Think Stand-Up's Tough? Try Telling Jokes to International Travelers
Comedian Jared Richard delivers his set to the crowd at a recent edition of Comedy in English.
“I would make a great dad,” declares comedian Jeff Wattenhofer, standing on the floor of a spacious room attached to Hosteling International's surprisingly luxurious Santa Monica facility, situated just behind the Third Street Promenade.
“I would be amazing — look at how I'm dressed! These are the coolest jeans I own.”
A bespectacled, solidly built guy with a smart, likable, Everyman's countenance, his delivery emotionally heightened for effect, Wattenhofer's bit plays on the irony that he and his girlfriend are probably never going to have kids.
“I would be a guy, on my way here, asking where the nearest library is. I'm a 'Where's the library?' guy. I would be an amazing dad!”
It gets a great response, all the more impressive because this audience is far from a random group of Angelenos or even Americans. The 25 or so folks seated in rows in what feels like a cavernous academic hall, with abstract artwork hanging on the walls, come from Germany, France, the Netherlands, Australia, Great Britain, South America and Africa. On this night a few Americans, mainly from Southern states, happen to be in the crowd, but they're the exception.
This youth hostel, like all such lodgings, attracts a mostly international guest clientele that's drawn by relatively inexpensive shared-room accommodations and the added bonus of a fun, young group of fellow travelers with whom to bond. And it's from this population that the twice-weekly comedy show Comedy in English draws its audience.
“The trick, like with all stand-up, is to find a connection with them and a relatability,” says Michael Magid, co-producer of the twice-weekly show. “Do not pander to the room or talk down to them. That always halts the show.”
Magid, himself a comedian as well as a member of the sketch group Recycled Babies, began running CIE on Saturdays in April 2015 and then added Tuesdays that October. Co-producer Andy Ruther usually hosts the shows, while Magid tends to do the show's pre-introduction and then a long set at the end.
For many L.A. comedians, Comedy in English offers a seemingly contradictory set of variables. On one hand, the audience is fresh and seemingly unjaded, as they've chosen to travel the globe in search of cultural adventure. Coming this far, what is walking a few extra yards from the main hostel building to the showroom?
On the other hand, although everyone appears to speak at least serviceable English, there are major holes in the attendees' understanding of colloquialisms and cultural references. In the most normal of rooms, jokes rarely work with absolute, fail-safe consistency. Yet it's safe to assume that everyone knows what TGI Friday's, the Flowbee and Cub Scouts are. Comedy in English forces comedians to adjust their expectations and, in many cases, their approach to reaching the audience.
“Setup/punch jokes are difficult sometimes because of the language barrier,” Magid says. “And local references obviously don't work. I always tell performers, if you have a bit about, let's say, CVS drugstores, explain what CVS is first.”
Even native English speakers from the U.K., Australia or New Zealand may be coming from a different enough cultural perspective or linguistic style to cause a normally strong bit to fall flat.
Comedian Chris Dunham takes the floor. A slender man with a perpetual deadpan expression, he riffs on the fact that a few female audience members happened to have left in the juncture before his set.
“Would all the cute girls please leave?” he requests.
This gets a laugh. Jokes that address any real dynamic occurring among people in the room almost always do.
Dunham casually refers to a guy sitting up front as "Jon Snow," causing more consternation than response. With semi-mock irritation, he's forced to explain Game of Thrones to most of the audience. Dunham is a self-proclaimed massive sci-fi/fantasy pop culture nerd and such references are laced throughout his comedy.
A public school teacher by day, Dunham explains that it was his middle-school students who let him know he looks like Dexter. Inexplicably, while the GOT reference meant nothing to them, a sizable portion of the crowd erupts at mention of the fictional Miami serial murderer.
Dunham tells them he's single but that it's his fault — his commitment issues are so bad, every time he dates a woman he starts thinking of George W. Bush.
“When she asks, 'Where is this relationship going?' Bush starts talking: 'She's trying to take your freedom. Now you're with her ... or America. You need to build a wall around your heart ... and make that bitch pay for it — Trump 2016.'
