Nik Rabinowitz explores Cape Town's water crisis in his new show, Dry White, onstage at the Baxter Theatre until 12 January 2019. He’s taking to the stage, because water is currently a highly relevant topic, but he's really just doing it to reel you in so that he can get into what he really wants to talk about —land! Just kidding, no one wants to talk about that. I sat down to have a talk with him to find out how he approaches comedy, and if, in all this, he is trying to use subtext to warn us that there’s going to be a wine crisis next.
Reflecting on the personal content of Rabinowitz’s previous show, FORTYfied —in which he addressed his early-onset midlife crisis, from which he says he luckily fully recovered— he admits that friends and family do occasionally make it into his shows in an adapted fashion. Some of those who feature have called him out on it at times, but often he manages to ‘comedian’ himself out of those sticky situations.
‘Sometimes I will try and defend the joke or the material. Mostly, that would be my first response with a, “No, no, but it’s funny!”. But there have been times that I’ve had to relinquish my position for the sake of peace in the home. On the last show there were a couple of sticky things which I erased.’
Even with the occasional inner circle ‘censorship’, it’s clear that Rabinowitz doesn’t draw inspiration from his daily interactions simply with the aim of picking on someone for the sake of a quick laugh. When Rabinowitz references friends, family or interesting people he’s met, it’s to highlight a sequence of events or a certain situation —it’s the context rather than the person that makes for the hilarity of the sketches in his shows.
Reflecting on this experience-perspective, he shares how he used to bring his dad to shows after he couldn’t hear anymore. ‘He was quite measured with his praise, but I could see he just enjoyed being there,’ Rabinowitz recounts. ‘It was more about having him in a room when everyone was laughing; it’s contagious. You see that with foreigners too. When they’re in the audience, they don’t always understand what’s going on, but they laugh because everyone else is laughing.’
Laughter, especially the infectious kind, is the barometer comedians use to see if their material hits the intended mark. With that then, audiences wield more power than they may realise.
‘Unlike with a play, audiences give you immediate feedback with their laughter,’ Rabinowitz explains.
‘With comedy you can hear the quality and levels of laughter. It’s different when doing my own show as opposed to doing other corporate events where people don’t necessarily come to see me as the comedian —sometimes they don’t even know I’m a comedian— so I have to [work from a different angle to] win over a crowd in that context.’ It’s then also important to be able to read the ‘personality’ of the crowd.'
Continuing with the events example, he explains, ‘I also realised that I must keep the more risqué stuff for later in an evening, when I’ve got them on my side. That’s a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way.’
All these lessons, and different arenas within which he has refined and sharpened his comedic skills, helps Rabinowitz package his uniquely styled shows. He admits that comedy shows are generally scripted, but his focus is not so much on the development of arcs or narratives —if he tries to force a specific narrative approach too much ‘sometimes it just doesn’t add up’.
His approach is more conversational: Depending on the energy of the audience sitting at the other side of that conversation, Rabinowitz may play around with his material. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he's prone to improvisation; there’s always a clear plan and focus for every one of his shows.
‘Though I might swap stuff around, there’s not a huge amount of [improvisation]. On any given night, you get a sense of what’s stronger and what should go where. It’s more about instinct and reacting to audience feedback. You can hear, “Oh, they like this more than they like that”.’
Even though an audience’s energy and character are very important to Rabinowitz in how he presents his shows, he avoids typecasting his audience: he doesn’t subscribe to the opinion that Joburg audiences are more generous with their applause than Cape Town audiences.
‘Maybe if you’re a Joburg comedian that’s true, but, also, you kind of work out how to access different cultural nuances.'
'I used to hate performing for Jewish audiences, because of some early experience when I hadn’t yet cracked the code. I remember performing my first one-man show, and on the last night the mostly Jewish crowd gave me almost just silence. There’s a Jewish theatre-owner in Joburg who owns the Theatre on the Square, where I once had a similar experience. After the show the owner came to me and said, “Don’t worry my darling, they’re laughing on the inside.” To be honest, I probably also didn’t have enough Jewish material back then, but I think they were going, “He’s one of us, we must support him!”.’
The Rabinowitz we see onstage now has outgrown that version of his comedic-self; he chalks up his initial laughter-droughts to inexperience.
‘I wasn’t really any good and I didn’t really know what I was doing. At that time, I hadn’t developed any true performances skills. What I perhaps had was some sort of natural ability that I’d sort of picked up by osmosis from my godfather: I watched him, memorised his sh!t, picked up his stuff. He was mainly an actor, but he was a very good comedic actor and he had many [mostly Afrikaans] joke-stories […] I had that as a kind of base, but I don’t think I really knew anything.'
'There’s no school of comedy, so most people are quite sh!t at the beginning; I sure was. I think it’s different now because people have a lot more [comedy] to go watch. The first time I performed in Cape Town I had never been to a comedy show. I picked up stories and I did some characters and accents and things, but it was very rough.’
Through experience and tough crowds, the roughness gave way to a witty comedic persona that developed to such a degree that his accents and characters made it onto ZA News’s Puppet Nation. Creating material for such a great platform, surely there must have popped out a few favourite characters, some of whom may even have made appearances in his stage shows?
‘One of my favourites were the Arch,’ Rabinowitz reveals, ‘I enjoyed playing Oscar too, though in the back of my mind I was going, “Uh, this is a bit awkward…”. Then there was also Patricia De Lille, Vladimir Putin, Peter De Villiers, Fikile Mbalula —I really enjoyed playing him!’
