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Funny girls




A fabulous case in point is The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, the web television series that has taken the world by storm. Miriam “Midge” Maisel was planning the ultimate breaking-of-the-fast feast, her husband’s rocking the comedy scene, and her rich parents are always on hand to watch the kids. But suddenly, her husband leaves her, the feast is cancelled, and her parents are horrified. What’s more, it turns out that her husband’s not so funny after all… she is. She’s a born comedienne, but she must fight for her right to perform. The American show may be fictional and set in the 1950s, but for South African Jewish comediennes, Claudine Ullman and Gilli Apter, it’s as relevant as ever.

“The show just feels so resonant, we’ve all experienced this,” says Apter, a comedienne, writer, and director. “Even though it’s set in another time, very little has changed in terms of the experience for a woman on stage. It should be so different, but it isn’t.” For Apter, tackling the stand-up scene was something that she resisted for a while. Having written comedy for TV shows and for comedians including Nik Rabinowitz, she knew she was funny, she just didn’t know if she could handle the spotlight.

“I think for anybody, being on the frontline is always exposing, scary, and difficult,” she says. “I wanted to do stand-up for a very long time. I was too scared, but I collected ideas over time. I’ve had a lot of encouragement from Nik and other people, and eventually just took the dive in 2015. It was about overcoming the fear. I went to local comedy clubs a lot and I saw enough people doing it that I thought, maybe I can also do this.”

Speaking of gender disparities when it comes to performing comedy, Apter says, “I don’t know that it’s harder for a woman to stand on a stage than it is for a man. Men get away with a lot with their confidence. It’s good armour. We struggle with that, which is probably why we don’t see a lot of women in comedy. You have to ride on confidence until you get good.”

Yet, she believes that women are better able to handle the moments of rejection that inevitably occur when you’re performing stand-up. “Our egos aren’t so front and centre. When we’re disappointed and rejected by an audience, I don’t think we take it as badly as men. But, I also think that, to a large degree, that’s what forces men to succeed quickly because they can’t bear the rejection.”

Ullman says it’s much harder to break into the local comedy scene as a woman. “There’s one and a half of us!” she jokes. “That can be an advantage, or that can work against us because you’ve got producers, and 90% of the South African population who aren’t really comedy forward. We’re maybe 50 or 60 years behind New York, with people saying, ‘women aren’t funny’. Because there’s no human-resources body in comedy, there’s also a lot of sexual harassment that goes down.

“Because there are so few of us, it means there’s a huge pressure on us. Every time we go out, we’re representing all the female comics – we’re even mistaken for each other quite often. It’s about winning every single time, so that our talent becomes undeniable.”

For Ullman, when her jokes fall flat, it’s an opportunity rather than a tragedy. “Dying onstage is actually so important in terms of growth. When you first start off, you see dying as a signal that you’re a complete failure, but later you see it as a chance to get better.”

Ullman has always wanted to perform. “I’ve loved to make people laugh ever since I was little.” After studying performance and physical theatre at the University of the Witwatersrand, she travelled to the United States and studied at some of the country’s top improvisation and comedy institutions. She returned to South Africa and brought improv comedy to the corporate training space, a trend she observed in the US.

While Ullman loves training, it’s onstage where she feels most alive. “Everybody told me I needed to try stand-up, and I was actually poep (dead) scared to be honest. But over two years ago, I decided just to book it. Since my first five minutes on stage, I’ve been absolutely hooked. It’s moved from nervousness to total joy and excitement, and it just feeds my soul.” Ullman recently performed her first one-woman show in Johannesburg, and plans to take it around the country and the world. There’s a living to be made in comedy in South Africa, says Ullman but generally not purely from stand-up.

In terms of her style, Ullman excels at character comedy, and has some hilarious Jewish personalities on her playbill. There’s Dazza Mofsowitz: “I’m like the head boy, the beltas at school they love me!” There’s also Jenna, who’s devastated at how “shocking” the weather was during her December Caribbean holiday, and then there’s the old yenta sex therapist Shirley Rubenstein, who’s “just lovely”. “I’ve got some purer stand-up in there as well,” says Ullman, “it’s all really making fun of myself, of being white, female, Jewish, and chubby, and what that means to people.”

Apter’s style is more observational. “It’s mostly about me and my life, seeing things from my perspective which is Jewish, female, and a person in their 30s.”

For Apter comedy is a calling. “I feel very purposeful doing stand-up. I was talking to Rabbi [David] Masinter once, and he said, “It’s your duty to do what you do. If you have a talent and that talent is to write or to make people laugh, then it’s your duty to do that and to do it well.” It’s something given to me, and it’s my job to nurture it.”

Together with another top local comedienne, Nina Hastie, Apter and Ullman have a three-part female stand-up comedy show called Thunderbirds, which they’re taking around the country. “We’re having the time of our lives waiting to get noticed and building an audience,” says Ullman.

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