Once a year, comedians get together to honour their peers at the crazy mix of glamour and irreverence that is the Comics Choice Awards. Tonight at the Lyric Theatre in Gold Reef City, coveted awards mainly voted for by fellow comedians will be dished out.
But there’s one award whose winner is already known. The prestigious Lifetime Achievement award went to Soli Philander this year. The actor director, comedian, playwright and columnist takes his place among former winners including Joe Mafela, Joe Parker and Barry Hilton.
Philander chatted to The Citizen about his comedic journey, which as is often the case began by accident.
“I always say other people told me I was a comedian, I didn’t set out to be comedian, I wanted to be an actor, then other people started going ‘you’re funny’”, he said.
While there was an industry of sorts when he started out, its biggest stars, such as the cast of Biltong and Potroast (two of which, Cyril Green and Mel Miller, have themselves received the Lifetime Achievement award), were all white, with the late actor Bill Currie, who took on comedic roles in Afrikaans films, the only exception Philander could think of.
“In those times the industry of course was very pale native, dit was baai, baai wit (it was very white) and there weren’t many people of colour,” he said.
There were comedians who influenced him at the time, including Whoopi Goldberg, Mary Tyler Moore and Bill Cosby. “Before the revelations came out about him, I was a huge fan of his comedy, I really liked the idea that he could do this without being nasty, swearing and being vulgar. I know this seems ironic now – but his comedy was really very decent.”
It was the community he was from, however, that was his biggest inspiration.
“In the beginning I was just going around saying I feel a bit like a fraud because I was not being exceptional, my late brother was one of the funniest people I knew, he could tell a story, and I came from a community of storytellers and joke tellers where laughter was an important part of the community. I’m lucky to come from that environment where laughter is power”.
“I always remember being very young and my grandmother telling the story about her running away from the farm where she was raised, she told me how the farmer came to get her and whipped her, he was on his horse and she was running. I remember her laughing as she told me.
“I was mortified. This person I loved so much, who was my world at that point, telling the story about this terrible thing that happened to her and just laughing. And I remember asking, how can you laugh? And she told me until you can laugh at something it will always hold something over you. When you can laugh about it eventually you put it in a place where you’re freed from it. And it was the idea that in laughter there was a healing which is my comedic inspiration”.
He has always seen his comedy as having a role to play in “trying to have a conversation which is impactful and relevant and could lead to action”, and is prepared to reluctantly claim the role of activist.
“I have opinions about just about anything – racism, homophobia, violence against women and children, these things are about quality of life and individuals being able to be able to live a full and meaningful live.
“When you’re addressing those things directly you have no choice, you are an activist,” he said.
The 2019 Comics Choice Awards take place at the Lyric Theatre, Gold Reef City on September 7. Book at Computicket.