CAPETONIAN Dr Riaad Moosa has put aside his stethoscope and white coat for the time being to follow his passion — stand-up comedy. He has also become an actor, with two South African movies under his belt. Here he reflects on his amazing journey from medicine to comedy, and why he feels that it allows him still to practise a form of medicine.
What was your earliest ambition?
I always wanted to be doctor.
Both my parents are doctors. My father, Nisar Moosa, is an orthopaedic and hand surgeon; my mother, Zuleiga, is a GP, like I am. So when I was growing up, I wanted to be like them. I still do.
But you are now a famous stand-up comic — very different from the practice of medicine. What made you do that?
It started with magic in Standard 7 at school. A friend, Abubakr Brey, found a pamphlet from the College of Magic that looked awesome.
So you both became apprentice magicians?
He didn’t, because his parents said magic was "haraam" (forbidden under Islamic law), so I went on my own.
Is magic forbidden under your religion?
The type of magic that is forbidden in Islam is black magic. His parents obviously saw these little fun magic tricks in a different light. It was my first experience of performing, and I loved it.
So how did magic lead you to comedy?
At medical school, I did magic on the side at kids’ parties, and magic always took on a comedic slant. Then I started hanging out with comedians, the Cape Comedy Collective, that include Marc Lottering, Stuart Taylor and Kurt Schoonraad, and we did comedy together. In my fourth year of medicine, I stopped magic and did a full-on comedy set. I realised I had found what I was searching for.
What was that?
Comedy is my bliss. I enjoy the process of writing a joke and performing it for the first time. There is a sense of danger, in case it flops, but when people laugh, it’s gratifying, a huge relief.
Where do you get inspiration from for your material?
Are there any taboo subjects?
I don’t like doing jokes that communicate messages that clash with my belief system, no matter how funny the joke.
What’s your favourite joke of all time?
Jokes are like your children. You shouldn’t have favourites.
Who are your comedic role models?
Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld.
Many famous comedians are known to have been chronic depressives. Are you one of them?
No. Of course I get sad, but not depressed. In a sense, comedy has taught me how to think of bad things in a good way. The thing is comics take jokes seriously, and I think most comics are very sensitive, not necessarily depressed.
So is laughter the best medicine?
Sure. I feel I’m still practising a form of medicine. Generally on a physiological level, laughter improves respiration — you breathe more deeply when you laugh and you oxygenate your blood more; it also improves cardiac output, the immune response. Over a long period, lots of laughter promotes general wellbeing.
And comedy would then be like an intravenous dose of the medicine?
Yes. Comedy is an interesting thing. At its core, it’s about survival. You take difficult situations and hardships and make fun of them. It helps people cope with hardships. Tragedy plus time equals comedy — Carol Burnett said that. If you look at most of the best jokes, they talk about things that are difficult and painful, but people can laugh at them because they’ve survived them.
Have you had a difficult life?
No. I’ve been blessed with supportive parents who have offered me many opportunities to try to do things that are generally frowned upon, to be who I am. But at the same time, my mother especially places huge emphasis on the responsibility of an individual to serve. I would like to think everything I do is mindful of that message. It’s one reason I feel I need to do some medicine.
Do you ever regret giving up medicine for comedy?
I feel guilty not doing medicine in a country that needs it. I miss seeing patients, and I do want to go back to medicine, to get my hands dirty, get into the medical trenches. I’m at the stage in my career where I have to make hard decisions, but at the moment I feel very fortunate to have found a vocation that doesn’t feel like work. It is hard at times, but I would do it even if I were not paid.
Can’t you do both?
It’s difficult to combine medicine and comedy. But in the interim, I’m raising funds for medical education wherever I can. I raise funds for the University of Cape Town’s family medicine department. And my father is involved in a new hospital project, the Rondebosch Medical Centre.
What’s your involvement with that?
My father says he always wanted to put up a first-class medical facility. I just think it’s an elaborate ploy to get me back into medicine (big grin). I have raised money for medical education through the centre. I got them to sponsor a comedy show at Cape Town Convention Centre. The funds went to UCT’s family medicine community health projects, which aim to get young doctors to work in rural environments.
What stresses do you face as a comedian?
The preparation is always difficult, and on stage, when people are watching you, you wonder whether you can live up to their expectations. It’s even more difficult to keep up these days now that people have cellphone cameras and can upload videos onto YouTube of material you haven’t yet released on DVD.
Do you ever get performance anxiety?
I don’t get nervous LONG before a show; I delay the anxiety until a few minutes before, otherwise it’s draining. But a touch of anxiety just before I walk on stage, a little adrenalin, is good, and once I’m on stage, performing allows me to control anxiety.
Are you a natural extrovert?
Not at all. I’m actually very reserved, like my parents. But when I’m on stage, a different side of me emerges.
Any other stresses?
I’m a control freak, so I like to be involved in all the admin of putting on a successful show, making sure the lighting and sound are right and so on, which can be draining. Then there are predominantly family stresses, trying to juggle the demanding career where I have to travel a lot, mostly between Cape Town and Johannesburg, and maintaining a calm family environment. We have young kids, Zameer (5) and Hanaa (3), so it’s difficult and puts a lot of pressure on my wife, Farzanah.
How do you handle stress?
With laughter, and spending time with my family. I try to be away from home as little as possible
Do you prefer Joburg or Cape Town?
