A new project brings comics across borders.
Published: April 18, 2012 (Issue # 1704)
Dylan Moran, best known for his role as the Irish alcoholic Bernard Black in the U.K. series Black Books, became the first native English-speaking comedian to perform stand-up in Russia last week.
The 1980s and 90s saw the birth of the rocker in Russia and a subsequent frenzy for foreign music: Now, in 2012, the way is being paved for the same flurry of excitement — this time for international stand-up comedy.
Moran’s performances on Thursday and Saturday evenings at Chaplin Hall were part of a joint experiment organized by Igor Meerson and Anton Borisov of the hit Russian TV show Comedy Club together with Mick Perrin’s U.K. agency Just for Laughs Live.
The general format of stand-up comedy in Russia is a 10-minute stint, with little or no prior experience, learning on the spot and frantically responding to the audience’s jeering or applause. Stand-up has existed amongst the student community for a while now and is present at Open Mic nights held at Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art, but the program is still in its experimental phase. Accordingly, the organizers of Dylan Moran’s shows felt that there was much to be gained from a dialogue between Russian comics and their Western counterparts.
It’s not just the Russians who benefit. The opportunity to perform in another country is also a cultivating experience for Western comedians, according to Nick Handford, a representative from Just for Laughs Live.
“Russian stand-up is such a learning experience that it is immediately interesting for anybody coming here, and not only that: Hopefully this will open the door to bringing Russian comedians over to the U.K., to broaden our horizons even further,” said Handford.
On the challenges of performing a routine that would be entertaining to a Russian audience, Moran said before his show Saturday: “I may have built up in my head the differences between East and West and thought, ‘I must find out what works here’ just because I don’t know it; I don’t know what people talk about and how they conduct themselves… I didn’t want to go on and be talking to myself; I wanted to be talking to people about the reality of their lives.”
Everything was covered in Thursday’s show, from the city’s controversial new law banning “homosexual propaganda” to imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Despite the rapturous applause that Moran received throughout the show, and even with the translation being delivered through earphones to the non-English-speaking portion of the audience, at times, the language barrier proved insurmountable. Having got tied up in explaining a hat box as a box of hats, he exclaimed, exasperated, “I don’t know why I’m repeating myself thinking it will be any clearer!”
Linguistic difficulties are one thing, and only to be expected, but cultural differences are not as easily reconciled. Moran commented during his show that it was especially difficult to know when the audience found something funny because unlike in the West where people generally just laugh out loud, people in Russia tend to clap as a sign of approval. “Russian people obviously laugh through their hands. I wonder, do you also cry through your knees?” he joked.
In the end, the cultural differences proved too much for the courageous comedian and he ended, visibly disappointed, telling his audience that they seemed to have become “disconnected.”
“For all of us, [the project] is a big thing because apparently nobody’s done it before,” Moran said later. “So, you know, we just wanted to see whether it would work. You can’t have everything you want and it might not be the best gig, but that’s not the point. The point is just: Can we make this work somehow? We’re at that stage, you know, very early days in the lab.”
The lab work is continuing, with more Western comedians soon to be confirmed as coming to grace the stages of St. Petersburg. It looks like international stand-up comedy is well and truly on its way to Russia.