Speaking In Tongues. Part Deux

As mentioned in part one of this series, performing stand up comedy can be a tough business at times and it tops many people’s list of frightening things to do. Tell most people that you are a stand-up comedian and they’ll probably tell you that you are incredibly brave and that theirs no way they could ever do it.

The writing, the re-writing…the re-writing again, the self-doubt, the anxiety of whether it’s funny or not…the re-writing. Then there’s your body language, do I look confident, comfortable, do I keep picking my nose without realising it?

All these factors and thoughts can make standing up in front of an expectant crowd nerve wracking to say the least. Now imagine you are performing in a second language. You may think this sounds ill-advised or foolish at best, but for some comics this all adds to the excitement. One such comic is Ignacio Lopez who was born and raised in Mallorca to an English mother and Spanish father. 

Spanish was stronger when I was young, but I’ve spoken mainly English since I moved here permanently, Brexit pending, over 10 years ago. During my childhood I would speak Spanish to my father and English to my mother and pretend I couldn’t speak to either to anyone that seemed like a bellend.” Being able to pretend not understanding someone we think is a bellend is an enviable ability to have, so does Ignacio have any other languages he could pretend not to speak in the event of meeting a bellend? “I have passable French as my father grew up in Morocco, a bit of German as I have a half German sister and a little bit of Welsh as I like pissing off the English where possible, centuries of cultural oppression and the Welsh language is still alive and growing!


So how does Ignacio approach translating his material so that it works?

I always wrote comedy in English, I feel it’s a very British art form. Also, there isn’t a traditional comedy circuit in Spain.

So, the comedy in Spain is a lot different than in England? 

When I’ve done any gigs to Spanish audiences in Spain, I’ve always been a lot looser, it’s much more conversational, whereas in England I tend to care a lot more about structure and wording to make something funny. A lot of my material doesn’t cross over so I do different sets in each language.

Ask a lot of comedians and they’ll say having just one set is enough work, never mind having to write a completely different one depending on which country you’re performing it. Surely a lot of things obviously get lost in translation?

Wordplay doesn’t really happen in Spanish comedy, but British people love to feel clever for getting something. Some things just don’t work. I have tried jokes I wrote in Spanish in English and vice versa but some just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes altering the structure can make it more understandable but it then loses its humour, or it means the punchline and set-up comes in reverse order.” So, which is easier? “It’s easier to write shorter jokes in English. A joke based around an observation rather than a turn of phrase can be extended in the set-up, so everyone has the information they need to get the joke. I’ve done gigs to German, Dutch, Scandinavian and French audiences and they all get the gags if you signpost them.

So, what was Ignacio’s first experience of doing stand-up in another language?

I took a short solo show to the Edinburgh Festival in 2014 called ‘Ignacio Lopez: Spain’s Best Export’ and the first show was packed with Spanish people, I couldn’t believe it! Like British people seeking a full English breakfast abroad, these Spanish had scoured the Edinburgh brochure for Iberian comedy! I’d been performing in English since 2009 and had only done short spots in Spanish until then. Panic set in when they weren’t laughing at anything, just looking collectively confused”. So, what did you do? I ask, “Well I did some crowd work and discovered some of them barely spoke English which meant I had to translate my show on the fly. Some things didn’t work at all, I had a joke about not knowing what a badger was when I moved to the UK, the punchline received silence. Nobody in the audience knew what it was. I had to google the Spanish word for badger from the stage on my phone. Turned out that even when I said ‘tejón’ they didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I did develop some material in trying to explain what a badger was to a bemused Spanish audience.

It sounds like quite the baptism of fire. What was your best experience of doing a gig in another language?

Well, as with in Edinburgh, when I took ‘Spain’s Best Export’ to Brighton, the first audience I had were also mainly Spanish, where are they even coming from?! Usually it’s just me! This time I was prepared and performed the show in Spanish and English and it was fun playing with an audience made up of Spanish speakers with a few English speakers in the audience. I was getting laughs from the bilingual people in the crowd by mis-translating things on purpose. It was exciting dividing the audience on purpose and then bringing them back together.

It must have felt great to be able to perform in two different languages in the same gig. So, if that was you best experience, I must ask you about you’re worst?

Well, I’d agreed to do a longer spot at a Welsh language gig a few years ago, I’d done shorter spots previously. Unfortunately, the audience for Welsh language comedy in South Wales is relatively small so the audience had heard every single joke I had in Welsh already at other shows. My Welsh wasn’t strong enough to improvise. I stumbled a lot, Spanish was slipping out, it was a mess. They were very forgiving, but I did not feel good about myself.

Dying on stage is bad enough in your own language, I can imagine it is so much worse in a situation like that. But having a grasp on multiple languages you must have gigged outside of the UK?

