A Little Brit of
Published on March 31st, 2015 | by Free Standup NYC
Article by: Chris Williams, That Brit Guy
Since I moved here, I have had this question more than once:
“You are British?... You must love Monty Python!”
Sometimes it’s Ricky Gervais, or maybe Eddie Izzard. Surprisingly, one time it was Benny Hill.
Are these the best representations of British humour? Perhaps... they all have a certain something - and who can't smile at a sped-up chase scene of people in lingerie to the sound of Yakkety Sax?
I am a great believer in the concept of “Funny is funny”. The international success of Mr. Bean and Candid Camera-type shows illustrates how a visual gag can be appreciated by huge international audiences. However, once you start delving deeper, through observational and political material and stories - not all of it necessarily translates well, or resonates with your audience. That can happen in every comedy club. But it’s even more noticeable when you visit different countries. It’s about finding the common points of reference - do you know where the audience is coming from in terms of background, history, and language (especially idiom)? Are they liberal or prudish? If you can’t gauge that, you won't connect.
Some comedians really go the extra mile to avoid this. A great example is that of Flushing, Queens’ very own Des Bishop; not only did he learn the Irish language when he moved to Cork in Ireland, but he then developed a full show based on the experience. Not happy with that, in 2013 he moved to China, learned Mandarin and performed on TV to more than six million people.
My experience of being a Brit over here in New York was less of a leap, but I encountered a few stumbling blocks along the way. In terms of language, I had to adapt phrases and use new words. Instead of corner shop, it was bodega. Sporting phrases had to be updated: instead of the “super sub off the bench”, it was the “pinch hitter”.
I still don’t know how to use the word Fleek.
One of the things I am fascinated by is the “cheap pop”. It’s the cheer one hears from US audiences when the act announces something big - an achievement, birthday, anniversary, etc. The response is almost Pavlovian. I think it’s because it’s a staple reaction on late night TV shows, people just carry it into real life. Or perhaps Americans are just very celebratory. I don’t know for sure, but it is lovely. I have to admit that I have been known to use this myself - when I say that I have recently lost ten pounds, the audience cheers (and then I blame the exchange rate). As an experiment, I tried the same trick at a show in Dublin, Ireland, and when I got to the usual “cheap pop” moment - nothing happened.
I kinda expected that, but the look in their intent faces was “and... keep going...”
I have watched a fair amount of US comedy on TV, and one of my observations is that it can be heavily formulaic - like the opening monologue on Late Night, or sitcoms machine gunning setups and gags at an audience - but what is refreshing is that there is a growing appetite for informed shows, educating through satire and comedy. Like Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show and Last Week with John Oliver. Long may this continue. Granted, there will always be The Goldbergs, and Two and a Half Men, but you can't please all of the people all of the time.
So what have I learnt from my time here? When I moved to NYC, I already knew of the big name venues, and some really are the go-to places to see top-flight lineups. However, when you actually get to visit the others, you realise that they’re just another bar trying to get by, by enforcing a two-drink minimum.
What really surprised me is the wealth of talent, creativity and passion exhibited by the huge number of people getting up every night on stage. The growth in the number and popularity of free shows (as reflected in this very website), is almost “Punk” in approach - people taking control and doing it themselves. It is great to see people creating platforms and brands which can sometimes exceed the pro venues in terms of quality of material and performance. There are few barriers to creating content these days; the trick is to find a unique perspective and build an audience. The competition is healthy - it encourages you to really work on your material and find that next killer set.
What has really surprised me is that the majority of your peers want you to be funny. Nothing is more heartbreaking than seeing yet another person doing a hackneyed set which offers nothing original. “Wow, dating is hard here…” - excuse me whilst I have my mind blown. The audience wants you to tell them something genuine from your perspective.
I should declare at this point that I never did stand up before I moved to New York City - it was a challenge I set myself. I am very lucky, sorry #Blessed (see, I have gone almost native!), that in those two years, I have had the opportunity to stand up, tell stories and make people laugh every week. I’ve even been paid on occasion.
It’s a thing I know I will never stop doing, no matter where I am in the world. At least my credits will finally be correct: “He REALLY HAS performed all over New York City!”
So to help continue to build Anglo-American relations, please allow me to share some of my favourite British acts. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
This is from the 1970s. Though the recordings were far too crude for a mainstream audience, Derek and Clive bootleg recordings circulated. They were mostly unscripted dialogues incorporating swearing. Lots of swearing.
The Fast Show
Probably the best sketch show of the last twenty years - I think it was known as “Brilliant” in the US, but the cast and catchphrases are still used today. Suits You, Sir. Nice. Scorchio.
Could have picked many other performers, but he is one of the strongest and smartest writers out there today. Comedy Vehicle is a great series.
Gavin and Stacey
Sitcoms are very difficult to translate, but this hits a sweet spot. James Corden wrote this show, and it’s perfect observational material. They tried an American remake, but it didn't hit the spot in the same way.