Cape Town is home. Joburg is my fix.
You are not just a comedian; you are now also an actor with two movies under your belt. The first, Material, is based loosely on your life. How did that journey begin?
When I first met (Johannesburg entrepreneur and filmmaker) Ronnie Apteker (producer of Material) a few years ago. He said we should make a film of my life story, I said: "Are you nuts? I’ve got ward rounds in the morning." But Ronnie is very persistent, and now we have a uniquely South African movie, a comedy about Muslims — there are very few movies about Muslims that are very funny. It has been released at film festivals around the world — London, Toronto, Korea, India.
What has it been like working with Ronnie, who is also a comic?
He’s a whirlwind. You have to know how to handle him and if you learn how to go with him, he takes you on amazing journeys. He has a heart of gold; he wants so much to do different, innovative things, things that are inspired and that will inspire people. I feel very privileged to know him.
How much of your life is reflected in Material?
Some, but there was no confrontation with my parents about becoming a comic, as there was in the movie. I don’t really know if they ever felt embarrassed at me becoming a comedian. If they did, they never told me. They know I do things I’m passionate about, unusual things and I’ve always listened to them, so there’s a little of that aspect of the guy in Material.
But there must be cultural and religious issues and clashes?
Sure, like performing at venues where alcohol is served, which is against my religion, and when I unknowingly did a show sponsored by an alcohol company when I was a young comic. I just try to do comedy within certain boundaries and find the middle ground in doing it while respecting my community and beliefs. I don’t always get it right.
How did you get the part of Ahmed (Kathy) Kathrada in Long Walk to Freedom, Anant Singh’s film on the life of Nelson Mandela that is due for release in South Africa in 2013?
They struggled for some time to find the right person for the part; then Anant saw Material, he advised the director, Justin Chadwick, to watch the movie as well and in the end they offered me the role.
Was it easy to move from comedy to drama?
It’s a much more serious film, of course, but luckily for me Kathy has a wonderful wit, and there are little quips I get to offer.
What did you get out of the experience of the movie?
I learnt a lot, playing Kathy aged in the script from 18 right until 60 when he was released from Robben Island. A lot about his life gave me food for thought, and resonated with me.
Well, just one thing: Kathy was just 34 when he was sent to Robben Island for 26 years. I was 34 when we started filming in 2011. I spent a lot of time with him, preparing for the role, and watched the DVD that comes with his book, Simple Freedom. In it he talks about the deprivation he suffered on the island.
Did he give concrete examples?
He says one of the most difficult things was the absence of children. You start to long for the cry of a child, let alone a laugh. He talks of his first experience after 20 years, of being in the presence of a child during a lawyer’s visit, when things had become a bit more relaxed and the warders allowed the lawyer’s child in. Kathy spent time chatting, joking and hugging the child; when he went back to his cell, he couldn’t let go of the experience.
How did you feel, listening to that?
I was on a plane, and trying not to cry, especially being the father of young kids. Kathy is such a lovely, humble man with great insight. In the DVD someone asked how he felt when he was told he would be in prison for the rest of his life. He said he just thought of the story about the old Chinese man who grumbled that he had no shoes, till he met a man who had no feet.
CNN recently featured a documentary on you that aired in prime time on TV. Reviews of the movies have been very positive, with comments that you are on the brink of international stardom. How are you handling the fame and recognition?
It’s a privilege. I do get recognised more often these days, though fortunately for me I’ve got an unassuming face.
What do you eat for breakfast?
I often have a Gatsby for breakfast. It’s a Cape Flats food — a big, heavy, fatty roll with chips. Or I’ll just have coffee and toast. I don’t eat well, I’m telling you. I my wife eats very well; if it weren’t for her, my diet would be worse
What do you have for lunch?
Maybe some eggs and spinach, a dish called a Sunrise.
Are you vegetarian?
No, but I only eat halal meat.
Do you ever have time to do any cooking?
The extent of it is to put two slices of brown bread in the toaster and put the kettle on. I used to cook a lot when I was young. Fortunately for me, my wife is a very good cook. When she cooks, it’s a sublime experience, like tasting heaven.
Do you take any vitamin and mineral supplements?
No, I just drink a lot of water.
You are in very good physical shape. What do you do to keep fit?
Not much. I used to exercise a lot but don’t have time any more. I take the stairs when I can, but that’s about it. Luckily, I’m naturally thin, but I know my lifestyle isn’t very healthy. And I don’t sleep well, usually only about four to five hours.
Why is that?
With young kids, and all the travelling, I guess. I haven’t worked out a good routine yet.
Where do you get your boundless energy from?
Oh, I crash quite regularly.
What have been defining moments in your life?
There have been many, but definitely becoming a father. It has given my life extra meaning. My children are a joy. There are so many magical funny moments. Recently my son said: "Daddy, I need to pee." I said to him: "It’s more polite to say wee." So he said: "Daddy, WE need to pee."
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned?
A number of things: work is important, but so is good character and perseverance, and a sense of humour.
What’s your greatest fear?
I try to avoid fear, but if I do have a big one at my core it would be fear of failure. But then I think failure is a natural part of success. Everyone fails at times.
Where is paradise?
With family, in the moment. I think everyone has the ability to access it, but most of us don’t. There is so much that is positive around us that we take in but don’t access. Humans have a tendency to notice what is wrong, but if you train your mind, you will be healthy.