Stand-Up Comedy In a Second Language
I share my insights on what it feels like doing stand-up comedy in a second language.
On the other hand I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish. Zero. Nada. In preparation, I invited friends to drink Tecates and play charades the night before we drove from San Francisco to Mexico.
In Mexico, my friend was able to communicate many things in Spanish. He could perfectly say “We came from America, but we don’t need cocaine”, however, in some situations, he’d freeze trying to remember a simple word like “napkin”, “wheel”, or “fork”. During those moments I’d shine with my charades skills and convey that simple word to a Mexican waiter with gestures of my hands. You might be wondering why I’m telling you this story. All I’m trying to say is: the language itself is not everything.
My relationship with English
I decided to write this blog post because countless people ask me how I do stand-up comedy in a second language. Because of my accent, they think English is my second language, but how wrong they are! English is my third language, after Japanese. However, it’s not my native language either, but I do perform stand-up comedy in it.
People ask me: “How can you perform in English, when your native language is Russian?”, “Do you write jokes in Russian and then translate them to English?”, “Can I also do stand-up, even though my first language is German?”, and “Are you spying on us?”.
Now, after spending 10 years in the US, a good amount of the jokes that I socially make do work with crowds. But even in my first year of performing, when my English sounded more like Russian, I had a lot of joke ideas that were funny, at least to me. Back then, their success rate was definitely lower because I was not able to convey my sense of humor as accurately, yet some of them still worked!
Language is not everything
Behind the language, there are humans. We all share the same human API, human nature, emotions, behavioral patterns. Thanks to globalization, we can all watch the same TV shows and read the same news.
It became easier to convey things, even if your language skills were not perfect. I’ve seen comics with very bad English abilities who were funnier than me (only sometimes!), and I know a lot of great comics whose native language is not English.
But language is still King
Having said that, language is important. When I started going to open mics and regularly writing jokes, I realized that some of them were not easily understood by some people. That’s because my language skills (social skills, too) are still lagging. In order to continue perfecting my jokes, I just have to do more testing by telling them at open mics, receiving audience feedback, and chasing my comic friends and asking them to proof-read, giving them a reason to avoid me.
It’s still hard for me to freestyle. I can’t just get drunk and say whatever. I’d forget words, skip articles, mess up pronunciation, and it’d be hard for my audience to understand me. But, even with my imperfect third-language English, my comedy works, people enjoy the shows I produce and ask me to write more jokes, which I need to do right after publishing this blog post.
On having an accent
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.
What’s more, I become more relatable to people with English as their second (or third) language, and it’s a great thing.
I charmingly yell at people in my Russian accent and they love it. Why is that? I don’t know, people are crazy. But, empirically, it serves me well.
Other than English I’ve tried performing comedy in Japanese, and, when I show other people this video of me, performing stand-up comedy in Japanese, they usually get blown away.
I’ve tried writing jokes for three languages. In each one I wrote new jokes entirely in that language, without translations. Plus, each language has unique patterns and expressions that wouldn’t make sense in other languages. For example: puns. It’s really, really hard to adapt them.
Language is crucial, but it’s only a proxy that we use to convey ideas relatable to our human nature. There are other non-verbal means that you can employ to enhance your comedy act, such as your likeability, your gestures, and facial expressions (AKA real-life emojis). Also, in stand-up comedy, the audience comes to have a good time. It’s so entertaining to watch a person struggling with a language! Personally, I love it. And countless people relate to it.
Exactly what you’d guess from my ramblings, it’s possible to do stand-up comedy in a foreign language. If you take on the challenge, make sure you try out your jokes at a few open mics (per week) and take advantage of non-verbal means of communication. Physicality can add to the humor! But it’s more about you. If you WANT to do stand-up, just do it.
Good luck, and send me your Netflix special once you make it big.
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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