“Hey, do you have lightbulbs here?” – the travelling stand up and the cultural reference

It was “rigmarole” that did for me in the end.

Whenever performing in another country, there will be a moment on stage, usually just before the punchline and after the long build up, that your internal monologue looks at you with reprimanding neurons and says, “I have a suspicion this is a punchline that doesn’t travel”.
Last night, I was playing Oslo. One of my favourite cities in the world, and fun to play.
It was an occasion that reminded me that I really must read emails beyond the first line. If you ever send me an email, ensure you place the most vital information in the opening sentence, I’ll scurry off to the next email, and months later I will wonder why I am so confused and ill-prepared in another town. My trip was paid for by the Norwegian Research Council, and I had an inkling I should concentrate on stand up about science. Within a few minutes, I realised that I didn’t need to be quite so science specific, so broadened out, but never too far away from a slide of a naked mole rat or deep field image.

Norwegians have a command of English that is frequently better than the English, so I don’t have to slow my momentum down too much, though I noticed my arms were not flapping about as much as usual, perhaps I was attempting an illusion or precision.
I had gone on stage with far too many ideas in my head, and now I had decided that I would deviate from natural selection and particle physics, things were getting jammed up, a multitude of half sentences and fractured ideas as my mind kept making associations way before the punchline arrived.

I was in New York a few years ago with an English stand up, and he wanted to go through his act methodically checking that every word of possible cultural confusion was changed to the “American English”. Eventually, I told him he should stop. The audience knew who they were seeing, and if you “translate” too much, you can become an automaton performer. The audience know they are seeing something that is not quite you, like the meat Seth Brundle he zaps in his matter transporter, there is something missing in the flesh. It becomes synthetic.
As a young stand up, I would watch US comedians come over to the UK and interrogate the promoters for local references, “what is your worst shopping area called around here?” , “who is an unpopular celebrity?”, “what is your nearest dolphin and LSD reserach laboratory?”
When they went on stage, the audience could sense something was awry. The rubbish shopping place in Queens is not the same as the one in Salford (this was Salford of the past, not Judge Dredd Media City Salford of today).

Talking to Harald Ela, a very funny Norwegian comedian who made me laugh even though I had no idea what he was talking about, he warned me off doing the “hey, I am not from around here, what is it with Oslo and (place tourist confusion/the scream reference here).
Norway audiences want to hear what you have to say about the world in your head, not what they know about their world already. I am not one for too many local references, one done averagely, you can just be an echo chamber for what your audience have said already, possibly on a daily basis. Though many audiences do like the experience of “haha, that thing the man said is what you said too”, which I find odd, but I suppose it can be comfortingly tribal. The warm hug of shared knowledge of an idiosyncratic waiter in a Hull Chinese restaurant.

I made a few mistakes last night, generally misjudged choice of ideas than cultural walls bashed into. As I approached the punchline of “what a rigmarole!” (if you come and see me live, see if you can spot when it is imminent, but keep it to yourself), I smacked my forehead internally and thought, “there is something about the Englishness of this noun that may make this conclusion a damper squib than usual”. I should have launched into emergency jazz hands. it was squibbish.
The most infuriating change was as I came to mention the sting of a wasp in one my fables (not really a fable, just some sentences with intention), that my mind said, “hmm, wasps so English in this example that maybe I should change it. I know, I’ll say hornet instead. Afterwards, I explained to Harald that I noticed some cultural cock ups in my choices.
“yes, I don’t think most of the audience really got the hornet bit. We are not familair with hornets”.
There will be no hornet references when I am back (hopefully) in Oslo next January.
Now I am at the airport, and I want to stay, just one more gig is all that was needed to weed out the weaklings, but maybe I always think that.

Thanks Norwegian Research Council, Norith, Marit, Harald and the rest. I had a lovely time, and I didn’t slip over on black ice once. All hail the warm Autumn Oslo.

I am touring the UK (and the US and Australia next year, dates soon) – Cambridge, Sheffield, Cardiff, Harrogate, Liverpool, Laugharne and on and on. Details HERE

Michael Legge and I will be putting on our ANGRY show in London this Monday

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One Response to “Hey, do you have lightbulbs here?” – the travelling stand up and the cultural reference

  1. I am now in love with the phrase “I should have launched into emergency jazz hands.”

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