Jem Atkins

Doing stand up comedy in Durban is pretty brave, but giving up your job and pursuing it full time is taking that bravery to a whole new level. We chat to Jem Atkins about the hardships of being a single dad and pursuing his dreams.


DIY: So, you’re Jem Atkins, full-time comedian and single dad. How’s the journey been to this point?

Jem: It’s been confused and schizophrenic actually. After dropping out of my Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer course in 2000 because I hate anything to do with IT, I did a lot of waiting tables. A LOT! Then I got a BA Degree in Psychology and did 2 years of voluntary psychological counselling, after which I ended up as a Software Usability Specialist at a large IT firm. WTF? 5 years later, I resigned from IT to do comedy and freelance copywriting full-time. I now also do events promotion and write short stories for my 5 year-old son, although there’s not much money in the latter because my boy has no money. Somewhere in there I also got married and divorced, had a beautiful son, bought a house and lost it, wrote a car off, quit smoking and quit sex. (That last one was not intentional and is only temporary. Probably.) It’s been a long crazy journey but I feel like I’ve finally found something that I’m good at AND I love to do. In my experience this is rare. Better late than never, I guess.

  I think the trick to being a good promoter is honesty and to not be greedy or selfish.

DIY: What’s the hardest part of being a comedian in Durban? And what’s the best?

Jem: I think the hardest part is trying to make a decent living as a professional comedian. I think this is difficult to do no matter where in SA you are, but perhaps a little more so in Durban, where opportunities are relatively scarce. Maybe I’m just a crap comedian though…who knows?? The best part: being able to do what I love in my hometown! I know that sounds cheesy but you just can’t beat that! I really love this hot li’l city and I feel like I’m at the fore-front of a comedy ‘revolution’ going down in Durban where comedians are experiencing more support and more opportunities than ever before! Durban is ALIVE with comedy and comedic talent! It’s very exciting.



DIY: You have been involved in the comedic scene for five years now, have you noticed a difference in the standard of comedy coming out of Durban? How do you think we compare to the rest of the country?

Jem: I honestly feel that Durban has produced, and is currently producing, some of the most talented acts in the country. It’s no secret that many famous South Africans came from Durban but ended up having to leave to follow their comedy dreams elsewhere. Over the last 5 years I’ve been privileged enough to see many of the guys who also started around the same time as me develop into arguably some of SA’s most talented performers. Some of these guys are killing it on stage and have amassed a large fanbase! Guys like Carvin Goldstone, Neil Green, Li’l Paul, Glen Bo and Dusty Rich have honed their skills to a level that not only rivals but surpasses many of the national acts we see on big stages and on TV. Fact! Also, the last 2 years have seen some talented ‘newbies’ pushing up through the ranks. Guys like Bob Perfect , Shaun Morris, Shannon Rice and Arno Els add depth and variety to the Durban scene. More recently, newer acts like Barry Wylde, Tyson Heffer and Mbeu Kambuwa (“Snooze”) have made an impact. I can’t wait to see what these boys will be doing a couple years from now!



DIY: You’ve recently started On Fire Comedy to promote shows, how’s business going and how do you balance being a comedian and a promoter?

Jem: It’s going great actually! I’ve learnt a lot as a promoter over the last 12 months, and in the 5 years since I started comedy, I’ve never seen such consistently great support in Durban. With my friend and business partner, Dusty Rich, we’re running 4 very popular monthly comedy gigs. We’re facing almost no competition so thankfully the gigs are packed to capacity each night! We’re clearly doing something right – we’ve even secured corporate sponsorship for New York Comedy Club and Amsterdam Comedy Club and can offer acts from Joburg and Cape Town the opportunity to perform on our burgeoning local circuit. Durban comics are loving this and it’s a great platform for new acts to test their mettle too. It’s been an adjustment trying to juggle the roles of promoter and comedian but I feel like I’m doing OK. It’s been a big learning curve, but it’s a lot of fun too and obviously very rewarding. I think the trick to being a good promoter is honesty and to not be greedy or selfish.

 Making light of the pain is human nature.

DIY: When you’re on stage and you can sense the audience isn’t feeling your shit, what is your 101 to try win them over? And how do you deal with hecklers? Would you prefer if they just shut up or do you like the challenge?

Jem: I find that interacting with the crowd more – just chatting with them – is a great way to break down that barrier between me and them and get a feel for what they’re into. This takes years to perfect and I’m still learning but it really helps draw them into the performance: stand-up comedy is a 2-way process! I also have a cache of ‘back-up’ material that I bring out for emergencies only. Basically, it’s some of the best material I’ve ever written and is (almost!) always well received so if I’m struggling, I’ll bring it out just to get ‘em back on my side. If that doesn’t work, then there’s a good chance that most of the crowd is stone deaf or maybe I just need to stop doing stand-up at funerals.  Sometimes you gotta know when to GTFO – I have a ninja smoke bomb for just such an occasion but I’ve never had to use it. Unfortunately.



DIY: What led you and Dusty to create the web series, Rock Bottom TV? It’s still relatively new but where are you hoping to take it in the future?

