Stand-up comedy can be a tough business. There are so many moving parts it’s ridiculous. First you must write it, then rewrite it, then agonise over every word before rewriting it again. Then there’s the bigger picture – is it funny? When starting out you’re working with an entirely blank canvas which means whittling down from infinity to a tight five which can be maddening.
Then combine that with all the other factors. What are you doing with every part of your body at every point? The nuances of body language mixed with the verbal language in indefinable ways to make things funny. Am I thinking about this a little too much? Again, everything is an option and too many options can sometimes lead to having nothing.
Add in an audience that can be massively affected by external factors like the weather, what day of the week it is or even the room you’re in. Not to mention how you feel yourself that day. If you’re ill, tired or you’re just in a bad mood and don’t feel funny that day, it matters not, the show must go on!
Now, what if you had to take all that complexity and added the extra layer of performing in a foreign language, or for an audience for whom English is a second language at best? You may think that this sounds like madness but for some stand ups, it all adds to the excitement. One such stand up is Viv Groskop, and English comedian, actor and journalist who grew up in Somerset and is planning on performing in Russian at venues in St. Petersburg and Moscow later this year.
“I only started doing stand-up for Russian audiences in London in the last five years”, says Viv, “I originally performed in theatre groups in French at university, then spoke at formal events when I travelled through the former Soviet Union in the 1990s which led to being on state television in Georgia – woo-hoo!”
Viv began speaking Russian at University because, as she puts it “partly out of curiosity, partly out of a belief I was discovering my roots.” But surely speaking Russian and translating that into comedy material is a tough ask?
“Sometimes it’s easy. “I have three children”, which is an answer to the question, ‘How many children is too many?’” You can say that in Russian as “I have three children. It’s too many” and it will get a laugh. In fact, it’s more taboo to hate your own children in Russia so the laugh is probably bigger. In general, I don’t think translating jokes really works. You need to translate the sentiment of the joke. That might turn it into something completely different in another language. Timing needs to adapt to the other language — and you must make it suit your own voice and the level of your language. It’s like trying to tell jokes as a three-year-old but without anyone thinking that you’re cute if the jokes make no sense.”
It would be totally understandable if some jokes got lost in translation but as Viv points out, this is all down to what kind of Russian audience you have. “As with any comedy audience, you have to try to read the room. There are jokes you can do in front of an audience of Russian speakers who have decided to live in the UK for the rest of their life. They are going to understand British references to being middle class, politeness, awkwardness… Russians who don’t live here are not going to care about that and will laugh more about how painful it is to learn their infernal language.”
So foreign nationals in this country are generally going to get our subject matters whatever part of the globe they’re from which must be a big help for comedians but how does the general Russian sense of humour differ from ours? “When I was recording the BBC Radio 4 series It’s Just a Joke, Comrade, I interviewed loads of Russians about what they found funny. Many of the jokes were too politically incorrect for broadcast — and were the sort of jokes that people probably made in the UK fifty or sixty years ago. Generally, I did not find them particularly funny, but I found it very, very funny that the speaker enjoyed the taboo of these jokes so much.”
Having been performing comedy in Russian for five years she obviously has enjoyed some great gigs, “I did a gig with the Russian stand-up Igor Meerson at the Eastern European Comedy Festival at Top Secret in Covent Garden earlier this year for a Russian audience. They were relaxed, easy-going and very up for it. It was a dream.” But stand-up comedy being stand-up comedy Viv mentions she has also had some not so good nights.
“I’m a trustee at Pushkin House, the Russian cultural centre in London, where I sometimes host comedy events. I learned the hard way that (a) no-one wants jokes about the KGB and (b) Russians — even Russians living in London — sometimes prefer to applaud at a punchline instead of laughing. That can feel scary.”
So, has she ever had a heckle she didn’t understand?
“No. Although because a lot of my material is about how bloody difficult it is to understand Russian, that would actually be an example of a helpful heckle.”
So, has Viv’s discovery of her ancestry changed her approach to language?
“I always thought I was Russian and I’m not. I’m Jewish and my name means Fathead. I’ve bought a book of Yiddish jokes. So, who knows?”