At the mention of his Patricia De Lille character, I’m reminded of one of my favourite Rabinowitz sketches, the one where he comes onstage as Auntie Pat’s praise singer. Responding to that rather zealous fan-type interruption, Rabinowitz shares that Patricia De Lille is in Dry White ‘a little bit’, but that he should perhaps bring that praise singer bit back too. Whether he will be doing that, or was kindly just appeasing this interviewer, that statement in itself is a source of great delight.
‘I met her a few times,’ Rabinowitz continues, 'but the one that stands out —and I talk about it in this new show— is when there was a fundraiser and they had a little pre-show cocktail party [upstairs at the Baxter Theatre] and I had to introduce her to Annie Lennox. I made an error when I introduced her, I said, “This is Annie Lennox from…”, then Patricia De Lille thought I said Ernie Els, and Annie Lennox corrected me…’
What the error was I’ll leave for audiences to go find out when seeing Dry White at the Baxter Theatre this festive season —no spoilers!
What can be revealed, is that Rabinowitz, by his own admission, may be exaggerating just a bit with his De Lille-Meets-Lennox sketch, but then exaggeration is part of the charm of comedy.
At its core, comedy, as a genre of theatre, is about hyperbole: comedians have to play everything up to set up the ultimate laugh.
‘Although sometimes —even though we do blow things up a bit— in reality things present themselves as ready-made jokes.’ To give context, Rabinowitz shares the background to one of his FORTYfied sketches where he spoke of his dad’s passing.
‘I did this story about the very first thing the undertakers said to my mom when they came to fetch him: “Mrs Rabinowitz, our condolences”, they both said with extreme social anxiety and a bit of Tourettes, “our, condolences. We’ve booked the plot next to him for you… The grave next to him is yours. Where’s the body?”.'
'Those okes then recognised me at the funeral just after I did a eulogy, when I was super emotional, and this guy says, “I’ve got one for you! Do you want to hear a good one? Why don’t people like me? I always let them down. You can use that… It’s gonna kill, then I’ll be in business again!” Now that bit I added as a tag; that’s called a tag. Also, because of this hyperbole thing, I’m not even sure if it was at my dad’s funeral or two weeks later when my godfather (my dad’s best friend for 60 years) died and was buried right next to my dad, so, it could have been at either funeral. But, that [real encounter] set up the joke.’
That approach of Rabinowitz, to take the funny in life and build it up, makes for great comedy in his shows —I’m sure Dry White will be no exception.
In fact, Dry White promises to be all that and more: ‘100% Vegan and green friendly. Made up of 10% recycled material, and 15% upcycled jokes. Bring your own glass water bottle and canvas bag. No punchlines tested on animals. LOLS Guaranteed.’
But what does that really mean? And, how has the not-a-water-crisis impacted on the concept of the show?
Rabinowitz doesn’t appear too phased by the absence of a water-crisis when it comes to his show. Luckily —from a comedic perspective— there’s always some sort of crisis.
‘Yeah, now we have an electricity crisis, again,’ Rabinowitz agrees, ‘and it’s too late to change the title. What would I change it to? I’m trying to think what the load-shedding version of Dry White would be... Moist Black doesn’t feel quite right. Pitch Black?’
Just more proof that Rabinowitz is always thinking of the next joke or angle; always working. And if the circumstances and context within which he performs a show changes, he simply thinks on his feet and adapts.
Dry White has then also been adapted since the first time he started testing the waters in more intimate theatre venues such as Die Boer Teater. So, those that saw it early on can expect some changes?
Ever developing his material, Rabinowitz shares that he has written some new jokes and tweaked the show here and there, but the character of the show remains. He believes audiences members who have seen it in the test-phase will still recognise it.
‘They’ll probably see the same bits, unless there’s a black-out, then they may not see anything. I didn’t really [change much]. I’m more reminiscing with a nostalgic take on the drought, “Remember when we basically lived in a bucket for a few months? It was traumatic!”. And now we’re just over that and we could be in perpetual load-shedding. We’re always five minutes to midnight.’
Seeing as his Dry White poster shows him showering with wine, the most important question begs to be asked: Does he think we will run out of wine? I mean, being surrounded by lovely wine routes, many Capetonians have a fondness for a dry white.
‘I don’t think we’re going to run out of land… Sorry, did I say land? I’m sure I said wine. No, I said land. Hopefully we won’t run out of land. Freudian slap? What do you call it? Slip? I’m sure they’ll keep making wine for a while.’
Interviewing a quick-witted comedian of Rabinowitz’s calibre leaves anything open to interpretation —with the subtext of every comment and answer making you do a double take, wondering which way a joke will run, and being surprised every time. My prediction is that audiences can definitely expect some of those ‘Freudian slaps’ in Dry White.
As our conversation comes to an end, Rabinowitz consoles this wine lover that even if grapes dry up, there will still be raisins, because ‘if life gives you a drought, eat raisins.’ Now that’s definitely 100% vegan friendly!
Catch Nik Rabinowitz onstage at the Baxter Theatre until 12 January 2019, sharing his thoughts on love, marriage, infidelity, transphobia, staying woke post forty, and when the land should be given back. Kidding! He’s talking about water, obviously, because Dry White! Book your tickets online through Webtickets.