Yes, I’ve gigged around Europe but mainly in English to multi-lingual crowds. I enjoy learning languages and a great deal of humour can be derived from comparing them. Audiences seem to really appreciate any extra effort you put in. When I was first booked to play Oslo, Norway, I flew over a couple of days early and learned as much as I could before the show, I wrote observations about their alphabet, pronunciations and phrases. I asked everyone I encountered before the gig all kinds of odd questions. Flipping between languages in a set can be like a magic trick and it’s fun to see an audience switch gears in their heads as they figure out what’s happening. In the UK it’s rare to have the opportunity to do that.

One aspect of stand up that can never be ignored is the dreaded heckler. Sometimes a good heckle can work in a comedian’s favour if they can turn it around and make fun of the person doing the heckling but what must it be like to be heckled in a language you don’t fully understand?

A French guy heckled me in Germany, he was wasted, and I couldn’t understand what he was saying. The rest of the audience shut him up and translated to me what he’d said, which was a nice twist. I occasionally get heckled in Spanish when I’m gigging in the UK but it’s very broken or some swear word that they’ve pulled from deep in their memories of holiday’s to Benidorm. Someone once shouted ‘cock sucker’ at me in Spanish in a theatre in Narberth in south-west Wales.

Another act that has successfully made a career performing in a second language is Ismo from Finland but has recently moved to Los Angeles. Is there much of a comedy scene in Finland?

Yes, it’s pretty nice and big now! When I started in 2002 the scene was just forming with very few places to perform and very few comics. Now there are many great comics and stand up is everywhere.

Sounds like it’s a thriving scene over there?

Yes, there are lots of regular nights in every city, tours, weekend festivals and there’s a lot on TV. When I go to Finland now, I do big theatres and this October for the first time an ice hockey arena!

So what approach do you take to translate your material so that it still works?

At first, I didn’t even try to translate my Finnish stuff, I just wrote all-new stuff In English, mainly absurd and silly word play jokes, mostly the trial and error method! My early Finnish stuff was very language -orientated and kind of surreal so not easily translated. But soon I started to try and translate some Finnish things too and to my surprise some of the bits originally in Finnish worked even better in English. Now I write new stuff in both languages, usually depending on which country I’m in. I believe thinking in two languages can help create more unique material and whilst trying to translate the untranslatable, I can stumble into new weird ideas.

So, despite trying to translate the untranslatable you must find that some material gets lost in translation?

Totally! There are so many subtle and not-so-subtle differences in word meanings and especially double-word meanings. A few times I’ve started a joke and had to say, halfway, that sorry, I just realised this one only works in Finnish!

Can you remember your first gig in English?

Yes, my first gigs in English were a few club spots in London in 2005. I had absolutely no idea if people were going to get my material, but it went quite well, and it was very exciting!

If you’ve been gigging in English since 2005, you must have some memories of great gigs?

Yes, there has been some really great moments, hard to say which one is best. Getting good reviews for my first Edinburgh show felt amazing, actual acceptance in a second language! Also, doing my first ever gig at the Laugh Factory in the US, which led to more gigs there. I also recently appeared on Conan on US TV with a clip of it going viral! 

Certainly an exciting time in your career which has led him to so many places but where is the most far-flung place he has ever gigged and how did it go?

It has to be New Zealand. I decided to do a Finnish show there in addition to the English ones in 2017. The Finns living there said it was the biggest gathering of NZ-Finnish people ever. It mostly went great but one thing I learned is that if you’ve lived outside of Finland for 20 years, you’re unlikely to get references to present day Finnish hit-songs or artist, which makes total sense now.

It must’ve been a lot of fun to be gigging so far away from home but in his own language but like all comedians, Ismo has had his fair share of bad gigs.

The most difficult gigs I’ve had have been when I’m performing in English somewhere outside of Finland and there happens to be a group of drunk Finns, heckling me in Finnish! The rest of the audience has no idea what’s going on and I don’t want to respond to the hecklers in Finnish and cut the rest of the audience out even more!

At least being heckled in your first language means it’s easier to understand what is being said (or in some cases, shouted) to you. Has he ever had a heckle he didn’t understand?

Sure! Mostly in Scotland, I guess! It hasn’t been a problem though, mostly just funny situations, although I’m not encouraging it! Most of the time the heckles I don’t understand are not caused by the language barrier but by the blood alcohol barrier. Even native Finnish speakers can have a surprisingly hard time pronouncing their language at say, Christmas parties!

Going back to his live appearance on US TV show Conan, does it feel like it has been or will be a career changing experience?

The appearance was exciting, scary, strange, great and a few other things all at the same time. I got the news on a Friday that I’d be appearing on Conan the following Monday so did six spots in three days to fine tune my set. Much has happened after that, so I definitely think it has been a huge step!

Questions by Neil Green, write up by Paul Dance

Ignacio Lopez @comedylopez

Ismo @ISMOcomedy

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