Jem: Well, for a couple years Dusty and I toyed with various ideas for him to host his own show with me writing with him, so when he was approached by the awesome Heartistic Productions team, we saw this as our chance to do something really, really great…or at least kind of  good. RockBottomTV combines everything we love – comedy, witty, intelligent banter, and hilarious video clips and skits, all neatly packaged into a tightly edited 4-minute weekly show. We love it! Honestly, we have no idea where it might take us – the response from people has been incredible in the 3 months since we started, with over 4000 views a month and climbing. One of my mottos is ‘Never eat yellow snow’. Another one is ‘Get paid doing what you love’, so if the web series gets big enough to start generating money, well I guess I could live with that! Right now though, we’re just trying to be the best comedy video blog in SA and to find a constructive outlet for Dusty’s massive ego.



DIY: Do you ever worry about your son hearing your material down the line and does that affect your writing now? Will you pull a Jay-Z or do you think you’ll be able to explain that that’s how you put him through school, gave him the life he has, etc?

Jem: My boy thinks I’m hilarious! Of course, his idea of humor is kicking Dad in the nuts…
My material comes from my life – it is a true reflection of things that I’m personally going through at the time of writing and these thoughts are my own. There’s a hell of a lot of honesty and self-reflection and even self-deprecation in my writing. It’s almost like therapy sometimes – very cathartic. So, no – I don’t worry about my son (or anyone for that matter) hearing what I have to say. This is the only comedy I know how to do; it’s the only comedy I want to do. I do consider myself a relatively ‘clean’ comedian but If you don’t like it then I’m sorry ‘cos I think it’s funny as shit!



DIY: Carte Blanche recently did a feature on the impact social media has and the repercussions a bad tweet can cause for someone in real life situations. An obvious example being Trevor Noah’s “And the Oscar goes to…Jail’ tweet. What are your thoughts on the matter? And do you ever censor what you really want to say online in fear of how it will be received from the public?

Jem: People are always going to have a strong opinion on certain things; they’re almost always going to take sides; and there’s always going to be jokes about sensitive, painful issues. Making light of the pain is human nature. Maybe sometimes even a coping mechanism. Social media has simply made these thoughts, jokes and opinions more accessible by more people, so tweeting to 1000 followers seems more shocking than telling your mate the same dumb joke at the pub. I find it rather strange really, because if you’re upset about something that someone tweeted…then don’t follow them! People are always going to make light of painful things and people are always going to ‘hate’ on others for doing so. That’s OK too. Just as people are always going to have differing opinions on sensitive issues like abortion. This is called Life. If you don’t like it you’re free to leave any time.


DIY: Does this sentiment hold true when you are performing on stage?

Jem: I’d like to believe that when it comes to stand-up comedy, I can say whatever I want, whenever I want, to whomever I want. But I can’t. Firstly, because Zuma would probably have me arrested. But also because I’m not that type of comedian. I like to push boundaries and shock people with my level of honesty and openness, but the truth is that some things I don’t joke about because the repercussions will be…tedious. I do however think that it’s important to ‘push’ buttons and challenge people’s thinking in certain respects, but being smart about it is the key. This is one of the most important jobs of a comedian. Oh and to be funny. That’s sort of important too. Being funny is better than being kak.


DIY: Going on from the above, how do you think comedians should deal with ‘sensitive’ topics? Should there be a degree of restraint exercised or is anything fair game? What topics in your opinion are a bridge too far?

Jem:I can’t speak for other comedians. I do think though that some comics can be far more provocative and edgy, and shocking even, than others simply because that is the image and ‘brand’ that they have developed for themselves; that is part of who they are and they’re smart enough and funny enough to have attained the level of respect and quality required to justifies this.
Look at some of the hilariously vile things that UK’s Jimmy Carr utters. And South African comedy legends like John Vlismas, for example, have made a pretty good living and grown a massive fan-base for being brazenly outspoken and not censoring themselves.
Noah’s last one-man show saw him shouting the ‘K-word’ about 20 times in a row an attempt to shock us and devalue the word. Who else could do that apart from Trevor Noah (and Darren Scott, obviously)?

So, I think that when it comes to sensitive topics, there are no rules and pretty-much anything is fair game. However, there is a razor-thin line between being an edgy, thought-provoking, intelligent raconteur…and an insensitive douche-bag regurgitating dumb twitter jokes. (I speak from experience here). I frequently toy with religion, sex, homosexuality, racism, my asshole neighbour Steve, and other sensitive topics, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself ‘provocative’ or ‘edgy’…or even ‘shocking’. There are certain topics that I tend not to broach. These include things like rape,  cancer, and Zuma’s unfortunately shaped head. And badgers. I think that badger jokes are insensitive and serve only to hurt the local badger community.



DIY: What have you got planned for the Year of the Snake?

Jem: I’d like to keep running and developing comedy in Durban as we currently are and consolidate On Fire as the Durban Comedy Events enterprise. I want to be a part of the establishment of a well-supported Durban Comedy Circuit where locals and out-of-town acts can perform. I also plan to get corporates more involved, through sponsorship, events  and other deals, in growing Durban comedy this year. On Fire Comedy Events is currently in the process of securing a BIG out-of-town act for a 3-night run on our Durban Comedy Circuit (watch this space!) and we’ve got an awesome theatre run of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” planned for April. We’d like to turn RockBottomTV into SA’s most popular comedy video blog. Obviously. I’m also doing a lot of scriptwriting and may team up with a friend to write and star in a sequel to a short film we did last year. I’d like to move out of my parents’ house too. ‘Cos seriously, this is bullcrap.


Wanna know more about Jem and what he gets up to? Check out his website.


One Response to “Jem Atkins”
  1. sbonelo says:

    i have to say jem, my name is sbonelo mzimela we met a couple of times, but i want you to know that you are my inspiration.

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