I started my show business career in 1963. Together with Mel Green we formed a folk group called Mel& Mel (original hey?). We were both at the Johannesburg School Of Art and did gigs on an amateur basis.
One night at the Troubador (a folk club owned by Des Lindberg), we were having a dismal time and the audience just wasn’t listening to the music, so I decided to tell a joke - AND THEY LAUGHED! I told one more and it happened again.
By a weird quirk of fate (and a ‘bad’ audience), a whole new world opened for me. Little did I know that it would basically define my whole life and work.
We started combining folk music and humour and pretty soon became the most popular folk group in town, plus we were getting paid for it (R10.00 a night and a meal for a four hour gig).
In 1964, on one of our better nights, we were spotted by an agent, Don Hughes, who offered us a professional gig at the Edward Hotel in Durban for three months. We soon became a household name there. We worked four hours a night, five nights a week for the R300.00 a month (a good salary then).
We returned to Jo’burg after the three month contract to cut our first LP and were joined by Julian Laxton as a backing guitarist. The LP was recorded in one day and released, and lo and behold we were offered another three months at the Edward. This time we went down as Mel, Mel & Julian - The contact was extended for two years and believe it or not, we played to packed houses for the whole run. While we were there we recorded two more LPs.
From the Edward we went to Cape Town and appeared at the Coral Lounge in the Grand Hotel, Deals Hotel in East London, The Elizabeth Hotel in Port Elizabeth and returned to the Edward, until I left for Israel in 1967 as a volunteer. I spent six months on kibbutz learning Hebrew and then moved to the south of the country to Eilat. In Eilat I carried on my folk music/comedy act at a club called The End Of The World.
It’s funny how fate steps in - The first night I was on stage at the End Of The World, I made a grammatical error in Hebrew and the audience laughed, so from that night on I did my comedy as a new immigrant using all the grammatical errors and slang I could lay my hands on.
Returning to South Africa, Adam Leslie saw me at the Nitebeat folk club, thought I was quite funny , and offered me a part in his revue ‘Hair Hair’ at the Adam Leslie Theatre.
I think that this was one of the most important phases in my career. Adam taught me stagecraft and how to think on my feet. For example - He would come up with a piece from the newspaper and we had to write, choreograph, dress and stage a sketch on the subject that very night.
As a member of a revue company, I was surrounded by people who had been doing this stuff for years. It was like being paid to go to school.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the likes of Hal Orlandini, Ian Lawrence, Anthony Fridjohn, Shirley Sherman and mostly to Adam Leslie.
I was only doing small walk-ons, and when Adam had a heart attack during a Saturday night show , I was informed that the following Tuesday night I was to take over all his parts (which were 90% of theshow). I spent the weekend going over his ‘schtick’ and together with Valium and loads of coffee, managed to get the whole lot under my belt.
Adam’s heart attack and my ‘take-over’ was all over the papers, and on Tuesday I opened up in Adam’s role. Now, nobody told me that all the critics were invited to review the new show. There I was - an ex hippy folk singer taking over from the great Adam Leslie.
I was lucky to get rave reviews and stayed with the Adam Leslie Theatre for three years in shows such as “Group Hairier”, The Adam Leslie Revue” and “A Tribute To Cole Porter” among others.
While all this theatre was going on, Hal and Ian introduced me to radio and I started doing character parts on serial for Springbok Radio - “The World Of Hammond Innes”, “Marriage Lines”, “Jet Jungle” and “Squad Cars”.
At the same time I started doing cabaret at “Athens By Night” in Hillbrow (before it became Lagos extension 2).
By now I had dropped the music and did pure stand-up comedy ( I felt that with a voice like mine, I didn’t want to screw up too many good songs and had to face up to the fact that I was born to comedy not music)
After the run with Adam, I appeared (as Snoopy) in the South African production of “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown”, “What The Butler Saw” and “Mama Is Terry Coming Home For Good”. This final production convinced me that I would never be a serious actor (I mean how could we be doing all this depressing stuff, when there was a need for more laughter - remember, this was South Africa in the 70’s).
Although I was doing quite well with the comedy, I felt there was still something missing. I was grouping jokes into categories and linking them together in a story line together with characterisations. I was doing comedy that people laughed, but didn’t necessarily have to think about.
You must remember that back then we had no TV and everything we did was isolated from the rest of the comedy world, so it wasn’t easy to see, know or learn from other styles of comedy. Guys like George Carlin had been doing stand-up for twenty years already and we didn’t even know who he was.
One day I was in town and landed up at a record shop called The Long Player. The only comedy LP I could find was of a guy called Lennie Bruce. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing - somebody standing and talking about things that mattered. It was like hearing a cross between Mahatma Ghandi and Vlad The Impaler. I knew at that moment that this was what I should be doing - speaking about the issues allof us have. So I started copying Lennie Bruce’s routines and re-wrote them with a South African twist (with only mild success).
