‘Everything in this country is interesting to me’

2008-08-28 00:00

Cape Town comedian Nik Rabinowitz first started collecting funny stories around campfires in the Cederberg mountains, where he spent holidays as a child.

“I used to go to the mountains with my dad (well-known Cape Town potter Hyme Rabinowitz) and two of his friends, Percy Sieff (former radio personality and funny man) and Ginger Townley Johnson (a rock art copyist). They were the three musketeers. They were explorers for rock art and did pioneering work in the Cederberg.

“After a few beers around the fire, the humour would start flowing,” says Rabinowitz when we meet for an interview. “One of the first stories I learned was from Percy, who is my godfather, about an Afrikaans guy who goes out hunting with a handlanger and who drinks a lot of mampoer. I grew up seeing Percy perform and hearing his stories, and that influenced me a lot. He used to steal jokes and tell me they’d fallen off a truck.”

Rabinowitz, who describes himself as South Africa’s top Jewish, Xhosa-speaking comedian, saw his first play when he was six months old. “Apparently I laughed on cue, which made everyone happy,” he continues.

These days, Rabinowitz is holding audiences spellbound with his funny take on different South Africans — from a Cape Flats weather reporter to a kugel at a seance, to a Xhosa woman who has just migrated to Australia and is having trouble with her Aboriginal maid. (She steals the sugar and is always going to funerals.)

His skit on the Afrikaans man calling his little boy to say a tearful goodbye from the aeroplane after being told that his pilot is a black woman, is one of his classics.

“I am fascinated by people,” says Rabinowitz, who has piercing blue eyes and works at projecting an image of a “cross between Johnny Clegg and Bob Dylan”. Oblivious to the fact that he is in a public space, he switches noisily and unselfconsciously into character as we speak — one minute speaking in an Australian accent, the next like a Jewish mama, and then like a Cape gangster.

When we meet, he’s just finished a working period of three months, six nights a week, with a run at Cape Town’s Broadway Theatre in a performance called In the Nick and then at the Funny Festival in the city.

He’s so in demand these days that he feels he needs to stop and consolidate a bit. “The past two years have been very fast. I want to slow down. I am reading In Praise of Slow. I’m reading it slowly,” he says.

Ebrahim Rasool, former Western Cape premier, went up to him after a show and asked him how he manages to capture the Cape Muslim persona so well.

“Everything about this country and its people is interesting to me — where we are and where we are headed and the uncertainty of all that. Then there’s the whole question of emigration,’’ he says. One of his skits features a television programme entitled Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Rabinowitz has observed that the only people who are really offended by his very risqué performances are the white liberals. He puts on a la-di-da voice to explain: “The other day a woman came up to me and said, ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit condescending to the nation?’.”

He marvels at the way South Africans use language — and plays with the country’s linguistic idiosyncracies in his shows. “Why do people always say ‘sharp sharp’? They never say ‘blunt blunt’.”

Rabinowitz grew up on a farm in what he jokingly refers to as Plumstead West in Cape Town. “My mother didn’t want people to know we lived in Constantia,” he says. Here, he learnt to climb trees, throw pots and speak Xhosa.

After graduating from the University of Cape Town with a business science degree, Rabinowitz got a job producing theatre in various African countries for a year. On his return, friends told him he should try his hand at stand-up comedy.

“I went to see an agent ... and she said to me, ‘No offence, but I think you should stick to business science’.” It was only after doing a Landmark Education course that Rabinowitz decided that he wanted to make a career of comedy.

“It was a three-and-a-half-day course, where I had a breakthrough about being in front of people. In these courses, you deal with the barriers that are in the way of you being yourself. You deal with what has happened to you in your life and how you can be you again.

“Two days after the course, I left Cape Town to be in the first play I had been in since my school nativity play.”

He has since starred in a variety of one-man shows, including One Man One Goat, and appeared in a number of local and international comedy festivals. He loves life as a stand-up comedian. “Stand-up comedy can be very confronting. You don’t have anything to hide behind. I hid behind a character for a while. He was funny, but he expired.

“My intention is to bring people together in my shows,” says Rabinowitz.

A big fan of comedians such as Ali G, Monty Python and Rowan Atkinson, he believes humour can play a strong unifying role.

“South Africans need to laugh. I have had so many people come up to me and say, ‘With all this kak going on — interest rates, petrol prices, Eskom — at the end of the day, it helps to laugh’.

“When Jacob Zuma announced that the ANC will rule until Jesus returns, I immediately sat with (fellow funny man) Tom Eaton and brainstormed what it would be like if Jesus arrived at an ANC caucus meeting.” Rabinowitz then embarks on a noisy performance of Julius Malema trying to explain what he really meant when he said he was going to kill for Zuma.

“Recently a guy who had just come back from living in London for 20 years came to me after a show and said, with tears in his eyes, ‘Thank you, I didn’t know we could laugh at these things’. People get so significant and serious about life, and where the country is at and all that. Ultimately, what is there to be significant about? We are so insignificant.

“I read this in Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything — ‘If galaxies were frozen peas, there would be enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall.’ I mean, really.”

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