Barry Hilton is South Africa's most popular comedian. He fills the biggest venues, appeals to all races, and has finally got to New Zealand. But, he tells Tom Cardy , really, he just needs to be a bloke.
I was in London and a guy said to me 'how bad is the crime in South Africa?' And I said to him 'give me your wallet and I'll tell you'."
"I went into a sushi restaurant in Durban and a guy spoke to me all funny outside the sushi restaurant. He said [with a Japanese accent] 'Oh welcome, come into my sushi restaurant, very nice food, come in'.
"I said to him 'Bro, why are you talking like that? You're a Zulu'."
Most of the time comedians aren't funny in interviews. They don't try to be funny and journalists don't expect them to be, in the same way when interviewing a singer we don't expect them to break into a song.
But Zimbabwe-born South African Barry Hilton can't help himself. He's not deliberately trying to perform during the interview, it's just that even his most prosaic anecdotes sound hilarious. I keep laughing through out the interview, which pleases Hilton no end.
Hilton is the biggest name in comedy in South Africa. In a pinch he fills 5000 seat venues, night after night, as well as theatres and clubs. He's the only comedian in his homeland that can fill them. He appeals to all races and about half of his audience are non-white. "Without being cocky, I can work seven days a week if I wanted to," he says.
But Hilton is in unfamiliar territory. Despite years of performing in Britain - he was the first South African to perform at London's Comedy Store - and Australia, this is his first trip to New Zealand. South African expats have snapped up tickets and four of his Auckland shows have sold out. But Hilton wants to also appeal to Kiwis. It's why he likes every time I laugh.
"Four years ago when I went to Australia a friend said to me, 'Baz, stop being a South African comedian and be a comedian'. We go back to South Africa and you get reabsorbed into your life. But over the last year or so I've thought 'bugger this. I actually want to go and tour the world with my trade'."
Trading on specific experiences or a background that's unfamiliar to audiences hasn't been a barrier to great comedians and their universal appeal can be because of it - think Billy Connolly, Richard Pryor and Woody Allen.
Hilton says for non- South African audiences he's adjusted his diction and "South Africanisms". In South Africa his routine would also be area-specific. But he found Australians embraced his South African subject matter with ease to the point he got even more gigs, including Sydney's Comedy Store. "If I talked about the general crime in South Africa everybody knows it. People understand it. How bad is the crime? I say 'Nigerians come to South Africa for an apprenticeship'. It's accessible."
His nickname in South Africa is "The Cousin". Hilton says it stems from a problem he's had for years remembering people's names. Early on when he was asked someone's name - and he had forgotten - he'd quickly say "he's my cousin". It's now become a trademark and he often opens shows greeting his audience with "hello cousins" - which brings the house down.
Hilton became a professional comic in 1983 - before that he was an electrician ' in South Africa. "I hated being a tradesman. My father was a foreman on a big building site. When I left school he asked me what I would like to do. I actually said to him I would like to be an actor. My father said 'son, you know actors generally sleep with actors of the same sex'. So I became this tradie to appease my dad. I hated every second of it.
"And I can tell you, when I turned comic I've more ups and downs than Madonna's knickers. I can still tell you - hand on my heart - that I don't work for money. I work because it's an honour to work on stage. I work because people applaud me for what I've done."
And yes, he's world famous in South Africa. Hilton says whenever he ventures out he signs about 20 to 30 autographs a day, every day, and poses in as many photographs.
"I don't enjoy being a celebrity. I know that sounds a bit contradictory. I just prefer being 'Oh there's Baz, he's one of us. He's a funny lad'. I don't have to go to the fancy restaurants and I don't have to drive the fanciest car or have the best watch. I don't need that s... in my life. I just need to be a bloke."
Besides, with six kids, it's his wife who has the Ferrari. "I've got a flippin' Volvo."
Barry Hilton performs at the Upper Hutt Cosmopolitan Club tomorrow night.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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