Second Quarterly Report

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Dear Watson Foundation,

First, let me again say thank you for this extraordinary opportunity. Each time I explain my project to new people in a new country, I am reminded how tremendously lucky I am to travel, structure my own days, and pursue something I love.  It’s the kind of freedom dreams are made of, and I try to remind myself of that each morning.

My second quarter has taken me to Ireland, South Africa, and Taiwan, each of which has opened new doors and reshaped the boundaries of my project. I’m faced with the perpetual challenge in these reports of wanting to say so much more than I really ought to. So I’ll try to write about a few representative episodes from each place and offer some reflections along the way.

In October, when I last wrote, I was just finishing my time in London. My next stop was Dublin, where I booked a place to stay with a retired Irish couple through Air BnB. I had been feeling under the weather when I packed my bags in London, but somehow the excitement of flying to a new country and a new city rejuvenated me.

I hit the ground running. In 10 or so nights in Dublin, I managed to do 3 shows and watch a few others. Between the shows, I went to readings of James Joyce, leftist political rallies, small movie screenings, museums,  second-hand book stores and even a story-telling workshop.

My first week there, thanks to an Irish comedian friend I had met in London, I managed to get some stage time at the Ha’penny Bridge Inn, in the city center. It was a small room with a big, warm audience and a friendly atmosphere. And, much to my surprise, the crowd seemed almost to like that I was American. London crowds, by contrast, had seemed to especially enjoy my jokes when they used Americans as punchlines. In Dublin, I took revenge. I had a couple of British hecklers that night, so I went after them for centuries of imperialism and destroying Native American and Irish cultures, among others. Was it fair of me? No. Did they deserve it? Absolutely not. Was it funny? The crowd thought so.

More generally, I saw in Dublin the way national and cultural narratives could affect people’s comedic preferences. English and Scottish crowds, perhaps annoyed by American tourists and tired of American foreign policy, liked jokes that punched the United States. By contrast, Irish crowds had a friendlier view of the United States; many Dubliners have relatives or cousins who call New York or Boston home. Instead of jokes about Americans, Irish crowds enjoyed jokes that went after Great Britain, which comes as no surprise, given the political history of the British Isles.

Later that week, I managed to get a spot in a neighborhood just outside the city called Tallaght. Here’s a blog post, abbreviated and edited, that I wrote about that show:

***

“Well, let’s put it this way,” a friend told me, when I mentioned I would be doing a show in Tallaght, “If Dublin is New York, then Tallaght is the South Bronx.” Later he told me: “They call it a working-class neighborhood, Tallaght. But I don’t know why, ya know, because no one there is workin.” He chuckled.

 

The next night I took a late bus from town over to the Jobstown House, per Google Maps’ advice. I tell the bus driver I’m going to Blessington Road, and he asks me if I’m sure I got that right. “I’m doing a comedy show there,” I say.

“Oh, ok.” He hesitates for a moment, his lips curling in a concerned kind of frown. “I’ll let you when we get there.”

The bus driver shouts as we get to my stop. I wait next to him for a moment as a few passengers file out before me. “You sure this is where you’re headed?” I tell him I’ll be fine, but of course how do I know.

The night is cold and dark and windy. The smell of the water from the city center is gone, and in its place is rough dust. I shield my eyes with my hood and my hands. A couple of lights are on at the other end of the street. I march in their direction, my buddy Google Maps urging me on. Cars whisk past, and for a few minutes that’s the only sound I hear.

I walk into the brightly lit Jobstown House and instantly feel better. The paintings on the walls remind of me of 1920’s American art, but that’s probably because I know so little about art. Here and there between the paintings are signed rugby jerseys with Irish names. People are laughing and shouting and drinking, and they don’t care that an American kid in a backpack has just walked in. But then maybe I’m wrong: as I walk up to ask the bartender if I’m in the right place, I hear someone behind me say, in a thick Dubliny-but-not-quite-central-Dublin accent, “He must be one of the comedians.”

The show gets underway and the host, Joe, does a little crowd-work to warm people up. It’s the night of his 11th wedding anniversary, and he’s brought his wife and some family to the show as a kind of celebration.

In the back, I play over my set, considering jokes and deciding whether to replace them with others.  The comedians before me have been doing jokes about drinking. One comedian goes on for 5 minutes about how difficult it is to know if you have a drinking problem in Ireland. “We don’t say he’s got a drinking problem. We just say, ‘he’s fond of a drink.’ I tried to tell my therapist I might have a drinking problem and he said, ‘Well, I suppose we’d better have a talk about this. Meet me at the pub tonight.’”

A few minutes later I’m on stage. I say the word “perform” and someone in the back goes, “Purrr-ferrrm,” making fun of that round American “r” the world loves so much. Some people in the crowd laugh, but not enough that I have to address it. I figure not everyone heard him and I’d just get sidetracked going after him. Plus, he’s enormous and drunk.

I just press on with a little crowd-work, while I still have their attention. “I get a little nervous performing in front of such diverse crowds,” I begin. Then a tense pause. “On this side of the room, we have some white people,” I say, gesturing. “And over there, we have some…white people,” I say. They like it. They laugh.

Next, I take a crack at the venue, making fun of the lighting and the décor. They like that, too: they’re proud of the janky decorations, and they laugh when they hear it described through my eyes. Somehow, after those two jokes, they’re with me: the rest of the set doesn’t go brilliantly, but it doesn’t go badly either. It goes kinda well, and that feels like a big win, because this is Tallaght.

I hang out at the pub afterwards for a while and meet some of the audience. In person, in conversation, they’re not intimidating at all. They’re friendly and personable, and they’re curious to hear why I came to Tallaght and what I’m doing in Ireland.

If I’m honest, though, the pub atmosphere soon got outside my depth. This crowd is known for being able to handle their liquor, even in Ireland. One guy starts asking me if he can get into America with an arrest record, and I don’t know what to tell him. But one of his mates knows, because he got into America with an arrest record. Some of the older women at the bar give me very big hugs, and I can’t really tell if they’re motherly or come-ons. They feel like a mix of the two.

I walk out in the night, colder and darker and windier than before. Thankfully, a cab turns onto the road. I hop in and tell the driver to take me back to the city center. It’s going to cost me about 20 euros, he says. But no buses run at this hour, and it’s too far to walk back, and I don’t want to sleep at the pub, so I tell him to go ahead.

***

I left Dublin thinking that the scene was charmingly distinct from London. In general, Dublin comedians had a darker, more political, and more story-oriented style. And the scene was much smaller, too: people knew each other, could make referrals, and could more easily accommodate a visitor.

From Dublin, I flew to Milan, to spend a couple of days in a city I’ve always dreamed of visiting, in part to try to reconnect with a city the older generations of my family have spoken so fondly of. It was in many ways, as well, a chance to clear my head and recharge my batteries before shifting continents and entering a whole new world of comedy.

Next, I went to Cape Town. By the time my month was over, I had performed in the city center, at the touristy waterfront, in the student-dominated suburbs, in a township, and even on an improv radio show.

While the scene was initially difficult to crack—there are relatively few stages in the town, and a number of up-and-coming comedians are already on line for spots in Cape Town—I managed to do a few good shows in the first couple of weeks, and then comedians who had seen my sets helped me find more stage time. Also, an American accent is a little rarer and more valued in the comedy scene there, so people were eager to get me on stage while I was in town.

The comedy scene in Cape Town had its own rhythm and political references. I noticed quickly that understanding many of the jokes required a kind of historical, political, and cultural familiarity that I simply did not have.

So my project began to change in South Africa. Whereas in Europe I had less difficulty understanding other comedians jokes, here I had to put some time in. I learned some greetings in Afrikaans (and eventually told a joke about it), and, more importantly, I learned lots of swear words. I would ask comedians, cab drivers, and coffee shops owners about slang and lingo and the kinds of information you won’t find on Wikipedia. I even tried watching some subtitled Afrikaans comedians, to see if maybe I could learn something about the pauses and beats in South African comedy.

And it helped a little. I began to see why the references to Oscar Pistorius, Jacob Zuma, and Hellen Zille were funny, if I didn’t laugh especially hard at them. I began to make sense of the complexities of racial humor on stage and in everyday life. If I had a few years in South Africa, maybe I could have really come to fully understand the intricacies of these historical and political references. But if nothing else, it was fascinating to tap into this new and deep political world, and see how it could shape the comedy.

By contrast, I found that South African audiences had no little trouble understanding me.  That is, everyone was thoroughly familiar with my accent (bless you, American television) and people generally have a strong grasp of American culture. At least, Capetonians know much more about the United States than I did about Cape Town.

Here’s an excerpt from my blog about one of the shows there:

***

At bars, people often ask what I’m doing in Cape Town. And, thankfully, my back story doesn’t go over too badly here. Many South Africans are tired of wide-eyed Westerners who come to do non-profit work. “I was just about ready to explain why we don’t need your help,” one person at this particular bar told me. “I was just lining up my ‘stop trying to save the world’ speech. But you’re just here to tell jokes in danky bars,” she said. “Which is strange, but I guess that’s fine.”

I hung around outside with the other comedians for a few minutes, checking back inside to see if the room had filled up, seeming awkward and not caring as much as I once would have. I’ve grown accustomed to the routine of showing up without friends and with a funny accent and a strange back story, so the suspicious glances and ‘who-is-that?’ vibes bounce off me a little more easily than they used to.  Occasionally I remember that I’m supposed to feel uncomfortable when I’m alone in a new country and about to perform, and then I do. But then I get distracted and I stop worrying about it.

 

A few minutes later the comedians head inside. The first thing I notice, about the crowds and the comedians, is the diversity. My last shows had been in Ireland, in front of crowds whiter than printer paper. And even in Cape Town, the more expensive coffee shops and tourist destinations recommended in the New York Times (where I’d spent some time earlier in the week) are disproportionately white—apart, uncomfortably enough, from the staff, who are mostly black.

But the comedy room was different. It was a mix of internationals and locals, as I learned from the host’s questions to the crowd.

I wasn’t sure where in the line-up I would fall, because no one had mentioned that to me. “We just call everyone up, one by one,” one comedian explained. But I was happy not to be called early on.  By watching from the back, I could get a sense for what worked here and what didn’t. In particular, I wanted to see how the race jokes would play—or whether they were off-limits for white people or foreigners.

That fear turned out to be misguided. Most of the comedians—regardless of skin color—dealt with race in their jokes. They were freer about it, less worried about offending people than American and European comedians. And the crowd laughed generously, at the comedians, themselves, and each other.

