The comedy of shaming is no laughing matter

By Mpho Matsitle

“Imagine a gay…” the comedian opens his set, already the audience is in stitches. Clearly ‘a gay’ anything is, in and of itself, a joke. “…policeman” he punctuates before leading his loyal audience in laughter. He tells the story of his gay policeman. They lap it up; they want more. “Or imagine a gay…” he panders to their wishes – again they die with laughter, “newsreader.” They can’t get enough. The joke never gets old. The exaggerated gestures are repeated tirelessly. The motif remains the same; the joke is in the ‘gay’.

All the imaginable stereotypes are employed uncompromisingly. “The gay” is always followed by laughter. But the comedian means no harm; he assures us. He tells it as he sees it. Perched on the diminutive shoulders of patriarchy, how far can he really see? He says what we are afraid to. He is right: we hate gays! This is what our laughter means. We, the phallic variety of the miserable lot, hate gays because they make women of us.

We hate women too. Especially the fat ones. And the dark ones. And by god the sluts! Nothing grinds us like women who sleep around. But wives are such bores; they should learn from their slutty contemporaries – especially blowjobs and arse-fingering. How else do they expect to keep a man faithful if they are forever worrying about the ironing, cooking and child rearing?

Do not be confused, these are just jokes. You think too much – who said it needs to make sense? Yes, women must not slut. Men must (don’t be a wet blanket and ask slut with who). Wives are boring; they should be more like sluts. But women must not slut! It’s just for laughs goddamnit – we don’t mean anything by it.

Or do we? Comedy, as Jason P. Steed teaches, is never innocent. “Humour is a social act that performs a social function…[it] is a way to define in-group and out-group…if ‘just joking’ excuses racist jokes, then the in-group has accepted the idea of racism as part of being the in-group.”

If the jokes that elicit greatest laughter are those that are homophobic, misogynist, colourist, slut and fat shaming, and even wife-shaming; then it means we have accepted these ideas as a part of us.

So what did we mean by our laughter? Gays – well, they are a joke. Women – cars to be bought after test-driving. Fat women – to be slept with only if the night has matured. Women sluts – home-wreckers that homemakers need to emulate. Wives – a boring albeit necessary inconvenience. Men sluts – to be accepted as they are. Men who are not sluts – another broke joke. Laugh your blackness off! How do we get to this point?

Well, in August Bloemfontein decides to shun its philistine stench: The Pacofs hosts a jazz session, just a stone’s throw away the restaurant Bee Zar cooks up poetry, and Showgrounds has comedy – a national tour of Mashabela and Salesman. All in one evening; tough decisions have to be made. I’m blasphemous enough to drop the jazz and do poetry rounded off by comedy. Night set.

The gay shaming sneaks up on me at the poetry – the otherwise able MC, a comic “sometimes” as he introduces himself, opens with the “imagine a gay…” gag. He attempts a slight at the women – but I hear him stumble on an existential dilemma: In this gag, his girlfriend shaves off her eyebrows, only to draw on happy ones for their night out. I imagine a clown; concealing pain in make up to present a happy face. I think blacks – concealing landless pain in pencilled in aspirations for fame and fortune. The girlfriend probably has nothing to be happy about and nobody likes an angry black woman, so she pencils on her happiness for an evening out.

At the comedy show, we are seated at the tail-end of the long hall. A low hanging ceiling means the plastic chairs are all on the same level and the stage is barely half-a-metre off the ground – those who didn’t keep African time are counting their blessings. The rest of us can hardly see beyond the bobbing heads in front of us.

First on is Facebook sensation Shaun Dihoro, he picks up where the gay shaming poetry session left off. “Have you seen a gay…” after that he has a go at the women, and of course – as any self-respecting man with the microphone must – offers some unsolicited advice to women.

Fortunately Khaukhau, the host, offers comedy that does not seek to shame. Taking common phenomena turning it on its head. He speaks of how fallism impacted our daily lives; pastors commanded #DemonsMustFall, parents demanded #DishesMustFall. He teases – not shames – our churches and their peculiarities, skilfully juxtaposing these. This is where Summary takes over later on, but not before he has a go at fat people hating on skinny people and two-left-footers on abomajaivana. After dazzling us with his dancing skills he delivers his set and concludes with a rather distasteful demonstration of his conspicuous consumption capacity. A few more comedians on the night take their place in the spotlight and gags on ‘yellow-bones’ and sluts get the laughs the men with the mics are looking for.

At this stage I’m lucky enough to escape into my head to explore why my face registers mere disinterest and not disgust? Am I really enraged by all this seeing as none of the shaming was directed at me? As a cis-het-male in a heteronormative patriarchal world, is my default setting to hate women and gays? No it cannot be – moremogolo go betlwa wa taola. I need to remake myself in an image palatable to my ideological leanings. Like the MC-Comic-Sometimes’ girlfriend, I need to shave off these eyebrows that seek to expose me. This little missive serves as my eyebrow pencil: look at me y’all, I am seething with rage!

More stories in Issue 74

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Mpho Matsitle

Mpho Matsitle writes and thinks in music – the only language he understands – and believes that everything must be subjected to the unforgiving scrutiny of black radical thought. He fancies himself an immortal black existentialist and a libertine. He claims he’s just a collection of ideas and passions – all mind and soul – […]

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