JOHANNESBURG — COMIC Bruce Laing stands sweating in front of a small audience at Johannesburg's Civic Theater, trying to convince the audience it's OK laugh at political jokes about social relations in the new South Africa.
It is hard to tell who is more nervous, the audience or the novice comedian struggling to get a rise out of the crowd by lampooning race relations and sex.
He tries to soften them up, coaxing: "You're allowed to laugh. That's the point of comedy."
It works. A few obliging chuckles multiply into spontaneous guffaws by the time the next comic comes on stage.
After years of earnest soul-searching and brutally repressive politics under apartheid, South Africans are rediscovering their sense of humor. Now that censorship and the war between the races are over, cartoonists and humorists can openly explore once-banned taboos.
But comic relief does not come easily for those befuddled by a suddenly new society where blacks and whites mix openly and where pornography is allowed. The result is a gruelling experience for Mr. Laing and the other 24 performers who alternate routines in the Swopping Comics show.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever done," says Juanita Strydom, seeking solace from fellow cast members. "South Africans are not relaxed. They're too inhibited and scared to laugh. We're finding our feet [as to] what is funny in this country. Comedy is like undiscovered waters."
Sexual humor was off-limits under the apartheid regime, which tried to influence citizens' social interactions as well as control their political activities by censoring TV shows and books deemed immoral.
South Africa does have a tradition of farce and slapstick, mainly in the Afrikaans culture. But the finer points of wit and sarcasm were stymied under the censorship of the apartheid government, which stamped down on political opposition and social freedom.
Sharpening the tongue
The comedy routines that provoke the greatest discomfort today lampoon the sacred cows untouchable five years ago, such as homosexuality and racial stereotypes. Those that get the biggest laughs are the most universal - the battle of the sexes and the current crime wave, matters close to the hearts of most South Africans.
According to Soli Philander, the country's most prominent nonwhite comedian, white liberals are too afraid to poke fun at others lest they offend long-oppressed blacks. "My most uptight audiences are the intellectuals," he says.
Mr. Philander says South Africans are still in search of a new identity - and that involves defining what is funny or not. "I think we're floundering as a nation [as] to where we're going," he says. "Before, you were either for or against the government. Now it's more subtle."
Now comedians are pushing the limits. The country's most popular cartoon strip is "Madam and Eve," the closest thing South Africa has to America's "Doonesbury." It traces the antics of a rich white matron and her black maid. Deemed a pioneering strip before the democratic elections in 1994, it is now considered mainstream.
More and more comedy shows are appearing on stage. On television, one of the most successful shows is a new situation comedy, "Suburban Bliss," which lampoons racial divides and stereotypes.
The times are definitely a-changin', according to The Weekly Mail and Guardian newspaper, which was the voice of protest during the apartheid years. According to a recent survey, its five most popular features are humorous columns, not the political pieces that have won awards.
A lingering racial divide
What has not changed is that most audiences and mainstream comics are white. This was lamented recently by Pieter-Dirk Uys, the country's king of humor for the past 20 years. He's especially known for his caricature of an Afrikaner matron with an outrageous bouffant hairdo. "She" personified the apartheid elite, but was not seen as subversive because the mannerisms Mr. Uys used seemed so absurd.
While hailing the laughter that has "become the flag of freedom," Uys complained in a recent magazine column that black talent has yet to be developed and come to the fore.
"As an old clown who has been performing ever since 1974, I need competition," he said. "Where are those young black comedians, who [will] push me aside and tell me that my way of poking fun is ridiculous?"