BY BILLY SUTER
Twenty Questions for comedian John Vlismas, who is teaming with Durban funnymen Aaron McIlroy and Jem Atkins for a fundraiser for Durban theatre personality, Themi Venturas, who has pancreatic cancer. Titled An Evening of Chemody, the show will be performed at 7.30pm on Monday, June 26, at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre. Tickets cost R225, and advance booking is possible through Computicket, who are waiving all commission costs to support this cause. Be there!
YOUR LATEST SHOW, ‘THE GOOD RACIST’ WAS FIRST STAGED IN DURBAN IN AUGUST LAST YEAR. WHERE WAS ITS VERY FIRST PERFORMANCE, WHERE HAS IT TOURED SINCE, AND HOW MANY PERFORMANCES OF IT HAVE THERE BEEN TO DATE?
The first performances were at the Teatro in Johannesburg. It was taped for DStv’s Comedy Central over two nights, and the upcoming shows in Durban will be the first live shows since then.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BUILD A SHOW AROUND THE HISTORY OF RACISM IN SOUTH AFRICA? AND GIVE ME SOME IDEA OF TOPICS/SUBJECTS COVERED IN THE SHOW.
As an artist with a couple of decades of doing what is popular, I want to start researching and talking about the issues that I believe really matter.
When younger comics started saying that comedy about race was finished – I felt that it wasn’t. There are still loads of comics doing a lot of stereotypical race humour, but as a nation, we haven’t even started to address the issues of whiteness, blackness, privilege, black rage, white silence, inequity, etc.
We say we have, but sweeping other people’s history under the rug is just creating more work and turbulence for future generations.
WHAT IS ONE OF YOUR PERSONAL FAVOURITE JOKES/MOMENTS FROM THIS SHOW?
Probably the game show element – I can’t say too much, but it certainly adjusts the majority of the audience’s mindset early on.
WHAT SORT OF RESPONSIVES HAVE YOU HAD FROM AUDIENCE MEMBERS WITH THIS SHOW, CONSIDERING THE THEME MIGHT BE VERY TOUCHY FOR SOME?
There have been no threats at all. I think the show is too carefully researched and it is ultimately designed to be funny, but the overwhelming response has been one of “you made me laugh and think” and that is all I’m looking for.
HAVE YOU, PERHAPS, PUSHED THE ENVELOPE FURTHER WITH THIS SHOW THAN ANY OTHER?
Absolutely. But a different kind of envelope. Whereas before, the usual taboo subjects haven been aired – such as government, sex, religion – this show pokes a much darker bear: our inner wiring as a white South African – and the accepted cultural sacred cows of Zulus, Afrikaners and the Indian community. The show walks the line in terms of presenting a lot of facts. It’s not wall-to-wall gags for gags sake, but a funny look at the sheer magnitude and root of racism.
HOW MANY SOLO SHOWS HAVE YOU DONE TO DATE, WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST SUCCESSFUL, AND WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL FAVOURITE?
I think I have done nine or 10, I can’t remember. Even though it was early on, I’ll never forget going in to the box-office at the Playhouse in Durban on a Tuesday morning to ask how sales were going for my show Man In Black, and May said – “Sold out.” I answered that it was great to be sold out on a Tuesday – and she said: “No dear, the whole run is sold out.” I’ve never repeated that! Tickets sell, but it takes a lot of hard work on PR and marketing from a team of people. I don’t do ‘one-man shows’ – I really do ‘six to eight people shows’… I just get to stand at the front.
WHAT NEXT FOR YOU – AND ANY OTHER VENTURES YOU WANT TO TELL US ABOUT?
I’m a partner in a growing entertainment business – Whacked. What I’m most proud of recently is our strategic investment into a brilliant Durban business called On Fire. Jem Atkins and Jess Knauf are a passionate and talented team who have done a lot for comedy in Durban. We’ve agreed that Durban has to become the comedy capital of South Africa, and we’re going to make that happen.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST UNFORGETTABLE MOMENT ON STAGE EVER?
