Females rattle funny bones (without the filth)

Posted: August 3, 2009 in Investigative articles
Marc Lottering

Marc Lottering

First published in The Weekender 2 August.

The highly successful South African female stand-up comedian, with a long life span, is about as rare as a member of the fairer sex in Helen Zille’s cabinet.  A short list of celebrated male comedians includes Cape Town’s favourite son, Marc Lottering; everybody’s favourite Jew, Nik Rabinowitz; Riaad Moosa; and David Kau. The list goes on and on. We’re not interested in their story.  This is the story of some of the women who have made it to the top of the heap; the women strong enough to wade through thick streams of sexism, patriarchal attitudes, and prejudice; to find people laughing with them on the other side. 

Tumi Morake

Tumi Morake

Tumi Morake is rapidly establishing herself as Johannesburg’s top female stand-up.  Morake, whose career was officially launched in 2005, has a powerful stage presence and an infectious laugh.  “Acting is my lifelong dream,” says Morake, “And while studying at Wits I found that I was in my element with comical plays. Stand-up was born out of that.”

Morake was the only female stand-up at the recent Funny Festival held at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre.  Why is this so?  Morake laughs, “Look, how do you expect to get a tender without meeting the quota?  People get to enjoy a little affirmative action. BFF: black, female and funny. You think finding female comics is hard; try finding black ones! You see Helen Zille was a victim of circumstance when she picked her cabinet.”

      However it isn’t all just fun and games. Morake confesses that there have been times when she considered quitting. “I just couldn’t take the pressure,” she says. “Comedy is a male dominated arena because it’s an ego-driven profession. It’s the kind of rush that men enjoy more. It’s the same way fewer women are into extreme sports.  But we’re getting bolder and I believe there’ll be more, gutsier, women coming to the fore.”

      To add to their woes, Morake says it is always challenging delivering material that’s about the female experience without the mainly male audience switching off from the ‘would I shag her’ mode, to rather questioning whether she is funny or not. “I want to be appreciated as a comic, not just a ‘female’ comic. It’s tricky not falling into the trap of putting on male mannerisms when I’m on stage; dressing like them, commanding the stage like them.”

She still maintains that there’s plenty of space on the circuit for female stand-ups, “If they can switch off Desperate Housewives and stop ‘skinnering’ about what our three first ladies are wearing – sure”, says Morake. “Our kryptonite is the men who conspire to marry us and impregnate us before we can achieve world domination.”

Morake blames the absence of female role models on the late arrival of South African women on the comedy circuit. “Women have a history of being met with a ‘klap’ if they open their mouths – we aren’t quite used to having a podium,” says Morake, and laughs when she remembers an incident from the past. “I performed well on the evening and the guy after me was like, ‘Oh, they’re an easy audience’, as if I didn’t work for those laughs! The guy then went onstage and he did not get a great reception; I struggled to wipe the smirk off my face.”

Social psychologist Professor James Dabbs, who for many decades studied testosterone at the Georgia State University, writes; ‘Stand-up comedians who succeed or fail alone have higher testosterone levels than stage actors who work in groups with other actors’.   According to Dabbs, testosterone increases focus, ‘And focussed attention makes people more likely to take risks without noticing that others are holding back’. This, according to Dabbs, leads to women with lower testosterone wanting to play house and make babies.  Fair enough.  However can someone tell the Prof that Tumi Morake was breastfeeding in-between her performances at the Funny Festival.

Tracy Klass is another mommy turned stand-up comedian. Klass was 37 when she moved to Cape Town with her three kids. She spotted an article in the paper with a picture of Mark Sampson and Marc Lottering, and the subtitle; ‘Do you think you’re funny?’ This was the launch of the Cape Comedy Collective which spawned most of our mainstage comedians today.  Klass’ friends in Johannesburg had always told her that she was funny. “And I needed to do something for myself,” says the feisty Jewish comedian with the funky cropped hair-do and expressive eyes.  So she took herself to the workshop and her career as stand-up was launched.  “My inspiration comes from who I am; a Jewish mother with three kids.  Being Jewish makes for incredible comedy,” Says Klass. 

Tracy Klass in the foreground.

Tracy Klass in the foreground.

Her entry into the challenging world of stand-up was not exactly an easy ride. She recalls how, after doing stand up for only about 3 months, she accepted a heavyweight comedy jam with an audience of around 3000 people.  “I had absolutely no right to accept the gig,” Tracy recalls, “I walked onto stage. There was silence, and a voice shouted from the audience; ‘Show us your tits’.  Everyone erupted.  Unfortunately, that was the funniest part of my set.”