Of course, on paper, I can’t do the comedy justice. To describe the humor would be to suck the joy out of it. But I felt like I was witnessing the kind of open discussion and acknowledgement of racial issues that America sorely lacks. It wasn’t happening in a fancy political forum or university classroom. It was happening in an alternative bar at a comedy show, with a mix of people that probably otherwise wouldn’t be in the same room, listening to one guy after another talk about race and class and laughing about it. Laughing about our sordid past, its painful legacy, and the little racist things that we see every day and can be so hard to talk about.

Despite this, I was nervous about my own political jokes. I had seen white Afrikaners have no trouble, but the only foreigner, a British comedian, had struggled a bit with some darker material.

Of course, though, I had to tell them. The freedom of having a fellowship is that I don’t have to worry whether it’ll get me booked again. And hey, if they don’t like me, I’ll leave the country in a month anyway.

The lighting was intense, as it often is, but I tried to squint and make out the faces of my first South African audience. I never get over the excitement of a punchline, especially in a new place. I love that moment when you hit that twist, and an audience breaks out in smiling eyes and a range of laughters, from bellows to shrill notes.

 

My absurdist jokes played the same as they did in Europe: maybe nonsense is the same everywhere. My political jokes about empire and colonization played similarly to the way they did in Ireland, as opposed to the way they played in Britain. The South African crowd didn’t go so much for the bits about the colonization of America, but they loved my joke about imperial white people.

***

Culturally, South Africa was an entirely new experience. I had never been to the country or the continent before. I left feeling as though I had gotten at least a taste of the way politics, race, and comedy can intersect and inform each other, generating provocative and necessary discussion.

Next, I came to Taipei. While I have spent plenty of time in Beijing—enough to feel comfortable speaking Mandarin—I knew Taiwan would require many kinds of adjustment. First, making friends, navigating the arts scene, and generally tapping into the city’s resources would be more difficult in a foreign language. Second, comedy means something very different in Chinese-speaking countries than it does in English-speaking countries. The traditions are different; the cultural references are different; and the very idea of what constitutes a joke is different.

Still, the beautiful thing about the Watson is that I have nothing to lose: I can immerse myself in activities and projects for which I am not fully prepared and accept less-than-ideal results. So my second week in the city, I managed to do a set in Chinese. Here’s what I wrote about the experience on my blog:

***

I started combing through my jokes in English, trying to figure out whether any would translate. I could quickly remove many of the jokes that relied on wordplay—while sometimes English phrases have Chinese equivalents, they are typically not perfect parallels. In the case of my jokes, the misdirection of the joke either became too great or too small in Chinese. The translated versions of the jokes, in other words, either made no sense or too much sense. They didn’t hit that sweet spot where the audience makes a few quick logical leaps and then laughs.

 

After that, I had some longer, storytelling bits. These jokes are tricky to tell in English, let alone Mandarin. My first time out, I didn’t trust myself to handle these in a language whose emphasis, pauses, and implications were not natural for me.

 

Finally, I had a few plain, reliable pull-back-and-reveal jokes—jokes whose humor comes simply from hiding a particular idea or aspect of a situation until the punchline, which casts a new light on the premise and makes it funny. Here’s an example of such a joke (which I tried to translate into Chinese):

I lost my job recently. I was fired for drinking during working hours.

But, in my defense, you have no idea how boring it is to drive a bus all day.

Analyzing jokes is a bad idea, but stick with me for a second because I want to make a point about translation. If the joke works, it’s because the last line forces the audience to reimagine the premises. “What?!?” they should think, “I thought you were drinking in an office, but this is actually a much worse place to drink!” In Chinese, the joke ought to work the same way. Nothing about “drinking during working hours (上班的时候喝酒) in English or Chinese suggests that I was driving a bus. But neither does it contradict the possibility that I was driving a bus. So the punchline in Chinese ought to cast the same new light on the premises, leading to that magical series of leaps we call laughter. “So the joke ought to translate!” I thought to myself.

The joke did not translate.

My Chinese friends agreed it was not funny. “What if you change the order of the joke?” one of them suggested. “What if you first say you were driving a bus, then say you got fired, and then say it was because you were drinking?” To him, that seemed funnier: the audience wasn’t being misguided; they were just being told a funny story, he thought. To me, though, this way of telling the joke sucked all the misdirection and fun from it. I tried it a few different ways in my head and then decided against it.

In general, as I looked through my English jokes, I found that there was at least one issue with them after translation. Sometimes the beats didn’t match up; sometimes Chinese grammar required that I put the punchline in a different place;  sometimes the jokes just made reference to aspects of Western culture that a Taiwanese audience might not relate to.

So I gave up. I would have to write all my jokes from scratch.

One week later I sat in the front row at the Siris show. “Next up, we have a friend from New York!” Said the host. “Please welcome Li Rui,” he said, calling me by my Chinese name. I walked up and grasped the microphone. I had about 6 minutes of entirely fresh jokes. I had rehearsed and edited them with some Chinese friends, who had laughed at them—out of politeness, I figured—and made sure they were comprehensible.

I expected to be nervous. I had been speaking Chinese for a long time, but performing would be a different experience. Somehow, though, as I put the mic in my hand, I felt cool and composed. I think, in retrospect, it was probably because I had such low expectations. I think some part of me expected that I would fail, and therefore didn’t mind that possibility so much. And I suppose part of me also knew that the audience would be forgiving—however badly I did, I would still be the first foreigner who got up at that club and did a full set in Chinese.

 

My jokes were all pretty crude or silly, because I had written them in a week and in Chinese, but I still got a decent reaction. It had been an especially quiet night, but I had managed to win the audience’s attention. Once again, I think this largely had to do with being white and speaking Chinese. I command people’s focus simply by the unnatural pairing of my very European lips producing a very non-European tongue.  And six minutes after getting on stage, I sat back down, to an honest round of applause.

It felt pretty damn good.

***

While I’ve had some really great nights, the opportunities to do performance-based comedy in Taipei have been limited. I’ve done stand-up here in both English and Chinese in front of different communities, but my project has changed in this new climate. Instead of immersing myself in formal shows and the technical differences of comedic performance, I’ve tried in Taiwan to explore what my Taiwanese friends find funny in everyday life—I’ve tried to see what comedy can mean in a broader sense here, because clearly it has a very different meaning than it does in English-speaking countries. So, in a dedicated but hopefully organic way, I’ve tried to see whether I can bond with people not just over common interests, but by making them laugh.

Of course, this process is far from scientific. I don’t walk around telling dozens of people the same jokes and seeing whether they laugh. But I do try to let my sense of humor shine through in a way I didn’t while in Beijing (because, while there, I quickly saw that it was very hard for me to make successful jokes). When I see an opening for a joke, I take it, even if—as often happens—the other person doesn’t find it funny.

Here’s one interesting trend I’ve noticed. After I spend a lot of time with people here, they begin to study my sense of humor, and I begin to study theirs. Or maybe study is too deliberate a word—maybe it’s a more natural kind of absorption. Take my friend Poven, for example. He’s a 40 year old cram school teacher who operates an Air BnB business on the side. My first two weeks hanging out with him, I had little idea when he was joking. By contrast, he often knew when I was trying to make jokes. I have kind of an absurd sense of humor, so my attempts at jokes are at least obviously attempts at jokes (otherwise you’d have to interpret them as evidence of madness.) At first, he rarely laughed.

But slowly that began to change. Slowly, he began to add to my absurdist jokes. Slowly, I began trying to tell puns the same way he would. It isn’t a perfect system; we don’t always laugh with each other and we need to repeat the punchline or explain something to each other. But we do this in Chinese, and I at least the comedic games he’s playing, and he sees mine.

So overall, it’s been another challenging, exciting, exhausting, exhilarating, and delightful few months. This second quarter has tested me. It has pushed my reserve of patience, and demanded that I find ways to look after myself, physically, emotionally, and otherwise. It has deepened my sense of independence, and it has trimmed away at my certainties, forcing me to understand my own identity and those of others in the context of new cultures and unpredictable experiences.

I had a moment on New Year’s eve where I started rapidly playing over some of the memories from this year in my head. From a certain point of view, these memories felt so disjointed—geographically, culturally, socially, and otherwise—that they seem like they could never belong to the same person. But they do. And that’s one part of the madness and beauty of this year that I still don’t really understand.

Thank you again for everything. Including reading this far-too-long but still not nearly long-enough letter.

Gratefully,

Ricky

 

 

 

How was 2015?

Rao He

 

It was 3 AM the night before New Year’s Eve when I parted ways with my friends and hailed a cab home. I still felt a little drunk as I plopped into the passenger seat and gave the cabbie my address. I had a headache, in part because I was sobering up, but mostly because of social comedown— that low that washes over you when the fun’s over and suddenly you’re going home alone.

The driver just nodded when I gave him the address. After a minute or so of silence, he turned on the radio and gushy love songs, which sound the same in Chinese as they do in English, floated through the car.

We stopped and waited for about a minute at a red light at an intersection, though the roads and sidewalks showed no signs of life. We were stopped again at a second empty intersection. But then, when we approached a third red light on a similarly deserted road, the driver looked both ways and cruised through it.

I laughed. He laughed back. “So, what country are you from?” He asked, turning off the radio.

“America,” I told him.

“America,” he said, slowly.

Maybe a minute passed in silence. He didn’t turn on the radio.

“How was 2015?” I asked. (What I said was “2015年过的怎么样?”)

“2015 was very bad,” he said. I noticed his South Taiwanese accent. It’s a rougher, less prestigious dialect, associated with the countryside. He wasn’t from Taipei, and he was probably more comfortable in Taiwanese than in Mandarin. Not that that meant anything, since I only know swear words in Taiwanese.

‘Really? 2015 was very bad?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “2015 was bad. The economy’s getting worse and worse. President Ma does not know how to run this country, and the upcoming elections won’t change much—the other party’s no better. The people in Taiwan with money, they leave or they put that money elsewhere.”  He paused for a second. “And the foreigners, they come, they make money, they marry one of our girls, and then they leave.” He had carefully chosen “they” for that last line. But still, I felt I should reply.

“I’m just traveling right now,” I told him. “I don’t work here. But yes, I know a lot foreigners who come for a little while, and then they go home.”

We chatted for a couple of minutes about me. About where I had learned Chinese, and about what I was doing here, about what I studied in the States.  Then he turned the radio back on.

But I kept thinking about what he had said about 2015. “What about for you, though?” I asked, suddenly.

“Huh?”

“I mean, like, how was for 2015 for you, personally?”

“Oh me?” He shrugged, without taking his hands off the wheel. “I’m fine.” He paused. “But really, though, for Taiwan—for us—I am worried. Things need to change,” he said. “The Chinese on the mainland, you know, I’m worried about our relationship with them. If it’s too close, that’s no good either. If we rely too much on them, we’ll lose our independence and our culture.”

