Lost in translation: The fine art of doing stand-up abroad

As the world’s comedians descend on Edinburgh for the festival, Holly Williams asks six globetrotting stand-ups what happens when they take their show abroad.

Holly Williams
Tuesday 07 August 2012 11:09 BST

Eddie Izzard

Earlier this year, internationally successful stand-up Eddie Izzard performed his show, Stripped, at the Theatre de Dix Heures in Paris - entirely in French. He later took the show to Los Angeles.

'Humour is human; it's not national. I didn't set up that theory to match my political views, I just think it's true. Monty Python proved this: it had a lot of British references in it but generally it was surreal, and weird, and you just hop over the problems. I even think I could get to an African tribe, hang out with them for three months, learn the language… It’s the references that are the problem; the humour [would be] the same. So if you look at my stuff from the past 10 years, I created it to be universal: I talk about Greeks, Romans, dinosaurs, God, sex. And this theory is continuing to be proven by doing the show in France.

When I first did it, I got someone in my manager's office to transcribe the whole bloody thing [into French] from the audio version, and I got this massive tome and I thought - I'm not even going to begin to do that. What I have done is taken my French, which was eight years at school, and been pushing that. I sat down with teachers, and I said, ‘This is what I want to say. How do I say that in French?’.

Some bits were tricky. I found out that even though I had made my references universal, I had puns on words, and that had to all drop away. And sayings don't carry over. I had a bit about wolves in sheep's clothing… I kept going with this idea of wolves the size of sheep ordering smoothies at local markets, and I realised after a while it's just not a saying. In the end you have to drop about 10 per cent of your comedy ammunition. [But] the rhythm, the structure: exactly the same. You get a massive laugh at the same point.

There's a human-political aspect to [wanting to perform in another language]. Think about it: England. France. Murder, murder, murder, 2,000 years of murder. And then, for this English guy to go and do [a show] in French – it's so beautiful! It’s also practical, business-wise.

There's a whole new country to play. The French promoters were not keen, I had to push in there, but now I've proved something. And to do it in Los Angeles has blown the whole thing up; that means I could do it anywhere.

It's against the politics of hate. I think the melting pot is the answer. We need to have a melting pot in all the major cities in the world, and I'm trying to encourage it. German and Spanish are next [in line to learn]. And then there's going to be Russian and Arabic.

It’s all there to play for. I encourage people to be ambitious and to try [stand-up] in different languages – if they've got the balls to do it.''

Eddie Izzard performs 'Stripped' in French at the Soho Theatre, London, tonight; his new show 'Force Majeure' tours the UK from May 2013

Danny Bhoy

In 2009, Scottish comedian Danny Bhoy performed in Mumbai. It was the first time a full-length stand-up gig had been done in the city, for a crowd of 800 local people.

“It just came out of the blue – the promoters saw me in Melbourne, and they did mainly music stuff in India but said, ‘Would you like to come and do a stand-up show?’. I said, ‘Has that been done before?’ and they said, ‘Not really… but we’re quite keen to start a scene’.

They picked me up at Mumbai airport and said, ‘There are a few things you need to know. Material wise, this is what you can’t do: sexual material’ – I thought, that’s OK, I don’t do much of that anyway. ‘You can’t do any stuff about religion’ – OK… ‘You can’t do any stuff about caste system or cultural elements of India’ –right, I’d written a bit about that in preparation. ‘And you can’t swear’ – ach, this is getting worse and worse, that’s half my material gone! The gig wasn’t for a couple of days, so I walked around, did a bit of thinking, and cobbled together a 75-minute show.

You do gigs in Asia, to all expats, quite a lot. But this was all Indian people; they hadn’t even marketed it to expats, they wanted a strictly Indian crowd. I didn’t know that was the case till I walked on stage. [The crowd] was fairly mixed, quite a lot of families, couples.

I started doing my first bit, and I realised I was getting nothing [back from the audience]. You could see them just sort of looking at me and thinking: ‘I don’t understand what this is’. They expect colour and dances and light and more than one person on stage. Just me talking for 75 minutes – they couldn’t get their heads around it. I had to stop the gig and say, ‘Do you know what this is?’. ‘No, no, no,’ came the reply. So I had to explain stand-up before I could carry on… but they really wanted it to work.

Their English was excellent but you still have to get across that language barrier. And then you’ve got to add comedy. I did a bit of banter – it was very foreign, the idea of someone on stage talking to them. I could see the fear on their faces when I was talking to them, asking questions at the beginning… But slowly, after 15 or 20 minutes, people started to relax.

Physical stuff definitely worked, that was what they really loved – contorting my body, it just helped the jokes. You can describe what a crocodile said, or you can put your hands clasped in front of you like a crocodile…

I’m so glad I did it. I’d been doing comedy for a good eight or nine years, and you can become jaded. But there’s nothing more exciting than a genuine blank-canvas challenge, and that’s really what it was. To have to do a gig from scratch, and to even build up the whole notion of comedy, was amazing.”

Danny Bhoy’s show, ‘Dear Epson’, is at EICC Edinburgh, until 8 August, before touring in the autumn; his new DVD will be out 26 November

Frisky & Mannish

Frisky & Mannish took their pop comedy double act to Singapore in 2010. One half of the duo, Laura Corcoran, describes the experience…

"Singapore is such a business centre, you get loads of Brits out there, but also American, German, French businessmen, out there living their Asian fantasy lives. It seemed like they had all collected their harem for the night, and then come down to the gig. Which was nice. So you'd have these two businessmen surrounded by eight scantily-clad Singaporean ladies.

