from 2007


– Anthony Ackroyd, United Nations of Comedy, 2007


I cut my teeth as a comedian during the 1980s at the Sydney Comedy Store. I thought the alcoholically enhanced punters at the Store could be a tough crowd but talking to Pieter-Dirk Uys I realise I had it easy.

In a way the drunks at the Comedy Store epitomised Aussie democracy — everyone (believe me, everyone!) exercised their right to voice an opinion. Being a white South African using comedy to satirise the repressive Government of South Africa during the worst years of Apartheid, now that’s a tough assignment. It’s an assignment that Pieter-Dirk Uys undertook with enormous courage and great success.

Not many male comedians can claim that they’ve worn a dress while interviewing Nelson Mandela and been kissed on the cheek while dancing with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Then again not many male comedians have created a comic character who has been proclaimed the most famous woman in their country…or used comedy to teach over one million school children about AIDS…or been officially declared a Living Legacy.

In this interview Pieter-Dirk Uys tells us why he chose to shoot his mouth off rather than shoot the President of South Africa, why laughter is the ultimate democracy, why a patriot is someone who protects his country from its government, and why politicians and monkeys are similar in ways you may not have considered.

Pieter-Dirk, when we hear the words "South Africa" most of us don't immediately think "ah, yes, the comedy capital of the world". Does South Africa have a tradition of comedy? If so, can you describe it please?

PDU:  Like everything else in SA, comedy is racist. Meaning the above definition is of 'white' comedy. Always easy to get a laugh when using words like fart and bum and shit. SA audiences are always paralysed with laughter at rude references. They bring the house down. My work is not funny. I have to make us laugh at our fear and hope to make that fear less fearful. Cannot tell jokes. Truth is funnier. And during apartheid — which was totally unfunny — one had to find bitter laughter in the lies, hypocrisy, danger and hopelessness of the situation. None of us thought we'd get away with apartheid, but we did. Now that's black comedy!

What was it like performing satire during the apartheid era? How severe were the restrictions and how did you get around those restrictions?

PDU:  It was more of an instinctive reaction to the anger within and a feeling of uselessness. As a white Afrikaner what could one do other than shoot the President? Humour became my weapon of mass distraction. As soon as people laughed, you could slide the blade between their ribs. It was important to do the deed in the heart of darkness. I would perform at the Pretoria State Opera house to 1500 white government supporters and live to tell the tale. Why? Equal opportunity satire; 49% anger 51% entertainment. I never pushed a political party line, not even from the banned ANC. I stood there as a democrat. That in itself was a rare and unprotected species in the 80s. Believe me, doing my type of comedy in Pretoria during the apartheid 80s, was like doing Fiddler on the Roof in Nuremburg in the 30s.


You've been told by members of the present democratic Parliament that they remember seeing your videos in prison and while in exile. Were you aware during those days that your work was touching the lives of the people you were supporting?

PDU:  I had no idea who they were. Nelson Mandela's picture was banned. The propaganda and fear management was so successful that meeting members of the ANC in London in the 80s was a fearful experience. I knew they were in love with the same place as I was, but were they the communists, terrorists and 'Bin ladens' that we'd been warned against? It took time, many drinks, tears, laughter and some sex to level the playingfield. Sex — gay and/or across colour lines, by the way, was also illegal in those days. The SA Government's censor board became my PR department. I learnt their laws and trapped them. They needed one anonymous complaint in order to ban a work. So I'd send them 5 different letters complaining. They'd ban my play or review. I'd produce the letter that I had written. They started hearing the roar of laughter from the frightened people. That was the beginning of their end. It took 15 years to bury the enemy with democracy. 


You created the character Evita Bezuidenhout who has been acclaimed as the most famous woman in South Africa. Can you tell us about Evita, how you created her, and how you have been able to use her voice to get your messages across to your audience?

PDU:  Evita found life in 1978 as a voice in a newspaper column I wrote every Sunday. It was the only income I had then. No one would produce my work because of fear of government reprisals. I created this Afrikaans wife of a Nationalist party MP who would then gossip at a Pretoria party — and tell what no one would publish. We got away with it. In 1981 in my first one man revue 'Adapt or Dye' she made an appearance. Wearing woman's clothes was also illegal. But as an actor I knew I had to play with every letter in my alphabet. A pink dress, hat, matching bag and shoes suddenly brought in the theatrical disbelief among those who wanted to stop me. That's why Evita must be real, so that women recognise the woman and men forget the man. Today Evita is still the Eleanor Roosevelt of politics. I have put her into the succession battle for the Presidency in 2009. It has put an old wily cat among the nervous pigeons.


Like Barry Humphries with Dame Edna Everage you've made millions laugh dressed as a woman, yet it's rare in the world of comedy for a woman to perform as a male character. Why do think this is so?

PDU:  Men are just not as interesting as comedy characters. An eccentric woman — ie Edna/Evita/Imelda — can reflect so much more detail and variation than a man. The women who portray men sometimes need to get away from the butch lesbian label first. I have managed to leave the drag aspect behind. It can be quicksand and counterproductive.

You've reported the revealing comment of a black South African who said "we fought for freedom and all we got was democracy." How has South African society changed for better and worse, and in what ways does it need to change more?

PDU:  In our 12 years we have moved from death to life, from dark to light, from white to rainbow. I am an optimist. I expect the worst, hoping that the worst will never be as bad as I imagine. We now have a young generation who do not know what apartheid was. They are the future and their battle for survival is against a far greater fear: Aids. We are at a very delicate crossroads. That's why the choice of the next leader is so important for me as an arena of satire. We have freedom of speech, but no speech. People are scared to comment because they are accused of not being patriotic. They lose contracts. Jobs. Get accused of racism. I believe a patriot is someone who protects his country from

its government. 


Having made people laugh during some of the most troubled, turbulent, and momentous times in your country's history, what do you now know for sure about the nature of human beings?

PDU:  Human beings will always turn the other cheek to see what other people are laughing at. Laughter is the only way to survive in a humourless world. Politicians are the virus of the times and if we can demean the bad corrupt ones with cutting laughter and contempt we will win. Laughter is also totally democratic. Everyone has that ability and should exercise that right. It can also be dangerous. It is often offensive. That's good.


Your impact has been great, your output immense, and your awards numerous. In recent years you've used comedy to bring Aids awareness to over a million South African children and still found time to publish your memoirs.  Where to next for Pieter-Dirk Uys?

PDU:  Live a life without apology or regret. Take chances. Channel my anger at careless government into careful humour that doesn't trivialise the seriousness but underlines the inhumanity of it all. I have my own little cabaret theatre here in the village of Darling. That's my hothouse where I can experiment with new ideas. We work with our community youth and they are the inspiration for my future. I plan to make a film here next year. In August I perform at the Tricycle Theatre in London NW6. In April 2008 at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge Boston. Otherwise, I sit and wait for politicians to write my script. Bless them. Politicians are like monkeys. The higher they climb the pole of ambition, the more of their arses we can see!

  next  >