Judging by the response, Bush/Trump and man/woman issues are sufficiently universal.
“International audiences tend to be willing to listen and grow with a story, rather than tune out if it's not funny right away,” Magid says.
He attributes this behavior to the necessity for audience members to translate the material in their heads in real time; they're thus forced to pay attention. He also hypothesizes that anyone traveling from overseas is likely patient, willing to learn and open to new thoughts and ideas.
Michael Magid, founder of Comedy in English
All stand-up shows are ripe terrain for physical and situational comedy, and that seems even more true when the setting is an international youth hostel. One night, in the middle of a comedian's set, the table behind where performers stand collapsed, sending the sound system crashing to the floor. The comedian insulted the table and sound system in a humorous way, put the system on the other side of the table, propped the table back up and continued with his set. Suddenly the other side of the table collapsed. The room exploded in laughter.
Another night they couldn't turn off music coming out of the PA system, so the entire show had an underlying European, electronica dance vibe.
“It was surreal,” Magid says. “Like doing stand-up in a nightclub in Berlin.”
Another night, after every sentence uttered by a comedian, a series of audience members cupped their ears and whispered to one another right down the row, like a bizarre game of Telephone. When the comedian asked what they were doing, one of them answered, cheerily, “We're translating!”
For the affable Magid, whose past includes many years of rigorous training and playing as a soccer goalie, his own bicultural background — his mother is Venezuelan and his father is American — helps him relate to the audiences' experience.
“My first language is actually Spanish and I was born overseas. I want American comedians to learn that L.A. — and even the U.S. — is not the end all and there's a big world out there to entertain, laugh with, cry with, connect with.”
He also feels that the show has made him — and other comedians who embrace the upside-down experience — stronger by learning how to really connect and engage with people from all different geographical and cultural realities.
“From what I've experienced, Americans are a bit more enthusiastic about everything,” says Lomme Fandam, 25, a hostel guest from the Netherlands. “They clap louder. It makes it easier to perform, you already get like a laughing crowd, it gets you in the zone. Here, with us, you don't know what kind of crowd you have — it's so different. I think a lot of people may not get all jokes. You can get crickets all the time.”
While foreign audience members can handle and even appreciate rough comedic treatment, some things can go too far.
“I'm a girl and those were men, so it's a different perspective,” says Hannah Pietaupt, 23, a guest from Germany. “But the part where he mentioned Adolf Hitler, I didn't want to raise my hand and say I'm from Germany.”
Quite understandable, for a young lady born a half-century after World War II ended.
She continues, “My English is OK but all of them have some kind of vernacular, so sometimes I really couldn't understand the jokes. But other people were laughing, so ...”
Her shrugging, hands-out gesture implies that sometimes you just laugh along to get along.
“And if you're from America, you know more about the tensions between some interstate or city groups. I'm traveling for one and a half months now so I met people from America who told me something about 'rednecks,' so I know what this one is,” she says.
Magid's next steps for the show are taking it to the nearby Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica once a month to expose nonhostel audiences to it. The idea is to stock the theater with enough foreign hostel travelers that a lot of the vibe is maintained. His first show there will be July 26 at 9 p.m. and it will also be live-streamed.
The last comedian of the night, Claude Stuart, steps up to the mic. A skinny, animated guy with gel-spiked strawberry-blond hair, who compares his own look to Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, Stuart gets into a bit about how Americans always imitate a British person's accent upon meeting but you never see the opposite.
“You never see a British person meet an American and go: 'Where are you from? Oh, Brooklyn, New York? Excellent. Gimme yoah fuckin' money!”
Everyone gets the comedic differences between accents and is familiar with the New Yawk tough-guy thing, so it hits. A little later, a reference to Denny's falls flat. Stuart is quick with what comedians call a "saver."
“Denny's is like, kind of a crappy restaurant. You guys are looking at me very confused, like a Jehovah's Witness staring at a building with no doors on it.”
The joke gets a hearty round of giggles — a religious sect handily beats the 24-hour roadside diner chain in terms of international presence. It is, if nothing else, a night of learning.
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