By BRUCE DENNILL
Johannesburg International Comedy Festival: Live From The 13th Floor / Thirteen, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
That the line-up for the Live From The 13th Floor show featured only comediennes is slightly problematic. Not because there is a shortage of talented, hilarious female comics but because making that the focus of the marketing for a show – as was the case here: “Comedy featuring trailblazing female talent!” – is confusing. If you’re cynical, it’s condescending. If you’re not, it’s gimmicky. If you’re a comedy fan – as in the stuff that makes you think as much as it makes you laugh – then the chromosomal make-up of the person delivering the lines shouldn’t matter, as long as they’re funny.
And to varying degrees, Maureen Langan, Celeste Ntuli, Nina Hastie, Tracey Lee Oliver and Lihle Lindzy are funny. Langan was an excellent host able to forge through the awkward opening minutes, connecting with the audience easily by presenting her American perspectives in a way that was impossible to resist. If nothing else, her loathing of the fact that the Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are held up as role models on any grounds whatsoever won her a lot of new friends on the night. This was true of her conviction regarding the value of her own, obviously considerable, intellect as well.
Nina Hastie’s act was based largely around sex and its cultural impact. She raised some guffaws on the basis of her willingness to get raunchily to the heart of the matter, and inspired some grimaces as well. The latter appeared as audience members hearing more than just the punchlines considered the profound loneliness behind some of the behaviour Hastie described. Comedians always say that part of their job is to tackle tough subjects in a confrontational way because that approach helps listeners to process those topics. That may be true, but when the subtext of a monologue – even one peppered with gags – is sadness, there’s no ready-made solution, and placing the theme front and centre does only that, possibly pushing buttons some listeners don’t want to have pushed.
Lihle Lindzy was smart, sassy and stylish, making the almost entirely risk-free first half of her set a touch bewildering, Fortunately, she picked up the pace and, combining her wit with considerable charm, she had parts of their crowd on their feet by the end of her slot.
Tracy-Lee Oliver’s stand-up act is built around the talents that have brought to her to prominence on the musical theatre stage. There’s a bit of patter, but most of her time is taken up with re-tooled versions of well-known hits. Oliver’s singing is fantastic, and the closing number in the set confirms that she’s a wonderful mimic as well, but the re-written lyrics can and should be – off-stage, Oliver has a cutting, facetious sense of humour – more hard-hitting than they are. Perhaps an inclination (if she has the time and resources) to make her act a full-production off-Broadway parody show would better serve her talents than the relatively restricted environs of a comedy platform.
Headliner Celeste Ntuli showed why she deserved that billing in the first 30 seconds she spent on stage. Her delivery was more assured than her colleagues; her processing time apparently faster and her material at once widely accessible and cleverly focused. She doesn’t wander into any territory that’s too far away from the mainstream, but her self-deprecating quips, non-stop stream of consciousness soliloquy and plain old-fashioned confidence ensured that the event ended on a high.
Thirteen, a glass-walled venue with a classy bar and magnificent views, functioned well as the scene for a comedy show, which are more stereotypically associated with less salubrious joints. And as a taster for the inaugural Johannesburg International Comedy Festival, this line-up confirmed that the event deserves to grow quickly next year and in the years after that.