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.
Mojo is a very common word indeed in African-American culture. It is a magical charm bag used in voodoo, sometimes called a mojo hand. It has come to mean self-confidence, self-esteem or sex appeal.
One of the most famous blues songs ever is “I got my mojo workin’ (but it just don’t work on you)”. It is particularly associated with the late Muddy Waters and has become something of a standard for British blues bands. I have even seen the word mojo used to describe British Members of Parliament (He has lost his mojo).
There is a Mojo Club in Copenhagen and another on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.
Perhaps you should get out a little more, Rupert?
Stand up comedy is the best! I’m not sure something drives people to do it in the first place. In my opinion (and this is also how some of my favorite stand up comedians explain it), they just sort of stand out in their groups of friends, maybe at parties or other social events. Then friends start complimenting them and telling them they should do that professionally, which some of them end up doing because they enjoy it… In any case, they don’t seem like the kind of people who would be overly worried about not making people laugh. At worst, if that happens it would give them the opportunity of self-mockery, which is pretty common as you also noticed 🙂
I have to say, though, I haven’t noticed the whole rudeness and sexual jokes as predominant. Maybe also because I don’t think that “painting” caricatures of people in that context qualifies as rudeness. Well, also, some are not at all caricatures, but rather realistic pictures 😀
Some of my favourites English speaking:
— George Carlin (on religion, on the American society and its griefs: consumerism, food; on death, on getting old, on technology etc etc etc; interestingly, no self-mockery, no sex and still he’ll make you laugh with tears — he’s just amazing… he could have probably done stand-up comedy on any subject)
— Russell Peters (on Indian immigrants — he’s Indian-Canadian, on women, on immigrants of other origins etc)
— Florence Foresti (on various daily life situations, on nature, on women; she also did a whole series of star impersonations)
— Gad Elmaleh (on various characters of daily life, on Quebec French)
— Alex Lutz — this one is new, but also very good, also about daily life characters
— Divertis: they were a group of 4-5 people. They haven’t done anything much lately… don’t know what happened to them, but they were hilarious.
— Stela Popescu & Alexandru Arsinel: brilliant couple
— Nae Lazarescu & Vasile Muraru
— Vacanta Mare
Arguably, some of the Romanian ones are not stand up comedians in the strictest sense of the term, since they work in groups and so there’s probably less room for improvisation. But, speaking about improvisation, that is also missing from most of the other comedians I listed… I mean they probably don’t rehearse their stuff and don’t have a script, but they do have a more or less detailed outline of what they’ll be saying…
Anyway, if you have a minute, definitely check out George Carlin, he’s just brilliant!
Even as someone who learnt the language in a quite ad-hoc way mainly in villages, I did find Romanian TV comedy really very accessible. Yes, Divertis were good. I did watch a lot of Vacanta Mare too – at times it could be stereotypical and racist, could present domestic violence as amusing, and so on. But it was well put together and rather true to life. (In our village most people called the policeman ‘Garcea’ behind his back, and he did indeed strut about with his cap thrust back on his head. In the end the mayor removed him for drunkenness.)
What Vacanta Mare brought out was the self-depracating side of Romania, the way in which people seemed to feel the need to make fun of their foibles and powerlessness. I wonder why that was so important? A reflection perhaps on the sense that history hadn’t gone too well and now, stuck in the present, they’re landed with corrupt, grasping politicians who can’t be dislodged. In a way too it’s sad that a people seem to need to say, via the surrogates of comedians, that ‘we’re so riddled with faults as to be nearly useless’. (It really is sad – yes I met plenty of stubborn Romanians, and too many who had missed out on education, but very few who could rightly be called stupid. One meets many more wilfully stupid people in Britain.)
I’m also reminded of ‘The Good Soldier Svejk’ as a model of (Czech) self-depracation in the idiosyncratic service of national identity.
Perhaps there has been so much seriousness (foreign domination, war, fascism, communism) that comedy is the most natural point of comfort?
Maybe the Romanian collective unconscious retreats to comedy as a means to avoid having to consider serious matters (such as the degree to which Romanian citizens have willingly been involved in corruption, the Holocaust and communist evils)? Under this hypothesis the self-depracation would be an expression of unconscious guilt. As the issue stems from the unconscious even this very suggestion may shock and surprise and lead to people saying that I am writing rubbish.
One way or another there is much of interest happening within the Romanian psyche.
If you want some Romanian stand up comedy check http://www.dekocafe.ro/#. Go on youtoube and look for cafe deko. There are plenty of videos with some rather good stand-up comedians.
For some internet humor check the Robotzi series on http://creativemonkeyz.com/.
In my experience, as a Romanian from the south-est part of the country, humor is always with us in all it’s forms. We like playing with language, laughing at ourselves, the world around us, we do political humor and every range of humor you might find however i believe the British one is more oriented on embarrassment and embarrassing situations.
For me, personally, that’s hard to watch as i have a knee-jerk reaction of putting my hands over my eyes and going:oh no no no!
But i do love Monty Python(“We are individuals!”) and on your subject i enjoy watching Omid Djalili.