Comic life

Comic life

Nik Rabinowitz has impeccable timing, acute observational skills.

Perhaps it’s the effect of those raised, arched eyebrows. Or the way his forehead expands and furrows in magnificent mock surprise as he shares a story as though he, too, is hearing it for the first time. Watching his expressions – tinged as they are with hints of mischief and intellectual glee – you get the impression that Nik Rabinowitz is just as startled and amused by what he’s saying as his audience is. It’s like he’s channelling the jokes from some mystical, maniacal place, streaming them directly to the stage.

Given his background, and his ability to not take himself too seriously, there were always going to be jokes about him being Jewish, and from Cape Town’s southern suburbs. What has made him an innovator of the genre, though, has been his astute, skilful intermingling of isiXhosa into his stand-up routines.

Besides Rabinowitz’s satirical observations of the flaws in our society and the ceaseless shortcomings of our politicians (whom he generously credits with writing most of his material), it was his multilingualism that early on became a trademark of his comic performances. Plus, of course, there’s his knack for reproducing South African voices. Whether he’s impersonating Sandton kugels, Noordhoek hippies or former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers (whose voice he created for the satirical programme ZANews), Rabinowitz’s real genius seems to be his ability to get completely under the skin of our so-called ‘rainbow nation’. It’s little wonder that his impeccable vocal impersonation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu has become a national institution.

Where precisely this ability to riff on others comes from is uncertain, but Rabinowitz suggests it may have something to do with being an only child: ‘I used to talk to myself a lot.’

The leap from keeping himself amused to entertaining others happened while retelling his godfather’s jokes around the fire on camping trips. ‘I had a book in which I wrote down these stories – some of which were in Afrikaans – and then I’d memorise them and tell them to entertain my friends. I think that’s when I realised that I could make people laugh.’

This talent unexpectedly spilt over into his first job, which was as a dogsbody for a river-rafting company. ‘My job description included “entertaining the guests”. But I also had to do other tasks – such as carrying human waste in a black bag on my canoe for four days – so making them laugh was, in fact, easier.’

It was while working for a touring theatre company, though, that he says he found himself doing the kind of impersonations he later became known for. ‘I remember one night, alone in the bath in a shady hotel in Lusaka, doing a 45-minute monologue to myself as some weird character.’

His first actual gig was at the Armchair Theatre in Observatory, Cape Town. ‘Making the shift from being a funny guy who tells stories to being a comedian is all about getting on to a stage,’ he says. ‘Apparently, it went down horribly. But there’s absolutely no proof of that, since the only people watching were a bunch of drunk comics.’

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That didn’t stop him, though, and for a year Rabinowitz threw himself into enough open-mic gigs to elicit the kind of attention required to launch a career.

Not that a full-blown career making a living as a stand-up comedian was something he’d ever imagined possible. ‘It was just something to try out,’ he says. ‘And, somehow, it worked.’ Mercifully so, because if things hadn’t panned out, Rabinowitz claims that he ‘might’ve started a cult-like hippie commune in Noordhoek’ (a laid-back Cape Town suburb known for its free spirits and surfers).

‘Everyone in my cult would wear corduroy at all times, and then they’d rub their cords together to produce enough static electricity to reheat their lentils.’

Experience – on local and international stages; on television, radio, and the big screen – has brought ever-increasing confidence in his own humour. ‘As a younger comic, if an audience seemed to not be taking a joke very well, I would kind of gloss over it and skip to the next thing, but I’m probably more comfortable now simply saying, “Well, that really didn’t work. I thought it would. It made me laugh. Too bad for you guys!”’

This approach may make Rabinowitz sound rather blasé, but that is far from the case. ‘As in absolutely any career, there have been setbacks and criticisms. And there always will be, so long as I continue to take risks. Growth, I think, is a function of not taking criticism to heart, but at the same time being able to use it to identify what’s missing and use that to elevate to the next level.’

Which brings us to the subject of his latest show, Fortyfied, which opens this month in Cape Town, and celebrates his most recent milestone: hitting 40 in October. Preparing for the new show, he jokes, includes working hard to look his age. ‘I have recently got grey hair extensions and I am stopping with the Botox, just for the next few months, to make it a little more believable.’ Who, after all, can deny a comedian his laugh lines, or his furrowed brow?

‘There’s this notion of the midlife crisis,’ he says, momentarily lapsing into seriousness, ‘but, honestly, I don’t have time for one of those. Life right now is all about working hard at my craft and raising a family, which is hard, ’cause they’re heavy when you put them all together.’

He’s not joking: he has a hectic schedule of corporate gigs, MC engagements, and round-the-year one-man shows – all of which he dismisses as being easy compared to the rigours of fatherhood. ‘Honestly, it’s not that hard: wake up, tell a couple of jokes, go to sleep.’ What’s hard, he claims, is ‘waking up at 3 am to feed the baby’.

Whether it’s the responsibility of looking after children or the extra pressure that comes with fame, Rabinowitz says that, over the years, his approach to his craft has shifted. Nowadays, there is less maniacal channelling and more considered crafting of his material. ‘In the beginning, I wasn’t so much writing as I was just talking nonsense – literally. These days, there’s a lot more thought and preparation and actual writing.’

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But maturing into his craft also means permitting himself to take more chances. ‘I used to gravitate towards safety and what I knew worked in stand-up situations, but more and more I’m a bit bored by doing what I’ve done in the past, so the excitement lives in the world of not knowing if the next thing is going to work; and if it does work, then it’s really exciting.’

As for what the future holds, Rabinowitz says he’s fortunate, because his source material shows no immediate signs of drying up. ‘I think 2017 holds more of the same – philandering, cheating, scheming, misappropriating – and other similar words we use when describing politicians.’

Which is precisely why his work will always be relevant to South Africans. ‘I recently heard somewhere that, in the future, one of the only professions that won’t be overtaken by robots, is stand-up comedy. The obvious point of what I do is making people laugh, but maybe there are some by-products of that, like being able to make people think about something, or reconsider an issue, or laugh at themselves, or laugh at each other. Or just come together and be human beings sharing our common humanity.

‘I guess my Dad was a role model for me. There’s a quote (from the Talmud) on his tombstone that reads: “The highest form of wisdom is kindness”.’

It must be in the genes.

Photography: iStockphoto, Courtesy Images

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