From Smirnoff to Vodacom to Jive…

Here are excerpts from Eddy Cassar’s upcoming book on the history of the Jive Cape Town Funny Festival, which he hopes to complete and publish soon. Cassar has produced well over 20 comedy festivals at the Baxter Theatre, two Cape Town Funny Festivals at the Wimbledon Theatre in London and two more at the Leicester Square Theatre on the West End.

My attorney and friend, Henry Shields, introduced a jazz festival to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in the late 1980s and asked me to come on board to look after its media requirements  It turned out to be a red letter moment in the path to my development of the country’s first comedy festival.

The Smirnoff International Jazz Festival grew into a huge project. It became an important arm of the Grahamstown Festival and a vibrant platform for my education in theatre, the art of sponsorship and all its aspects, marketing and media liaison. It also introduced me to various forms of comedy. It was a steep, but hugely exciting learning curve.

In 1993, the Grahamstown Festival presented a small selection of stand-up comics on its Fringe program. Those who were there used the opportunity as a political platform. Pieter Dirk-Uys had become a regular performer, as had a few others.

A year later after elections for the democratic South Africa, the Festival presented almost two dozen comics. The country had embraced freedom of speech and stand-up comedy. Talented comedian and dear friend Mark Banks, who at that time was one of the top comics of the day, shared the idea of showcasing the talent on a platform – like a comedy festival. I remember thinking it was a great idea, but I had other matters on my mind and committed the idea to memory.

Late in 1995, I put a proposal together and presented the idea of a comedy festival to Smirnoff.  I had learnt a huge amount about sponsorship, media liaison and more importantly, return on investment and what sponsors looked for.

The Rise of the Smirnoff International Comedy Festival

Smirnoff were happy to sponsor the project. I t took two years to start putting the project together and in September 1997, the country’s first major comedy festival was born. That year, the Smirnoff International Comedy Festival, played to packed houses at its home at the Baxter and won a coveted BASA award for best new arts sponsorship.

I was now contracted for three years and my focus was on establishing the project as an annual event. Internationally much had happened. The Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell and South Africa had become a democracy and had embraced freedom of speech. The world was in a joyous mood. The Comedy Festival seemed to have come to fruition at the right time.

Big names such as Jimmy Carr, Lee Mac, Rhod Gilbert, ventriloquist Nina Conti, Reginald D Hunter, Stephen K Amos, Russell Peters, Gina Yashere, and Daniel Kitson, Hollywood star Scott Capurro, and many others performed at the Baxter Theatre in the early days of the Festival.

Jimmy Carr, Martin Davis, Mel Miller (Pic – IOL)

We used the popular local performers of the day. We hired all the big names, some for the entire run and others for allocated days. David Kramer, Pieter-Dirk Uys, the late Bill Flynn, and Joe Parker performed and I asked national party politician, Piet Koornhof to perform as a guest comic. Koornhof, once the acting State President of the country and one of the later architects of apartheid, had left his wife of decades to marry and father children with a young lady of colour. He became a central figure in Pieter-Dirk Uys’ shows.

He had regularly mimicked Piet Koornhof’s stupid statements, apartheid are dead, and actions and incorporated them into his shows which were wildly popular around the country. Having them both on the Festival created a stir. Koornhof enjoyed the experience and never presented my R500 cheque for payment.    

Over the years, through the turn of the century, the Festival grew stronger and stronger and the artists I attracted were of a higher calibre. We tapped into the Canadian market bringing out Russell Peters, Mike Wilmot, Phil Nicol, Glenn Wool and lastly Greek Canadian Angelo Tsarouchas. In the following years, Russell Peters, made it to the big time, filling stadia wherever he played and becoming a household name especially to the Indian diaspora around the world.

The local comedy landscape was changing with some new names dominating the scene. They included David Kau, Kagiso Lediga, Tshepo Mogale, Kurt Schoonraad, Chris Forrest, Stuart Taylor, Bevan Cullinan, Nik Rabinowitz, Riaad Moosa and Marc Lottering. Standup was taking off.

I started doing lunch time free gigs on Cape Town’s university campuses for Vodacom. Each Thursday for months at a time, I produced those shows, sometimes doing four campuses a day! I had come across two great comics I enjoyed working with. One was Ndumiso Lindi and the other Trevor Noah.

After advertising school, the young Ndumiso was employed at a blue chip advertising agency in Cape Town. I would collect him from outside his office door and sometimes rush to Cape Town International Airport and collect another comic I had flown down from Johannesburg for performances on the same campus show. That was Trevor Noah, then an up-and-coming DJ with youth radio station YFM where he occupied the graveyard shift. Those hour-long shows were magical and hugely popular.

Trevor Noah, when he made an appearance at the 2014 Funny Festival.

The End Of An Era; New Beginnings…

After seven years, Smirnoff announced they were moving their sponsorship to different pastures and I took the opportunity of creating the Funny Festival concept, using local stand-up comics alongside international variety acts. Vodacom came on board as the major sponsor, but were forced to move on after a couple of years, as the project did not fall into their sponsorship strategy.

A thirty-minute meeting with Sharief Parker of Jive twelve years ago and the rest, as they say is history.

Since then The Jive Cape Town Funny Festival has presented the country’s top comics, created a development campaign finding new talent and showcased some top class variety acts, many from Cirque du Soleil, international travelling cabaret sensation, Le Soiree, Majestique or Flic Flak, the high-energy circus phenomenon…