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For decades, Mark Banks has been right on the money when it comes to the business of funny. The South African comedy veteran spoke to Helen Herimbi about comedy, quirky characters and the Chinese.
When he was a child, Mark Banks had a penpal to whom he never wrote back.
“I just wanted to collect the stamps,” he shrugs as we take a seat on a wooden garden bench-and-table set, “so I’d only write him to tell him to send me more stamps.”
As one of the finest observational comedians in South Africa, this comedy legend is not a fan of writing to people, or even being active on social media – even though he occasionally tweets under @markdotbanks – he would rather engage with people on stage.
For his latest one-man show, Banksrupt, which starts at The Globe Theatre at Gold Reef City in Joburg on Thursday, Banks says: “I’ve got a generation who went by and have never seen me do a one-man revue, so hopefully they will come out now. Maybe I should take a page out of the DA’s book and start canvassing for people to like my show. I might start doing door-to-door jokes in townships.
“No, I’m talking rubbish, but it will be interesting to see how people take to it.”
South African comedy, Banks concedes, has grown a lot since he began his career.
“Comedy has grown from being a garage, no, better, a cottage in the back of a house in Springs, into a proper industry.” He leans in.
“There are more comedians now than there are brain surgeons in South Africa. Last year’s Comics Choice Awards had about 245 comics registered. I don’t know where they all work.”
But Banks is happy about the growth and the newcomers within the industry.
“You have to remember that we used to have to buy vinyls or get Betamax to listen to comedy,” he explains. “Today, kids can get the best of SA, the UK and the US and see it and tweet it the day after it happens. And there is a black emergent comedy market so it’s almost like comedy is the new kwaito. I also love what the Goliath brothers are doing. There are, like, 11 brothers and they’ve franchised. None of them even know who is who in there. Donovan Goliath is my favourite, I would put my money on him.”
Having performed at the Goliaths’ AWEdnesday comedy night in London and South Africa as part of Bafunny Bafunny, as well as fresh from headlining the Carnival Comedy Sessions at Carnival City in Brakpan – and making people laugh all across the country in between – Banks has taken his observations from different settings and will bring them to the stage.
He puts his coffee cup down as if he’s about to tell me a secret.
“When I started in this business, I didn’t just do stand-up, I did sketch comedy and I want to go back there.
“People used to say only a Jew can tell a Jewish joke,” he continues, “but now people know what comedy is all about and even Afrikaners understand that it’s comedy and are like, ‘so, it’s not about us’. People know it’s not about them personally, but the state of things. I’m also hoping to bring back the format of revue by bringing back various characters.”
Banksrupt, which is directed by comedian John Vlismas, will feature video snippets of these characters, impersonations, puppets and voiceovers.
“I’m seeing some of this show from John’s view and that’s great,” shares Banks. He’s a good visual conceptualiser and will make a great TV director.”
Banks’s cellphone buzzes and he squints at the screen. “Ooh, a comedian just died.” He laughs that deep, delicious laugh that can only come from one being pleased with himself, before he adds: “You know a comedian dies at least 77 times in the course of a lifetime.”
Banks puts down his phone, remembers he was describing elements of Banksrupt, and says: “I play a few people in the show. There’s a car guard who wants everyone to see his perspective. There isn’t anything he can’t give an opinion on. He’s only a guard for tax reasons so he can work flexi-time. We also have a psychotic estate agent who is as close to Pam Golding as we can get without getting sued. There’s an extreme tour travel agent, and Father Bonaventure, who is from a charismatic new church group.”
“Banksrupt has a limited run and has cabaret seating where you can eat and drink, and we’ve sold the interval to a Chinese consortium who’ve moved 24 families into it.”
Speaking of China, Banks and I wind up chatting about rhino poaching and he reaches into his bag and says: “Would you like a rhino horn? It’s freshly ground.”
Between fits of laughter he manages to say: “There are rhino horns that are fake now. Made in China. It’s like the Chinese are moving in and taking everything over so there’s already a pirate DVD replica of this show that I haven’t performed yet.”
Be sure to catch the real Banksrupt this month and around the country later in the year.
• Catch Mark Banks in Banksrupt at Gold Reef City’s The Globe Theatre from Thursday to March 2. R120 at Computicket and the box office.