Tats Life

After shooting to fame on South African TV—and crashing to earth shortly after—Tats Nkonzo has learned his lessons. He tells Matthew Sharpe about the importance of non-Western voices in comedy

feature | Read in About 5 minutes
Published 23 Aug 2015

Tats Nkonzo is fashionably late in the truest sense of the phrase, arriving slightly behind schedule and dressed in trendy attire. "I went on a date last night", he begins candidly. He tells me he's worried that she was just acting nice; being patronisingly polite in order to bridge the cultural gap.

But if he was stung by the lousy date, he doesn't show it: Tats sits with a relaxed demeanour, a figure of cool, and with good reason too. The South African comedian's Fringe debut has been received with positive writeups and quietly spreading hubbub. Born in Johannesburg in 1985, a whole nine years before the end of the apartheid, his upbringing is in stark contrast to the majority of comics at the festival.

"When you're born you don't really realise that there's a seperation. You just grow up and think 'I live 30km away from town, and if I want to go and watch a movie I can't'.

"If I want to go to a mall, I have to travel all that distance. For me, malls were more about admin, they weren't a social experience. It's little things like that which made me aware of the separation. Everything was more difficult, growing up under that, it shapes me but I don't even realise it"

His professional beginnings, by contrast, gave him a headstart: he shot to fame on South African reality TV programme So You Think You're Funny, performing standup for the first time. He reached the last eight of the competition, but he says it taught him valuable lessons about the industry.

"Every time I got through to the next round, I was out of jokes already. My roommate won the competition. I knew I wasn't going to win because he had 1000 jokes he hadn't even used yet, and a couple of weeks later I was out of the competition. I wormed my way into the media launch for season two, but I crashed historically in front of all the journalists and celebrities. It was such a big stage to crash on that I learnt my lesson very quickly. It was a blessing in disguise. I was stubborn, and I knew that I could do this thing. I messed up, but I knew I could do better."

It proved to be a particularly formative moment in his time as a standup. After that gigs started rolling in, TV offers came, and he sharpened his game.

"It wasn't that much of a fight. After that I was very professional. That lesson came very early on in my career, whereas other guys kind of nonchalantly stumble through problems. Their shocks come incrementally, they'll die on stage comfortably because it's only in front of six people. Their realisation of how much work it takes is gradual, whereas mine was very sudden."

His was a very non-traditional route into the profession, but he's aware of how tough comedy can be as an industry to break into. "I know I'm fortunate because when I hear guys retelling their story of slow paths to success, I can't relate." For Nkonzo, TV was a way to bypass the numerous ostacles faced by other non-white comedians. 

Indeed, South-African comedians are few and far between in a market still dominated by the white middle class, even if the gender imbalance is slowly being addressed. This, however, gives him the chance to offer a fresh perspective.

"As a South African in Edinburgh I realise I can talk about so many refreshing things to a comedy connoisseur's ear. The comedy voice worldwide is very first-world. It's American, it's European. As great as they are, they can only talk about their experience."

It doesn't just affect his mentality, but it influences his material too. "In terms of South African voices, minority isn't even the word. It's almost non-existent! I have that as my weapon. I can say 'oh you're talking about relationships, you're talking about the time the tap broke? Let me tell you about Ebola.' I enjoy taking that British sensibility and twisting it to a different decibel. I love challenging perceptions."

Despite this, South-African comedians—and by extension the third-world voice to which he refers—are a growing presence on the international comedy scene. There has perhaps not been a proliferation in numbers, but some of the existing names are enjoying a meteoric rise.

I bring up Trevor Noah, recently announced as the new host of The Daily Show in the U.S. as one such example. "I think Trevor is the biggest, his rise has been miraculous. I'm only just entering the space."

It's conceivable that, as quite possibly the only African comedian a Fringe-goer might see this year, he feels a sense of responsibilty to represent his culture. 

"I do feel responsible, because I know how brilliant we (South Africans) are. I want to make it easier for the next S.A. comic who comes through. That's what Trevor [Noah] has done for me. But I'm not a believer of artist's responsibility. You don't give it to artists, artists can only take responsibility. It's like a gift, you can't put that pressure on people."

It's a gift, though, that Nkonzo appears to have accepted: "I think just by making people laugh, by being on a poster, I'm challenging perceptions. By rocking up on the stage in Edinburgh, that alone communicates something. Some people don't know that Africa has wifi, or comedians. There's so many things I can subvert just by being on stage."