Celebrity MasterChef SA winner and entertainer, Chris Forrest does stand-up. His audience routinely does the falling down, the sidesplitting, the uncontainable rapture that has them rolling in the aisles. His cultivated stage persona, the vulnerable nebbish, is supremely delivered with the first, second and third laws of comedy – timing, timing and timing. He times his delivery, connects the zeitgeist of his audience, and manages his own time with the ticking alacrity of a 24-hour entrepreneur. Chris Forrest is in the business of making people laugh. And he’s laughing all the way to the bank.
There’s an impressive, commercial bent about this artist. He has enjoyed the partnership of many a prominent brand including Savanna, Castle and KitKat. His show Who’s Your Daddy? is sponsored by Huggies. A two-metre pull-up banner promoting Huggies Gold flanks his stage setting. In mid-gig he makes an unapologetic punt for this nappiest of nappies. Even in the age of blatant commercialism, there is a slight squeamishness from the audience. Critics didn’t much like it. If we’re so used to sports field sponsorship and movie product placements, why not the stage? Even carmakers are targeting us at our favourite restaurant tables these days. After the show, every member of the audience walks away gleefully with a goodie bag of wet wipes and a baby healthcare guide, compliments of Kimberly Clark. Not much complaining there.
Chris is emphatic about content. “I’m a bit of a comedy snob,” he asserts. There is an acute sense of competition, not just to be funnier, but to curate a unique brand niche for his persona. “In South Africa we have the usual hack, clichéd content. It’s easy to hang off South African social and political issues, or to leverage what I call ‘sick sense’ humour, knocking religion and stupid people, or using formulaic, inverted thinking where you simply share a different take on the world.” Forrest sees an important role for comedy which goes beyond entertainment. The guise of humour is a powerful medium. He points to the legendary Zapiro, the South African cartoonist who routinely pricks the conscience of the seemingly unassailable. No man is above the law. No man is beyond a laugh at his own expense, either; especially if it’s the truth in jest. The salacious 2009 Zapiro cartoon of Julius Malema, Zwelinzima Vavi and Jacob Zuma pinning down Lady Justice as Zuma readies himself to rape her is a particularly poignant example for Chris. The depiction achieves a powerful, intelligent commentary through satire and irony.
The honing of his craft is a self-acknowledged obsession. Chris is a regular attendee of his contemporaries’ shows, and quick to add that this is not his opportunity to explore new material; unlike some of his league for whom he shares unrepeatable invective. The pressure to be new and original is unrelenting, the temptation to borrow rife. With the South African market being so much smaller, the need to update or invent new material is intense. International superstars, like Eddie Izzard or Russell Brand, play massive venue circuits, so their acts have greater longevity. South African stand-ups have to deliver new material more frequently, at fewer venues.
So who are the rising South African stars? With hardly a pause, Chris rattles off: “Martin Jonas, Nina Hastie, Skumbuza, Mashabela, Tsofiso and Kau.” He evangelises the ascendance of Trevor Noah to international stardom. “Trevor’s success is good for all of us. He has put our profession firmly centre stage, not just as a preferred evening’s entertainment, but also for the corporate market.” Then he floors you with a little known fact. Leon Shuster, that avatar of Afrikaner slapstick, actually has a larger black following. Around 60% of Chris Forrest’s 13 000 Twitter followers are black. A good laugh clearly does not begin and end with demographics. Chris checks and reviews his posts and stats obsessively. Did he notice an up-tick in followers after his celebrity MasterChef triumph? Hardly. Most of his following comes from referred tweets. Gareth Cliff is a particularly good feeder. His new cooking theme show Don’t Burn Your Sausage has bumped his following to a tasty 14 000.
The Chris Forrest enterprise explores and stretches at every turn. His latest initiative is a corporate teambuilding concept – Starship Improvise. On his radar is to employ the services of a dedicated sales person. He is an irrepressible and multi-dimensional performer. Chris’s parting advice for the serious comedian?
- Find your niche and own it.
- Never compromise your standards.
- Act like a show. Think like a business.
- Cultivate your profile.
- Keep re-inventing yourself. Stay original.
Chris Primos is a director at Blast Brand Catalysts.