Interview with Nik Rabinowitz
Brent Meersman: Has Jewish comedy affected you?
Nik Rabinowitz: My Godfather was a comedian and he was also a Jewish. He was actually more of an actor, but he was a big joke teller and collector of jokes, many of which were Jewish jokes. I think it is about being an outsider, whether you’re Jewish or black or a woman or whatever – a gay Moslem. Jewish comedy goes back centuries, dealing with oppression and difficult circumstances.
BM: A survival mechanism?
NR: Perhaps it was, and in our current economic and political climate there is a lot that gets people down, so the role of comedians appears to be important right now.
BM: Jewish humour is also often self-deprecating.
NR: Can you prove you Jewish? Yes, ask me for a loan (laughs). I think that my Jewish comedy mirrors my own discovery of my Jewishness, because I went to a Waldorf school; it was a Christian environment . . . Until I was 11, I didn’t know anything about being Jewish. Suddenly I was thrown into cheider for six year olds and I was 12 – Gulliver’s Travels for Jews. You have this Bar Mitzvah and all this Jewishness descends on you. . . I didn’t really know how to speak about it in my comedy. Now in this show [Stand and Deliver] I talk of the new wave of Judaism which is black Jews, Afrikaans Jews, and coloured Jews. In this show I also talk about death for three minutes. Funny shit happens when people die. It took me a while to work it out, how to do it in stand-up.
BM: Why do you want to make people laugh?
NR: Humour is a good way of bringing people together. There is something transformative about people laughing for that amount of time. It’s a healing of sorts. Cathartic.
BM: In the way crying or laughing are almost the same?
NR: They often look [the same]. I have a friend who I sometimes can’t tell the difference, especially on the phone.
BM: You do a lot of political comedy. If you look at Bill Maher in the USA, Have I Got News For You on BBC TV and the News Quiz on BBC Radio, we’re not doing very well are we with political comedy?
NR: If you compare us to the USA or UK yes. But [not] if you compare us to Australia! Going and performing there was interesting because I went to see a fair amount of comedy – nothing political. The Late Nite News show [with Loyiso Gola on ETV] is trying, but it’s not as controversial as a puppet that looks like the president.
BM: How does political comedy work for you?
NR: The discipline of doing a weekly radio show [The week that wasn’t on Cape Talk / Radio 702] has made me a better comic. And the more I can say stuff to which people say ‘they are going to put a hit out on you’, the better. The [radio show creates the] building blocks of my stage show. . . Connecting the political to the personal I think is interesting.
BM: But what makes politics funny?
NR: John Cleese was talking about the tension around taboo topics – how the laugh is often in proportion to the tension. Laughter is a natural reaction.
BM: And humour is transgressive.
NR: Yes. It’s an amazing time to be a comic in this country, just the abundance of material! ZANews is a release for the tension we build up. We need that to be mainstream [ZANews is internet streamed]. I watch television news but I’m always looking at it from this [show material] perspective. I want it to be as fucked up as possible. [But] the other night, afterwards I felt anxious, distressed and oh my god where is the country going. Laughter defuses it, makes it palatable and we can laugh about it.
BM: What comedy do you like doing most?
NR: I’ve done a lot of stuff for the Jewish community. . . . I think intimate comedy clubs are the most exciting; when I’m doing something I haven’t done before and I have no idea if it will work and then it kills. And it kills me too. That is exciting. With corporates you do what you know works; people aren’t going to go with you on interesting tangents.
BM: I always disliked your braai cook, Jannie Olivier, the kaalgat kok, “master baster” sketch.
NR: Yes, I remember you wrote that. I don’t do characters anymore. I did it because I saw other people doing it. The only character I really enjoyed doing was the black kugel. I find it breaks my momentum and rhythm with the stand-up.
BM: Characters can also trap one into having to do them every time, creating an audience expectation.
NR: (Nodding) The Jewish-Xhosa persona I have created, I can find myself trapped in too.
BM: What are the tensions in this Jewish-Xhosa combo? It is just bizarrely unique or are their affinities, contradictions?
NR: It was a gimmick. I always wanted to say the Jewish-speaking Xhosa guy, but people would think it was a mistake on the press release. I use circumcision for one thing. But the interesting tension is between Jew and Moslem at the moment. But where is the comedy? I find myself in a position because I see how everyone feels about it – my mother in law who lost most of her family in the Holocaust, how she sees Israel . . . but I also appreciate my Moslem friends’ views, and [then] there’s the SA connection. I saw this thing on Carte Blanche with Afrikaans Jews living in Israel – the boere Afrikaans stereotype farmer interviewed and the racism was: “I had 195 sheep and ‘they’ steal ten a week, and it used to be the . . . and now its them”. He talks to his dog in Afrikaans; it used to bark at the blacks but now the Ethiopians are Jewish and he has to re-educate the dog. “And that Tractor over there is financed by the WesBank. Ha ha! Get it?”
BM: We live among a politically conservative Jewish community. Are you prepared to go there [Palestine issues] with your comedy?
NR: I’m often tempted to when I get riled up by stuff, but my wife is a sobering influence. What is it going to achieve if I start to rant? There are people in my own family; am I going to shift anyone’s attitudes? It’s about finding a way to say stuff. [Israel] lends itself to our own conversation about land and in this city too . . . I do this piece, coloured people converting [to Judaism] to get into gated communities in Sea Point.
BM: What does the private Nik do?
NR: This world that I operate in is quite full-on; being in front of people a lot and having to be funny all the time. One of my favourite places in the world is in the Cederberg mountains. My dad spent about 20 years documenting rock art. As a kid I grew up camping and visiting these amazing places. There is one magical spot in particular, way off the beaten track, and I like to go there and spend a week just camping out on my own. We [comedians] are observers; we need that time.
BM: What was your first job?
NR: I worked as a river guide on the Breede and later the Orange. I was a handlanger. I used to [have to] carry everything on the boat – the portable toilet and a bag of shit. I’d carry people’s shit for four days on the Orange River.
BM: Have you been booed on stage?
NR: Once I was told to get off the stage or words to that effect: ‘You’re not funny!’ When I started I had this black Zimbabwean character I used to do for my entire set. Then I realised I had to stop doing that and start being Nik . . . I stayed over at Hanover and met Mark Banks at the bar and bought his CD. That was the first stand-up comedy I’d ever listened to, and South African, and it was so funny I drove to Johannesburg all the way with it playing.
BM: What were your first theatre experiences?
NR: I was a handlanger for Nicholas Ellenbogen and Theatre for Africa. We drove around Africa and I did the lights and tents and I dug a long drop in Swaziland. I got malaria. . . Before stand-up I did corporate theatre. I did something for Coca Cola in Nigeria; I wrote this little show, the history of Coke in 15 minutes, but after 7 minutes they came to us and said, “Please can you stop. We are eating now”. On a makeshift stage next to a pool all the way to Nigeria to do that!
BM: Is there any question you wished interviewers would ask you but they never have?
NR: How did I meet my wife.