Another stand-up comedian honing his craft is Chris Betts who regularly performs in French. Chris grew up in a town called White Rock on the west coast of Canada ‘nothing special but a good place to grow up’ and even though his first language is English he is fluent in French, “My parents enrolled me in the French immersion program from kindergarten so all of my classes, science, history, even gym class, were in French from when I was 5. Then when I graduated I moved to France for a while. I worked as a landscaper and a janitor in a hostel and a few other odd jobs as I bummed around. That really solidified it in my mind.”
You would think that being so fluent in French from an early age would make it relatively easy for Chris to translate material from English but that doesn’t seem to be the case, “Word economy became my best friend!” And having learnt French in school many years ago had its draw backs as Chris explains, “I haven’t had a chance to really speak French in a while, so the French I remember is the stuff that we spoke in school. All formal, no slang. I sound like a Duke. Plus, it was Canadian French which split off from France’s French a few hundred years ago so sometimes I’ll use a word no French person has said since the Revolution. Imagine someone doing English stand up and dropping in a “forsooth”. It forces me to work harder to get the joke across as simply and efficiently as possible. Which is great. It usually helps me see how much fat is on the English version so both end up improving.”
It sounds like a lot can be lost in translation if you are using words that haven’t been spoken in hundreds of years! “Oh yeah. It can be little things like trying to figure out what’s the French term for wishing well. Wishing well is such a literal term for us, it’s a well where you make a wish. So, I tried to translate it literally and the crowd just stared at me. Luckily, they’re always so nice, and they’re all bilingual, that I broke from the bit to ask how they say it and they obliged. I can’t believe I can’t remember what it was now. I have a recording of it somewhere.”
So, with Canada being a multilingual country and being able to speak English and French surely this helped nurture Chris and he was able to gig more as he started on the stand-up scene? “They’re completely separate. The English scene had two comedy clubs (one of which has since burnt down in a ‘definitely non-insurance money way’, a very supportive small theatre and a ton of poorly attended bar shows. That makes it a great place to start because there’s a small supportive scene, but it’s tough once you want to try to go professional, so a lot of comics leave after a couple of years. The French scene is the opposite. Every show seemed to be packed every night and the comics seemed to be building their own fan bases. The styles were different too. French comedy always seemed a lot sillier, more surreal and given to flights of fancy whereas the English side was more ‘straight down the middle’ stand up. I wish I’d done French comedy when I was there, but I procrastinated too much because drinking and smoking were easier ways to pass the time. I didn’t do my first French gig until I moved to London.”
It’s a little surprising to hear Chris say he never gigged in French while living in Canada but having sampled the delights of drinking and smoking myself I can understand how that happened. So, when was his first gig in French? “At a great French show in Islington. That was the wishing well night. I had a great time. Some of the laughs were at my jokes, some of them were at my attempts to translate. They were very forgiving.”
I wondered if French audiences always been forgiving or has he encountered the dreaded comedy death? “It’s crazy to put this in writing because it means something terrible is going to happen next time, but I’ve always had a nice time. French crowds (in my very limited experience) don’t have the combative nature you see in a lot of English language crowds. I’ve never felt a “make me laugh” vibe off them, more of a “we came here to have a good time so let’s do that”. They especially root for acts whose first language isn’t French so even when I screw up they’re surprisingly supportive.”
So, no heckles he didn’t understand then? “Yeah but never from second language, more from too much booze. Everyone speaks English now and the first thing they learn is how to swear so there’s no mistaking their sentiments.”
It sounds to me that gigging in different countries with different cultures must be so exciting for a performer, did any gig abroad stand out for him? “There’s this chaotic late night show at Zulu Comedy Festival in Copenhagen and at one point they grabbed as many comedians as they could out of the bar, all Danish comics and then me, lined us up on stage and the MC started pulling premises out of a fish bowl and if you thought of a joke you’d go to the mic and tell it, kind of like Mock the Week. I loved it cause the whole show was in Danish so aside from one of the acts occasionally translating for me I just had to guess.”
