This article was also published in Romanian on Hotnews.
The most interesting thing about “British Comedy Night”, which takes place on the first Saturday of each month, is the street. Strada Gabroveni is the last street in Bucharest’s Lipscani area (the old town) that is still “under construction” (i.e. in total chaos). Michael Fraser, the manager of the Mojo Club and the organizer of British comedy in Romania, says “It’s the worst street in Bucharest”.
If you are tired of the uniformity of the streets of Bucharest go to Strada Gabroveni at night. It’s a trip to another dimension. I savoured the uneven earth surface, the total absence of cars, the dark empty buildings, the wooden boards that people wobble drunkenly along, the orange pipes that spew crazily out of the ground and the contrast with the Cocor Shopping Centre, which is a vast TV screen at the end of the street. With music pumping out of a dozen clubs and images of high fashion being flashed down the street from Cocor, I felt like I was in a scene from Blade Runner.
The other interesting thing about British Comedy Night in Bucharest is the name of the club: Mojo. Even though I grew up in Britain I don’t remember hearing that word being used and I don’t really know what it means. But I’m sure that I should. I first heard the word Mojo in the ridiculous film The Spy Who Shagged Me, when the main character Austin Power talks about Mojo as being the key to his sexual potency. Although made by a Canadian comedian, Mike Myers, it is an over-the-top British production and the word Mojo was used as if it was a common word in UK — which it wasn’t when I lived there.
Which brings me to my main point: I don’t understand comedy. Although I really enjoyed the British Comedy Night in Bucharest, and hope to go to the next one on May 7th, I don’t think I will ever understand how people can stand up in front of a crowd and try to make them laugh. It’s admirable, brave, superb and (in some cases) hilarious, but I can’t understand what drives them. The urge to write novels, to make music or to paint are all fairly clear to me, but the urge to stand up and tell jokes strikes me as being either insane or incredibly brave. What if nobody laughs?
Stand up comedy, at least the British version, is a combination of extreme rudeness and very personal insights. Perhaps this is the key to understanding them. If someone can be extremely rude about his own personal experiences, perhaps this gives them the attitude needed to invade other people’s personal space. The first comedian who came up, Geoff Whiting, based half his act on the demolition of the people in the front row of the club. Sexual innuendos were one of his main weapons and the insinuation was that every guy in the front was desperate to have sex with the woman next to him. He made use of people’s names, for example Neil was told that his name is also a command, as in “kneel”. It was really funny but I kept thinking “I hope he doesn’t pick on me”.
All three of these comics portrayed themselves as failures, and perhaps this is another key to understanding them. Failure, desperation, divorce and jail and far more amusing than success, family, work and security. But if you look at the websites of the three comedians who were in Strada Gabraveni you’ll see that they’re not total losers who are touring Eastern Europe because they can’t make it back home. Unless their websites are works of fiction, which is a distinct possibility, they all have a long list of gigs, TV appearances and Edinburgh Festival shows. They’re the real deal and it’s good to see that we’re not being fobbed off with second rate rubbish (and as a native of Edinburgh I can assure you that there is a lot of crap comedy out there).
My fears of being picked on and humiliated faded as the second comic, Steve Carlin, used his Dad as a victim (I can tell you that Steve Carlin’s Dad is a racist and he lives in Glasgow). The third comedian was probably the best, Nick Page, and was also the most obscene (I won’t go into details). At one point Page said he “spent most of last year trying to get into prison” – a tale that involved a vicious divorce (from his lawyer-wife) that not only bankrupted him but resulted in him owing the state about 50,000 pounds.
When Page told the court he was penniless they threatened him with jail if he didn’t pay up, or at least agree to pay a lower sum (he described the exchange of letters in geeky detail). He told the judge “I’ll go to jail”, and was obviously keen on the idea as it would have given him great material for his stand-up act. But the judge admitted that “this is what we tell people when they can’t pay” and they were legally unable to put him behind bars. He then went to a prison of his choosing, asked to be admitted and was told to “fuck off”. The story went on and we became engrossed in the increasingly absurd details. He was using a situation that most people would consider disastrous, i.e. going to jail, to his advantage.
Like soldiers foraging for food in enemy territory, these comedians use whatever they find around them; members of the audience, the location, their own embarrassing experiences. It’s interesting to see them at work and I wonder if it making a mockery of yourself, your family, your experiences and all those around you is a particularly British thing, or do other comedians do the same? I don’t know as I’ve never seen a stand-up comedian in Romania and I’m pretty sure there are very few of them.
I suspect that the Brit’s culture of self-mockery, our particular brand of cynicism and “the circuit” of clubs, pubs and festivals all helps to create a culture that can support an endless supply of these characters. If you look at the website of Geoff Whiting you will see that he performs all over the world. In other words, British comedy has been globalised
British TV’s appetite for comedy is another factor that keeps “the show on the road”. British television has a long tradition of not only promoting comedy but finding new acts. The BBC likes to think that it is daring and risqué in its choice of new comedy acts but what this tends to mean is that comedy is getting more and more obscene – and political. But there is a tolerance of really old comedians which is delightful. A Romanian friend recently showed me a really short sketch of Ronnie Corbert, a comedian I used to watch in the 1970s, someone I assumed had died years ago. Here he is complaining to a greengrocer (Harry Enfield, my favourite British comic) that his Blackberry isn’t working (you have to see it: click here for two minutes of fun).
I respect Romanian comedy, which seems to be orientated around various TV shows that mock politicians and celebrities. It may be in bad taste and kitsch, and racist, but it takes a certain combination of creative skills and financial resources to produce strong comedy shows that are really popular. I doubt the other countries of Central Europe have such well developed comedy on their TV stations, and this confirms my feeling that Romania is really good at TV, theatre and film.
But I wonder if Romanian comedians could operate in the less structured format of “stand-up”, where they improvise in front of a crowd of drunken, noisy punters. I’m sure the Romanian comics could do it if they had to, but I suspect the culture that has nurtured the British comedian for hundreds of years (the “Music Hall” tradition in particular) is not present in Romania (or was interrupted by the Communists). There is definitely something very special about British comedy, even though I can’t fully understand it. All I can say is “go and see it”.
Rupert Wolfe Murray is a freelance editor based in Bucharest. This is the first article he has written about comedy.