‘This feels like a breakthrough’: comedian Loyiso Gola on his new Netflix show | Comedy


It’s not every day a comedian can claim to have made history. Step forward Loyiso Gola, whose new Netflix show – its first ever standup special from Africa – was released this week. But if you’re looking for some expression of pride or excitement about that, Gola’s not your man. “It is meaningful,” he acknowledges, after a bit of arm-twisting. “But for me, I never really pegged myself as an African act. I just always thought of myself as a global act.”

You can see why. Based part-time in London (pre-pandemic, at least), Gola is a UK panel-show veteran, and a regular at what he calls “all those glorious festivals all round the world”. His 2018 Live at the Apollo turn, viewed 1.5m times online, teased British audiences to great effect – about Brexit, among other things. (“You are trying to leave Europe. Where are you going to go? Because you are not welcome in Africa!”) With one prior Netflix gig under his belt, on an all-South African Comedians of the World bill, Gola hopes his solo special will cement that international appeal. “I’m extremely nervous,” he tells me, Zooming from Johannesburg. “This feels like a breakthrough album. Sometimes you can feel the moment coming.”

The show in question, filmed at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in his native Cape Town, is called Unlearning; Gola created it six years ago. Ostensibly, it’s about “unpacking what we’ve learned growing up, viewing the world differently and not getting stuck in our own stereotypical mindsets” – although you could watch it simply for Gola’s stories about playing hide-and-seek in a white friend’s house and fun factoids about seafood and engagement rings. Its ideas are worn lightly – but pertinently, says Gola, who was struck, reviving the show for Netflix, by how apt it felt at a moment of reappraisal of societal norms.

He is not among those comics personally affronted by the new censoriousness. “I don’t think you should just be able to say anything,” he says. “You should be held entirely accountable for your words.”

“If standup is about punching up,” he says, the problem comes when “the biggest comedians in the world are part of the 1%. Your authority to punch up is compromised. I love Ricky Gervais, but it’s like: you’re part of the 1%. Let’s talk about that. You can’t just ignore it.” In any event, says Gola, “there’s a heavy renegotiation going on right now, and that’s uncomfortable for some people. But I think it’s the best time. I’m enjoying it.”

Although only 37, Gola has been a standup for 20 years, taking it up on a school work-experience programme. Among compatriots, he’s best known as the face of Late Night News, South Africa’s version of The Daily Show. Twice nominated for international Emmy awards, it might have established Gola as another Trevor Noah. But when I ask whether he’d rather be a global comedian or South Africa’s leading satirist, he doesn’t hesitate. “That choice is made,” he says. “There’s no way I’m focusing on one place.”

That’s not just about his global ambitions. It’s about his professional philosophy. “As a comedian, the more removed you are, the better. When you’re researching a satirical show, you immerse yourself in politics, there’s a lot of information. But I don’t want that. I don’t want special knowledge from the minister who sent me an email. I want to know as much as, and no more than, the man in the street.”

Pending the success of Unlearning, says Gola, the dream is, “if I go to Norway or Chicago or Nairobi, people will buy tickets to see my next hour of standup”. He admits that lockdown has shaken his faith in that globe-trotting modus operandi. “I now realise,” says this hitherto committed nomad, that while “I like the idea of always being in new cities, I don’t like the actual mechanics of it. The checking in, the getting searched, the not knowing the language. Covid has made me go: do I really want to do that?” (He’s not, though, keen on Zoom gigs: “I did one, and I stopped. It’s definitely a no from me.”)

But by the end of our interview, his wanderlust is back. He wants to be “in London,” he says, “where I can do four clubs in one night, 12 gigs in a weekend. That’s what makes me a better comedian. And that’s what I obsess about.”

“I don’t want to be a writer. I don’t want to do a sitcom or another satirical TV show. My decisions are based on trying to be better all the time. Some of the things you shoot towards in your career make you money, or they get you more exposure. But they don’t make you better. And my obsession is becoming a better comedian.”

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