Being able to speak in another language must be a great way to get more gigs, especially in a market saturated with way more comedians than there are gigs, so has Chris ever gigged outside of the UK using his multilinguistic skills? “Yes, but not in French. I’ve gigged in Austin Texas, New York, Copenhagen, Riga, Helsinki, Oslo, Hamburg and a bunch more. Everyone speaks English now so it’s easy and there are great comedy scenes starting up all over the world. But despite English being understandable to so many people around the world, Chris still makes an effort whichever country he goes to, “I try to write a joke in the native language as a challenge before a gig, but I almost never succeed. I want to start gigging in France after the Fringe though. They have an exciting and growing scene that I’d love to be a part of it.”
Chris Chopping is another comedian that performs stand-up in a foreign language, but his second language is a little closer to home than our two previous comedians. Originally from
Flitwick in Bedfordshire, “I’d like to say I’m their most famous comedian, but apparently Russell Howard went to Flitwick Lower School for one term, presumably for the sole purpose of undermining me, the bastard”, Chris has lived in Wales for 12 years and has regularly gigged using the countries native language.
Does his linguistic skills stretch to any other languages, I ask? “None really, not so much that I would confidently say I speak them in case I get put on the spot, but I can talk in Welsh well enough to outstrip what I remember of my schoolboy French. My mum is a teacher who taught both French and German, so compared to her my own language skills are pretty underwhelming. What pigeon French I did remember from school is now even more useless as if I try to speak French at all I’m prone to dropping in Welsh words, as if all non-English languages were essentially interchangeable.”
Much like Viv and Chris Betts his approach to translating his material is pretty straight forward, “Keep things as simple as possible. Don’t try and show off how many words you know, especially if like me you don’t know many. Just salvage the joke from the wreckage of linguistic naivety. I had a lot of help from my friend Steffan Alun, one of the top Welsh language comedians and a former professional translator. I was worried that some words would be tricky to translate but it went further than I realised. For example, I talk a lot in my act about struggling to meet girls or get a girlfriend. There isn’t a Welsh word for girlfriend.
As a learner I am a bit more focused on the sound of the words than the meaning. So I was able to write a joke around the similarity between the Welsh words for sleep (‘cysgu’) and learn (‘dysgu’). Steffan said he’d never noticed they sound alike before.
As with Viv and Chris Betts, Chris feels that some material still gets lost in translation, “Some routines were lost but you don’t really want to just directly translate your whole set. I think a Welsh-language audience feel a bit short changed if they think your just palming off a compromised translation of your English stuff. Luckily, I could always fall back a bit on English and still be understood, I’m sure that doesn’t work with all languages!”
Chris continues to explain that some comedy is understandable wherever you go, “After one Welsh gig I was carrying a celebratory rum and coke back from the bar when I tumbled on some stairs creating a racket that got everyone’s attention, so that all the audience I had just performed for had their eyes trained to the door when I entered holding an empty glass and covered in rum. I can tell you that slapstick comedy like that is universal.”
Chris’ tells me that his first gig performing in Welsh was rather a low-key affair, “It was at a try out at a practice gig in front of mostly other comedians I was nervous, stumbled over my words and ad-libbed in English. I thought I’d embarrassed myself but afterwards I realised people had loved it.
But if his first gig as a Welsh speaker was low-key his best experience was at the other end of the scale, “I was lucky enough to be allowed to perform stand up on S4C, the Welsh language television channel. That was a fun day, they had a grand stage with dozens of hanging lights and dry ice. I was a bit giddy with excitement and spent quite a lot of time trying to get my friends who were also performing to join me in a sing-along of the theme from Jurassic Park. It would be fair to say they grew weary of me.”
And while his friends may grow weary of him, it seems that Welsh audiences don’t feel the same and generally doesn’t suffer from the dreaded stage death, “Most of gigs were completely lovely. I got a lot of goodwill as an Englishman just for giving Welsh a go. Forgetting lines forced me to ad-lib and fill in English which didn’t help my language skills much but helped me learn to improvise on stage more.
Chris Chopping’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Three Broomsticks Room 6 (Venue 398) 14.55
Article by Paul Dance, questions by Neil Green