No holy cows for Nik Rabinowitz

2014-01-22 17:20

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This year promises to be another biggie for Nik Rabinowitz, the comedian for whom almost nothing and no one is sacred. It’s hard to believe he once needed a course in overcoming chronic stage fright and learning how to speak up

He loves telling the story of how he’s only the second Jewish boy in the past 2 000-odd years to be born in a stable.

No, it’s true, he says. His parents lived in a converted stable and he was born in it. Yes, the stable might have been on a property in Constantia, one of Cape Town’s poshest areas, but still. A stable. Him and jesus.

Nik Rabinowitz sits back with a grin. It’s not always easy to tell if the 37-year-old is being serious or not – comedians can be like that.

But in truth, most of what Nik says is delivered quietly and rather sincerely. He has a droll dryness but he’s not a laugh a minute. In fact, he comes across as rather sweet – smiles into your eyes, shakes hands warmly.

Nik is clearly tired. He’s been on stage pretty much every night for the past eight weeks, give or take a Christmas day here and a New year’s there – and it shows.

There are dark rings under his eyes and he’s slouching wearily in his chair. His latest show, stand up, has been pulling audiences in Cape Town and will be moving to Joburg’s lyric theatre on 1 march.

But first he’s going to elands bay on the west coast after the mother city run for a break with his wife, medical doctor Debbie, and their sons, Ben (4) and Adam (21 months). The waves are good there and he enjoys surfing in his spare time.

After that it’s back to business – first the Joburg gig, then off to America for some ‘Jewish comedy’ before coming back here for more solo shows around the country, as well as comedy festival work and group appearances.

He also has two entries in the america meet world comedy competition, where comedians from 21 countries enter comedy clips online for people to vote for.

The comedian with the most votes will be flown to the states to meet the producers of top us comedy the daily show with Jon Stewart.

Nik has two entries in the competition – ‘America meet Nick’ and ‘hot for Sossy’.

‘Sossy is what my son Ben calls sausage,’ he explains. He has to adapt his material quite significantly for overseas audiences as so much of it is south africa-centric – although judging by the number of foreign holidaymakers who pop up at his local shows, he appeals to comedy fans from abroad too.

Perhaps it’s because nik is so outrageously irreverent. Everyone from Oscar Pistorius and Julius Malema to Desmond Tutu and Jacob Zuma come in for a ribbing – some more harshly than others.

His treatment of Oscar is so no-holds-barred it draws gasps: it involves Nik going down on his knees and feigning shooting through a bathroom door. ‘Bam, Bam,’ he goes. Then: ‘baby? Baby, are you in there?’

Nik admits he’s spoilt for choice in a country where there’s a constant supply of material for comedians.

What makes him popular across the spectrum is that people from all walks of life are sent up – White, Black, Coloured, Indian, Muslim, Jew, Christian, you name it.

He’s practically fluent in isixhosa, having grown up speaking the language on that farm in rural constantia where he was born and studying it to second-year university level. He also enjoys speaking afrikaans, ‘but that’s where my repertoire of languages ends’.

So is anyone sacred? Anyone at all? He thinks and thinks and thinks.

‘I’m struggling…’ finally he says, ‘even though he’s Jewish I don’t make too much fun of Jesus, especially when I’m on the radio [he has a satirical weekly slot, the week that wasn’t, on 702 and 567 talk radio].

People don’t like it that much – they go to the broadcasting complaints commission and the station gets fined so I tend to go easy on him. The same goes for allah.

‘I also don’t make much fun of my wife. Actually, let me think about that… yes, I suppose I do. But most of what i say about her isn’t true. I like to maintain a harmonious home life.’

Nik is the son of an accountant-turned-potter dad and a mom who studied architecture ‘until  came along.

Then she became an interior designer.’ his mom is 32 years younger than his dad.

