Having gigged abroad now for several years, there can be pitfalls for the UK comic. And though some of the pitfalls mentioned below may seem obvious, I’ve seen from experience that they may not be as obvious to some as you might at first think!
A unique advantage of being an English-speaking comic is that you’re not limited to performing solely in English-speaking countries. After all, most Dutch and Scandinavians speak better English than we do! In addition, British comedy holds a certain cachet for many Europeans, to such an extent that certain British comedy films are sometimes regarded more like art house movies abroad.
Moreover, by dint of working on the British comedy circuit you come equipped with certain strengths. These can come to the fore when gigging abroad. As a general rule comedians have to develop a sharp, flab-free set in order to survive on the UK comedy circuit. As a result, this can make you come across as rather slick when gigging abroad.
- Speak slower than you usually do and enunciate properly. If it’s going badly, do what comes unnaturally and speak even slower. Diction is important as people learn to speak a foreign language properly and not how it’s actually spoken by the natives. You always know you’ve advanced in a language when you begin to speak it like a native i.e. badly. For example, many Brits actually say “I should of” instead of the grammatically correct “I should have”.
- Remember British English will not just be a foreign language to the locals but to other ex-pats as well. Terms we take for granted in the UK mean nothing to Australians/Americans etc. even something as seemingly innocuous as using half four to refer to 4:30. It’s a term only the Brits tend to use. I had to take the word bloke out of my set when gigging abroad because hardly anyone knew what it meant and replace it with the more foreign-friendly guy. As much as it galls me to admit it, a lot of foreigners are more comfortable with American English than the British variety nowadays.
- Bear in mind that most of Europe is not as repressed as us British therefore certain jokes won’t seem as funny in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia etc. as they would in the UK. I have a joke which centres on seeing a friend’s ex-boyfriend naked. In the UK this gets a laugh. In Germany you just get people staring at you thinking: so you saw some strange man naked, so what?
- The same applies if you are too self-deprecating. It’s a very British trait but if you are too self-deprecating in Germany they look at you as if you should really be seeing a therapist.
- Make sure your material is not too British-centric. Jokes about certain British TV programmes, specific British personalities, Tesco club card points, various locations such as the Edgware Road, Penge, etc. are clearly not going to work, as no one will know what you are on about. I gigged with someone who mentioned Arthur Scargill to a German/ex-pat audience. Not surprisingly no one in the audience apart from me knew who he was. Even the Brits in the audience were clueless as they clearly were too young to remember the 1980s. Using such references will just alienate the audience in the same way some London comics do when they go on and on about London when gigging outside the capital. I remember seeing a London comic performing in Edinburgh talk about taking the tube to the gig (quite a feat considering Edinburgh doesn’t have an underground system) and then go on about a particular part of East London for 20 minutes to a room full of Scots. He clearly had never gigged outside of London before or had some kind of macabre death wish.
- On the other hand don’t patronise the audience by asking if they’ve heard of international celebrities such as George Michael/Robbie Williams/Tom Cruise. (Believe me I’ve seen it happen). It’s continental Europe not some newly discovered backwater in the Amazonian jungle.
- When gigging in Germany don’t go on about the war and the fact that everyone in the audience is a Nazi. You are about 70 years too late. Your average Nazi – assuming he’s still alive – is very unlikely to attend an English speaking comedy night. The same is true for Neo-Nazis. If the room is full of Neo-Nazis you’ve probably gone to the wrong venue.
- Realise that sometimes jokes won’t travel and just be prepared to make a joke out of the fact that it doesn’t. I saw a comic tell a very funny joke which builds up and builds up, and the punch line is that her girlfriend is wearing a balaclava. The punch line was met with silence because no one knew the word balaclava. It just happened to be one of those words which foreigners don’t seem to learn. Similarly a fellow comic had a joke about men keeping the toilet seat up. The joke didn’t work for the simple fact that in Germany a lot of men sit down to pee as it’s considered rude and unhygienic not to. As for me, I once told a Dutch audience a story about a German comic telling me that the reason that the Dutch hated the Germans was because they melted down their bikes during the war. I thought it was hilarious that he thought that of all the things that happened during the war that that would be the reason. However when I told the story in Rotterdam (itself the scene of carpet bombing by the Germans), the story was met with complete silence. Afterwards I was reliably informed by two Dutch women that the Dutch really were furious about the bikes.
- Unless you’ve got an original angle, don’t tell the natives things they already know. The Dutch know they have a lot of canals and bikes. Informing them of that fact as if you’re the first to notice this won’t impress anyone. Also if you are going to slag off the country make sure you put some effort in and do it with some panache. Done with wit and intelligence it can be very funny. I’ve seen highly-skilled comics take the mick out of the country they’re in and get loads of laughs in the process. At Edinburgh I saw Hal Cruttenden deftly poke fun out of Scotland’s role in Britain’s imperial past – not only did he get away with it, the mainly Scottish audience was in hysterics. However I’ve seen much less skilled comics come on stage and just tell people how much they hate /how dire the country is that they happen to be in. All it does is leave the natives alienated and wondering why, if the comic hates the country so much, what the hell they are doing there in the first place. It is one thing of course for a group of people – be it a family, race or nation – to make jokes about themselves, an outsider needs to have an added twist to do the same thing.
- As a general rule in Europe you don’t need to be as aggressive as you might have to be at times gigging on the UK Circuit. In Germany for example audiences tend to turn up early (as much as an hour beforehand), are polite, sober and will listen attentively even if they don’t find you particularly funny. Banter in countries like Germany doesn’t really exist so again if you’re too aggressive it will make people feel uncomfortable. The type of Schadenfreude that people have at UK clubs when someone is mercilessly picked on ironically doesn’t seem to exist at German comedy nights.
And finally if you can’t remember any of the above, just remember this one golden rule, when in doubt, speak slowly!