I didn’t know what to say. I felt his eyes on me and I nodded.

We pulled up at my hotel and I felt a throbbing in my head as I fumbled to find the right bills in my wallet. He turned on the light to help me. As I handed him the fare, I looked at his face for the first time. He had a farmer’s skin; dry, wrinkled, and tight. But his eyes were still young; they glowed a little as he took me in for the first time, too.

“You are the first American I’ve able to chat with in a while,” he said, sounding almost solemn.

“America,” He sighed. I thought maybe he’d tell me he dreamed of visiting.

“America must protect Taiwan,” he said. He looked at me, his eyes glowing in the light.

“America—you—you must protect us,” he said again.

I didn’t know what to say. But we were looking at each other and it was my turn to speak.

“OK,” I said.

“Ok,” he said.

And that was our goodbye. I walked out of the cab, past the professional smiles in the lobby, and up the stairs to my room.  I threw myself on the bed and then rolled over, facing the ceiling.

“How was 2015?” I said aloud.

I had expected the cabbie to hear my question as “How was your 2015?”, because that’s always how I would have heard it.

And yet he had heard something very different. How was our 2015?

“2015 was very bad,” he had said.

I felt tired and small. I fell into an uneasy sleep, looking forward to thinking things through in the light of day and a new year.

 

My First Set in Chinese

 

Sirus Comedy Night.png

[Here’s the set with subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvcL73sNi2w]

My first week in Taipei I scoured the internet for comedy shows in Mandarin around the city.  My first few searches were discouraging. A few dated links advertised shows at English- and Chinese-speaking comedy clubs, but when I went to the addresses listed, I learned from locals that the clubs had been shut down. After some asking around and a few more false starts, I found a weekly stand up show in Mandarin, at a bar called Siris in a bustling downtown neighborhood.

I felt a little nervous as I walked into the bar that first Wednesday night. The place looked like any other in Europe, except for the characters everywhere. I walked downstairs, where the show would be held, and found a seat at an empty table towards the front.

People’s glances have a kind of weight to them, especially when you’re alone. It made sense, that I would get some glances: I was the only foreigner in the room, at an event that would be conducted in Chinese.

It was too awkward. I needed to say something to someone, even before the show began. I scanned the room for people who look like comedians, and headed toward a group of them huddled together in the back. (As a side note, it turns out that, even in an entirely different culture, it’s not hard to tell who the comedians are. They’re still the ones hovering around in the back, wearing grey-scale t-shirts and jeans, blue ink on their hands reminding them of their jokes.)

The comedians were very warm when they heard me speak Chinese—they’re still not accustomed to foreigners who speak it well. One of the comedians, a guy who goes by his stage name, Beardy (he has a Fu Manchu-esque look going) explained that stand-up was still developing in the city. “This is really the only regular show in Mandarin in town,” he said. “A lot of people here don’t really know what it means when you say ‘stand up comedy.’”

I had had the same experience. The Taiwanese don’t have a word that quite means ‘stand up comedy,’ and many don’t know the English loanword. So when people had asked about my project, I told them I was studying talkshow-style comedy, probably leaving them with the impression that I was going to be on TV.  I hadn’t gone out of my way to correct them.

I kept talking with Beardy. He seemed to like talking to me, because I also have hair on my face. While we were talking I kept thinking maybe I should call myself Scruffy. But I don’t want to cramp his style.

“There are some English language shows that happen pretty regularly,” Beardy told me, “but I guess that’s not really what you’re looking for right now.”

After Beardy drifted off, I chatted with the host of the show and explained my project to him. “Well this is typically an open-mic,” he said, saying “open-mic” in English. “So you’re welcome to come by and give this a shot next week, or even tonight if you just want to get up here and stand talking,” he said. I laughed. He did not laugh.  That happens a lot.

Then the show started. I was struck again by how similar everything looked: this bar could be Scotland, Canada, South Africa, or any of the other places I had visited. There were pints on the table, strange décor on the walls, a stage with a mic-stand, and a little sign in the corner that said “Comedy Club.”

The comedians dug into their sets, talking about politics, romance, daily struggles, and other familiar sources of humor. In most cases, I understood the premises of the jokes.  But I probably understood about a third of the punchlines. I can chalk some of it up to a lack of cultural understanding.  Some of it was also just plain old linguistic trouble—punchlines involve more word games, are delivered faster, and involve a kind of surprise, meaning you can’t always rely on contextual cues as a crutch. But for the most part, I think the punchlines in Mandarin—like punchlines in any language— simply require some focus and quick leaps in reasoning. And it’s very hard for me to devote that kind of attention to the joke when I’m already focusing hard to understand the language. In some cases, when I thought about the joke, I could see why it was funny. But by that time, it was already too late for me to actually laugh. And, while I had been figuring out one joke, I inevitably missed another.

A few times, I was the only person in the room who laughed. Other times, I was the only person in the room who didn’t. Sometimes, though, I felt in sync with the crowd and the comedian. And those felt like moments of connection.

Still, not understanding so many of the jokes made me nervous. I was worried that maybe someone would call on me and make me explain the punchline, exposing me for a fraud, a foreigner pretending to speak the language.  At some point I tried closing my eyes, as if somehow that would sharpen my listening. But of course then I missed the facial expressions, the gestures, and all of the physical aspects of the humor.

About an hour in I went to the bathroom and took a deep breath. I felt drained and anxious. As I looked in the mirror, at my distinctly non-Chinese face, I realized what was really making me nervous: how could I ever do stand up in Mandarin, if I can’t even understand their jokes?

***

The next morning, I started combing through my jokes in English, trying to figure out whether any would translate. I could quickly remove many of the jokes that relied on wordplay—while sometimes English phrases have Chinese equivalents, they are typically not perfect parallels. In the case of my jokes, the misdirection of the joke either became too great or too small in Chinese. The translated versions of the jokes, in other words, either made no sense or too much sense. They didn’t hit that sweet spot where the audience makes a few quick logical leaps and then laughs.

After that, I had some longer, storytelling bits. These jokes are tricky to tell in English, let alone Mandarin. My first time out, I didn’t trust myself to handle these in a language whose emphasis, pauses, and implications were not natural for me.

Finally, I had a few plain, reliable pull-back-and-reveal jokes—jokes whose humor comes simply from hiding a particular idea or aspect of a situation until the punchline, which casts a new light on the premise and makes it funny. Here’s an example of such a joke (which I tried to translate into Chinese):

I lost my job recently. I was fired for drinking during working hours.

But, in my defense, you have no idea how boring it is to drive a bus all day.

Analyzing jokes is a bad idea, but stick with me for a second because I want to make a point about translation. If the joke works, it’s because the last line forces the audience to reimagine the premises. “What?!?” they should think, “I thought you were drinking in an office, but this is actually a much worse place to drink!” In Chinese, the joke ought to work the same way. Nothing about “drinking during working hours (上班的时候喝酒) in English or Chinese suggests that I was driving a bus. But neither does it contradict the possibility that I was driving a bus. So the punchline in Chinese ought to cast the same new light on the premises, leading to that magical series of leaps we call laughter. So the joke ought to translate! I thought to myself.

The joke did not translate.

My Chinese friends agreed it was not funny. “What if you change the order of the joke?” one of them suggested. “What if you first say you were driving a bus, then say you got fired, and then say it was because you were drinking?” To him, that seemed funnier: the audience wasn’t being misguided; they were just being told a funny story, he thought. To me, though, this way of telling the joke sucked all the misdirection and fun from it. I tried it a few different ways in my head and then decided against it.

In general, as I looked through my English jokes, I found that there was at least one issue with them after translation. Sometimes the beats didn’t match up; sometimes Chinese grammar required that I put the punchline in a different place;  sometimes the jokes just made reference to aspects of Western culture that a Taiwanese audience might not relate to.

So I gave up. I would have to write all my jokes from scratch.

***

One week later I sat in the front row at the Siris show. “Next up, we have a friend from New York!” Said the host. “Please welcome Li Rui,” he said, calling me by my Chinese name. I walked up and grasped the microphone. I had about 6 minutes of entirely fresh jokes. I had rehearsed and edited them with some Chinese friends, who had laughed at them—out of politeness, I figured—and made sure they were comprehensible.

I expected to be nervous. I had been speaking Chinese for a long time, but performing would be a different experience. Somehow, though, as I put the mic in my hand, I felt cool and composed. I think, in retrospect, it was probably because I had such low expectations. I think some part of me expected that I would fail, and therefore didn’t mind that possibility so much. And I suppose part of me also knew that the audience would be forgiving—however badly I did, I would still be the first foreigner who got up at that club and did a full set in Chinese.

My jokes were all pretty crude or silly, because I had written them in a week and in Chinese, but I still got a decent reaction. It had been an especially quiet night, but I had managed to win the audience’s attention. Once again, I think this largely had to do with being white and speaking Chinese. I command people’s focus simply by the unnatural pairing of my very European lips producing a very non-European tongue.  And six minutes after getting on stage, I sat back down, to an honest round of applause. It felt good.

Lying awake in bed that night, I brimmed with excitement, reliving some of the jokes and the audience’s reaction. I was reminded of that night in Montreal, months ago, when I first did a stand up set in English. That night, and this night,  I was itching to get back up there, to see if I could tweak jokes and improve my set, to see if I could relate to people and make them laugh, even in a foreign culture. I had a few months to do it. And just then I thought of a joke in Chinese. I pulled out a notebook, turned to a blank page, and eagerly jotted down some notes.

The next morning I had no idea what it meant. But still, looking at characters I scribbled on the page, trying to decipher my shitty handwriting, I couldn’t help but smile. The night before, the jokes, the new country, the tiny room I shared with three other people—it all felt like the start of something.

Premium Comedy Night in Mitchell’s Plain

Mitchell's Plain

My second day in Cape Town, I combed through Cape Town Magazine’s website and found a listing for a comedy show in a neighborhood called Mitchell’s Plain. I followed the link at the bottom of the page and found the show’s host, Kenwyn Davids, on Facebook. Even though it was the day of the event, he kindly offered to squeeze me on stage for a few minutes.

That night, I called an Uber driver and punched in the address on my phone. A few minutes later, I got a call from the driver. I couldn’t hear him clearly, but he said he wanted to cancel the ride and didn’t want to go that far outside the city. I had never used Uber before, so I didn’t know whether this was standard.

I called another cab company and my driver arrived a few minutes later. We quickly introduced ourselves, and then passed the first few minutes in silence, making quick turns and stopping at lights. At some point he took another look at the address I had given him. “Westridge, Mitchell’s Plain,” Jason said cautiously. “Do you live there?”

