Tips for Gigging Abroad
Maureen Younger's tips for comedians looking to gig abroad...
Remember some people may be translating to themselves as you talk
One of the advantages of being an English-speaking comic is you are not limited to performing solely in English-speaking countries, whether it’s performing to groups of ex-pats or to non-native English speakers, interested in combining a work out in English with a night of live comedy. The nature of the British comedy circuit is such that most UK comedians tend to develop a sharp, flab-free set. This can make you come across as rather slick when gigging abroad. Saying that, there are some pitfalls it’s best to avoid:
Firstly, consider if your material will work abroad. If your set consists primarily of puns and wordplay, unless it’s an exclusively ex-pat audience or you are performing in another country where English is the mother tongue, then gigging abroad may not be for you. A non-native speaker would need to have an exceptionally good knowledge of the English language to first understand any puns, let alone find them funny. The same is true of character acts. You need to ask yourself how universal a character it is. I once saw someone perform abroad as a pastiche of an old British movie star. The trouble was that no one besides me realised who it was meant to be a pastiche of, so the joke fell flat.
Don’t speak too fast. All comics have their own rhythm, but it helps if you speak slower than usual and enunciate properly. If it’s going badly, force yourself to speak even slower. Remember some people may be translating to themselves as you talk. Good diction is also important as people learn to speak a foreign language properly and not how it’s casually spoken by native speakers.
Remember British English will not just be a foreign language to the locals but possibly to other ex-pats as well. Terms we take for granted in the UK may mean nothing to Americans, etc. 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 non-native English speakers are better acquainted 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 might not seem as funny in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, etc. as they would do 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 people just stare at you thinking: so, you saw some strange man naked, but what is the joke?
The same applies if you are too self-deprecating. It’s a very British trait and I’ve found that if you are too self-deprecating in some countries, they might look at you as if you’d be better off talking to a therapist.
Make sure your material is not too British-centric. I gigged with someone once 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 were far too young to remember the 1980s. Using such references alienates an audience in the same way some London comics do when they go on about London while gigging outside the capital. I saw 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. I presume he had either 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 have heard of international celebrities such as George Michael/George Clooney/Tom Cruise. I’ve seen it happen and all you’ll do is come across as condescending.
Be prepared for the possibility of finding out on the night that some jokes might not travel and be able to make a joke out of the fact if it doesn’t. I saw a comic tell a very funny joke which builds up to the punch line that her girlfriend is wearing a balaclava. The punch line was met with silence simply because no one knew what the word balaclava meant. She then went on to do a very funny riff about what had just happened.
When gigging in Europe, you don’t need to be as assertive as you might have to be on the UK Circuit. In some countries - Germany, for example - audiences tend to turn up early, are polite, sober and will listen attentively even if they don’t find you particularly funny. Bantering UK-style doesn’t really exist in Europe in the same way as it does in the UK, so if you come across as too aggressive it may make people feel uncomfortable.
And finally... Unless you have an original angle, don’t tell the locals things they already know. The Dutch, for example, 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. Moreover, if you are going to make jokes at the expense of the country you’re in, make sure you do it with 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. In Edinburgh, I saw Hal Cruttenden deftly poke fun of Scotland’s role in Britain’s imperial past – not only did he get away with it, the predominantly Scottish audience was in hysterics. However, I’ve seen less skilled comics come on stage and straight up denigrate the country they happen to be in. All that does is alienate the local audience. It is one thing 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.
Maureen Younger works as a stand up comedian, writer and actor. A talented linguist, Maureen has also performed stand up in German and French. Gigs range from being the support act for the entire West End run of The Naked Magicians; supporting Shazia Mirza on tour; to performing at the Jamaica vs The World shows at the Shepherds Bush Empire. As an actor, her roles range from playing an angry German housewife in Band of Brothers to workshopping Philoctetes at the National Theatre Studio. Maureen has also written articles for various online magazines including Standard Issue Magazine, Her Edit and Psychologies Life Lab.