News / Africa

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.

  • Etienne Shardlow takes to the stage as his hilarious ‘Schoolboy’ character (Courtesy E. Shardlow)
  • Shardlow is known for his bitter, dry and sarcastic wit. (Courtesy E. Shardlow)
  • A poster advertising ‘Etty Spaghetti,’ with Shardlow as ‘The Chef’ character (Courtesy E. Shardlow)
  • An advertisement for Shardlow’s ‘Etty Spaghetti’ show (Courtesy. E. Shardlow)

“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.”
Listen to profile of South African comedian Etienne Shardlow
Listen to profile of South African comedian Etienne Shardlowi
|| 0:00:00

You May Like

Obama: Action on Climate Change 'Economic, Security Imperative'

President spoke to reporters on sidelines of UN Climate Summit outside Paris, where leaders are working to agree on binding measures

IMF Bets on China’s Resolve to Reform

IMF announcement already raising questions about just how much Beijing is committed to such reforms

UNICEF: Hidden Epidemic of HIV Among Adolescents

Researchers warn that Asia Pacific nations facing sharp rise in incidence of HIV among adolescents

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs