Sitting down to talk to Kurt Schoonraad about his comedy club journey, you can’t but sense the sincerity and down to earth nature in his demeanour and approach. He is truly living his dream, but with great humility for the Cape Town Comedy Club's achievements so far and a true respect for comedy as a craft. Listening to him share his experience, you realise that it is also a unique privilege for Capetonians to stand witness to this story, as it continues to unfold.
The dream started taking shape in 2005 as a 'Pop up Comedy Club' for the Cape Town Festival, moved over to Woodstock's Albert Hall in 2007 and became Jou Ma Se Comedy Club when it made a turn at The River Club in Observatory from 2010 until 2013. Eventually the Club found a permanent home in the very funky Pumphouse in the V&A Waterfront in November 2013. With a name change to Cape Town Comedy Club in February 2015, the Club has truly embedded itself in Cape Town, as a much-loved part of the Mother City and her entertainment pulse.
“I’m very biased of course, I think is it a lekker good story, a good old fashioned story of stubbornness,” Schoonraad jests, “but of course we intended to set up a space where comedy can exist in Cape Town, where you can get it five nights a week. We always thought that Cape Town needed a place like that. If passion is your driving force, and it is in this exercise, it has been very successful in that way”.
Yet, even though it is such a very popular spot for all in search of a good night of laughter and fun, Schoonraad does not use it as a platform to promote his own comedic career, something I find very admirable. That’s part of what makes the Club such a hub of excitement and gives it a genuine feel; there is nothing self-indulgent about it. At its very heart, the Cape Town Comedy Club is a platform to boost other comedians, a place for them to showcase their talent. As a frequent visitor to the Club, I have never seen Schoonraad jump onto the stage to grab the spotlight. You will maybe see him on the rare occasion take on the MC role or give a speech at a special event like the Club's birthday bash.
“I’m very tempted”, he as a true performer laughingly share. “It is very difficult to have two separate brands exist in two different spaces. I take my career very seriously – I spend a lot of time onstage and a lot of time sculpting my material – and I think there is an integrity to it that is important. Way too often we get caught up in great pieces of advertising and marketing, that can be quite shallow, and it is easy to piggy-back the one brand off the other. Most people go, ‘Oh, that comedian owns the place’, but the truth is, I am pretty much in the background. It is important for it to stand alone. It is ok for people to know who owns the Club, but I think it is important and necessary for the two brands to exist, co-exist, but exist separately.”
With such care in giving the space its own persona and stand-alone brand, the Cape Town Comedy Club is a dream come full circle? Schoonraad says not yet, so hold on to your comedy club chairs people, because there is still a lot more to be revealed on this passion project journey!
“Things have happened at such a hugely, almost blinding, pace since we started the Club. There are a million things I want to do here! And even if I had ten years and a katrillion Rand, I still don’t think I would be able to pull all of them off, you know. But from day one, it was just crisp in my mind what it is we wanted to do in the Club. And this is only phase two of a four stage plan,” he reveals, “there is more coming! There is a whole lot of stuff we want to do and we will get to do here. I would like to dress that stage once every two months, who knows, one month it may be the bridge to the Starship Enterprise… who knows! It needs to be lit beautifully, because we aim to please.”
Schoonraad, both from his personal and club comedy perspective, also truly believes that comedy has a very important place in our country, from both a commentary and high entertainment standard. “South Africa has got a very discerning comedy audience. They know what good is. I’ve had the pleasure of performing in all parts of the world, and the American cats are quite simple hey. It is straight down the line stuff. You get different levels of the game, but the average audience, they will end up going along with you. Joburg also, much more willing to go along with you. Cape Town though, very snobbish, very discerning. It is like ‘come on, dance, let us see what you got’,” they give you nothing until the end, Schoonraad explains. “And then only at the end they stand up; you know they’re weird that way. But they are also very Cape Town loyal… and there are a couple of comedians that they have taken to as their own – I would like to believe I am one of them – there is Stuart Taylor, Marc Lottering, Riaad Moosa, Nik Rabinowitz, the guys from Cape Town they really consider their own. Generally, it is very difficult to crack the nod here, but once they like something they’ll let you know ‘give me more of that!’ So we try and give them as much of that as possible.”
Schoonraad and his investors clearly have a great understanding of comedy, both as an art and as a business, and what a comedy club needs to offer the people. “We’ve always thought Cape Town needed a comedy club that people would come and support," he says. "And you can see it, the feet show up at the door every night, some nights are sold out weeks in advance. Particularly in the current financial climate, people still want to be entertained.” That is the kind of enthusiasm and support the Club has managed to create among both its local and international visitors.
“Yes, of course it is fantastic escapism,” Schoonraad elaborates, “you can literally go sit somewhere and klap your whole life on pause for a few hours, listen to some oke shoot the breeze about the universe, and understand that it is just therapy and we are all going to be alright. Then you go home, it’s lekker!”
At the Cape Town Comedy Club, you definitely get both quality and quantity as part of this comedy escapism experience. For a very reasonable price you get to see not just one, but four comedians onstage. Schoonraad explains that that is part of their approach, “we try very hard to keep the pricing competitive so that the whole of Cape Town is welcome to come, that is so important. We could make much more money if we just upped the ticket price, but for us to build the kind of community we want, we’ve got to have that fair play across the board, as fair play as we can” taking into consideration rent, 42 staff members, and a buzzing restaurant within the Club that serves some of the best pizza in town. So he acknowledges that they have to balance the books and keep things moving, but for the sense of community the Club has, they don’t see the need to make the tickets overpriced at the cost of losing its inclusive character.
Perhaps it is also that inviting energy of the Club, that sense of community, that makes the audience so willing to even offer themselves up for a laugh and punchline or two? “Someone once told me,” Schoonraad reveals a bit of his comedy secret, “the true comedians, the real legends, will make accomplices of that audience within the first minute. They make accomplices of all of them. And that is what you want it to be like as the guy on the stage.”
Comedy, even though not generally regarded by people as traditional theatre, – maybe because comedians make their art look so easy and natural that one forgets their shows also have form, narrative and rhythm – calls for talent with a very specific set of skills. “The word theatre has a very vintage feel to it. Comedy may be a very modern incarnation of it,” Schoonraad reflects, “perhaps it is rather the drive-through of theatre, the T20 comedy”.
Indeed, comedy is maybe a very unique genre within the ever evolving meaning of theatre, because “comedy requires a very specific response from an audience,” Schoonraad explains, “one that is very difficult to fake. Comedy is the medium, but a comedian’s real talent is knowing people, knowing where the lines are. Knowing where that subtle discomfort is and where you start to prod on that, because there is something about experience that makes comedy work.”
Making comedy relatable to your audience-accomplices is therefor key for Schoonraad and the comedians you see grace the Cape Town Comedy Club stage, as comedians they want the audience to say “‘I’ve said that', 'I've also asked that question’, because when that relation happens, when that penny drops, it is magic is what it is!”
So treat yourself to a night of great escapism; head on over to the V&A Waterfront and go visit the place where Kurt Schoonraad and the rest of the Cape Town Comedy Club team allow both local and international comedians to work their magic. Once there, you will realise why, as only one of three dedicated comedy clubs in the country and the only one of its kind in Cape Town, this ever evolving and developing club was recently ranked one of the top 10 best comedy clubs... in the world!