Here’s a man carrying an acoustic guitar and wearing a bow-tie and a fedora. He seems a bit awkward. Then he steps up to the microphone and strums out song after song, giving a hilarious imitation of South Africans that will stick in your head for days after the show. If someone catches you belting out “I wanna make love to your sister”, you can now coolly shrug and say Deep Fried Man sang it first. Perdeby caught up with the singing comic to find out exactly what lies behind a hilarious tune.
A few other South African comedians have mentioned that they try out their jokes on Twitter before performing them live. Since you mostly sing your material, how do you test your jokes out?
I do joke a lot on Twitter, but it’s very separate. It’s almost a separate side [of] me. Some people know me more from Twitter than from my shows, then they’re surprised when they see me because it’s not related at all. But what I will say is that if a joke gets a huge response on Twitter, I’ll find a way to work it into a song. But I write songs. So the way I test my material is: I write a song and I do it in a very small quiet open mic night when I’m not being paid and if it goes well there then it’ll become a permanent part of my set.
Are there any topics that you find can’t be turned into stand-up comedy material?
I don’t. But at the same time you have to suss it out yourself and have a bit of sensitivity because there are comedians out there who say whatever they want to all the time and that’s what they’re known for. If you’re known as an offensive comic, you’re going to struggle at first because you’ll [have to] develop your niche audience. Here in South Africa, in some ways we’re a lot less sensitive. Overseas they’re very sensitive about race. Here we don’t care about race ? we’ll say whatever we want. But there are issues like our domestic violence and rape rate [that I won’t joke about]. I’m not saying that I personally don’t think that you shouldn’t be allowed to talk about that stuff, but I don’t [think] that there’s any way to make it funny.
You did a bit of folk music before you became a comedian. If you weren’t a comedian, is that what you would still be doing?
I was never a full-time musician. I was a journalist and I did my folk music on the side, but I never saw it as a career. I used to play at the Bohemian and I remember all the people who used to come to the shows – it was the [same] people every week. You can’t have a career playing to the same 20 people every time, so I didn’t take it seriously. I never made much money from it at all. In fact, on the whole, I think I probably lost money from it. I made my money from journalism, so it [music] was never a career for me but what I realise now is that I was learning a lot of the skills that I use now as a performer [now].
Were you surprised by the positive response that your one-man show White Whine received last year?
I wasn’t surprised about that because that was a few years into it. When I first started doing comedy I was surprised to get an almost immediately good response because of how long I’d been struggling as a folk singer. No one ever cared about the folk stuff. And it was similar stuff [but] near the end it was becoming more and more comedic. To be honest, I think I got a better response from my first one-man show Deeply Fried than White Whine.
Comedians are always getting compared to one another. Do you find it refreshing that no one can really compare you to anyone else or is it something that you miss?
Well, we’re a small scene here in South Africa. If you go overseas, you’re competing with a million other comedians. But here there is one, there’s a few here actually, but one successful one – Tats Nkonzo – who I get compared to a lot. We know each other, we are friends and we both get annoyed with it because we’ve got very different styles. But because we both stand there with an acoustic guitar it’s almost like we can’t escape these comparisons. What’s been harder is that this season on LNN [Late Night News with Loyiso Gola] I took over from Tats, which was very hard because people got used to him and I was dealing with a lot of bad feedback from people saying “We want Tats back” and that sort of stuff. But other than each other we don’t get compared to a lot of other comedians.
The #askhelenzille saga was hilarious. Should we expect more coy trending topics from you that are aimed at political leaders any time soon?
I was never, and I never will be, [someone] who wakes up and is like, “What can I do as topic to trend on Twitter?” I just noticed Helen Zille tweets a lot and I noticed the funniest thing. You wouldn’t expect someone who’s the leader of the opposition and who’s the leader of the Western Cape to respond to anyone who tweets at her. All I was doing was joking about the response level and saying, “Well, if you wanna respond to every tweet you ever get, let’s see what happens when we get a million people to tweet you.” It wasn’t premeditated to trend worldwide, it was a complete accident. But if I ever think of an idea that’s a hashtag that I think is as funny, then I’ll do it. But I’m not sitting around trying to do that stuff.
You’re also quite the columnist. How do you decide which opinions to put into a comedy routine and which to work into a column?
Well, [with] columns you can get away with being more serious. You can be more satirical and the thing about satire is that it doesn’t always have to be funny whereas comedy always does. On stage, if I’m doing a big show like Bafunny Bafunny (if I’m lucky to do a show that big), you cannot afford to not be funny so you take your shortest, punchiest, most easy bits that you know will succeed. There’s very little connection between what I write and my stage performance.
What else will you be up to this year?
I have to develop for the Edinburgh Festival in August and it has to be universal. So at the moment I’m working on writing new stuff which isn’t political. And that’s a nice challenge for me.
Photos: Brad Donald