Heard the one about the bloke who crossed the Atlantic to tell us a joke?
Back home, they have fame and fortune. So why do American stand-ups risk the perils of British gigs? Veronica Lee reports
Sunday 29 May 2011
You may have noticed that Barack Obama and his entourage spent much of last week reassuring us that we all still matter to him.
But a slew of top-name stand-ups from the United States are about to descend on Britain to test another aspect of the special relationship: do we still laugh at the same things on either side of the Atlantic? I
Jerry Seinfeld will appear at London's O2 arena on Friday, a decade after his last appearance in the capital. Also appearing in London later next month are Kathy Griffin, a comic who is also an actress, Jeff Garlin, who plays Larry David's manager in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Broadway and Las Vegas star Rita Rudner, and Bo Burnham, the hit of last year's Edinburgh Fringe, who tours the UK.
While not everyone will be familiar with all of the above, keen comedy fans are. They buy their DVDs by the truckload, watch them on YouTube, and were quick to snap up tickets; Garlin has sold out his run at Soho Theatre, while Griffin has had to add another show at the huge Palace Theatre. As Stuart Galbraith, managing director of Kilimanjaro Live, which is promoting Seinfeld's O2 date and other American stand-ups coming over later this year, says: "There is a demand for acts that the British public would not normally see on the club circuit."
It's a coincidence that so many big-name Americans are here at the same time, although Rudner jokes that it's down to her. "They're all following me," she says. "I was supposed to be coming over last year but then my mother-in-law rather uncooperatively had to have open-heart surgery so I stayed here and fed her soup instead."
Rudner's response – waspish and irony-laden – perhaps explains what appeals to Britons in American "coastal" humour, the kind you will find every night in clubs in New York and Los Angeles, and typical of TV programmes such as Jon Stewart's Daily Show and the long-running Saturday Night Live. American stand-ups including Seinfeld, Joan Rivers, Chris Rock and Perrier comedy award-winner Rich Hall have devoted British followings. Indeed, it's fair to say that the late Bill Hicks was more acclaimed here than at home.
Hall says that American and British audiences – or at least those intelligent and comedy-savvy ones who enjoy the best of the Edinburgh Fringe each year, either in situ or on tour – are broadly similar, and that he makes only minor changes to his act in the two countries. "Brits want you to talk to them," says Hall. "They want you to break the barrier and acknowledge where you are [performing]. American comedians stick to the script and are a bit slicker."
None comes slicker than Aziz Ansari, a rising young American who sold out five perform-
ances at Soho Theatre earlier this year, where critics described him as "ruthlessly efficient" and "an absolute pro". Ansari agrees with Hall that comedy can travel, and says that New York and London audiences often laugh at the same things. "The comedic sensibility is similar," he says, "and if you are a good comic I don't see why your material wouldn't translate."
Kathy Griffin, however, who writes new material for each show, says: "I'll probably write half the act in the three days I spend in London before the shows, and I'll be trying to pick up English expressions." Should she falter with her new-found colloquialisms, Ansari jokily counsels: "If the audience seems confused, just start talking about Marks and Spencer and they'll be back on board real quick."
But what's the appeal in playing the UK for the Americans? They can command ridiculously high prices – up to £300 a ticket for Seinfeld – but clearly none of them needs the money. For Rudner, it's personal – her husband is British and she says she wants to introduce their daughter to his culture – while Griffin says she likes the challenge of writing for fans outside her normal constituency. Ansari explains the appeal of performing here as: "It was just a lot of fun to perform for a different crowd in a different cultural setting."
But next month's visitors should be warned; British comedy fans, as Ansari and Hall can attest, are some of the most knowledgeable around, and some US comics have had miserable times on British stages – most recently Janeane Garofalo and Sarah Silverman.
The pair, who both cut their teeth on Saturday Night Live, are known to British audiences mostly through their television and film work – Garofalo in The West Wing and 24, Silverman in There's Something About Mary and School of Rock. Silverman was booed and repeatedly heckled when she appeared in London in 2008, while Garofalo walked off stage after less than 10 minutes at the Latitude festival the following year as the audience sat stony-faced through her shambolic act.
Garofalo and Silverman appeared to make the mistake of thinking their acts would translate wholesale to a British audience; Silverman's material, while acerbic and clever for some, came across as bad-taste and unsubtle in London; Garofalo, meanwhile, sounded like she was delivering her cringingly lame jokes on a loop.
By contrast, when Roseanne Barr played the Leicester Comedy Festival a few years ago, she noticed that some sure-fire gags were more like damp squibs on her opening night. She asked the festival crew what the problem was, made a few adjustments to her material and stormed the following night.
Jerry Seinfeld last appeared in the UK in 1998, basking in the glow of the sitcom that bears his name – he was acclaimed by fans and critics alike. For his forthcoming show he is said to have asked his friend Ricky Gervais for advice on British cultural references. Gervais, a well-known spoofster, admitted on his blog: "Halfway through the conversation Jerry panicked and said, 'How do I know you're not stitching me up and I'll be saying the most offensive things?'" Let's hope it's worth £300 to find out.
Jerry Seinfeld, O2, arena, London, Friday; Kathy Griffin, Palace Theatre, London, 19 Jun; Jeff Garlin, Soho Theatre, London, 23-26 Jun; Rita Rudner, Leicester Square Theatre, 30 Jun to 8 Jul; Bo Burnham, 6-18 Jun
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