Just over two years ago, Lindy Johnson entered the stand-up comedy arena and has rocketed to success. In 2017, she won the Savanna ‘Show us Your Apples’ open mic showdown, representing as the only woman to make the finals and then, of course, beating the stiff competition and more experienced comedians to win the title. After a comparatively short amount of time, Lindy has already started making her mark and carving out a niche in the South African comedy scene, performing on esteemed stages such as the Cape Town Comedy Club, Rocking the Daisies, the Jive Cape Town Festival and opening up for Nik Rabinowitz’ Dry White at the Baxter Theatre. Last year, Lindy was hand-picked as one of 13 local comedians selected to star in Trevor Noah’s Nationwild.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I used to watch a lot of stand-up comedy with my dad when I was very young. I was a massive stand-up comedy fan and then, when we realised I liked stand-up comedy, he would show me Mo’Nique or Wanda Sykes and all these women who looked like me and that got me really interested in comedy. I think that’s when I was very young and it just planted the seed. It was always just an idea at the back of my mind. I didn’t really take it seriously at all.
I read in an interview that you said that you felt like you stumbled into comedy in terms of getting up at an open mic night one night and performing.
It was way more planned than that actually. It was a stumbling sort of thing because I thought, “I might as well.” I lived in a digs with seven other people. Everybody else in the house could do all of these musical things and we entered Maaties Got Talent which was a talent competition on campus and they were like, “This is a house activity. We are all going to do it together.” I cannot sing. I’m very soulful looking but I just don’t have the range to sing and I can’t play an instrument either. I was like, “I might as well try stand-up comedy. It’s always been a thing on my mind.” All my friends were like, “That’s an amazing idea.” I tried out and I was the only person in the house who made it into the next round. I came second. I lost to a dance group.
Because comedy doesn’t have a cut and dry path, what has surprised you most about how your journey in comedy has evolved?
I’m actually so shocked at how well I’ve been doing and how welcomed I’ve been. There has never been a space where I’ve felt, “I’m a woman and I am a coloured woman and this is my place and I need to know my place.” If anything, people have always been, “You are a newcomer,” and that is what defines me in comedy. Anything else doesn’t matter. I’ve been so grateful to find my identity outside of what I look like and I’m very grateful for it.
Touching on that point, I read in an interview that you did with Glamour that you feel like there is an added pressure being a coloured woman in comedy…
There is from the outside. The industry itself is quite small and tight-knit so I don’t feel like that on the inside. On the outside, I do feel like because there is only three of us doing stand-up comedy, I do feel like it’s a lot of pressure to represent my people [and] to be this person who shows everyone else, this is what we are really like. I hate it. I really hate it but it’s also a responsibility I take very seriously because we aren’t represented well in the media. If you think of a coloured people joke or a coloured woman joke, it’s about violence or how clingy we are in a relationship or no front teeth and those kinds of things. That’s not who we are but even if that is who you are, that’s fine. I wish people would understand that we are completely diverse and it’s ok.
I’m not going to ask you about what its like to be a woman in comedy because this is not the publication for that.
But I would like to know why you think people are so fixated with asking that question?
I think it’s just ignorance, not doing your research and then going, “This is the first thing I see. It’s the first question I can ask.” Then they ask it. I don’t think there is any malice behind it. I just think its ignorance. “I don’t know anything about comedy. I don’t know anything about this industry. I’m going to let her tell me what it’s like instead.” It’s ignorance.
When I was chatting with Kate [Pinchuck] I was saying to her that it’s not a case of there being a lack of female comedians, it just seems to me that women are often not showcased at the bigger festivals. You are performing at the Jive Cape Town Funny Festival this year and I noticed recently that you are the only woman on the poster.
It starts on the ground. This is always the thing that I say, and I’ve said it so many times but I have to say it again, [people] ask me, “Why aren’t there more women in comedy?” You ask Kate, who is a comedian [and] who is working, “Why aren’t there more women in comedy?” But you don’t tell your friend who makes jokes next to you at a braai, “Why don’t you try stand-up comedy?” I’ve been making people laugh since I was in Grade 1. I remember this vividly, but no one in my life has ever said, “Why don’t you try stand-up comedy, Lindy?” The only reason I’ve ever considered it is because I love comedy so much [that] I did the research because my dad showed me women in comedy specifically. Other people don’t have that kind of access so they don’t think it’s a possibility and this is why I run a gig so that I can get women to try it at least once. If nothing comes from it, that’s fine. I just want women to know that it’s a possibility.
I’m a big fan of The Geena Davis Institute for Gender Studies in Media. She created #IfSheCanSeeItSheCanBeIt. Just by you existing, as you are in this career, you are showing other women that it’s possible to aspire to this. Who was there for you to look up to when you were considering a career in comedy?
I think Tumi Morake and Celeste Ntuli. I was very spoiled for choice because I saw quite a few women and then later I saw Mel Jones and Shimmy Isaacs and then it became so real for me because they were coloured women. Shimmy is from Worcester and that is just around the corner from Paarl. It was just like, “She did it. She actually went to this massive city, that I don’t know, and she did it. If she can do it, I definitely can.”
You’ve spoken a lot about your mentor in previous interviews. How have the other comedic generations influenced your journey?
