Laughter is in Tumi’s genes
Every time I excelled at something, Mama would say: “My baby, you are a trier.” It was her way of saying that she was impressed, that I was making waves. I liked that she called it “trying”, because everything I ventured into was a trial. I have never been cocksure; I have just told myself that if I can learn something, I can master it.
Mama and I shared many laughs. She was naughty, and she always made people laugh. My father also has a fantastic sense of humour, and no shortage of dry jokes. Their combined genes created this comedic beast that is Tumi Morake.
When I first branched into stand-up comedy, it wasn’t because of some calling I thought I may have; it was because I had finally happened onto something I could approach with the confidence of a cockroach.
The first time I ever did stand-up was for a finalyear student who had written a script for three comedians or comic actors. I can tell jokes, I reckoned, so why not? At the audition, there was a queue of boys and only two girls. I was not fazed. I grabbed a script, stepped outside, prepped. I laughed so hard at the script before I even memorised it that I must have looked like I was sucking up. I could see other actors trying to figure the gags out.
I remembered the words of my grade 4 teacher,
Mrs Walker, who told me that I had an innate understanding of humour. I got the jokes that went over most of the class’s heads. At this audition, I already felt like I had an edge on everyone else.
When my turn came, I stood in front of this beautiful, tiny Greek girl with long dark hair and a friendly face. I remember the relief I felt when she laughed before I had even begun going through her gags. I was cast with two other guys, and I never looked back.
The first gag I ever wrote was about a prison hunger strike that had made headlines at the time. I said it was only fair that the hunger strikers save us some tax money, since we feed them anyway, and it could even solve the issue of overcrowding in prisons by killing inmates off. The hunger strike came across more like a self-correcting mechanism than a problem.
Another early gag was about the acoustics in public toilets that made it difficult for anyone to do a number 2. I would make the sound of the poop dropping into the water, the echo of that embarrassing broadcast, and the extra-hard, unnecessarily loud coughing fit you use to try to mask the sound. Then sitting in your cubicle until you were sure that the restroom was empty, because you did not want whoever had heard you to see who had made the noise. It was a crappy gag, but I sold it and got that first big laugh that spurred me on to write more.
Born under a funny star sign
I grew steadily from there. The first time I performed in a comedy festival was in 2004, a charity gig for Rotaract in the Downstairs Theatre of Wits University. This was to be the inaugural Best Medicine Comedy Show, benefiting local orphanages. [My husband] Mpho was assembling a huge comedy line-up at a time when comedy fests were a rare thing. He talked me into doing five minutes, because he was convinced I was hilarious. I was convinced that the guy was just so in love with me that he actually thought I could stand among giants.
An unfamiliar nervousness came over me, but it was also exciting in a way I had never experienced before. Mpho’s line-up included his sister Nana Yaa and some established comedians my brave young man had decided to call to get this thing done. He had worked with them on The Phat Joe Show and was positive they would be down.
This was how I learnt the simple strategy of “the worst thing they can do is say no”. Mpho called them up one by one: Riaad Moosa, Joey Rasdien, Kagiso Lediga, Tshepo Mogale and Dale Abrahams. All of them agreed to appear. David Kau played hardball and initially refused, but on the night he showed up and said he’d jump on. It was insane! I tried to chicken out, but my man was having none of it. A couple of other students were also going to jump on for five minutes. We were excited. Sceptical, but excited. Kagiso came up to me backstage and asked me what my star sign was. I told him Sagicorn, and he said, “You’re gonna die.” I wanted to punch him in the throat. Then I realised he was going around to all the newtimers and asking them that question. We all had a laugh, although I faked mine because I was too mortified to find anything funny.
I clutched my little piece of paper with my planned set. I wasn’t going to make the five-minute mark, but I would be happy with three. My voice lecturer at the time, Pam Power (prolific writer, friggin’ amazing, funny as hell), came to watch and told me afterwards that this was a career path I should definitely consider. She was impressed. This was a sharpshooter who did not give compliments willy-nilly, so I held on to her words like she had just given me a distinction in performance.
It would take me another three years to jump onstage at a comedy club, but stand-up stayed on my mind during the post-Wits hustle, and eventually became an obsession. I saw it as a platform for fearless speech. That quality, or promise, drew me to the art. The absence of sacred cows in the material promised me a certain level of satisfaction that I would not get from anything else I was involved in as a performer or a writer.
My other work imposed limitations set by censorship, or I would find myself diluting my thoughts by expressing them through fictional characters. What I wanted was to join the sacred home of the marginalised, where I could speak freely, against the system, against the status quo, without fear of retribution. The way African-American comedians talked back to the dominant ideology and power.
Smoke, beer and testosterone
I got in touch with Judy-Jake Tsie, another talented female comedian, to ask her how I could get five minutes on a comedy stage. She had the contacts; I needed the connection. The first one was a gig for Joe Parker in a casino complex called Carnival City. Carnival City is on the East Rand, in Brakpan. From the outside it looked like a giant, dome-shaped fun park with blue, red and yellow lights. Walking in, I found a giant casino that felt worlds apart from reality. The only other place where I’d heard that much Afrikaans being spoken was in Bloemfontein. I felt right at home.
We walked across the winding walkways and came to the lily-white Supersport Bar, where wafting cigarette smoke hung in the air, mingling with the smell of fermented saaz hops. This was a very male space. Invisible testosterone flexed its muscle here. And because it was the end of the month, the room was packed to capacity. My nerves began kicking in.
We came in through the front, facing the stage. The show preceding ours was still on: a “tits-and-ass show”, as the comics called it. Heavily made-up girls in skimpy costumes and super-high heels; these were the only female performers we encountered in that space. Wonderful. We went to wait in the back because the dressing rooms were occupied by either dancers or dancers’ things. I didn’t mind; I couldn’t sit still anyway. The audience was mainly drunk, mainly white, mainly male. The women who were there were either accompanying those men or were probably on a gambling break. And after the tits-and-ass show, I dare say those men were a tad randy and in the mood for action rather than comedy. The last thing they wanted now, I imagined, was some chancers trying to make them laugh.
However, Judy-Jake convinced me that it would be great; I had a strong five minutes, and that was all I needed to sell myself to this room. An open spot is an unpaid spot, but this was my chance to prove I was good enough to be a paid act.
One of the comics told me that this was a tough crowd, but I would do all right if I just got up there, did my time and left. Well.
Madam & Eve, sort of
When I got on stage, the audience continued to speak among themselves. A couple of comedians had already been bodied, so I was prepared to die. Some people in the audience seemed thrown; I may have been the first black female comedian they had ever seen. I decided to address the elephant in the room by saying that I was wearing too many clothes compared to the last show and that I probably looked out of place. I assured them that my madam had given me the night off to come and do comedy (because, let’s face it, they were way more familiar with black women as domestic workers than as witty stand-up comedians). They chuckled, and I noticed that the room had gone quiet. I thought I was dying, but when the first big laugh hit and was followed by silence, I realised these guys were with me. They were buying into my story and waiting for me to keep going. I owned my space.
Mama and I shared many laughs. She was naughty, and she always made people laugh. My father also has a fantastic sense of humour, and no shortage of dry jokes. Their combined genes created this comedic beast that is Tumi Morake