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Comedian's Unusual Characters Shine on South Africa’s Comedy Scene

  • Darren Taylor

This is Part Four of a five-part series on South African comedians Continue to Parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

Etienne Shardlow takes the stage and before he’s even said a word, the large audience is roaring with laughter. The reason – he’s a 36-year-old man dressed as a schoolboy…in a black blazer that’s hopelessly too small for him, tiny, tight gray shorts, long gray socks and scuffed black shoes.

As he prepares to deliver his monologue he stares blankly at the people before him and wipes his nose repeatedly with a yellowed handkerchief.

“That’s my best known comic character, ‘The Schoolboy.’ He’s been around for eight years. He’s supposed to be 11 years old,” Shardlow told VOA after a recent performance. “For me to dress up and try to pull off an 11-year-old character is interesting. It works; I’m not sure how but it works!”

In a squeaky voice and with a pronounced stutter, The Schoolboy reveals his warped views of the adult world.

Shardlow’s act is often in the style of a speech that a child would give at school, entitled ‘My Dad,’ in which he describes the antics of his almost seven-foot-tall, hard-drinking, heavy metal music-loving, racist, homophobic, sexist and foul-mouthed father, who’s constantly insulting him and calling him useless…but whom The Schoolboy nevertheless adores, thinking him “the cleverest man in the world.”

In one joke he mocked the practice of lobola among some ethnic groups in South Africa, according to which a man must give a certain number of cattle to the family of his prospective bride before he’s allowed to marry her.

Shardlow’s character then went on to describe a family visit to the east coast city of Durban – famous for its beaches and its huge population of South Africans of Indian origin.

“My dad says Durban is a lot like South Africa, except there’s a sea,” said The Schoolboy, who then paused at length before adding, “…of Indian people. My dad says [that’s why] it’s called the Indian Ocean.”

Wordplay and dry humor

Shardlow said, “The Schoolboy works because he’s believable. We’ve all been at school and we’ve either been just like him, or we’ve known a school kid just like him. His [delivery] is very innocent on the surface but there are layers of innuendoes in the speech and that’s what makes it so funny, because it’s almost as if the character doesn’t know what he is saying.”

In another recent show, The Schoolboy referred to South African talk show host Felicia Mabuza-Suttle, who was much parodied and pilloried for supposedly interviewing her guests in a fake American accent and for a style that many viewers found irritating on her show – ‘Felicia on E’ - on the channel.

“My dad says he doesn’t know why that program was called ‘Felicia on E.’ My dad says that Felicia was never on E [the recreational drug Ecstasy]. But he thinks heroin maybe,” The Schoolboy squeaked.

Sarcasm, a deadpan, dry wit and clever wordplay are features of Shardlow’s comedy.

“That’s the kind of humor that I identify with. The comedy that I do onstage is more my mother’s sense of humor, which is bitter and dry and sarcastic,” said the comic. He quickly added, “My mother, she mustn’t hear this interview; she’ll kill me, you know!”

‘Laugh at yourself’

Self-deprecation is also a hallmark of Shardlow’s style. He often satirizes and mocks his hometown of Springs, a town 30 miles east of Johannesburg.

“Springs is a little industrial town now; it used to be a mining town. It has that very small town mentality. It has a reputation for being backward, for not having the smartest population. It’s the kind of place where if you wear jeans, you’re considered the town eccentric. If those jeans are flared, you’re likely to get beaten up,” said Shardlow, smiling.

“I know people from Springs who go to the big city of Johannesburg, which is 45 kilometers away, once a year. That trip is the highlight of their year.”

Shardlow’s adamant that to laugh at yourself is an “essential tool of survival” in the modern world.

“If you can’t, you’re going to be miserable for most of your life. Don’t let others have the monopoly on laughing at you; laugh at yourself in a way that uplifts you and gives you strength to face the next challenge,” he said.

A gay homophobe

Another of his popular shows is called ‘Etty Spaghetti.’

“Etty Spaghetti’s actually a nickname I got in primary school because of my structure – my long, skinny legs and arms. And I’m also super-pale, just like spaghetti,” Shardlow explained.

He added that the show is presented by four characters – The Schoolboy; himself, Etienne Shardlow; a chef…“and then there is Erak, who is possibly an extreme version of someone I used to be – a gay homophobe,” said Shardlow. “It sounds like a bizarre concept but there are so many gay people who are anti-gay. I used to be one of them. For a long time I denied that I was gay, and I did this by going out of my way to insult gay people.”

The comedian is also a gay rights activist, and he often touches on homosexuality in his work. In particular, he satirizes homophobes.

“Erak is obviously gay. But everything he says is violently anti-gay…. If there’s anything wrong in the world, he blames homosexuality for it. Anytime there’s conflict anywhere, he’ll find the cause to be rooted to homosexuality,” said Shardlow.

At a recent performance of Etty Spaghetti, Erak barked at the audience in a feminine voice, “Gays cause all the conflicts in the world. They cause problems with all the different religions and they cause problems in the Middle East. All the trouble between America and Iraq and Afghanistan – it was all because of the gays. The gays even caused the earthquake in Japan.”

But it’s The Schoolboy persona that Shardlow said is his “true home” as a comedian.

“That character is proof that I’ve never grown up,” he commented, laughing. “And I hope I never, ever grow up.”