“No, there’s a comedy show out there,” I told him.

He nodded.  Another few minutes passed as he took the highway out of town. I turned around and watched as the skyscrapers and city lights grew faint.

A couple more minutes passed, and the roads grew quieter. “Are you sure this is the right address? This is where the comedy show is?” Jason suddenly asked, a hint of unease in his voice.

“Yea, I think so,” I said, pulling out my phone to double check. Then, on a whim, I opened up Google and searched “Mitchell’s Plain.”

The third result read as follows: “Mitchell’s Plain worst area for crime in SA.”

I looked out the window. Here and there I saw shops, closed. The streetlights were fewer and fewer.

I clicked on the article. “According to the SAPS, there were 650 more murders last year than the previous year. There was also a 6.5% increase to 16,363 in the number of attempted murders,” said the article. I felt the bile rise up in my throat.

“Is this neighborhood safe, if I’m at a comedy show?” I asked Jason.

“Well,” he said. “It can be a dangerous neighborhood if you don’t know your way around.” He motioned toward a poorly lit road. “I was carjacked there, at gunpoint, in broad daylight,” he said. “And the police, they did nothing. They don’t like to come out here,” he said. “So we’re not going to take that road.”  I brought my knuckle up against my teeth.

“But if there are people around, and you know them, and you don’t walk around outside, then maybe it is OK,” he said.  “Do you know who you are going to see?”

Hardly. I had only exchanged Facebook messages with Kenwyn. He and I had mutual friends in the comedy circuit, but I hadn’t had time to ask anyone about the show. I explained this to Jason. “Maybe we can just drive by and check it out?” I said.

We drove awhile through mostly quiet streets. At some point Jason pulled into a gas station to check the directions again, not wanting to stop on the road. When we got to the bar, Jason stopped the car and peered out the window. We looked at each other for a second.

“Should I do this?” I asked him.

“Maybe I should come out with you.” He said.

“Jason, I just need you to be honest with me,” I said. “Do you think I should do this?”

He paused. “If I’m honest, the answer is no. I just think you don’t know enough about what’s going on here. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to go out there myself. It feels wrong for me to leave you here. It feels like I have to tell you I don’t think you should this.”

So we turned back.

We drove back to Cape Town, this time taking that road where Jason had been carjacked, which cut maybe 20 minutes off the trip. Along the way, Jason explained some of his concern to me. “I am not safe in this neighborhood either,” he told me. “Because I am a black man, and because this is a coloured neighborhood” (“coloured” carries none of the same connotations it does in America and is not offensive in South Africa.)

“They carjacked me because they knew I was not from here,” he said. “And the police are afraid to come here, because the gangs have better guns. So they did nothing.”

Jason told me more of his story. In 2007, he moved to Cape Town from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, looking for work.  In 2008, xenophobic riots resulted in the deaths of some 60 people—mostly African immigrants or people who were mistaken as such. Some of the victims were people Jason knew. He himself had narrowly escaped, he told me.

It has left him feeling unsafe in Cape Flats, where Mitchell’s Plain is. “They came all the way from here into the city center,” he said. “If I am not safe there, where can I go? How can I feel safe in this neighborhood?”

The next morning I sent a Facebook message to Kenwyn Davids, the host of the show, explaining what my driver had told me. “lol…” he replied. “We had a couple of Swedish tourists in last night. It’s fine man.”

Maybe they saw the same ad I did, I thought. “Well now I just feel silly,” I told him. “Any chance you’ll have the show again in a couple of weeks?”

“Yes,” Kenwyn said. “ I’ll let you know. We’ll get you on then.”

Simultaneously, I messaged a white friend and a comedian from Cape Town about what had happened the night before. “You made the right call mate,” he said. “Absolutely trust your driver. That’s not a good neighborhood for you to be in.”

I told him about Kenwyn’s message. “Who knows whether those tourists knew what they were in for?” He said. “And the fact that it went OK doesn’t mean it always will,” he said.

I mentioned that Kenwyn runs the show there every two weeks. “Yes, but he lives there,” my friend explained. “It’s different for you. Plus, if you said the wrong thing about race in that neighborhood—and you might do that, as a comedian—it could get pretty ugly. I don’t know, if I were there I’d go with you, but maybe don’t bother with the show,” he said.

I sat in a café looking over these two message threads, lingering over a breakfast getting cold, wondering what I should do. I felt my Americanness in the strongest way. My upbringing, my way of thinking, my friends and the advice they give—they were useless here.

Two weeks later I sat at the bar at the Kimberly Hotel in central Cape Town, waiting for two of the other comedians doing the Mitchell’s Plain show that night. Esti, a friend and local comedian, had agreed to drive us out. “Matt’s running late,” she told me. Matt was another American, who was also booked to do the show that night. “Wanna have a drink while we wait?”

We chatted about the show and the good experiences other people had there. Esti got a text from Kenwyn. Apparently some of the main roads in Mitchell’s Plain had been closed because of protests. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” she said.

Matt arrived and we quickly hopped in the car. “It’s totally fine,” Esti told me a couple of times, seeing my nervous eyes. “This is going to be a really fun show,” she said.

Matt was also chill about it. He started telling a story about a tough neighborhoods he had been through in Chicago, and how his driver had been worried about him. He had shrugged it off and told the driver, “Chill out dude—I’m a grown-ass man.” I guess I’m a grown-ass man too,  I thought.

We took that poorly lit road and got to the bar in no time. Esti parked just outside. “You sure you’re allowed outside this time? You need permission?” Matt said, grinning. I gave a nervous laugh.

A big sign had a pistol with a red slash through it. “No guns,” it read. A security guard looked us over and waved us in.  Here we go,  I thought.

But as soon as we walked inside, I saw how paranoid I had been. The bar was like any other. The comedians were the same people I had been hanging out with at shows in the city center over the past couple of weeks. The crowd were hanging around and chatting and playing pool. The manager of the bar even came in to the comedian’s room in the back and passed around homemade Biltong, a kind of salty, dried meat.

We waited a little while until the stragglers came in and bought their tickets. My unfounded nerves now gone, I watched the comedians ahead of me to see what kinds of jokes would work. But I hardly had to worry. The crowd was super generous, going for all different kinds of styles.

The show’s host, Carl Weber, was crushing the whole night. He talked about everything from Hollywood casting calls to gang violence in Mitchell’s Plain. About halfway through the show, Carl got back up to introduce me.  His first joke had to do with the fact that one of the biggest gangs in Mitchell’s Plain is called “the Americans.”

“I promised you guys an American…who won’t stab you. Ladies and Gentleman, he told his mother, ‘I’m going to fuckin’ Mitchell’s Plain. I’m going to the fucken’ roughest part of South Africa, the roughest fuckin’ part.’ No, but he didn’t sound like that. Here’s how he sounded, [repeats the same thing in an intense, 1950’s-esque American accent.] Please welcome on stage, Ricky Altieri!”

So the stage was set. I stepped up and just got into it. I tried out a couple of local jokes about struggling with Afrikaans and to understand Cape Town culture. I stuck with a few old jokes about race and class. I told a few silly wordplay jokes and some vulgar stuff. And I just had a blast. The audience was so generous and giving, and afterwards a bunch of people came over to chat and say nice things about the show.

We left shortly after the last act and Esti drove me back to the city center. Part of me felt guilty and stupid, for having been afraid of what I didn’t know— for having been afraid to tell jokes to people, just because of where they lived. Part of me felt delighted, for having shared laughs with a South African crowd that I otherwise would never have spoken to. Part of me felt, too, that I had really captured the spirit of this fellowship: to do comedy in places where I wasn’t immediately comfortable, for people I didn’t know, with jokes that tried to bridge cultural differences.

And the last part of me felt that my conflicting emotions were overblown. I didn’t need to twist this into some narrative of white guilt, or some narrative about the triumph of comedy over class differences. What happened was really quite simple. I did a comedy show, shared some laughs, and made some friends.

I posted on Facebook thanking Kenwyn for a great gig, and then I went to sleep.

 

 

 

“Oozing White Privilege”

Cape Town Comedy Ceiling

During my first week in town I turned up for a Wednesday night show in Observatory, a bustling student neighborhood just outside Cape Town. I had been in touch with the show’s host, Gino, but I didn’t know whether I’d be performing.

“You here for the comedy?” The guy at the door asked. I started to pull out some money for him.

“Yea,” I said. “Do you know where Gino is?”

“He’s outside. Wait, are you on tonight?”

I explained that I’m a comedian from the States.

“Oh, well then you’re definitely not paying,” he said, putting away the pen he was going to use to mark my wrist. “I’m Phil, by the way.” He extended his hand.

We got to chatting about comedy in New York and in South Africa. We talked about how difficult it can be to get started on the New York ladder. About how a South African wouldn’t have much of an advantage, because New York gets people from all over. About how promoters and venue owners sometimes take advantage of desperate newcomers, by forcing them to bring their own guests and charging them to perform.

“I’ll die before I see that happen in my town,” Phil says, shaking his head. “Uggh. It makes sense though, the way they do this. Cause it’s becoming cool to be a comedian. So people want to do it, and they take advantage.”

We talk a little about Trevor Noah. His name on at the tip of everyone’s tongue around here—he’s right up there with Oscar Pistorius or Jacob Zuma. We talk about how quickly he climbed the ladder in the States and started living a life even American comedians can’t dream of.

Inevitably, he asked, “So how long are you in Cape Town?” The subtext of this question felt a little like, what are you doing here?

I’ve gotten good at this part. I’ve got a short answer, a long answer, and a short answer that prompts a question that prompts the long answer. I gave that last reply to Phil, and he asked for the longer version.

“So this is going to sound like the plot of a bad movie,” I begin. “Basically, a multi-millionaire left an endowment for university graduates to pursue a cross-cultural project…”

After I had finished my spiel, Phil said, “Dude. That’s amazing.” Then, after a pause: “You are just oozing white privilege right now.” We both laughed.  Out of nervousness I laughed too long.

“I’m joking, dude,” he said.

“But it’s true,” I replied.

Phil shrugged, as if to say that old thing about how true jokes are the best kind.

Still, in general, my back story doesn’t go over too badly here. Many South Africans are tired of wide-eyed Westerners who come to do non-profit work. “I was just about ready to explain why we don’t need your help,” one person at a bar told me. “I was just lining up my stop trying to save the world speech. But you’re just here to tell jokes in danky bars,” she said. “Which is strange, but I guess that’s fine.”