The businessmen would be sitting there getting slowly off their faces, while their lady dates danced around and whooped. English is the language in Singapore, but there's a really odd dialect to it. So I'm not sure how much they were totally following, but they seemed to quite like the happy tunes, and the nice people doing the singing! And the businessmen just seemed happy that the girls were dancing…

Live comedy is just not in their culture – the only show that was out there was being run by an expat. [The Singaporeans] really didn't have that conception of how to behave at a comedy gig. They were extremely respectful, to the point of sometimes not laughing when you wanted them to because it was in the middle of something! They were trying not to interrupt.

The lovely thing about being a music act is you do always have that to come back to: here's something sung/written/played really well that you can all get into the groove of. We find ourselves doing that in countries where they don't have a total grasp of the language. We slow things down. We play things a little bit more broad. Silly voices, facial expressions always work. There are things that go beyond the language barrier, that are always funny.

Singapore has so many laws; it's a conservative place. As a pop act, we don't cover that ground so much – although me as a strong, dominant, sexualised-looking woman in corsets was in itself quite daring. And Matthew in his skin-tight jeans, looking obviously camp – just our presence was quite 'Oh my goodness…!'."

Frisky & Mannish perform '27 Club' at Assembly George Square, Edinburgh, 20-27 August, and 'Extra-Curricular Activities' at Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, 16-26 August

Paul Chowdhry

In 2002, British-Indian stand-up Paul Chowdhry performed in 20,000-seat stadiums in Trinidad and Tobago, as part of the Caribbean Comedy Festival.

“I hadn’t been going that long, the most I’d performed to was a few hundred people. From that to 40,000… This was before people were doing stadiums over here, the O2 Arena wasn’t even established then. There’s a big scene out there in the Caribbean. It’s a massive community event; you have to be seen there.

Different people like different kinds of comedy; puns and one-liners tend to go down well in front of an English crowd, but a black or an Asian crowd don’t tend to go for that. I did a lot of stuff on the black circuit in this country, and there was a black promoter who recommended me [for the festival].

You couldn’t swear. There were police standing by the side of the stage. If you accidentally slip up, you could end up walking off stage and into a cell. So you’ve got to be quite careful!

It’s very different performing on a cricket pitch. You’re standing there, and the laughter just disappears into thin air. You’ve almost got to shout your material, just get it out. There’s no subtleties when you’re in front of 20,000 people; no one sees your eyebrow moving.

It was nervewracking. When I was in Trinidad, there’s about 49 per cent Indian-Trinidadians; that worked in my favour. But when you got to Tobago, there’s a divide. It was interesting to see the difference; the response was harsher. They clap people off – a slow-hand clap – I saw it happen to another comedian. If you don’t leave, they start booing. Over here, that’s normal – but it was considered impolite a few years ago.”

Paul Chowdhry’s show, ‘What’s Happening White People’, is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, to 26 August; he tours in the autumn

Milton Jones

British comedian Milton Jones performed in Dubai in 2010

“It’s a very expat sort of place – people think they’ll go for two years and make as much money as they can without paying tax, then they get involved in the schools and stay for 20 years.

It tends towards an atmosphere in the room that’s slightly more combative – not unruly, but a sort of fold your arms, ‘make me laugh’ thing. Any stereotypes go down particularly well, especially about Americans. Americans are the common enemy.

What you can’t do is mention Islam. They send people in to watch the shows. They’re the ones not laughing – partly because they don’t understand why everyone’s cheering the word ‘Marmite’. English is usually their second or third language, but they’re there in case there was even just a passing reference to Islam. I have one joke – ‘If you’re in a mosque and everyone’s praying, it’s a bit difficult if you really enjoy leapfrog’ – it’s not even anti-Muslim in any way but just the fact you’d mentioned it [would be] too much.

There was a fight in one of my shows and the organisers moved in so quickly – they didn’t want the police to get involved. It wouldn’t be just the Brits brawling [who would get in trouble], it would be everyone around it, anyone who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Everywhere is interesting to experience once, but the more you do it, the more you feel dirty. If you get offered more money it does become a dilemma… you begin to mentally justify it.

Dubai is such a sterile place. Everything is perfect but it has the sniff of a theme park. It’s like Disney World for adults – and you become Mickey Mouse, pushed into the evening to do your turn.”

Milton Jones will be on tour from January 2013

Daniel Simonsen

Daniel Simonsen is a Norwegian now living in Britain. He began performing stand-up in 2008.

“The crowd is much more polite in Norway; if a joke doesn’t work, they start to applaud you. If they like you they applaud too, but I would say the jokes that don’t work get more! It’s because they find it so awkward, they just hate that you’re going to die, so they laugh at the joke.

Norwegians find stand-up so embarrassing in general – it’s like everybody’s suffering. I don’t know why people go. If I ask a question, ‘So, how you doing guys?’, it’s just… quiet. There’s a lot of social phobia in Norway. I think it’s because it’s so small. That’s how it is in small cities: you become more aware of yourself.

I don’t like when there are friends in the audience. The stakes are higher: you’re fighting for your whole dignity! And they are really nervous, your friends, when they come to see you.

Heckling was the thing I experienced [in the UK]. But I also started in the most heckle-y place, the King Gong show at the Comedy Store – you’re lucky if you can survive five minutes without getting booed off the stage. We don’t have places like that in Norway.

At first, people think I’m a character. The accent thing… it becomes stronger on the stage. I couldn’t even say the start of jokes without getting laughs, it was almost a bit distracting. I understood quickly: OK, they think it’s fun how you speak English. British audiences are really good; it’s a very honest crowd. It’s a tough crowd - you learn a lot – but they’ve been great for me, quite loving. British people, you always talk about how awkward you are, but Norwegians are even more so… you can really relate to it. I try to pick topics that are universal. Human beings are similar; we have the same worries.”

Daniel Simonsen’s show ‘Champions’ is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, to 27 Aug

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