There have been two. One was a walking out on to the stage at London’s Royal Albert Hall – it’s hard to explain what that meant. The other was being invited to meet Mr Mandela. Standing in the line to meet him, with my friend Riaad Moosa – and getting to jump the queue ahead of Jermaine Jackson, was unforgettably funny. Especially when Riaad did a little moonwalk.
WHERE AND WHEN WERE YOU BORN AND WHAT MARKED YOUR FIRST TASTE OF SHOWBIZ – AND YOUR FIRST BIG BREAK?
I was born in the Marondera Hospital in Zimbabwe. Watching Pieter-Dirk Uys on video tapes with my parents caused a stirring. Moving to Johannesburg (where I paid for my copywriting student sister’s petrol and grocery bills, and she drove me to gigs and took notes) put me in line to audition for the Montreal Festival and get noticed by a television director who ended up making Live At Five.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN SHOWBIZ, HOW MANY AWARDS HAVE YOU WON – AND OF WHICH AWARD ARE YOU MOST PROUD?
I graduated from the Durban Institute of Technology in 1993 and started in comedy about a year later, so about 23 years. I am not really big on awards, but I was very proud to represent Africa at the World Festival of Young Playwrights (Interplay) and to beat 22 other comics to go to the Just For Laughs fest in Montreal the first time. I’ve been back four times over the years.
WHAT FIVE WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOU?
Incredulous, Astonished, Conflicted, Unsentimental, Empathetic.
WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF (HOWEVER TRIVIAL) THAT PEOPLE ARE UNLIKELY TO KNOW?
I’m a vegetarian, I cannot sing at all, I am directly descended from Piet Retief on my mother’s side, I’m a devout Absurdist and I’m sleeping with my manager.
HOBBIES, PASTIMES AND FAVOURITE THINGS?
I love scuba-diving, I skate along the Durban promenade as often as I can, and I surf spectacularly badly, but love it.
WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU LIST UNDER ‘VASTLY OVERRATED’?
Steve Hofmeyr. Dane Cook. New York pretzels. Comments Sections. Instant coffee.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST SURPRISING THING SOMEONE HAS SAID OF YOU?
That I had a drug-induced heart attack on a Berlin nightclub dancefloor. I’m not big on dancing.
WHAT IS THE WORST TROUBLE YOU HAVE EVER BEEN IN?
I never pegged you as a whistleblower, Suter… With hindsight, I don’t know how to define trouble, other than – “an extreme learning environment”. I do remember being terribly let down by a beagle at Heathrow – man’s best friend, indeed! On balance, I have led a disproportionately lucky life. People can say they work hard and have talent, but as Jerry Springer once said: “Luck plays a huge role, don’t forget that.”
IF YOU COULD INVITE ANY FIVE PEOPLE TO DINNER WHO WOULD THEY BE – AND WHY WOULD YOU INVITE THEM?
Bishop Tutu – he is a spectacular example of man who lives by example and he takes action. George Carlin – I would want to thank him for being my first intro to graphic, philosophical comedy. Barack Obama – just to shake his hand and say, “I’m sorry you took on the hardest job on Earth, and that a muppet is busy dismantling your legacy.” Yuval Noah Harari – read his books and you’ll know why.
THE BEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER HAD? AND THE WORST?
The best was when Pieter-Dirk Uys, at our first meeting, referred to me as an artist, I had to hold myself together.
The worst compliment I’ve ever had… probably when my headmaster told me I didn’t belong in the c-class, I belonged in the e-class. I finally upgraded my Merc two years ago. He was right, the old bugger.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU EVER RECEIVED – AND WHO GAVE IT?
My grandfather once told me that, before making anyone else a promise, learn to keep promises to yourself. I didn’t take the advice until he was gone, and I regret that I never had a chance to acknowledge that gift. It helped me a lot when I got myself into quite a knot with booze and drugs later on.
Vladimir Putin – Just to balance out the table. He’s a menacing and hood-eyed macaque of darkness.
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?
There is no meaning, it’s just life. We make meaning up to justify the absurdity of how important our lives are to us, and how little the Universe cares.