The Road Not Taken

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When your favorite comedian is not at your local club, they are “on the road.” They are in the next town over trading laughs for cash. Then, like the faith healer at a traveling revival show, they pull up stakes and head down the interstate to repeat the process. This is, of course, if the comedian has enough smarts to route their shows and coordinate their schedule so their travels make sense both geographically and financially.

I am not such a comedian. Hello, I am Paul Ogata, professional idiot.

In a stunning example of my epic logistics fail, I once scheduled a two-month run that went thusly: San Diego, Singapore, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, Singapore, Sacramento, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Portland. That year also involved travel to Italy, Scotland and Germany. All of this done, by the way, while wedged into an economy seat. My passport has more ink than a Yakuza gangster.

The chaos of last year’s global tour began with shows in Johannesburg, South Africa. If comedy is the best medicine, then there is no place in the world that is more in need of such a pharmaceutical than South Africa.

South Africa’s lengthy struggle with racial harmony is well documented in news articles, history books and in Lethal Weapon 2. Post-apartheid South Africa is still understandably a tense place with race relations remaining a touchy subject.

For Joe Parker, it was a golden opportunity. Parker, a long-time South African comedian, parlayed his widespread popularity into the country’s only full-time comedy club, Parker’s Comedy And Jive. With a beautiful, purpose-built showroom at the Montecasino entertainment complex, it is the de facto capital of comedy in the Republic. More importantly, it may be the key to South Africa’s very survival.

Here, audiences are treated to live stand-up comedy every Wednesday through Saturday. I was relieved to see patrons of all colors laughing, united, at jokes that might have started altercations if told outside of a comedy club. Thankfully, humor is a healing salve, and in the hands of a trained practitioner may even work to heal a nation.

Parker’s brings in an international act once a month for two weeks. Last January, I was that act. Bringing in a professional comedian from outside the market is a great idea for Parker’s. It adds a differing point of view to the shows. Also, some of the local comedians in this nascent scene have just a few years of experience under their belts, giving them a chance to learn and pick the brains of veterans if they choose to. Most importantly, it keeps my creditors at bay.

When I was there, I had the chance to work with Joe Parker himself, and Vittorio Leonardi, a comic with over a decade in the business. Very little brain-picking was done this fortnight, obviously. But it meant that the audiences were in store for a fantastic time.

Not much has to be changed in my act in Johannesburg. With expats or tourists nothing is lost in translation, but depending on the country, local audiences may benefit from material tweaking. English is one of the main languages of South Africa. So the local audiences are likely to get the jokes and pop culture references as easily as they do here at home. I like it when I don’t have to tinker under the hood.

On a couple of the nights, I am whisked away immediately after my set across the Gauteng province, to Brakpan, where Parker’s does a late show in another casino’s theatre. Brakpan, while a short drive away from Johannesburg, is a different world. The audience is rowdier in this blue-collar mining town, more willing to follow you as you lead them down dangerous premises. A few people in the crowd are bare-footed. Some of the younger local comics have warned me about this place. I revel in it.

Aside from the great shows, Johannesburg is a wonderful place to be. My “branch office”, as I call my accommodations while traveling, was a lovely guesthouse located minutes away from the club. The owner made me breakfast every morning and had three friendly dogs that served as perfect substitutes for my two dogs at home. I got to play with baby lions and cheetahs at a nearby park. I still have the scratches on my arm, though they are healing. I may have to cut into them periodically to keep them fresh.

Old KeyThis is a country that could just as easily continue mending deep wounds as it could collapse back into the maelstrom of protests and demonstrations it endured decades earlier. Comedy is a perfect agent to ensure the former. If you can get different peoples together to laugh at themselves and others, we begin to see that we share universal foibles and follies. Laughter, after the tears of yesterday, expedites healing and moves us to tomorrow. However, as if to show that some of the old ways are not going quietly, the guesthouse I stayed in used those old-timey, Scooby Doo haunted house keys. Ah, the stubborn past.

With Parker’s Comedy And Jive leading the way, I am certain that the future is bright for South Africa. Joe Parker continues to grow his brand, indoctrinating more and more South Africans to the healing medicine that is comedy.

Big things are happening for the club and the local scene as Comedy Central Africa, the American network’s enterprise on the continent, has begun shooting a “Live At Parker’s” series similar to their “Live at Gotham” here in the US.

After my final night’s show, New York comic Ted Alexandro popped backstage to say hello, having enjoyed the evening in the crowd. He was in town doing a fundraiser the following night. Alexandro, one of today’s comedy elite, seems to ply the same road less traveled as I do. We keep missing each other in places like Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. Although I think his routing is probably way better and includes business class.

Paul Ogata and Ted Alexandro

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