Comedian Dave Levinsohn
Dave Levinsohn’s comedy style has been described as off the cuff. Having started as the host at the Coffee Lounge Comedy club in ‘97, he has become one of South Africa’s most bankable comedy acts. The ex-Art Director made a wise move; graphic design’s loss is comedy’s gain. He loves making people laugh. He has performed at the Vodacom International Comedy Festival, the Cape Town International and the Smirnoff Comedy Festival and is one of the first SA stand ups to be invited to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012 with Loyiso Gola. He has graced the small screen in many commercials, some of which have gone on to win awards and have become viral successes. He co-presented the first series of SABC 3’s “Going Nowhere Slowly” and was a head writer on M-Net’s Late Night With Trevor Noah (2010).
Why comedy and where did your career start?
My original field was as an art director and magazine designer. I always wrote funny captions for some of the pics. The editor would sometimes miss the weird captions and my sneaky comedy would be published. One day one of our clients (Ian from Platypus Productions) was filming a TV pilot called ‘Comedy Shop LIVE’. He said ‘Dave you think you’re quite funny… wanna come and do 7 minutes on the show? I did 23 minutes that night, a cardinal sin that all new comics make. But it felt really good and natural for me to be up there talking shit. The TV pilot never made it to air, it was slightly ahead of its time. But the next week I was asked to perform at the newcomer’s stage on the original Smirnoff comedy festival. That was in 1998. A year later I had given up designing logos and dealing with fussy clients, to start a career as a comedian. And that decision caused all kinds of chaos in my life. As you can imagine your first few gigs are for a meal voucher and a bar account!
Also having R300 a week as a salary isn’t good for paying bonds and cars etc. So after I got divorced, I made a plan to get really serious and professional at the comedy biz. I found an agent and started doing club gigs. An ad agency dude saw me performing at The Armchair Theatre and cast me in a commercial for MWEB. The ad won a gold Loerie award, and I got some instant fame right at the beginning of my new career. 17 years later… I’m on a blog with JustJody! History baba!
You had a successful career, how often do you perform and what are some of your career highlights?
‘Had!’ Glad you think I’ve had a successful career. In a way I’m only just starting. I have not even begun to do anything I originally set out to do. When I started comedy was a bit of a ginger kid of theatre. Nobody knew where it fitted in. I wanted to write and act in television sitcoms and one man shows in theatres and arenas. My heroes at the time like Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin had done these massive shows in stadiums. And that was a massive influence. Now that there are channels like Comedy Central, South African audiences are far more educated about what to expect. Most of my hi-lights were based on overcoming fear. When I was invited to the Edinburgh Festival in 2012, it was overwhelming and I died on stage in a foreign country. But it made me realise so many things about my comedy and myself. Highlights for me are when I get invited to do a comedy set or when a corporate client pays on time and thanks me for a great show.
My fellow comedian Mel Miller once told me ‘Never let a good gig go to your head, and a bad gig go to your heart.’ I don’t concentrate on the shitty ones. If you have a bad day at the office you have to get your ass to work the next day. It’s the same with comedy. We die on stage at some gigs and kill at others. This job is based on having people listen to a slice of your mind. So every set you do is a challenge. But there are some basic mistakes that event organisers make that can kill your set. For instance you can never ever do a comedy set during dinner. And yet almost every event organiser seems to want to slip your comedy in to save time or something?
What’s a typical day like in the life of David Levinsohn?
It’s Dave… my mother calls me David. I’ve never had a typical day. I try and plan stuff. Shit goes pear-shaped rather quickly. I also have a son at primary school and he needs to be fetched and it’s also my favourite thing to watch him do sport in the afternoons. When you work for yourself, it’s fairly easy to stay in bed all day because you are the boss. I saw an interview with Jerry Seinfeld where he saw construction workers go to work early, take a tea break, then go back to work, take lunch and go back to work. And he realised that’s what was needed to make a success in comedy. I get up at about 7, I have an office in town. I like having a place to work otherwise I’d stay in my undies all day. Mostly I am in my car all day, because clients like to meet you before a gig, to tell you not be rude or swear. I read my mails. I also sell my own brand of Craft beer so that keeps me very busy. I do a comedy podcast every Friday on Cliff Central called “JUSTNOW” so I do some guest prep during week. There is no excuse for not having gigs so I always keep in touch with event companies and old clients.
How would you describe the comedy scene in South Africa at the moment (2017) you have established guys but also youngsters making a name.
Audiences are far more aware of comedy these days. The new guys on the scene have great opportunities with Comedy Central behind them. The older comics still have a place in the biz, but there is pressure to always be on form. I like to go to all the club gigs and see what’s happening to In stay in touch. And there are some of the comedians i can say have been friends with since we began. For comedy to establish itself you need a comedy circuit. Clubs and venues that regularly have comedy nights. We are getting more of those. You also need a scene where comedians meet and discuss ideas, and we are getting there too.
You don’t only do comedy, you MC, do some TV and radio as well. What do you do to relax, away from comedy and the media stuff? Any Hobbies?
The beer brewing was a hobby that has become more and more fun because the brand has gained some traction with people who like the idea of comedy flavoured beer. But I love my job so it’s almost like a break every time I’m on stage.
You are also a big rugby fan. Who do you support and what advice would you give to Allister Coetzee?
I was always a Lions Supporter and believe when JHB rugby is strong, then the Boks are strong too. We have an incredible school and club set up here and the money to keep players here. Except For Josh Stauss? When a guy is chosen for his country he will always step up his game and try his best. As coach it’s you job to remind the player why they were chosen. Don’t try anything you wouldn’t do on a Super rugby field. But also give them the confidence to know if they do something interesting they have each player there to support. Also make sure that speed is a key to any move they do. Mistakes made at speed are easier to fix. Allister was handed a burning relay baton me thinks. He needs support, not more time.
You’re a comedian and people always expect you to be funny and happy, do you ever have bad days and how do you deal with people who then expect you to be funny?
It’s the other way around. Most of the time people come to me and tell me old lame jokes and then say ‘You can use that in your show I don’t mind, that’s just weird because my comedy does not consist of any jokes. They have obviously never seen me perform. I do miss those days when I was just a funny guy at the braai. These days If I make a funny or smart comment there is undoubtedly a person who says: ‘Dave you’re not on stage now… stop trying to be funny.’ That is very frustrating.
You also have your own beer, how did that come about?
When we first started doing comedy the bar owners used to have a quiet night and then do a comedy evening. The comedy nights ended up being their busiest nights eventually. But they paid us in beer and a meal. The ‘Dop’ system. So I relate beer with comedy. I also needed a product I could sell that was branded by me. Nobody really listens to CDs and producing a quality DVD comedy show is too expensive. So I make DAVEBREW comedy flavoured beer. You can take it home with you and it leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth after a great comedy night!
What’s your short, medium and long term goals?
Short term goals to keep paying my bills. Medium term to get more established comedy venues. Long term goals: My kid must have a balanced and established well rounded life. If I can get that right I’m on track. I also want to travel a lot more with my comedy.