Don’t be fooled by the funny faces he pulls for his posters. Loyiso Gola may be among the continent’s top comedians, but he’s a pretty serious guy. ‘I’m obsessed,’ he says. ‘I’m obsessed with doing stand-up comedy.’ Everything else – fame, money, even the career trajectory he’s set himself on – is secondary to the obsessive love he has for performing comedy on stage.
Gola, who, along with fellow South Africans Loyiso Madinga, Riaad Moosa and Tumi Morake, appears in Netflix’s gargantuan new series Comedians of the World, says that his currency is time, which means that, wherever possible, he wants to be doing the thing he loves – making people laugh. It’s why there’s perhaps a hint of impatience when he’s being interviewed. Because, as much as he enjoys sharing his mind and batting away irrelevant questions with deep insights, he would much rather be on stage making people laugh.
His Netflix appearance has certainly broadened his audience. The series, filmed at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival last year, features 47 comedians from around the world, each performing a solo half-hour set in front of a live audience. Considering Netflix’s incredible global footprint, it’s probably the biggest comedy platform in the world right now.
Not that Gola is new to the international arena. His long-running satirical TV series Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola was earning Emmy nominations back in 2013, and he has for years been performing on foreign stages, including London’s Royal Albert Hall. He’s appeared at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, at the Edinburgh Fringe, and – apart from appearing on Britain’s prestigious Live at the Apollo – earned a spot on 50 Cent’s BET comedy show, 50 Central.
‘I’m very good at what I do,’ Gola tells me when I ask how French-speaking Canadian audiences responded to him during the filming of his half-hour Netflix taping. To prove his point, he switches accents, does a brief Québécois impression, and throws in a few French words for fun. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘comedy keeps me sharp.’
Witnessing that sharpness in action is fascinating, because it’s never certain where Gola will be coming from – there’s consistent novelty, a sustained sense that he’s about to unleash something unexpected. It’s breathtaking watching him in front of an audience. Not only because his stories are funny and clever, but because of the manner in which he engages with the crowd. Typically, he laughs along with them, as if he’s hearing his jokes for the first time, surprising himself with the stories he tells. When I ask him if that laughter is genuine, he looks at me almost bewildered. ‘Yes, of course I find my jokes funny!’
Gola grew up in Gugulethu, where he says he was not the funny guy in school. He was pretty shy, in fact, and only started ‘speaking out’ when he reached high school. Even then, he didn’t stand out as the comic, since he wasn’t the only one making jokes. ‘That’s what we all did – on the sports field, in class – we all made jokes,’ he says.
His dad was funny, too, though, so perhaps the comedy bug was in his DNA. But Gola says it wasn’t so much that he had anything special, but that he became determined to work hard at something he loved.
The thing about comedy, he explains, is that it takes time to hone the skill. He says he was fortunate to get started when he was really young. ‘When you’re young, it’s easier. You don’t have too many things to worry about, to rant about. You don’t have bills to pay, and you don’t have a wife or girlfriend asking, “What’s the plan?” So a young comedian is able to work at it without the pressures of life.’
He started out with the Cape Comedy Collective while he was still at school. By the time he arrived in Joburg, aged 19, he was on the verge of turning pro and was picking up awards for his routines. He fast-tracked his climb to the top of Mzansi’s comedy scene when he teamed up with writer-comedian Kagiso Lediga as the anchor of Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola.
He’s also been the Africa correspondent for The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, an Australian news parody show; has appeared on various specials for the BBC; and been profiled by CNN’s African Voices. He’s performed everywhere from Lagos to Latvia, and in Switzerland, Finland and Estonia. He calculates that in 2017 he never spent more than three weeks at a stretch in the same city, such was his touring schedule.
He says that, while he’s not into educating an audience, there is some responsibility for giving the outside world a glimpse into the reality of South African life. Gola has been outspoken about the general lack of knowledge about blackness. He says the West tends to have an overwhelmingly American notion of black identity, so when he performs abroad he likes to provide a more nuanced perspective, giving audiences an insight into the reality of life on this continent.
He also believes that making people a bit uncomfortable is part of his job. That discomfort is the space in which people get to reflect.
Self-reflection has been a big part of his own life, too, he says. These days he likes to use the word ‘fluid’ to describe himself, meaning that he tries to live with an open mind and to be open to change. Most things, including beliefs, he says, are – to some extent – ephemeral, changeable.
He describes how – in the 1990s – he loved cricket. He says you could ask him the tiniest bit of cricketing trivia and he’d have an answer for you. Who was at the crease for such-and-such a match? He’d not only know who was batting, but how many runs were scored. ‘Now I hate cricket!’ he says. Realisations such as this have made him aware that nothing is fixed or permanent. He’s learnt not to hang on to things, material or otherwise. And he doesn’t mind having his mind or his opinion changed. Today’s love might be tomorrow’s hate, so those sorts of attachments aren’t helpful, either.
He says he tries to live in the moment, preferring to savour and appreciate what’s happening right now rather than focus on some idealised goal in the future. He prefers not to think in terms of achievements. ‘The thing is to keep working,’ he says. ‘And to be alive and happy.’
This kind of reflection has been close to Gola’s heart for some time now; he’s been sagely unpacking what was instilled in him growing up, reflecting deeply on how habits and beliefs are formed.
Part of his ongoing process of self-improvement – also the subject of his recent show Unlearning – has been to let go of ingrained ideas about how the world works. He says, at a certain point, when he started unpacking himself, he got rid of a lot of material things. But the real transformation is about getting rid of what you’ve been taught, he says.
He admits that some of the most important things he’s had to unlearn have been around masculinity. He talks about how men traditionally were being primed for war – to fight and kill – and they were therefore taught to disconnect from their emotions. That’s not applicable anymore, he says, and men today need to be in touch with their emotions.
So does he do comedy to connect people with their emotions, to make them feel more deeply? Not really, he says. ‘My intention is to get to the joke as quickly as possible. I want to make people laugh. That is what I love to do.’