Phil went over to the bar to try to get people inside before the show. I walked outside and found Gino, who offered me a bro-ish handshake, which I awkwardly accepted. That’s my way with comedians. They are so deeply informal, and I struggle to match their ease. My effort is generally enough. They see that I’m trying.  “Wanna do a quick 5 tonight?” Gino said.  He introduced me to the comedian running the line-up, and he took down my name and wrote me in. It was as simple as that.

I hung around outside with the other comedians for a few minutes, checking back inside to see if the room had filled up, seeming awkward and not caring as much as I once would have. I’ve grown accustomed to the routine of showing up without friends and with a funny accent and a strange back story, so the suspicious glances and who-is-that? vibes bounce off me a little more easily than they used to.  Occasionally I remember that I’m supposed to feel uncomfortable when I’m alone in a new country and about to perform, and then I do. But then I get distracted and I stop worrying about it.

A few minutes later the comedians head inside. Phil has made his way around the bar and the windowless room with red paint and heavy artificial lighting has filled up nicely. The first thing I notice, about the crowds and the comedians, is the diversity. My last shows had been in Ireland, in front of crowds whiter than printer paper. And even in Cape Town, the more expensive coffee shops and tourist destinations recommended in the New York Times (where I’d spent some time earlier in the week) are disproportionately white—apart, uncomfortably enough, from the staff, who are mostly black.

But the comedy room was different. It was a mix of internationals and locals, as I learned from the host’s questions to the crowd.

I wasn’t sure where in the line-up I would fall, because no one had mentioned that to me. “We just call everyone up, one by one,” one comedian explained. But I was happy not to be called early on.  By watching from the back, I could get a sense for what worked here and what didn’t. In particular, I wanted to see how the race jokes would play—or whether they were off-limits for white people or foreigners.

That fear turned out to be misguided. Most of the comedians—regardless of skin color—dealt with race in their jokes. They were freer about it, less worried about offending people than American and European comedians. And the crowd laughed generously, at the comedians, themselves, and each other.

Of course, on paper, I can’t do the comedy justice. To describe the humor would be to suck the joy out of it. But I felt like I was witnessing the kind of open discussion and acknowledgement of racial issues that America sorely lacks. It wasn’t happening in a fancy political forum or university classroom. It was happening in dank bar at a comedy show, with a mix of people that probably otherwise wouldn’t be in the same room, listening to one guy after another talk about race and class and laughing about it. Laughing about our sordid past, its painful legacy, and the little racist things that we see every day and can be so hard to talk about.

Despite this, I was nervous about my own political jokes. I had seen white Afrikaners have no trouble, but the only foreigner, a British comedian, had struggled a bit with some darker material.

Of course, though, I had to tell them. The freedom of having a fellowship is that I don’t have to worry whether it’ll get me booked again. And hey, if they don’t like me, I’ll leave the country in a month anyway.

I walked up stage and soon felt quite comfortable. Stages are stages, microphones are microphones, and stand-up is stand up, even on a different continent.

The lighting was intense, as it often is, but I tried to squint and make out the faces of my first South African audience. I never get over the excitement of a punchline, especially in a new place. I love that moment when you hit that twist, and an audience breaks out in smiling eyes and a range of laughters, from bellows to shrill notes.

My absurdist jokes played the same as they did in Europe: maybe nonsense is the same everywhere. My political jokes about empire and colonization played similarly to the way they did in Ireland, as opposed to the way they played in Britain. The South African crowd didn’t go so much for the bits about the colonization of America, but they loved my joke about imperial white people.

These comedy sets go quickly when they’re fun, and this one went very quickly. I sat in the dark again, in the back, and gave some high fives to some of the other comedians. The easiest way to feel comfortable in a comedy room is to have a good set.

After the show, the comedians invited me to hang around out back. We talked for a while, about how difficult it is to get stage time, about trying to make ends meet at a comedian, about jokes that make us laugh so hard we want to piss ourselves. We talked about getting the wrong gifts at Christmas as kids, wondered how the hell Mitch Hedberg managed to make his material work, and good shows we’d had in other cities.

I took a cab back home and went outside to the balcony. Cape Town goes to bed early. A few lights flicker here and there, and in the distance I can make out the silhouette of Table Mountain. It’s a city with its own rhythm, a place totally foreign to me. I shivered for a second, thinking about how far I was from home, how few people I knew here, and how long it would be before I would be back.

But I calmed down as I thought again about the show. In Cape Town, as everywhere, comedians are trying to figure their shit out, tell good jokes, get laughs, and feel understood. And I’m trying to do those things, too.

Tallaght and Homecoming

Tallaght

I turned up in Dublin with few plans and fewer contacts. So my first day in town, I sent a facebook message to an Irish comedian I’d met in Edinburgh, asking about shows that might welcome a visiting American. As luck would have it, he himself was hosting a show in Tallaght, just an hour or so south of Dublin’s city center. What I didn’t know, when he offered me a spot there, was that the venue was an old IRA hangout turned working man’s pub.

The night before the Tallaght show, I got some stage time at a venue in the city center, with a big, warm audience and a friendly atmosphere. For the second time that week, I had a crowd that seemed almost to like that I was American. London crowds, by contrast, seemed to especially enjoy my jokes when they used Americans as punchlines. In Dublin, I took revenge. I had a couple of British hecklers one night, so I went after them for centuries of imperialism and destroying Native American and Irish cultures, among others. Was it fair of me? No. Did they deserve it? Absolutely not. Was it funny? The crowd thought so.

Anyway, at some point that evening I mentioned to another comedian that I had a show the next night in Tallaght. He raised an eyebrow, and then started doing that uncomfortable thing people do when they explain that a neighborhood is poorer than the neighborhood you’re currently in. “Well, let’s put it this way, he finally said: if Dublin is New York, then Tallaght is the South Bronx.”

And later he said: “They call it a working-class neighborhood, Tallaght. But I don’t know why, ya know, because no one there is workin.” He chuckled.

The next night I take a late bus from town over to the Jobstown House, per Google Maps’ advice. I tell the bus driver I’m going to Blessington Road, and he asks me if I’m sure I got that right. “I’m doing a comedy show there,” I say.

“Oh, ok.” He hesitates for a moment, his lips curling in a concerned kind of frown. “I’ll give ya a shout when we get there.”

Even at night, you can see the neighborhoods change as the bus leaves the city center. In 10 minutes time, there are fewer shops. In 20 minutes time, the roads are narrower, the street signs are crooked, and the buildings are shorter and older. And in 40 minutes time, the only break from the darkness are street lights, neon flashes from pubs open late, and a late-night pizza place or two.

The bus driver shouts as we get to my stop. I wait next to him for a moment as a few passengers file out before me. “You sure this is where you’re headed?” He asks. “You know who you’re meeting?” He seems to size me up as he’s saying this. I imagine what he must be thinking, looking at a round-cheeked kid hunched over with a backpack and a funny accent, about to wander into Tallaght at night. Concern washes over his features again. “You sure then?” He says. I tell him I’ll be fine, but of course how do I know. He nods and takes a breath, as if to say, “How would you know?” But anyway, he lets me off the bus with a “look after yourself, ok?”

The night is cold and dark and windy. The smell of the water from the city center is gone, and in its place is rough dust. I shield my eyes with my hood and my hands. A couple of street lights are on at the other end of the street. I march in their direction, my buddy Google Maps urging me on. Cars whisk past, and for a few minutes that’s the only sound I hear.

I walk into the brightly lit Jobstown House and instantly feel better. The paintings on the walls remind of me of 1920’s American art, but that’s probably because I know so little about art. Here and there between the paintings are signed rugby jerseys with Irish names. People are laughing and shouting and drinking, and they don’t care that an American kid in a backpack has just walked in. But then maybe I’m wrong: as I walk up to ask the bartender if I’m in the right place, I hear someone behind me say, in a thick Dubliny-but-not-quite-central-Dublin accent, “He must be one of the comedians.”

I meet the show’s host at the door to the ballroom. He’s in good spirits, collecting plenty of tickets at the door, and he points to the table at the back reserved for the comedians. In the next 5 minutes I meet 6 Irish comics, whose names are Robbie, Kev, Rob, Cormac, Barry and Billy. I’ve having trouble remembering which Irish name goes with which Irish face. But they don’t mind, because none of them can remember how to pronounce “Al-tee-air-ee,” and they start calling me “Aller-ton.” I tell them they can just call me O’Donnell, if it’s easier. But a few people at the pub are already called O’Donnell and that’d be confusing, so we stick with “Allerton,” or just “Ricky.”

The show gets underway and the host, Joe, does a little crowd-work to warm people up. It’s the night of his 11th wedding anniversary, and he’s brought his wife and some family to the show as a kind of celebration. For a moment I imagine my father taking my mother to a comedy show to celebrate an anniversary, and then I imagine it being their last anniversary. “I’m a lucky man, for my wife to let me do this as an anniversary date night,” Joe says, acknowledging what the room was thinking and getting a laugh.

It’s a good sized crowd, maybe 60 or so, and as I scan the room I ask one of the other comedians to film my set, thinking I might get some laughs. But, in a few minutes, I see that my confidence is misplaced. Joe’s doing some great jokes, but the crowd keep chatting and ordering drinks, and seem content to just tune in when there’s a lull in their conversation. That’s tough to work with, because the chatter distracts even the audience who want to listen to you. So Joe addresses it, but gets an “okay, whatever” kind of response.

Joe’s in a tricky situation. This kind of crowd response doesn’t rise to the level of proper heckling. If the crowd had been shouting at him, Joe could insult them, get a laugh, and command the room again.  But unless they do something that’s very clearly rude, he’d seem crass for making fun of them.

I’m in the back thinking about my set and trying to gauge what the crowd will like. These shows in working-class pubs are always tougher for me, because the crowd (quite rightly) don’t care what an American kid who just finished school finds funny. I’ll need to work to get the audience on my side.

I play over my set, considering jokes and deciding whether to replace them with others.  The comedians before me have been doing jokes about drinking. One comedian goes on for 5 minutes about how difficult it is to know if you have a drinking problem in Ireland. “We don’t say he’s got a drinking problem. We just say, ‘he’s fond of a drink.’ I tried to tell my therapist I might have a drinking problem and he said, ‘Well, I suppose we’d better have a talk about this. Meet me at the pub tonight.’”

He carries on: “And when your friend gets drunk and breaks things, we don’t say, ‘he’s got a problem.’ We just say, ‘He’s a bit of character.’” Somehow he manages to crowbar America in: “The problem,” he says, “Is that all the books about drinking problems are written by Americans. They ask stuff like, ‘do you drink regularly by yourself?’”  He puts on a silly American accent for this last line. “Right, cause that’s how I talk,” I mutter.

