I first met Rustum August, Cape Town comedian and gig level hustler of all things comedic, five years ago. Back then he was an unassuming assemblage sporting a behavioural range between socially awkward and downright strange, on and off stage he reminded me of a South African Jim Morrison halfway through a batch of heavily spiked hallucinogens, he still does in fact.
Since then he’s been organizing shows in and around Cape Town, become incredibly funny, a combination which has him working with some of the biggest names in South African comedy. In five short years he’s gone from obscurity to a cornerstone of the gig level circuit. When the Jozi comics come down August is one of the first they call.
His comedy obsession started in February 2008 at the old Zula, small beginnings that have grown steadily to nearly 20 venues since. I caught up with him at Baran’s, off Green Market square, for a coffee and a chat about the state of Cape Town comedy’s underground scene.
He asked me for a cigarette as he sat down and broke off the end, I judged him immediately as one of those resource wasting hipster-tick-collectors (like blowing the end of your cigarette before lighting it, dicks) but he assured me that he’d use it later. Not that surprising from someone with 420 in their twitter handle.
He wore a Reservoir Dogs style suite, white on black pencil tie, sporting a beard and a stack of posters under his arm. An upcoming show with Rob Van Vuuren. His phone kicked off every few minutes accompanied with a sincere apology, in our 45 minutes together three acts confirmed dates and another seemed to be planning the evening’s revelry. Like I said, hustler.
I feel a strange sentiment bubble in response to August, he inspires me but not in a good way, couple creative excess with a distinct undertone of existential despair. The conversation takes a dark turn as he speaks about the lack of administrative help underground comedy receives, very few venue owners actually invest in the marketing side of a show. Forcing him to be a jack of all trades, pretty heavy load for someone pursuing growth as a comedian.
We go on to talk about the heart of underground comedy. “At the core of every libertine or neo-dandy or industrial-bohemian’s obsession is a behavioural routine so completely useless to middle class priorities that it needs a dedicated sales and marketing department just to break even. Without the back end, projects like stand up comedy in an environment like Cape Town will eat you alive and it is.” He did look tired, spent and dishevelled, but it could just have been the party from the night before.
“We’ve done well as a nation, but at the end of the day South Africa remains a conservative cul-de-sac, we are in receipt of first world influence but remain in this post-colonial context,” he said this so thoughtfully I spent an entire afternoon thinking about it.
As I spoke to him I realized that the weapons grade comedy appreciation and understanding that August has alienates him from the mob. I’m not saying we don’t have fiercely devoted punters, we do- there just aren’t enough to sustain an industry.
That’s why individual efforts like Rustum’s remain crucial, though sadly unsustainable. Rustum plays an immensely influential role on the circuit; during any given month he will have creative control over 5 to 15 shows. A significant pile of decision making.
We segway into how he goes about booking acts. I load my questions, looking for evidence of cronyism and personal vendettas, hoping for some dirt, but he claims that he has no problem with any of the comics on the circuit, well not personally. The explanation he offers circles around an idea called hack material, this relates to overly obvious joke structures and material that has been ‘done’ already. He unpacks the preferred approach, touching on names like Martin Evans and Ryan Carelse and how pleasing it is to encounter acts in pursuit of novelty.
“My intent is to create space for comedians in love with stand up and not the social privilege the scene provides.” He spoke about attention hungry egos getting in the way of creative progression and how time remains the only true test of devotion to the craft. “Many people don’t stick around for longer than a year but the ones who do are the kind of people I want to work with, playing the long game, devoted.”
He then starts riffing about the changes he wants to see at gig level, comics who stay ‘well oiled’ by showing evidence of a thoughtful approach to the craft, most easily showcased by their ability to tailor gags on stage; adapting on the spot. “There’s nothing better than watching a comic stand his ground, flip material and win over an audience,” he says through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Rustum August,for 28, must be one of the broadest minds I’ve encountered in the comedy industry; his opinions are measured and insightful, filled with recent illustrations.
In the ever increasing corporate orientation that occupies the gifted personalities of modernity; August’s vision and intent smacks of visionary swagger. A refreshing contributor in a sea of prescribed monotony, my only concern is that this task will eat him alive and if that happens that post Cape Comedy Collective dry patch will return.
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