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Finding It Hard to Standup - An Interview with Altaaf Sayed

in Comedy by

We can't always recognise strength when we see it. We are too busy being insecure creatures that judge ourselves against others. Trying to find the flaw in every human being to justify our own infallibility. I definitely thought that when I walked into the Armchair Theatre and met 32 year-old Altaaf Sayed, a new comedian on the Cape Town standup scene.

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Photograph courtesy of Esti Strydom 2018.

I met him as he liked to be. Brandishing a hand-rolled smoke hanging from his fingers, leaning against the comedy club entrance. He was taking money from the crowd as they shuffled in, a usual staple for newcomers assisting the club for a spot on the stage.

The difference from everyone else was his quirky style and the crutch he needs to keep himself up. Yet there was no cast or visible injury. Intrigued, I introduced myself and asked if he would be a guinea pig for me to write my first unbiased comedian interview.

“I’m a strategy consultant for the financial services sector for some major South African banks,” he says at the beginning of our WhatsApp call.

I asked him what qualifications he needed to get there. “I studied business strategy, finished a diploma in Islamic studies and failed Actuarial Sciences. The diploma I did for my dad because he asked.”

So is he happy with what he’s doing? “I always just wanted to make money. Since my condition though I just want permanent disability and do comedy.”

Altaaf suffers from X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy, a generative disorder that destroys myelin, the protective sheath that surrounds the brain's neurons -- the nerve cells that allow us to think and to control our muscles. There is no cure.

“It’s hard to feel that flight-or-fight feeling as my condition hinders that. I could see the danger and my mind can react, but my own body needs time to react.”

That was fascinating to hear. Most days I won't react because my ADD induces procrastination. With him, it's a functional limitation from a genetic disorder. I asked if it has controlled his life since he was diagnosed at 27 and has accepted it.

“I guess acceptance means motivation; I practise how to separate my cognitive mind from my own body’s limitations. If I didn’t, I would go insane.”

He also offers the first piece of sage wisdom. “I also believe in boketo - to stare out at nothing, but not thinking about anything.”

Yet his physical inhibition isn't his biggest challenge. He comes from a close-knit family but with weird dynamics.

“I have got two older sisters and am considered the darkest in my family, so got teased a lot. My dad was a political activist available for everyone else. My mom was apathetic about everything.

“When I leave the house, she actually asks me for money.”

And another revelation that gave me a double-take. “I was married. Twice. To the same woman.”

It was after that first marriage that he entered the world of stand-up comedy. On stage, he looks like a rebellious little coloured kid with his peroxide hair and chirpy goatee, but beneath lies real creative depth. His comedy stems from personal spaces about life and family, the struggles he has with his mom. "'What do you expect me to do, Mom? Shoot my girlfriend and go to jail?' She replied, 'No, I just want you to pay rent.'".

I did wonder why he would even approach stand-up as a vocation, since it is infamous for being the hardest to earn a living. “I always loved making kak jokes. After the first divorce, I approached Phil de Lange about doing a spot. It was Westley Cockrell that gave me stage-time with the wise words, ‘don’t be kak’. I did well. Then Gino Fernandez invited me to a workshop, and I loved comedy ever since.”

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Photograph courtesy of Esti Strydom 2018.

It wasn’t smooth sailing. Getting back together with his ex-wife meant giving up performing. For a time.

“She screwed me around, developed some personal issues, and we divorced again. And I hit comedy hard immediately after that.”

And hard he did. He has performed at the Cape Town Comedy Club and various open-mics across the Mother City. He was also flown to Johannesburg for the annual Newcomer’s Showcase.

“I spoke to Skumba, the host, during the break. And he told me, ‘I hope you go last’ just so he can watch me perform like a headliner. I think I did well.”

Like myself and others, comedy has become a coping mechanism. But he also appreciates the craft for its intellectualism.

“I love comedy for the ability to teach and share perspectives and thoughts, but still make you laugh. That’s why I love comics like Loyiso Gola and Joey Rasdien. Joey can take ‘cognitive dissonance’ and make it hilarious.”

He also respects the hard work put into an act, especially those hungry for it. “I saw Chris Houlie came back from a spell in Joburg, and he set was so tight, so crafted well. Up there, they mean business and we can learn from them.”

Does that mean Cape Town comedy needs to up its game? “I think we need to change the culture. While lack of funding does limit what we do, I’m not capitalistically driven. It takes away from the beauty, it’s an art.”

Another shock again to hear that coming from him. He works in the financial sector, but he has staunch views on humanism. I asked why.

“I hate capitalism, because it is profit at all costs. Human purpose is to live in this world, to understand nature. We just need to be good humans. I’m Muslim, but more spiritual. The prophet was voted the most influential by a non- Muslim (Michael Hart) just because of his virtues.”

So is comedy his only interest? “I love food," he replied with a whimsy in his voice. "I opened up a pop-up burger store in Wynberg, Archie's Kitchen. Twice.

"My other love is coffee. I dream of one day owning a coffee shop in the day and comedy at night. I thought by now I’d be living in a seaside fishing in Spain with cobbled stones and that coffee shop. Married with two kids.

“The cobbled stones are important though.”

As we ended off, I realised how both lucky and unlucky I am. Here was a guy who drew the one straw out of 18,000, and he's got more motivation than I have in my small finger. To show my respect, I took a chance and asked a personal question. Does he feel like he was running out of time?

“No, I keep forgetting I’m 32. I think of Yoda’s wise words, ‘Be mindful of the future, but not at expense of the moment.”

There's his real flaw; he's not a Trekkie.

You can find him on Instagram.

With thanks to Samantha Chapman for her help in editing this piece. You can find her on Instagram.

He procrastinates like crazy, has little friends and a blog with no traffic. All in all, he's doing well if he's at least breathing.

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