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From Russia with laughs: A comic invasion of Britain

The country’s stand-up comedians are about to take over the Royal Albert Hall. But how well will their humour travel?
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Just don’t mention the (Crimean) war...

Russia is planning a comic invasion of Britain this summer, with three of its most popular stand-ups booked to perform over three nights at the Royal Albert Hall.

The run of shows, billed as “a must-see for any Russian comedy lover”, will be the first time that Russian stand-ups have performed in Britain in their native language. They will entertain what organisers hope will be a sell-out crowd of wealthy Russian-speaking Londoners, many of whom live in Kensington and Chelsea, within walking distance of the venue.

The headline act is Alexandr Pushnoy, a family-friendly musical comedian described by one of his peers as the “Russian Bill Bailey”. At home he is known as the host of the popular comedy television shows Good Jokes and Galileo.

Support will be provided by the anecdotal comic Igor Meerson, the only Russian representative at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year (where he will speak in English), and Anton Borisov, whose material is the most political of the three’s.

Meerson, 30, who is based in St Petersburg, said the idea of stand-up comedy was “quite new” in Russia, where audiences have traditionally been more comfortable with comedy troupes featuring between five and 10 performers.

“We are the first wave of Russian stand-up comedy,” he said. “Soviet culture and post-Soviet culture was not very individualistic – more collective … Stand-up, when one man is on stage and is telling his own ideas, is very Western. But now, modern Russia has changed, so these new styles of performing are becoming more and more popular.”

The shows have been organised by the comedy promoter Mick Perrin Worldwide, which has helped English-speaking comedians including Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran tour overseas.

Moran is believed to be the first English-speaking comedian to perform in Russia, putting on two gigs in St Petersburg in 2012 which were live-translated to the audience. Izzard, who has performed shows in German, French, Spanish and Arabic, followed suit a year later.

Meerson, who performed a short run for the first time at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, said he had initially simply translated his Russian set into English – but immediately ran into problems.

“When I tried it with Dylan [Moran] I found that Russian jokes aren’t funny when they are translated,” he said. “So I decided to write something new and write jokes in English due to the different structure of the language.”

More than 300,000 Russians are estimated to live in London, but Meerson said he hoped that other Russian-speaking expats from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the Baltic states would also attend.

“If we have our audience in London, why shouldn’t we come?” he said, adding that there would be nothing in his British set that he wouldn’t also say in Russia.

Igor Meerson: Lost in translation?

From Igor Meerson’s English show:  

“The English language is too polite! And that is your problem. You say: “Can I have a spoon?”… You see? There is a chance you won’t get the spoon. In Russia we say: “Give me a spoon!”, or even just “Spoon!!!”. Even polite people in Russia go: “Give me a spoon! Now!”. Saying when you demand it is exactly the same as being polite isn’t it?”

From his Russian show: 

“I hate extreme sports. For example – bungee jumping. What’s that? It’s like a suicide tester. Like a bullet in a chamber. For those who want to shoot themselves in the evening – but the next morning have an important meeting.”