The gospel, according to Marc

Stand-up comic Marc Lottering takes the business of making people laugh very seriously, as his career crafts an extended tribute to people on the Cape Flats.

You will never see the most anxious part of Marc Lottering’s performance. And in those moments, he doesn’t see you either.

In the wings of the theatre, getting ready for the show to start, the South African comic listens to the sound of the audience trickle into the space. Glasses clink, credit cards swipe and the space fills with expectations. In these moments, he remembers that his mother could have organised him a job at Clicks. “A good job”.

“I call it my ‘Clicks connection’ moment,” he says, sitting in the sunshine outside Paul’s Café in Melrose Arch. “Because I’m like ‘those people out there are having a great time, I can hear some of them have drinks, and they probably work at Clicks; they just come in and let their hair down, and they are gonna have a lekker evening and I must now walk on … and make [them] laugh … Every single person here had to part with money and it’s for me and they expect me to be funny … and then I go on and that feeling leaves after nine minutes’.”

For someone who has been on stage for more than two decades, that’s a lot of moments, stacked on top of each other, in a career that could have never happened. Marc Lottering was almost a lawyer. 

A chance career

Lottering’s life story, condensed, tells of how a 30-year-old man from Retreat on the Cape Flats, who studied law at university (while working as an usher at the Baxter Theatre) became one of South Africa’s most loved comedians, almost by chance. 

While working as a project manager in advertising, with some stage musical experience, Lottering decided to try comedy at the urging of a friend – the editor and journalist Marianne Thamm, after Friday nights spent swapping stories over wine. He booked The Coffee Lounge in Cape Town’s City Bowl as an intimate venue and staged his first show, After the Beep, in 1997, while his partner and supporters stood nervously in the back of the room. 

“They couldn’t believe it was happening,” he says, while laughing. But the show was a great success. The owner of the venue asked Lottering to come back every night for the next two weeks. He never returned to his day job.

It seems impossible to imagine a South African entertainment landscape without Lottering. Decades after After the Beep, he has cemented his place in South Africa’s culture, and in the process has become an institution. Namechecked in a rap song, with his instantly recognisable face and silver-striped hair, 2019 is Marc Lottering’s coming of age. 

7 June 2019: An unexpected career as a stand-up comic, Marc Lottering defines what it is to get Cape Flats society to laugh at itself.

A loving humour

This year, Lottering celebrates 21 years as a performer with a new show that is currently touring the country. Called Not a Musical, the work is a tongue-in-cheek nod at his recent run with Aunty Merle: The Musical, named for his beloved alter-ego named Aunty Merle Abrahams, lovingly constructed over the years. Aunty Merle, from Belgravia Road in Athlone, is a beloved, instantly recognisable woman, all-knowing, spicy and religious, she spouts neighbourhood gossip, knowledge and advice. The character is a major part of Lottering’s career – her name is tattooed on his forearm. 

There is a seamless synergy between “onstage” and “offstage” versions of Marc Lottering. Beyond a constant stream of jokes, he emanates kindness, charisma and sensitivity: the hallmarks of his humour.

If you pulled apart a Marc Lottering joke to expose its anatomy, you would find layers of meaning, delicately constructed. While seemingly lighthearted and rooted in the ordinary, each joke is weighted at its root, sinking into the heart of South Africans – exposing struggles with race, class, gender, sexuality and politics, even as they are gently delivered. 

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As Thamm writes, reflecting on his style, onstage the comedian is “seemingly relaxed, just talking kak on stage about weddings, debt, limp cucumber sandwiches and decorated prawn canapés … Lottering makes it all seem so effortless, so relevant, so close to home that the conversation (or rather the monologue) on stage could all be taking place in your own kitchen or lounge”. As “one of the country’s most beloved observational comics” as Thamm describes him,  Lottering deals in “subtle excavation”. 

Time spent interviewing the performer is a constant comedy show, with no ticket required. Every silence is an opportunity for a joke, a chance to return to certain gags to find new ways for them to land, and to use laughter to disarm and defuse. Listening to the explanation of his jokes are layered, within seconds, he shoots back: “that’s very matric with exemption”. 

Despite this easy jesting, and because of it, Lottering takes laughter very seriously. In an interview with journalist Leonie Wagner, he said: “Comedy does not run away from the dark issues. It runs towards it and it is born out of it”. 

Describing the job of a comedian, he says, “It has become very important … It weighs heavily on me not to divide [people], to remind people that … we laugh and cry at the same things. Essentially we hurt and celebrate for the same reasons. Ultimately, the purpose of comedy is to make you feel.”

Through the filter of laughter, comedy presents the world as it is. It takes the ordinary to hyperbole and shows hilarity in the mundane. It holds a mirror to reality, and in its best form, it asks society to truly look at itself. For Lottering, that has meant reflecting the country’s community that identify as coloured.

From the Cape Flats, with love

Twenty-one years ago, critic Adam Haupt wrote, about Lottering’s debut: “Based largely on aspects of his own life in the ‘Clora’ (so-called coloured) community in Retreat where he grew up, the show is a celebration of life on the Cape Flats during the 1980s.” This is still true today, even as his subject matter has widened.

Lottering’s career has been an extended tribute to the Cape Flats. “Growing up in Retreat shaped a lot of my stand-up,” he says. “I knew that there were stories that needed to be told, and that were not being told about people on the Cape Flats, in a way that was not talking about stabbings or drugs or no teeth, because there are other aspects to people’s lives as well,” he adds.

This reality is something he deals with, without romanticising. “The thing about growing up on the Cape Flats is that in the 1970s and 1980s, people emphasised hair, the shade of your skin, and on which side of the road you lived: whether you lived in a semi-detached place or is it a freestanding house … and that’s kind of how you grew up with English as a first language.” This remains true for growing up in the 2000s. History echoes.

7 June 2019: South African stand-up comic Marc Lottering has become a brand in his own right. He hosts a celebration of 21 years onstage.

New comics

Each generation produces its own comics, who speak to their particular time. Lottering recalls that when he emerged, alongside David Kau, comics were required to produce a 60-minute one man show, performed in a theatre. Now, comedy happens in bars and small venues – delivered in rapid fire five-minute interludes, in a time where the Goliath and Goliath comedy brand is shaping new spaces for the genre to thrive. The direction has reversed. 

The hunger evident in new comics in the industry astonishes Lottering. “Yoh, I marvel at their commitment, even the newer comics, people who don’t have a lot of money jumping in Ubers to go to an open mic in Melville and then go from Melville to the other side, all on the same night, just for this damn microphone … the hustle is real.” 

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Reflecting on his 21 years in the industry, he says, “You’re only as good as last night’s gig and to keep your body and your mind going for the rhythm of comedy, you just keep doing it.”

While Lottering might not have followed in the footsteps of his father, a church pastor, their careers are not as far from one another as many presume.

“When I started out, there was a show on TV called People of the South [presented by] Dali Tambo. He interviewed my father and mother and so he had this whole Pentecostal experience … And the reason he did it was because the perception out there is that [the church] is at loggerheads with my comedy, [because] there are age restrictions on my shows because of language … my parents were like that initially as well.”

“And then Dali Tambo said when you break down preaching the gospel, what it actually means is bringing people good news, that’s the traditional meaning of it. And he said ‘I think that’s what you do, you bring the good news, so you’re preaching a different kind of gospel’.

Not A Musical runs at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town from 26 August to 20 September 2019.

Aunty Merle: It’s a Girl is at the Baxter Theatre from 22 November to 1 February 2020. 

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