What I've Learned Performing Stand-Up in 10 Countries
Lessons learned from performing stand-up in the US, Europe, Asia, and tips on improving your act.
I remember noticing some audience members weren't able to relate to my friend’s joke about being brown in America. And it's understandable. For instance, in Russia, being brown is considered cool. It’s the poor people who tend to look “too white” since they aren’t able to afford flying to the beach in the winter, which is most of the time in Russia. So, not all international people can relate to that joke about being brown because that joke is specific to America's history and, unfortunately, deeply ingrained racism, which some countries don’t have (at least, in the same form).
I had a joke about a doctor trying to prescribe me oxycodone for anything. That also didn't go too well. The premise was very specific to America and how the American government allowed Big Pharma to lobby and push drug sales through individual doctors, causing the opioid crisis. A person would have to know that about America to understand the joke.
That day, I learned the valuable lesson that the same jokes don't work in the same way everywhere. I must adjust them, if possible, to fit in with the local culture references and relate to more and wider audiences.
Relatability to Specific Locale
Now I try to make jokes more relatable to specific locales. For example, I have a joke about meeting a young woman on the street. In San Francisco, I say "Market Street", in NYC, I use "Williamsburg", in Germany, it'd be something-”strasse”, and in Bangkok, I’d refer to “Khaosan Road”.
I adjust my joke a little bit to something more relatable to the place I perform it in. Relatability increases my chances of squeezing more laughs out of the audience members. No magic! Now I wish I could record a video of me performing this joke in different countries… if only I could travel!
Different Thoughts Dominate
No matter what thoughts you have when hearing or thinking up an anecdote, you can’t know what others would truly think upon hearing the same thing. You don’t always know what’s cooking in their kitchen. Everyone has lived an experience unique to them–a joke could lead one audience member to think of a memory of theirs or a person they know, while the next person would possibly get a completely different idea. As a comedian, you can only try your best to communicate your funny ideas and hope your audience will reach the thoughts you’re trying to escort them to.
In America, people usually think about politics being Democrats vs. Republicans, while in Tokyo, politics are completely far from that. On that note, taboos change from country to country.
As another example, in Bangkok, my joke about hand jobs in massage parlors was on fire. All the men in the audience were cracking up because they could relate to it. In America, my joke didn't work as well. In America, men often don't receive hand jobs from massage parlors (Too expensive? Hard to find? Is it even present or legal in America?). Also, they bring their dates to the show and they feel obligated to pretend they don't know what I'm talking about.
Extend the Setup
Another way to still make the premise work is to explain. If it's about "Whole Foods", you can add "an expensive chain of American supermarkets where pretentious people go". But if that explanation is too nuanced, it can steal the momentum and destroy the whole joke.
Cake of Experiences
Human nature is universal, but above that, there’s the human experience, which is like a layered cake. Layers on the bottom are the same for everyone, but we have several layers of human experience that have developed their own flavor over time. Jokes written on the foundation of basic human experiences–life, death, sex, love, food, human and animal behavior–will probably work anywhere. Bits that are more relatable to a more narrow group of people act as the higher layer of the cake. They work stronger for that specific group of people. In other words, it's like a sniper rifle that sends a strong and precise bullet vs. a machine gun that can shoot anywhere around the person pulling the trigger, but not as powerfully (Americans understand that comparison, right?).
Even if your jokes are relatable to only specific individuals, you’ll still have a lot of fun, because there are millions of expats living in other countries. Since comedy is a universal language, one can find comedy performed in English in most major cities of the world!
Speaking with an accent is a good thing, because in stand-up comedy, you can appear distinct and use it to the benefit of your act. I use it for my character.
Thanks to globalization, it helps that people watch many of the same TV shows and films, use the same streaming platforms, apps, and emojis (unless you consider iOS and Android emojis to be different), and slowly sync together into one generational culture where all your jokes will work if they’re written with enough relatability.
Good luck, and send me your Netflix special once you make it big.
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If you have any questions, suggestions, please reach out to me!
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About the author
Michael Makarov is an NYC-based comic and a software engineer. He started his standup journey in 2014 in San Francisco, he sold out his first show in 30 minutes when the link made the top of Hacker News. Russian immigrant, he also speaks fluent Japanese and enough chinese to order food at restaurants. He runs Comedy vs. Nerds and Comedy Conspiracy, a standup comedy show about the internet. Other articles: 7x7 article