One of the other comedians hears me and shrugs. “Pretty much,” he says.

The crowd is loving the drinking bit. “Have I ever had a drink by myself? Has anyone here not had a drink by themselves?” The crowd claps and cheers. “These American books, I’m telling ya. They say, ‘do you find alcohol affects your job performance?’” Again with the accent.

The crowd’s laughing hard enough that he needs to raise his voice to be heard. It’s a great moment. “As we Irish know, the whole point of working,” he says, “is to drink. So the real question should be, “is my job affecting my drinking performance?” Another big laugh.

For a moment, the audience pays full attention. But the next bit doesn’t get the same response, and then the same kind of apathy comes over the crowd again. People start chatting, and by the end of the set, the energy in the room has returned to its starting level.

At the break before I’m supposed to go on the host says to me, “Hey listen Ricky, the crowd usually aren’t like this—if you don’t want to go on, I totally understand. It’s no problem,” he says. I sense he kind of doesn’t want me to go on, because he’s worried I’ll kill what little energy is in the room. But I came all the way out to Tallaght, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get to at least say some jokes into a microphone. “I’ll be fine!” I say, maybe just to convince myself. He nods and tells me just a quick 7 minutes will do, and that I’ll go on 2nd in the next half.

I have a drink during the break to ease some nerves. I don’t usually drink before I go on. Perhaps it’s the American sensibility, telling me that this would qualify as having a drinking problem. But I usually feel like even one drink slows me down just a little, makes me just a little less sharp. And also, I like the challenge of rising above my nerves. I like to feel the butterflies and fully experience the tension as I take the microphone and feel everyone’s eyes on me, the foreigner, the kid, the outsider.

But tonight, in Tallaght, I have a drink, because I’m only the only one in the pub without one. Earlier in the night, when I ordered a water, the bartender looked at me like I had 7 heads.

Joe introduces the comedian before me as being “all the way from Cork,” which is a few hours away by train. The audience gets really excited by the prospect of someone who comes all the way from another part of Ireland. They jeer and make fun of his accent.

I finish the drink quickly and get another.

A few minutes later I’m on stage. I say the word “perform” and someone in the back goes, “Purrr-ferrrm,” making fun of that round American “r” the world loves so much. Some people in the crowd laugh, but not enough that I have to address it. I figure not everyone heard him and I’d just get sidetracked going after him. Plus, he’s enormous and drunk.

I just press on with a little crowd-work, while I still have their attention. “I get a little nervous performing in front of such diverse crowds,” I begin. Then a tense pause. “On this side of the room, we have some white people,” I say, gesturing. “And over there, we have some…white people,” I say. They like it. They laugh.

Next, I take a crack at the venue, making fun of the lighting and the décor. They like that, too: they’re proud of the janky decorations, and they laugh when they hear it described through my eyes. Somehow, after those two jokes, they’re with me: the rest of the set doesn’t go brilliantly, but it doesn’t go badly either. It goes kinda well, and that feels like a big win, because this is Tallaght.

I hang out at the pub afterwards for a while and meet some of the audience. In person, in conversation, they’re not intimidating at all. They’re friendly and personable, and they’re curious to hear why I came to Tallaght and what I’m doing in Ireland.

If I’m honest, though, the pub atmosphere soon got outside my depth. This crowd is known for being able to handle their liquor, even in Ireland.

One guy starts asking me if he can get into America with an arrest record, and I don’t know what to tell him. But one of his mates knows, because he got into America with an arrest record.

Some of the older women at the bar give me very big hugs, and I can’t really tell if they’re motherly or come-ons. They feel like a mix of the two.

A British man in the bathroom—the only other foreigner in the pub, I think— tells me jokes as I’m at the urinal, but the jokes rely on his facial expression, so he asks me to turn my head around. I do, and I think all the pee still gets in the urinal, but the bathroom floor was wet and smelled of urine anyway, so I can’t be too sure.

A few different people offer to house me for the night. But they’re all hammered and I don’t know whose driving and I don’t want to sleep on a floor if I can avoid it. Some of the other comedians invite me to a nightclub. It’d be a cultural experience to go, and maybe I should’ve, but I don’t like nightclubs in America and I figure a nightclub here probably isn’t that different.

I walk out in the night, colder and darker and windier than before. Thankfully, a cab turns onto the road. I hop in and tell the driver to take me back to the city center. It’s going to cost me about 20 euros, he says. But no buses run at this hour, and it’s too far to walk back, and I don’t want to sleep at the pub, so I tell him to go ahead.

“You American?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“You’re the comedian, t’en.”

“ Yea, that’s me. How’d you know?”

“aye, was a fella in my cab about 40 minutes ago, said he seen an American comedian at the Jobstown pub, couldn’t believe it, he said.” The driver paused for a second.

“What’d he think?” I say.

“He liked ya, know what I mean? Says he enjoys an American sense of humor, thought ya were great. Said he liked ya, really did.”

(Side note: I wonder how he would have rendered my accent on the page, because it’s definitely not entirely fair for me to put his speech phonetically and leave my own in formal written English. But I feel OK about it, because people in England and Ireland and Scotland have gotten plenty of mileage out of my American accent.)

The driver leaves me at D’Olier Street and after a short wait I get on the night bus. A few minutes into the ride, a passenger dances up to the driver, looking as though he really needs to pee. “Can you stop the bus for like, 20 seconds?” He asks.

“Afraid not,” the driver says. He’d gotten this request before, I imagine.

“Just 20 seconds, mate, c’mon. I’ll be in and out,” he says.

“Afraid not,” says the driver.

“OK, just let me off then,” says the man with the full bladder.

“Next stop, you can get off.”

For maybe a minute the bus keeps rolling on through the night. I’ve spent the whole night watching intelligent stand-up comedy, but I have to restrain myself from laughing at a man who needs to take a whizz.  Finally, we stop, and almost in one motion he leaps off the bus and starts peeing on the curb, just as other passengers are getting on the bus.

A few stops later I get off and walk to the place where I’m staying, with a local couple who have given me a room through air bnb. I’m quiet as I come in, hoping I won’t wake anyone. And I crawl into bed and smile with a kind of warm, fuzzy feeling, a mixture of the beer in my belly and thick covers that I wrap around my torso. I pop open my laptop and find a message from one of the other comedians, asking whether I know how he got a black eye. He’s been asking around, but no one seems to know.

My newsfeed is full of photos of Amherst: it’s homecoming weekend. I scroll through pictures of the beautiful fall foliage, with good-looking people wearing scarves and fancy black coats in the foreground. My friends from college have whiter teeth, cleaner clothes, and prettier faces than most of the people I hang around with now.  I realize that I felt much more conscious of the way I look and the way I carried myself around Amherst friends than I ever would with comedians.

On the other hand, I have been self-conscious this year about the way I speak. I sound bookish, sheltered, and naïve, I think. I worry the other comedians see the inexperience all over my face; they imagine the hours I spent hunched over tables in a library; and they can tell that mom and dad have paid for everything. I worry that they will think my humor comes from a place of cleverness or false self-pity, rather than honesty.

But I think this self-consciousness is healthy. It makes me listen, turn outward, and stop talking about myself. It helps me see in their comedy and their stories and their bearing many things I don’t know about making comedy you care about, taking big chances, and having no safety nets. And it makes me appreciative for this extraordinary opportunity, to travel and do comedy without having to worry about the rent. Sometimes I think that it’s for these brief conversations between sets and after shows that I gave up a comfortable job and the comfort of home.

My focus turns back to Facebook as my newsfeed updates. As I systematically hit “like” on the homecoming photos, I remember walking around the college quad, talking with my friends about comedy or music or books, enjoying the weather and the beautiful view from memorial hill. I remember procrastinating in buildings across campus, ordering coffee after coffee, and then finally writing long papers on little questions that seemed so important. I remember wandering in and out of dorm rooms, having my closest friends in my pockets, feeling I never had to be alone. I remember Gads, my improv group, and the practices and the shows and the hanging out. I remember long meals in a cafeteria that, for all the shit people gave it, had really, really good food and a cozy atmosphere, and sometimes even felt like home. I remember feeling like part of a community, whatever its problems and failures.

I miss it. Damn, I miss it.

I get goosebumps when I zoom out and try to understand how my years in college somehow led to this. And my heart races when I realize that I don’t know what’s next. I have a grip on tomorrow, and a vague idea about the week ahead, but even a month from now, I know little more than what city I’ll be in and that I’ll be trying to tell jokes.

As I get drowsy and close the laptop, I feel lost, nostalgic, capable, uneasy, and free. I feel like I could disappear without being noticed. I feel that my memories from the past few months belong only to me. Above all, I feel I only have to answer to myself. But these words, which I used to toss around as an ideal way of living, feel much more complicated and troubling, now that, for the first time in my life, they are actually true.

Facebook beeps. I have another message from one of the comedians: “Great job tonight, fellas. You were all killer out there.”

I made ‘em laugh in Tallaght, I tell myself. I smile. For now, that’s enough. I pull the covers up around me to fend off the cold Irish night seeping in through the window, and I fall into a deep sleep, dreaming of college quads, old friends, microphones, and Irish pubs.

Whether I am like the Dog on the Pier in Howth

I get to the train station in Sutton Downs with the idea of going to Dublin. But the platform screen says that the train toward the city won’t arrive for 30 minutes, and the one to Howth will come in just two.

Two minutes later I sit in a spacious train car with bright green seats, Italian, Chinese, and Spanish tourists chattering away, cameras and bags slung around their necks.

The pier at Howth is beautiful, which of course they knew. They stand on the jagged rocks and take photos and add autumn filters and upload the pictures to facebook, and then the photographer and the photographee switch places and they repeat the ritual.

They are enjoying the view, which is the thing they came to do. But maybe it is more beautiful for me, because I did not know. This a moment they planned, and one that I stole. And you know what they say: moments stolen are sweeter than moments earned.

Among us there is another one who did not come to see the view. She is a sleek white dog, with thin legs and pointed, alert ears. Her owners trust her without a leash, and I watch as she tastes the salty air with her wet nose, sniffing in a few directions and then following her favorite. A seagull calls from the rocks and the dog’s head shoots up, its tail stands straight, and its back stiffens. Then it wanders over to the edge of the pier, just in front of me, and stares out, without moving a muscle.

For a minute we look out at the water and the rocky cliffs. What does the dog see that stopped it?

I have said that the pier at Howth is beautiful. Maybe it is better to say that my eye makes out seven shades of blue between the water and the sky. Or that the rocky cliffs rise only to the skyline, as if in deference. Or that when the waves hit the rocks it sounds like an old song, untroubled by the roads, the trains, and the coffee shops.  Or maybe none of this is enough, and maybe this is why we plan these moments; maybe this is why we take photos.

