So I’m finally getting around to reading ‘Truth in Comedy: The manual of improvisation’ (Charna Halpern, Del Close & Kim Johnson). I started reading it last week and am loving it.
It’s a book widely cited by comedy lovers the world over and I’ve been so curious about it. While I’m reminded so much about improv principles, it’s helping me reflect about my stand-up and acting experiences in the years since.
The book urges performers to prioritise scene development over telling jokes, virtually looking down on the latter in the context of improvisation.
“Jokes are more primitive, basic and direct – I tell you something I think is funny, hoping you will respond by laughing. A comedian who tells jokes is basically a salesman, trying to sell the audience a clever story or punch line, while hoping to be paid back in laughter.” (Halpern et. al, 1994: 27)
That bit about comics as ‘salesmen’ reminded me of some creative blocks I’ve had in the period following The Dark Ages.
A lot of the writing just felt like I was grasping at straws rather than mining a personal or social truth.
It really felt like trying too hard to be clever and, having experienced how much more powerful it is to stay rooted in honest exploration, those jokes felt a bit empty. So, for a time, I paused performing because it lost authenticity.
It’s a conundrum, though. By staying off the comedy circuit in pursuit of some ‘grand truth’, I’d rob myself of progressing through sheer deliberate practice. Use it or lose it: get back on the saddle or get left behind.
I’ve got to stay in that vulnerable space even while focused and committed to the craft.
Back to the book. In the first chapter, Halpern, Close & Johnson write:
“The truth is funny.
Honest discovery, observation and reaction is better than contrived invention.” (1994: 15)
And that’s the stand-up comedy I’m most drawn to.
‘Honest discovery’ isn’t exclusively about zooming in on personal subject matter. It also includes exploring what we’ve collectively seen or experienced. Kagiso ‘KG’ Mokgadi is amazing at this.
I love that man. I can’t get enough of the way he masterfully dissects a scenario and – in his observation and reaction – takes us from thought to hilarious thought with surgical precision and irresistible comic timing.
I’ll never forget one of his bits about a SA’s flurry of controversial church practices. We’d all seen about it in the news. Kagiso’s crystal clear, relatable responses and observations had us roaring in laughter every time. Definitely far superior than the ‘contrived invention’ mentioned in the excerpt above.
Before writing this, I found a Q&A Kagiso did during last year’s National Arts Festival and was struck when he said:
“‘Heavier’ for me is the point where you realise as an artist that you will not please everyone… but you write from your soul, from your heart with maturity and respect and you perform that way. You’re hoping that what you’re at least trying to say will be digested in the way that you want”
And that’s it. That’s the nail on the head. I felt that and I’m really grateful that we have his like in SA.
I’ve always been blown away by Kagiso’s end-product: the potency of his punchlines, the calm and dazzling delivery. He’s totally brilliant. From the Q&A’s small insight into his writing, it becomes clear: the process is the product.
Tats Nkonzo is another comic marvel, constantly turning deeply personal encounters into brilliant sets. He has a magical rapport with audiences and an ease of delivery that’s often mind-blowing to witness.
Time and again, he recounts his experiences in the most revealing and endearing way – with stunning hilarity.
The truth is funny. Writing from that honest place isn’t always the easy and it’s been a point of concern and frustration before.
Comedy can be lonely, both in crafting and execution. But every now and then I take a closer look at the people I admire, hear them make sense of the world and feel a certain kinship.
I feel a little bolder to write more openly, more honestly. I love what I continue to learn with every experience and hope to keep sharing as I do so.