The Oldest New Comedian in South Africa

This is a Guest entry by Chantal Harris

I find myself looking 60 squarely in the face and wondering how on earth I got here so quickly? I certainly don’t feel much different to the way I did at 25 – or 45 for that matter. I am, of course, now dependent on glasses, more cumbersome in my movements and have to watch my step with care. Although I do tread a little lighter on the earth if I can, spend much more time doing things that feed my soul and bring me joy, and say no a whole lot more.

My name is Chantal Harris and I am proud to claim the title of being the oldest newcomer comedian in South Africa. I co-founded the Friendly City Comedy Crew in January 2023 with my partner in comedy, Nolwazi Nkwandla. This latest career switch heads up a twelve [12] page CV, of fourteen [14] quite different forays into various careers including car rental, facilitation of training and a business making and selling sandwiches – which was really a frantic, impulsive escape plan from a job I was ill suited for, and an effort to put some food on the table. My CV really should be published as a research journal – my hit and miss approach to financial stability should provide solid fodder for academics in the field of psychology, specialising in neurodiversity, if only to provide some humour.

Back in the day, those aptitude tests we did at school were not particularly insightful, but I must say – they were right. I am currently teaching English online while I’m waiting for my funny money to kick in; teaching pays some bills and buys the butter for that bread. And every lesson I do is a reminder of how much I love people and of those aptitude tests. Yes – every one I ever did – well, both of them – said I should go into teaching.

But here’s the thing – I am oppositional. And true to form – I did not take heed of those results. In all fairness, I would have been a terrible teacher in my youth. My children are the ones who have taught me to be a better teacher, a good mother and a better person. My 20’s were not the right time.

I spent my first 21 adult years in a torrid relationship with alcohol. Well honestly – I was having the time of my life – but my parents’ opinion differed significantly. Alcohol fuelled my zest for life and encouraged my spontaneity, told me I was brave and spurred me on relentlessly; I was always a “bok vir sport” [up for anything!]. I was fully functional albeit a tad erratic with a propensity to be unfocused and overly enthusiastic about new job opportunities. I was basically a normal, gregarious, fun loving, pisscat.

I went on to marry rather impulsively, have two kids in rapid succession, moved cities, changed jobs and partied hard. I had a few periods of abstinence – during my pregnancies, on self proclaimed detoxes and during the working day – but when the opportunity arose, I grabbed it. And if it didn’t arise, I created my own! I knew which bottle stores opened when and I knew which ones were running specials.

In 2009 I finally kicked the habit – not without some help! My marriage had fallen apart and I was living a wanton life. A new relationship ended; being jilted, and the resulting drunken binge was the tipping point. I drove into rehab on the 5th March 2009 with a double bloody mary in hand. I downed my drink, waltzed inside with typical bravado, and I’ve not touched alcohol since. I was 41 years old.

By this stage of my life I had 3 daughters, had worked in eight different jobs with moderate degrees of success, was sans a tertiary qualification, a single mother, and my financial situation was – let’s say – precarious. But at least I was sober.

Clarity then began to kick in and my pervasive thinking revolved around – what on earth is wrong with me? It wasn’t really a big deal – but I’ve made some really terrible decisions in my life.

One of my bosses actually said to me: “Chantal – you have the potential to be GREAT at this. You just need to learn to focus!”

To this day, it baffles me that I never even noticed this huge red flag flapping furiously in the howling gale! Given the world’s current obsession with ADHD, I should have been diagnosed and on meds quicker than you could say Methylphenidate.

I made little progress on the job front over the following years, but spent a lot of time on self reflection and development. I did eventually manage to settle into a space that I fitted into very well. The realm of social media marketing. I had an almost intuitive feel for it and it met my social interaction needs quite nicely.

2020 was a scary, surreal time for the world and we certainly didn’t appear to know what we were doing. One of the best things that came out of that time for me, was the realisation that a large part of my problem was very probably ADHD. I had attended a talk by Angelo Fick earlier that year – which left me in tears. Now tears are something that dried up for me many years ago, so can you imagine my surprise when I started sobbing? And part of that was this absolute feeling of devastation at my lack of achievement in life. And while I know that this is technically not true, at that moment I was disconsolate.

Since then I have come to terms with the fact that alcohol, in fact, was my mask, it was my muse and it was my meds. There was an audible clang as the gears engaged.

Books have always had such a profound effect on me. Stories of trauma and tragedy invariably leave me feeling depressed for days. It’s unshakeable and makes me a miserable person to be around – even for myself. So I devour the works of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman to feed my need for the absurd and magical, and if I feel like something a little heavier, I will pick up Alice Walker and hold her close to my heart, or listen as Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells me a story. But comedy has been my choice for many years and has been a consistent friend to my mental health. So moving into comedy was a natural transition.

Before becoming a comedian, I considered politics.  Maybe it would’ve been a better option. At least I’d find more than loose coins in my couch! To be honest, I thought it would be a whole lot easier. It’s simple to find something to laugh about, but the real art is being able to deliver your joke efficiently and effectively to get the laughs. And I am in deep! Comedy has fuelled my creativity and inspired me to think better, it has often made me wake up, laughing, and it has introduced me to people I probably would never have met, let alone formed strong bonds with. Charlie Chaplin said: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up; but a comedy in long-shot.”

At 57 years old, I’m taking a long-shot view of my life, and can finally recognise it as the fine piece of comedy it is. For once I am focused, and although the crazy ideas and new ventures flow fast and furiously, they are all firmly entrenched in being funny. And I embrace the maxim – he who laughs, lasts.

You can catch my next performance of ADHD, the Bottle and Me, on the 21st June at 6pm at Isithatha Theatre, 12 9th Avenue Walmer. Tickets are available at R80 on Quicket, or at the door.

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