Nik is planning to put a book together about his late father’s life. ‘he was an old-school accountant with a passion for making pots. He battled at first. Had to live in his kiln...’

Nik was sent to the unconventional Waldorf school for his primary school years, then to Westerford high school where ‘I stopped concentrating on academics in order to be cool’.

Did it work? ‘probably not. My wife didn’t think so anyway. I met her when I was in standard 6 [grade 8] but she didn’t talk to me until I was 23.’

Nik enrolled for a degree in business science after school but his heart wasn’t really in it. ‘I thought I wanted to be an actor so after I graduated I joined theatre for Africa and travelled across the continent making theatre sets, digging long drops and doing a bit of acting.’

But he was terrible at acting because he suffered from debilitating stage fright – which begs the obvious question: why on earth go into stand-up comedy?

He’d always been interested in comedy and comedians, he explains. As a child Pieter-Dirk Uys was his hero and he adored the radio ad in which Uys, as his alter ego Evita Bezuidenhout, invited Skatties to buy American Swiss products.

He also idolised his godfather, who would regale him for hours with jokes and funny stories. So he made up his mind: he would do stand-up. He took a course in speaking in public and facing his fears and took the plunge – with a little help from a character he invented called Jabulani Ndlovu, the Zimbabwean donkey rustler.

His first show was at the armchair theatre in observatory and it went well, he says. ‘people laughed at my jokes and it felt great.’

But after a year he had to let jabulani go. ‘it isn’t sustainable to be someone else. And shortly afterwards i went on stage at the keg in Rondebosch and died a horrible death. I was heckled badly, people yelled “get off the stage” and “you aren’t funny!” I walked straight out of the building and never went back.’

He didn’t give up though and over time his confidence grew, as did his reputation, although the knocks still came – one of them at the Loerie awards in 2003.

‘I was the MC and still too inexperienced to last in front of 4 000 advertising people, most of whom were high. Eventually they told me to just stop making jokes. I simply wasn’t funny.’

Still, the successes outweigh the failures – he has several DVD's on the market, is a regular at comedy festivals, frequently puts on solo shows, directs other comedians and has appeared alongside other funnymen in productions, including the David Kramer directed three wise men and three wiser men with Marc Lottering and Riaad Moosa. He also had a role in Riaad’s acclaimed movie material.

Nik is now so confident on stage he has packed houses eating out of the palm of his hand. There are times he gets tired – like now, doing back-to-back shows – but the thrill of stand-up is something he never tires of.

‘when things come to you in the spur of the moment and the audience goes with you and explodes… that’s magic. It’s kind of like the first time you have sex – although that isn’t always good. So let’s say it’s better than sex.’ and what’s he like at home then? ‘kind of chilled. My wife doesn’t think i’m that funny. She gets more laughs out of everyone else in the house than me.’

Everybody else must be pretty funny then. “When things come to you in the spur of the moment and the audience goes with you and explodes… that’s magic. It’s better than sex”

Pieter-Dirk Uys on Nik

He’s delighted a radio ad he did years ago inspired Nik to go into comedy, the veteran satirist says. ‘it was an American Swiss ad for diamonds – I imagine Nik was only about five!

‘It’s always thrilling to know one’s madness inspired a new generation of crazies! Nik’s take on the absurdities of our lives is unique – and nogal in more than two languages.

I wish I could make jokes like he does. I can only try to tell the truth, which is sometimes funnier. Oi! With our present leadership being signed to the world by the macarena champ from a local loony bin, comedy is strong. It’s satire that’s terminal. Can’t top a Zuma speech!’

Nik’s favourites

Overseas comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Zach Galifianakis

Local comedian Mark Banks

Best person to impersonate Desmond Tutu

Followed by…

• Oscar Pistorius

• Former Springbok Coach, Peter de Villiers

• Soccer player Benni Mccarthy

• Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille

• Shock Jock Gareth Cliff

• North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

» Get your copy of iMag in City Press on Sundays

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