It then dawned on me (slow thinker that I am), that South Africa was a great place for comedic material. We have always had politicians and public figures who have consistently raised the standards of ineptitude and plain stupidity to a new level.
I realised that this form of comedy, in a repressive country like ours, was bound to cause trouble, but what the hell - if I was going to go down, I was going down with a bang and not a whisper.
Ten years had passed in my career, but now I had a style.
At the time the Top Of The Carlton night club would only hire overseas acts, and when one of them fell ill, I was the first South African to be asked to fill in for a few nights. I was then offered a contract to workthere. I landed up doing four seasons, breaking attendance records each time.
Also at the time, each major hotel chain in the country had a cabaret circuit and I started to do countrywide tours.
The Southern Sun, Holiday Inn and Crazy Horse circuits (and others that I have blocked from memory for fear of permanent trauma), taught me a lot about getting an audience on my side - and with my kind of comedy in South Africa, that wasn’t easy.
It was quite gruelling being away from family and friends for eight months of the year, but I was making a name for myself. Remember we still hadn’t got TV, and all the publicity was by word of mouth, so the only way to get known was by being wherever you had to be. I don’t think I would like to re-live those years of living out of a suitcase, but I did learn that, as Woody Allen points out, “90% of being professional, is showing up”.
In 1976 TV came to South Africa and I was asked to appear in a show called ‘Biltong and Potroast’. The idea was to pit South African comedians against British comedians. The adjudicator was Clarke McKay.
The show took off, and at one stage we had more viewers that the BBC program ’The World At War’.
We were paid R35.00 a show (even then it was bad money), but for the first time a million people could see us at the push of a button.
I also appeared in ‘The Everywhere Express’, ‘Us Animal And Things’ and ‘Punchline’.
It had taken me twelve years to become an overnight success!!
By now I was pushing the envelope even more and in 1985 after a show at the Top Of The Carlton, I was picked up by the security cops, taken to the Hillbrow police station and roughed up for my anti-government comedy. I was labelled a ‘Communist’. My phone was bugged and my family threatened.
Although I gave up the public appearances, for the next ten years I concentrated on corporate comedy (less conspicuous).
In 1990 Joe Parker persuaded me to start working in clubs again and I started at O’Hagens in Dunkeld Centre. The word got around that I was back into club gigs and I started to get back into the circuit of clubs and pubs. Joe and I co-wrote a revue called ‘Nelson De Klerk And His Amazing Technicolour Country’ which played to packed houses for 6 weeks.
In 1995 Sam Hendricks asked me to take part in the Smirnoff Comedy Festival in Cape Town. After being out of the public eye for ten years, I was concerned that the public had forgotten me. They hadn’t. The reception I received in Cape Town was so overwhelming, that I retuned to Jo’burg, resigned my job as an art director in a publishing company and have been into full time comedy ever since.
I have subsequently appeared in nearly all the Smirnoff Comedy Festivals, co-wrote, produced and directed a show the late Shaun Griggs ‘Things To Do In Jo’burg When You’ve Forgotten That You’re Dead’ (packed for three weeks), sold out at the Grahamstown Festival twice, toured with five of my own shows ( ‘Captain Chaos’, ‘Captain Chaos Flies Again’, ‘Divine Madness’ and ‘Fat Fiftyish Pissed Off And Funny’).
My last show ‘Mel Miller’s Big Fat Comedy at Montecasino drew 3000 people in two days.
TopicsComedy Stand Up Comedy Comedy Skits Written Comedy scripts
The critics review:
Feldman @ the theatre
Mel Miller’s Big Fat Comedy Show at the Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways. Mel Miller gives one more performance on Saturday, June 14, at 7pm.
Mel Miller, one of the country’s most acerbic comedians, took on the Teatro last night – and won. A large crowd of fans, including many comedians such Eddie Eckstein, Denis McLean and Cyril Green, were in the audience to be part of history.
This is the first time a stand-up comic has played the massive Teatro and not since “The Lion King” have so many people roared – but this time with laughter.
Standing alone on stage, an arm chair and a several bottle of mineral water as his sole companions, Mel held court for almost two hours with a non-stop barrage of humour and insight on this wonderful country called South Africa.
He is a hilarious storyteller with a sharp wit and his 44 years in the entertainment business has imbued him with the experience to deal with any situation. I won’t go into detail about how many different subjects he tackled on the night, but his uncanny take on life and what’s happening on this planet is a wonderful tonic.
And we certainly need it!
Accreditation must be given in the format: "Peter Feldman - Artslink.co.za"
In March 2011 ‘Mel Miller’s Big Fat Comedy Show’ sold out at The Sydney Opera House in Australia and I had two sold-out shows in California in January 2017.
I received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Comics Choice Awards in January 2011.
Still here after 54 years - I must’ve done something right.