Talking to Barry Hilton: SA's most famous cousin

 Ian Armitage spoke to South Africa’s Barry Hilton who doesn’t need much introduction. Say “the Cousin” and everybody knows exactly what you are talking about.

He has reached international status as a stand-up comedian, performing all over the world, and is considered to be one of South Africa’s greatest, a household name with his distinctive brand of humour. “I was so poor growing up. If I wasn’t a boy, I’d have had nothing to play with,” jokes a humble Hilton, who became a professional comedian in 1983. Today, he is known as being the cleanest comedian in South Africa and he prides himself on his optimistic outlook on life.

Proudly South African
“I am proudly South African,” he says. Many agree that Barry is, without a doubt, one of the top comedians our country has ever seen. He has performed to sell-out crowds both locally and internationally and was the first South African comedian to perform at the prestigious London comedy club, The Comedy Store.

His popularity spans all walks of life and he is one of the only stand-up comedians who have this type of following. He has achieved something that very few South African talents have managed. “I just talk about life - what I see, taking every day situations and turning them into hilarious skits on stage,” says Hilton, who is a reluctant and extremely down to earth ‘celebrity’. His comedic approach can, of course, by its very nature, go wrong. Sometimes you just say the wrong thing.

But the Cousin get’s it right a lot more than he gets it wrong. “I’ve been in the industry for 27 years, so have been around. Most of the time, we’re rolling around the floor in fits of laughter. But it doesn’t go to plan sometimes and there is a fine line between comedy and rage.” He handles an array of sensitive issues with skill and people warm to his open personality. “A girl phoned me the other day and said, “Come on over; nobody’s home.” I went over. Nobody was home,” he says in response. “In all seriousness, I pull out all the stops for audiences.”

Laughter through tears
Barry isn’t afraid to poke fun at himself and truly believes in the equation ‘Tragedy + Time = Comedy’. “Here is a story, I was working a few months ago in Sibaya Casino & Entertainment Kingdom. It is a massive casino and it holds 780 people. I was doing two shows a day. I spoke to my brother. I was about to go on stage and I spoke to my brother. My brother was gravely ill; he was dying of cancer. So I spoke to him and he said, “listen Baz, best you come and see me because my time is up.” I said, “Okay, I love you very much.” I put the phone down, and they announced me on stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Barry Hilton.”

780 people there coming to see my show and my brother just told me he is going to die in the next day. So I walked on stage and said, “My brother just phoned me, he has cancer, and he hasn’t got long – what should he do? I said, look, commit fraud, they’ll give you 9 years.” That’s funny, of course, it is, but that is how I think of my brother. I use comedy to get me through the everyday situations. That is how we do it in SA.”

Optimistic outlook
Barry’s optimistic outlook on life and his patriotism rub off and make the audience feel as one. “I think that is true of a few South African comedians. South African comedians are great. We are known for our sense of humour and the ability to laugh at ourselves. What is it about South African humour that makes it so unique? Well, I suppose it is because we can openly talk about each other without anyone being offended – I have this great joke about a young Xhosa boy and his amakhwenkwe. We can joke about anything. Yes, I have been in the industry since 1983, and it has changed over the years. But remember, funny is funny!”

Barry likes to think of himself as a role model for other South Africans. “A lot of guys have me there as a target,” he says. ”They say, “I have to beat that bastard.” The comics that despise you and hate you outwardly are those that admire you most. It is big competition and you have to be better than the next guy.”

Funniest moment
So what is his funniest moment on stage? “I’ll never forget this,” he answers, “I was working in a club in Cape Town called the River Club. Now, I don’t have a scripted show. Here I am, I’m working two sets and at the beginning of the first set I was talking about how I had just gone to the Koeberg Nature Reserve. So I was talking about giraffes and how they walk and all that and how one is always on the lookout and that sort of thing. So, anyways, I digressed from that because that is what I do, and then I come back. I was about 45 minutes into the second set and there was a guy in the front row just taking a beer and I said, “So anyways, the giraffe”. He went… you know how you laugh and you blow everything out? He blew into his beer and it foamed. It went all over the front row and he laughed and laughed. It was guaranteed the best moment on stage ever. We were paralysed. We couldn’t stop laughing. This guy’s reaction was just brilliant. We just couldn’t stop laughing. The whole audience, the staff – I was crying. It was brilliant. It was so, so funny.”

Comedy icons
Barry has a several icons, including Richard Pryor, his comedy hero. He is also a big fan of fellow South African Mel Miller, a hilariously funny comedian, and he is equally fond of John Vlismus and a number of other South African comedians. “John is a nice guy and really hot at the moment,” he says. “There are a lot of good South African comics at the moment.” For fun, we asked him which three South African’s he would want to be stranded on a desert island with. “Raymond Ackerman because he will work out a way, not only to get us off the island, but turn it into a tourist resort and a grocery store. I would definitely take Joe Parker, a South African stand up comic. He is my all-time favourite South African comic. He’ll keep me laughing all the time. And I’d better pick the wife. You have to take the wife. I don’t know which one; I’ve had three. So I’d have to choose. I couldn’t take them all, could you imagine? It would be like Jacob Zuma. I’m like him; I’ve had three wives. But mine have all been at different times. He has them all at once, obviously.”

Barry is happily married to Sandy and has six children, accumulated over the years (and marriages). “I have a very happy life here in Port Elizabeth. Sandy, the kids and myself are all very happy. “For kicks I fish in my spare time; I love it – there is no audience. I always put them back.” In addition to his tour shows and other activities (DVDs, films and TV shows like the Generation Game), Barry has devised a motivational team-building concept for corporate companies.

Laughter Factory
His “Laughter Factory” shows companies how to bring more laughter into their daily business and professional life and that “success comes with laughter”. “It is great to be the best, but it is far greater to be best liked. If you share knowledge and you give it to people you become a winner. It is the people that don’t share knowledge that are the losers.” Clients include Microsoft SA, Anglo Gold, First National Bank, Standard Bank, Vodacom, Sun International and Hewlett Packard.

“I show people how to bring more laughter into the workplace, and how success comes with laughter.” Which of his jokes would he most like to be remembered for? I can’t feel my legs – written in 1983. Barry pens all his own material and we look forward to hearing more from him in the future.

“One of my favourite skits is one I do about going to hospital; it is funny. It is about having a procedure on your penis or your boytjie. To cut the story short, I had a procedure on my penis. I had a reverse vasectomy. I got married again and I wanted to have another child. The story is called “If you use an electronic microscope on my boytjie.” The doctor said to me, “Don’t worry Baz, you’re my mate, we have all this equipment here and great machines. It’ll be fine.” There they are, working on my testicles and the guy said to me, “We have this new machine, it is an electro-microscope.” I said, “Listen, if you tell anybody you had to use an electro-microscope on my penis….”

That is Barry Hilton!