My daydreaming is broken by a sharp bark from the dog. I look over and see that the seagull has taken flight. The bird must have been right there on the rocks somewhere, just under the dog’s nose. The dog follows with its eyes as the seagull squawks and sails over the water. Or maybe it is just me, following with my own eyes.

The tourists have walked off toward another view, leaving just me and the canine at the edge of the pier. The dog shakes, to clear its fur. The only other sound’s the whoosh of gentle wind and easy waves.

Without warning, my new friend turns around and begins heading back toward its owner. I notice that the wind is little chilly against my throat, and my stomach doesn’t care so much about the view. It would prefer a sandwich. I take all in one more time, then walk in the direction of town, the dog sniffing and zig-zagging and wagging its tail in front of me.

Charge the Windmill

Craiova Romania photo 2Let me begin by apologizing to my adoring public for not having written in so long. I know all of you have been desperately refreshing this wordpress page, praying to the deities of your choice, and filing missing-persons reports on my behalf. Today, your prayers have reached me, in the form of an email from my father, with no text in the body and a subject line that read, “Have you done any blog posts the last couple of weeks that I may have missed?” Of course, he knew I had not, because the whole point of a blog is that anyone can check it. But I took the hint.

So here we go.

I need to rewind for a brief moment to the Fringe in Edinburgh, to explain some of what’s happened in the month or so since it ended.

One night, after a show we both performed in, I met a Romanian comedian named Radu. We got to talking afterwards and even decided to have a beer each, which, in Edinburgh during the Fringe, cost about $15, making it more expensive than my entire outfit—. Radu liked my project idea, and had plenty to say on cross-cultural comedy, having performed in both Romania and the United Kingdom, and having had to figure out how to translate his jokes and sense of humor. He invited me to go on an English-speaking comedy tour in Romania that he had been organizing. We would perform in front of US marines and army stationed there, as well as English-speaking Romanians.

Later that night, alone in bed, I remember opening up my computer and looking at my screensaver: a Picasso painting of Don Quixote and Sancho. Certainly, there would be something quixotic about showing up in Romania, thinking I could hold my own as a comedian in front of unfamiliar audiences and in an entirely different part of the world. I realized I had to go charge the windmill.

A couple of weeks later, I arrived in Bucharest praying that Radu would answer my Facebook message. We had been in touch a few times, but I still hardly knew him, and I hadn’t learned a lick of Romanian. As I stood there, I figured maybe I was really Sancho Panza. The more pragmatic fool who decided to follow the idealist, and was now stranded at the airport.

But Radu showed up.

The next day, we picked up the other comedians from the airport, hopped in the Van, and hit the road. We were seven in total. Another American comedian from Oklahoma doing a longer European tour; a Maltese-British comedian well known for a radio show in which he interviewed Maltese celebrities; a Bosnian comedian who, after fleeing the country during the war and studying in Italy,  had gone back to Eastern Europe and helped found the stand-up scene in Zagreb; Radu, who had gotten in on the ground-floor of Romanian comedy and made a name for himself as a writer for a satire magazine; another Romanian comedian well known for a youtube channel; and our tour manager, who did most of the driving through the long, narrow roads of rural Romania.

By the second night, the shows had started. I was terrified to be performing in such a group and in front of such crowds, especially because I had a lot of political jokes— comedians (me, for example) tend to fall left of center, but US troops tend to be further right. My material might not agree with their politics, and there’s no easier way to lose a crowd than to use their beliefs as a punchline.

  Charge the windmill, I remember thinking.

So I did. I opened with a joke that went like this: “I’m an American, so I do my comedy in the most American way I can. I make no effort to understand local culture. I overstay my welcome. And I bomb, really hard, everywhere I go.” The range of reactions—from laughter and appreciation to dismay—made me feel the joke was impactful and edgy. I won’t rehash the rest of my political material here, but it had the same bent. And typically, I managed to win the crowds over. It was a milestone for me: I had used comedy to make a point, in front of a crowd that didn’t already agree with me.

Afterwards, we would hang out with the troops. As we would get drinks, I would have these moments where I would take a bird eye’s view of my life and think, if you asked a year ago where I would be now, I wouldn’t have said, “drinking with US marines on a comedy tour in rural Romania.”

I felt intoxicatingly powerless, thinking on the string of chance encounters that grabbed me by the wrist and brought me here.

I quickly learned that I should not go drink for drink with military professionals. There were a few fun nights followed by bad mornings. But even without the booze, comedy and a shared national identity made it easy for us to bond in Romania. My comedian friends and I got a glimpse of what military life in rural parts of Eastern Europe could be like, and we left with a newfound appreciation for the grind many of the soldiers go through, regardless of our political opinions.

They were nomads, in a more permanent way than I am. Many of them hadn’t really spent time at home in years, as they went from one deployment to another, alternating between warzones, security operations, and training.  They talked about pranks in their barracks, or how beautiful the women were in the different countries they visited. They could say “thank you” in 17 languages, but couldn’t talk about the weather in any of them. They had tattoos of their wives’ names, or their children’s names, or the names of fallen comrades. They thanked us, effusively, for doing our shows.

“You help take our mind off things,” was a compliment I’ll never forget, no matter how many times I got it.

The other side of my experience in Romania was the time we spent the capital-V, Van.  We drove for hours each day, and in a confined space with no internet access (our plans did not have coverage in Romania). I quickly felt that I had known the people sitting next to me for years. We played soccer at gas stations, picked up hitchhikers, and wandered through roadside restaurants, an abandoned amusement park, and parking lots full of stray dogs.

There’s an emotional intimacy that parallels the physical intimacy of being squished together. The age gap between me and the oldest comedian was 20 years. One was married and thinking of having kids. Another had just started speaking to his father again, after 5 years without any contact. Another had been so poor just a few years ago, that he would wander through the aisles of grocery stores, find food that he could open, and eat it quickly as he pretended to shop for other things by filling up his grocery cart. There was a refugee, who had been shipped off when her country drifted to war. And there was me, who couldn’t be more sheltered from any of those things.

But the empathy in the room was contagious. I found myself sharing fears about my future, feelings of loneliness, and tender reflections about past relationships and my family. And the comedians around me were doing the same.

It was fascinating to watch them all perform each night. In seeing the same jokes tweaked and revised each night, I understood the architecture of their set: how each joke fit between two others, where the political, absurdist, or observational foundations lay, and how the parts came together for a bigger effect. But I also saw how, through their sets, each comedian projected a particular version of herself. I would sometimes feel goosebumps as, in the back of a crowded room, while people laughed at a punchline, I connected a joke with a story from the comedian’s life, and understood that laughter had become a way of channeling a fear, dream, or belief.

One night, I even told a joke in Romanian. It’s a romance language, so it only sounded mildly alien coming off my tongue. The crowd understood me and laughed in appreciation; the joke wasn’t funny, but I had taken the time to practice saying it, and that was enough. There was something poignant, I think, in having an American comedian try to entertain them in their own language.

And then it ended. We all slept in Radu’s apartment the night before heading back to the airport, 3 people in each of the two rooms, me on the floor, and the other comedians squished together on couches and beds. We were comfortable, with the space and with each other, after all that time in the Van.

I came to London feeling dazed and confused. The officer at customs asked me about my project and then said, “OK, Richard, tell me a joke. Make me laugh.” I quickly scanned my current set for a joke that was impossible to offend. I came up with a terrible wordplay: “What’s the ultimate form of social climbing? A Hiking club.” He stared at me for a moment and then said, “Needs work.” But hey, he stamped the passport.

I needed a couple of days to process the months of living I had squeezed into a week in Romania. And I guess that emotional exhaustion caught up with me physically, as it tends to do. I struggled with a cold for a week, than pushed my luck and started doing more shows that my throat could really handle, and I relapsed. It was a rough 10 days or so in total, lying feverishly in bed, having to cancel gigs and having a hard time focusing on reading or anything else.

Even still, I’ve enjoyed my time here. It helps to have met many London-based comedians while in Edinburgh. They’ve helped me find gigs, given me pointers on my sets, and shown me around town.  I came to London largely to get in as much comedy work as possible, and to perform in front of demanding audiences. It’s been good in that way. I’ve been forced to elevate my jokes from carefully-packaged punchlines to a more truthful comedy, where the humor lies in the ideas or the observations, rather than simply in an unexpected twist.

I’ll have more to say about a few gigs in London in the coming days. Until then, my adoring fans.

My Last Night at the Fringe

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I am finishing a coffee around midnight as I walk into Espionage, a nightclub in the city center, for my second to last show of the Fringe. I arrive a few minutes early, figuring I’ll get set up and try to push reluctant crowd members to the front and see what kinds of clues I can get about what’ll make them laugh. I walk in to see the comedians before me finishing up their show. They are 3 young women, topless, with the following written in purple body-paint on their chests: “STILL not asking for it.” They finish up the show to big applause, and a chatter takes hold in the audience.

“Should’ve gotten here a little earlier.” A hand clasps my shoulder. It’s Iain, another comedian, who has driven in from Glasgow for tonight’s show. “What are you drinking?” Iain asks, his eyes still on the stage. We head over to the bar for a beer and get to talking a little bit about a show we did together earlier in the day.

We watch as the comedians before us put on their coats, smiling, and head out: it’s probably their last show at the Fringe, and they seem delighted to have finished riding this emotional rollercoaster.

Some of the crowd filters out, while others filter in. The incoming groups are older men wearing polo shirts and jeans. They get their drinks from the bar and head to the back of the room, in the shadows. The front seats are left empty. Never a good sign.

As the host starts the show, it becomes clear that it’ll be one of those late-night, dead-quiet, lets-just-get-through-this-everyone kind of gigs. The kind where, even when an audience likes a joke, they’ll do nothing more than uncross their arms. And if you deliver two good ones in a row, they’ll give you a reluctant smile. But then, one miss and you’re back to silence. A second miss, and the heckling begins.

After ten tough minutes, and a few quick exchanges with hecklers, the host calls me on. I try to get the crowd warm with a few questions and some comments about the room, but they aren’t having it. Plus, the only beam of light in the bar hovers right at my eye -line, so I have to decide between turning a little and not facing the audience, or staring into the light and pretend to be seeing people’s eyes.  I choose to turn a little and keep my eyes open, figuring if I can’t have solid eye contact with audience, they at least don’t have to watch me squint.