Tracy goes on to say that she learnt a wonderful lesson from Mel Miller that night who told her; ‘You are funny. Don’t let a good one go to your head – and a bad one go to your heart’.

What do their male counterparts think of the minority role still being played by the female stand-up?  The instantly love-able Nik Rabinowitz sums it up, “We have the advantage that we are judged mainly on how funny we are,” Says Rabinowitz. “Women have it harder. They’re automatically assessed on a number of other criteria; like how well they cook, sew, and parallel park.”

He gets serious for a moment, “I sense that audiences now want women to appear and succeed on stage. So perhaps it’s not so much that the female comic is instantly judged, but more their perception that they are being judged, which is their stumbling block,” He explains. “Either way, the time is ripe for women to step into their power and find their voice in the stand-up domain. The presence of female comics is not just nice to have; it’s a necessity. We need a balance of views and opinions, and women are often far less up their own arses than men.”

Marianne Thamm, respected journalist, author and editor, stumbled into comedy by accident.  She was doing research for a piece on South African comedy in 1999, and ended up at a few of the Cape Comedy Collective workshops. She recalls that Tracy Klass was the only other woman there.  Thamm soon found herself on the stand-up comedy circuit, “It got too big, too fast for my liking,” Says Thamm. “I found it very demanding and scary. It’s just you and the audience – it’s very raw.”

Thamm says she did not enjoy performing rehearsed material every night. “I wanted to do a sort of comedy jazz but that is just foolish because you have to work on a routine. You have to anchor your work.  She elaborates, “You must have stuff you can pull out when what you are doing is clearly not working. I wanted to bungee jump without the cord. It was terribly exhausting.”  After about a year on the circuit Thamm packed up her brief but successful stand-up career and continued writing.

Thamm speculates that part of the reason for stand-up comedy being a largely male dominated profession is that men are encouraged to find their own voices at a younger age. She elaborates, “Women take time to locate their own unique world view. Everything we subject our daughters to attempts to make them conform; comedy is the most subversive, anti-conformist thing a woman can do. You need to be loud, confident, and sometimes rude; all things women are taught to negate. So only a few women end up still hearing that voice – that own voice – and believe it is funny enough for others to hear.”

However Thamm feels it is exactly this under-exploitation of an audience by female stand-ups which give them a leading edge, “Audiences are not used to women on stage which makes it a potentially explosive space; a situation that should be used and abused by women but we don’t. South African audiences are very patriarchal and they do project lots of stuff onto female comedians which is why you can have such fun with them; the audiences.”

Thamm wonders about the fact that most female stand-ups, particularly abroad, end up getting their own shows or working in ensembles. An example is that of Joan Rivers, who is considered one of the pioneers of female stand-up.  Rivers started doing stand-up in clubs and bars before acquiring her own show.  Today she is the 2009 winner of Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice and she frantically blogs about all her TV performances across the globe.   “Maybe we just thrive better in a collective space. I am not sure,” ponders Thamm.

Veteran comedian, Marc Lottering adds his two cents, “A misconception on the stand-up circuit is that you need to talk about ‘dicks and whores’ says Lottering. “This is not true. “Many comics have proven that you can tell a funny story about a visit to the traffic department.  Audiences respond enthusiastically to a really funny story whether you’re male or female, gay or straight.”   Does Marc Lottering secretly suspect that women are actually funnier than men? “Marianne Thamm is funnier than any man I’ve ever met,” confesses Lottering, “And I have met many men.”

Tracy Klass agrees, “Woman can easily come across as rude, crass and filthy,” Says Klass.  “The same material that comes out of a man’s mouth is met with an eye role from woman and a guffaw from boys.  So there is a definite degree of sexism from the audience as well.” 

Johannesburg stand-up, David Kau, has his own take on the situation, “Helen Zille does the line-up for most of the comedy shows in the country; especially in the Western Cape, Says Kau. “I think things will get better this year since we now have a Minister of women-, kids- , youth- and disabled people. She should look at increasing the number of women in stand-up comedy otherwise her job is on the line.”


It would appear then that the stage is set for South African female stand-ups to make their mark and find their unique voice.  As with many of the other creative career paths, the ultimate successful candidate is the one who can – and wants to – get up after tripping on stage; to do it all again the next evening.  The final word goes to Tumi Morake, “When I was a little girl, I named everyone I liked Tumi.  I should have known then I had enough ego to brave the comedy industry!”   Perhaps Professor Dabbs should rather have specialised in the ego than waste all those precious years on the testosterone.

The End
Astrid Stark

  1. Murdock MacD. says:

    Geez girl, you’ve got the gift.!!!


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