rounded and happy person. I'm far from perfect, but will continue to perform for audiences and people trying my best to make their day less shitty. 

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