I get cracking with my jokes, and I do no better than the host.  Somehow, the experience always feels more painful than I imagine it will be. After all, it’s nothing more than telling jokes to people who aren’t laughing at them. But the silence feels suffocating when I breathe into the microphone and the sound echoes off the walls, or when I reach a punchline with a finality in my tone and the audience keeps looking at me expectantly, or when I ask a simple question two or three times and get nothing in reply. Each moment of silence seems to build on the last, almost in the way noise builds up in a crowd setting. The longer you go without a laugh, then, the tougher the next moment is. It’s the kind of experience that leaves marks in the memories of comedians, when it happens for the first time and catches you off-guard.

But this is hardly my first bad gig.  Like most comedians, I’ve slowly developed an emotional armor and an air of confidence that help me follow through in these circumstances. If you put on a brave face that projects the message this stuff is funny, and I’m going to stick to it, you give yourself the best chance for getting a reaction from the crowd. And, more important, you keep the audience from having to share the pain of the moment. It can be brutal, even from an audience perspective, to watch a comedian lose confidence on stage. When a comedian seems visibly frustrated or begins to stumble over their words, the audience reaction goes from not amused to please make it stop.

I finish my set by telling the audience, “My name is Ricky Altieri, and God, I love this game.” It gets the only chuckle of the night. Even if the crowd didn’t enjoy it, I still got a chance to perform, I tell myself. I wave good-bye to Iain, who is on next. He’ll probably do better than me, but I’ve seen his a set a number of times, so I decide not to stay.

I wander out into the street, head over to a central square called Grassmarket, and pull some flyers for the next show out of my backpack.  It’s the last night of the Fringe, and people seem determined to burn every last drop energy they have before the festival ends. The square’s clubs, bars, coffee shops, and streets still brim with performers, shows, and visitors, knocking back drinks and letting the revelry continue late into the night. Exhausted, I try to remember I only need to do this one more time. “Free comedy show,” I say with a smile, to anyone and everyone who walks past. I take the opportunity to try out different accents. It’s possible to get away with that when you only utter three words and no one really listens anyway. As any flyerer knows, crowds of people walking past want to talk to you about as much as you want to stand outside in the cold and hand out flyers.

Even though I know on an intellectual level not to take it personally, receiving the cold shoulder from stranger after stranger after stranger can begin to take an emotional toll. Did I do something wrong? That guy didn’t like me.  I feel like a pesky intruder each time someone rolls their eyes and says “no thank you,” or just pretends not to see me. Of course, I entirely understand the other side of it. I can’t say I’ve ever been thrilled when someone tries to convince me to go see one of their shows. I have my own plans, thank you, I often want to tell them.

The Grassmarket has plenty of other flyerers too, even at this hour, though many of them have run out of steam. Some sit on benches with their flyers in their laps, while others wander around in circles, without really trying to distribute their materials. But the lackluster effort is understandable. After nearly three weeks of Fringe madness, my comedian friends and I are flagging. The “Fringe flu” has spread, and comedians have had to cancel many of their shows at the last minute. Even the venues seem to be suffering under the weight of the experience. In one case, a small tent that had served as a performance venue—they called it the “yurt”—nearly collapsed during one of the performances.

As comedians got sick or cancelled shows for other reasons, the facebook group for Fringe performers swelled with requests for last-minute substitutes: performers, flyerers, and photographers were in high demand. For a newcomer like me, this meant more chances to get involved. As exhausted as I felt after a weeks of performing without respite—you don’t take days off during the Fringe, because Saturday and Sunday draw the best crowds, and you don’t take early nights during the Fringe, because bars give you a chance to meet fascinating artists from around the world—I pushed myself to keep going, through some mix of coffee, adrenaline, and quick naps between shows. By responding to requests for fill-ins, I managed to do 11 shows in the last weekend, including a Yo-Mama Battle (from which I was eliminated in the first round, because I’m so respectful to yo’ mama), a gig at “The World Famous Frankenstein’s,” and a guest spot on a live radio show, in the basement of a coffee shop called “Black medicine.”  I felt pride at this surge of shows I’d managed to book. And even on August 30th, as many comedians had called it quits and gone home, I was flyering for what would be my last show. If only I could make people laugh, I thought to myself.

After an hour or so of trying to shove papers into people’s hands, I head over to the venue, a tiny, sweaty attic-esque room with no ventilation, on the top floor of my night club/bar.  Beads of sweat roll down the cheeks of the audience. And, when I get on stage, I am close enough to the front row that I need to carefully monitor my sweeping, very Italian-American gesticulations. Just get through it, keeps running through my head as I start warming up the audience.

But as I get started, I find I don’t want to get through it, at all. Because the crowd loves it.  I want to stay on stage and tell jokes as long as they’ll let me. I miss with maybe two punchlines, but the rest get moderate laughter or better. It’s amazing how quick an 8 minute set can feel, when the audience likes you. Ten such sets still feel quicker than the 5 minutes I had done earlier that night. I wipe my forehead as I thank the audience and tell them, “God, I love this game,” which also gets a chuckle.

I walk out of the room into the center of the Fringe madness, still raging on before the sun comes up on this Bank holiday. Some fireworks go off by the Edinburgh castle, and I catch a glimpse of the riot of blue and green lights in a beautifully dark sky. I stop by a pub, order a shitty beer, and head over to chat with a few comedians I recognize in the corner. I enter the circle and take a long drink. And I smile, because as the cheap, bitter stuff courses through me, it feels like a fitting end to a beautifully maddening experience.

Dispatch from the Fringe in Edinburgh

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Here’s a brief note I sent to friends about my time here (with edits):

Edinburgh is beautiful this time of year. The Fringe festival consumes the city center, and the beautiful, medieval architecture can make it feel like you’re wandering through a fairy-tale. Until you see a Starbucks, I guess. There are endless free shows of comedy, poetry, story, dance, debate, performance art, etc., in janky basements and little attics with roofs so low the performers have to hunch to do their acts; in sweaty bar rooms and even in old, former medieval buildings converted for the occasion. The city crawls with young artists, who have little money and big, overflowing hearts. They alternate between extreme visions of their future: one they day imagine living alone in their parents’ basement, and the next they’re convinced they’ll be the next Seinfeld. I love getting lost in their dreams and my own.

The traffic on foot is as bad as the street traffic. And because we’re so far north, it doesn’t get dark until 10 or so. It’s all so stimulating. It can be hard to sleep at night.

 I try to do at least a show a day and watch a few as well. I wander in and out of people’s lives, just as they wander in and out of mine. It’s a strange sort of feeling, being surrounded by people constantly and in an important sense also being quite alone. I feel like I’ve entered the more artsy, slightly less terrifying sequel to In Bruges.

 I’ve been tremendously lucky to have found a group of experienced, friendly comedians here in Edinburgh. They’ve given me a whole new set of tools to understand stand-up in every part of the process, from writing material, to connecting with the audience, to notes on delivery. I’ve met comedians from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, and every part of the United Kingdom. Thanks to their generosity, I’ve had regular stage time and performed in front of a series of different crowds. And, of course, there’s no better way to learn stand-up than to do stand-up.

Performing regularly and thinking more technically about comedy has changed the way I enjoy it. While I laugh less than I used to at the shows I watch, I notice much more of the artistry that goes into the construction of a successful joke. I see the way a comedian weaves his punchlines together, stringing the audience along and playing with their expectations. Stand-up seems richer as an aesthetic art form than it once did to me, and so I’m enjoying it on a different register.

The constant access to humor has inspired me to write many more jokes than I had been in Montreal. I’ve gotten so immersed in stand-up that I find myself looking for comedy in all the corners of my life.  But it’s a beautiful kind of addiction. I look forward every morning to writing new material, performing it, revising it, and then preparing for another set the next day. Stand-up is sometimes brutal, and it’s always difficult, but the challenge makes brief moments of success all the sweeter.

There comes a moment during a good set, after you’ve won the audience over with a string of successful jokes, when you feel you have the unmediated attention of the whole room. When you feel people’s smiling eyes open up. When you feel that the audience has, in some important sense, come to see things as you see things, and will love whatever comes next.  In those moments, I feel such a deeply human connection with the people in the room. They’ve seen and accepted the strange recesses of my mind. And there’s something deeply affirming about that.

At the same time, there’s a thrill that runs through you in those moments, a rush of power and confidence. I made these strangers laugh with nothing more than my mouth and a microphone, you think to yourself. These are my jokes and this performance is all me, from start to finish. And they like it! They like me! And this feeling is intense, because you’ve spent so many hours fine-tuning, un-fine-tuning, re-fine-tuning, scrapping, rewriting, and re-fine-tuning these jokes. You have 3 or 4 iterations of many of these jokes, and you’ve let them mature based on responses from the audience over time. And then when a joke ripens, you get that incredible buzz:  They think I’m worth their time.

I’ve also find that my ear has come to register the different notes in an audience’s laugh. Laughter can accommodate many different kinds of emotions: there are laughters of disgust, surprise, recognition and celebration, laughters of delight, agreement, and confusion. And understanding this point gives the comedian more flexibility. You can write jokes that will make the audience laugh because they agree with you; or jokes that make them laugh because they feel relieved; or write jokes that surprise them. Understanding which kind of laughter a joke achieves can help you to revise it to maximize that effect. In other words, you can sharply pinpoint what’s funny about a joke you’ve told, by figuring out what kind of laugh the audience is giving you (or what kind of laugh you hope they’ll give you).

Despite all of this learning, joke writing often happens at its own pace. I’m a firm believer in hard work, practice, and revision, but I sometimes find that I’ll spend a couple of hours trying to write a joke and get nowhere. Then, I’ll decide to walk over to the grocery store or read a book, and in a matter of a few minutes two or three jokes will hit me. My general thought, I suppose, is that I ought to try to cultivate the right kinds of habits of mind for joke-writing. By putting in the time, I figure I’ll slowly train my comedic muscles, making it more likely that I get those flash moments when a joke seems to come together.

One last thought is a cliché that feels deeper to me for having seen it in action: comedians love what they do. If you find a comedian’s facebook profile, 9 in 10 times their photo is one of them doing stand up. When you find comedians on the street, they are looking for shows to see and gigs to do. When you talk to a comedy about a joke, their eyes light up in a peculiar, obsessive way. They are addicted to the rush of the crowd, the human connection, and the aesthetics of jokes. They eat, sleep, and breathe comedy. And I suppose you have to, because it’s not an industry that’s going to give you much else. Even established comedians sometimes struggle to make ends meet, and very few comedians ever manage to become “established.” To justify giving your life to writing jokes, especially when you’ll get just to get a few minutes of stage time and a couple of bucks here or there, you have to love it.

But when you get laughs and you feel that rush—that deeply human connection—it’s so damn easy to see why comedians do what they do.

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