It’s made my stress so much lighter because you know when you get into something and you don’t know how it works and you have this idea of it? My mentor is Yaseen Barnes and he is constantly… I want to say crush but makes it sound bad but it’s this great thing because I have an idea of how something works and I’ll tell him, “This is how I’m going to do it.” And he’ll go, “That’s not how it works. Here is a plan. Why don’t you do this? Do you need help? Let’s try this.” It’s been truly an amazing experience. I am so grateful for his presence in my life because it’s lightened my burden. I have this curse of over thinking everything I do, so it’s great to have an actual voice who says, “No, it’s so much easier than you think.” Or, “Yes, it is that difficult but it is possible.”
Where do you start when you are creating a set? Do you have a process?
No. I’ve been using Twitter to write jokes since I was in high school, so it’s a very easy format for me to be able to go, “People find that funny, this is where I get the joke.” Or I just see something, but a lot of it comes from stage time where I do one joke and then I see the audience likes it and then I go from that point and then the joke grows and becomes bigger and beautiful.
So you are just experimenting as you are onstage?
Yes. It’s a lot of experimenting. You don’t know until you do it. You have to take a chance.
I don’t know if this happens to you but how do you deal with the more difficult sets?
It does happen to me, often. I’m not ashamed of it. I do die and it’s normal. If I didn’t die, it would be weird. I take it. It’s a learning curve. Every set I have is a learning curve and you learn more from dying than you do from doing extremely well. You learn a lot from dying. It’s such an exciting process of, “Was is my tone? Was it the actual joke? Was it the audience? Was it the crowd? What was the demographics of the crowd? Maybe they were too old or too young.” It’s all these exciting things that you get to work on and then you get back and you get to try it again. It’s fun.
Because your career seems to be on such a strong upwards trajectory, do you feel like there is an added pressure to continuously deliver?
Yes, but I feel like that is a pressure that I refuse to put on myself because when you put that pressure on yourself, you limit your growth because then you are like, “I have to be this good. I have to do this.” All these “have to’s.” You don’t have to do anything besides grow every day and be a better comic. It’s difficult, yes, but I need to focus on myself. I need to focus on my set and my jokes and being a good writer before I can focus on what people think of me and what they want.
How do you prepare for a show? Is there anything you do differently?
No. It depends on if my voice is sore, then I’ll take a Strepsil. I’ll drink some lemon and honey or ginger tea. That is my favourite because it always soothes my voice but other than that, it’s just being on time. You have to realise being a stand-up comedian, I am my business. I am the constant representation of what I’m going to give you, so I try my best to always be on time and always be professional and polite to everybody I’m speaking to [and] to respond to emails as fast as possible. Those small things that make you seem more appealing and then bringing my best foot on stage, which I always try to do anyway. It doesn’t matter what gig it is.
You recently took part in Trevor Noah’s Nationwild. What was it like when you got that phone call?
I got the phone call and it was kind of surreal and then I learned afterwards, which is kind of embarrassing, that my reaction was the biggest out of everybody’s but that’s ok. That’s who I am now. It’s very surreal that I was part of it. I still can’t believe it. At the end of 2018 people were like, “What were your highlights?” And I was like, “I got a new piercing that I really like.” “What about Nationwild?” “Oh ja! I did Nationwild which I keep forgetting.” I can’t believe that I was chosen but I’m very grateful. It was a good experience. Aside from it being Trevor Noah’s thing, it was a great gig to play.
As a creative, what is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve ever received?
There is this long saying, I don’t know who said it but it’s something I go back to all the time because it says that your taste is what got you into this in the first place. Your taste is what continues to make you a good creative and when you feel lost or you can’t create, remember your taste is so unique and so great. It’s what has been sustaining you all this time. It’s a constant reminder to me because there are so many times where I feel like quitting. Every day I feel like quitting or any time someone doesn’t pay me on time, I go, “I need to go to a call centre and find a job. It’s my time.” But then I’m like, “I need to do this. It’s my taste. It’s unique. It needs to be heard. My voice is special.” It’s such a weird thing to tell yourself, “You are special and you are needed.” But you need to remind yourself that you are needed in this creative space. Especially as a person of colour, I need my voice to be heard.
Kate Pinchuck and I started this gig because we wanted a safe space for anybody who is not a cis-het male to do stand-up comedy. South Africa, in general, is not a safe space for women, so now imagine late at night in a bar and you have to do the scariest thing that you could ever do and get on stage and ask people to laugh at your jokes. We were trying to create a safe space for women to start comedy, just to try it out. If your start is good, that’s what gets you work. We are basically drug dealers. “The first one is free and the next one you can struggle on your own.” I did mine in a safe space and I feel like it’s a massive part of why I keep going. It’s where I realised that I have a place in this world and if Kate and I can do that for other women, it would create such a better environment and a better industry in comedy if we have more women.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Lady Skollie. She is my absolute fave. She invited me to her studio when I was in Joburg and I lost my mind. I didn’t know what to do with my body anymore. I was like, “Must I bring Chicken Licken? What do you want from me?” I had my first Chicken Licken experience with Lady Skollie. It was the best day of my life. Tumi Morake because she grinds so hard and she has a family as well. Jo-Ann Strauss because we look so similar. People are always mistaking me for her. It’s so embarrassing. Beyoncé…
She’s not South African.
There are theories that she is a Xhosa woman. We don’t know. She is universal and she has no nationality and I refuse to believe that she is from the same place as that orange man. She was sent from above. And my mother. She is the best woman I know and she is the most important person in my life.