Friday, July 31, 2009

Laugh with me, laugh at me

During last night preview a little episode occurred to me that made me think a about comedy, its pleasures and its risks. Unfortunately to explain what happened I'll have to describe one of my routines and quote some jokes, but I hope I'll not spoil it too much for anybody. There is a moment in the show where I pretend to receive a phone call from my mother (that was the first spoil: now you know that she is not really calling me!). At her insistance to marry the daughter of a friend, I protest: "But she has only one eye! (pause) What do you mean with 'that would higlly boast your possibilities'!?. That's a nice turn of phrase for somebody who doesn't speak a word of English!". Given that one of the main themes of the show is language, in my intention the last line was the real punchline, revealng the absurdity of the entire conversation (so I haven't spoiled too much after all). But what I didnd't bargain for was the MASSIVE laugh I got at previous line, the one about having only a one eye being an advantage in evaluating a potential bride. It's true that a female voice in the audience shouted "that's so unfair!" (I'll need to check the recording to be sure that my subconscious didn't play a trick at me there), but the general feeling was the audience were expressing an overenthusiastic agreement with the supposed judgement of my mother. So, were they laughing with me or were they laughing at me?

The line, I guess, it's quite a fine one. Apparently, in some Roman and Medioeval celebrations a "fool" was elected Carnival King and enjoyed absolute power for a day, at the end of which he was killed. Today we live in gentler times, but I think that something of that role survives in the modern comedian. In a sense, the comedian "sacrifies" himself as a laughing stock. Ok, if he or she is a good comedian people will laugh with him and not at him, but there is also a implicit agreement going on that says: I give you, the audience, the authorisation to laugh at me, with my approval and to my own advantage, so you don't need to feel guilty about it. The pleasure that incurs is, in part, the pleasure of doing something that would normally be forbidden or frown upon but that is here exceptionally allowed. Which, I guess, is the essence of the Carnival. Probably the most extreme example is when comedians with a disability made jokes about their own condition. I'm thinking, for instance, of Liz Carr, Lawrence Clarke or my brother in open spot arms Max Turner. Laughing at accents, nationalities or ginger air can be allowed in many "normal" social conditions, but laughing at disabilities is definitively taboo. These comedians bravely allow us to do just so for the duration of their set.

So, why was I slightly upset by that reaction? After all, I have never considered my look one of my strongest assets, even if I have never targeted one-eyed women for that reason, which I guess would make sense only if I was in some way three-dimensionally challenged. I guess the reason why that episode left a bitter after-taste is that my look wasn't the subject of the routine, which was more about Italian mothers and the absurdity of the two of us speaking in English. Of course, I was consciuous of the comic potential of that specific "turn of phrase", but I wasn't really granting the audience the license to laugh at the way I look. Now I will, I'll keep that line in my set and I'll enjoy the big laugh.

In the meantime, to the girl who shouted "that's so unfair!"... drink?

Post-preview post

Yesterday I passed an important milestone in my road to Edinburgh: I did my first public preview of the entire 30 minutes set. In the preparation to it, I felt it was an event as important as the premiere itself, since I knew I would perform in front of a probably bigger audience, many of which friends, and I knew that a failure would have taken the wind out of my sail. Fortunately it went very well, I got the laughs, I received compliments that sounded sincere and some very interesting criticism and suggestions too. Of course it wasn't perfect. This morning I realised with horror that I forgot to tell the strongest joke of my phrasal verbs routine, even if of course the audience couldn't know it. And in the second half some jokes were delivered in a less sharp way and got a smaller reception than expected. But I got the confirmation that the set holds well together and I can do half an hour without boring the audience to death, to the contrary they told me that it looked shorter... well, I recorded it and it was 25 minutes, so they had a point after all, but that isn't completely off the mark and I can add some topical material. And the ending, which I had tried only once in a "private" preview at a party and I was very worried about, seemed to work well. Now I'll listen to the recording and I'll try to fix the things that might work better, but generally speaking I feel confident. Sorry for blowing my own trumpet.

By the way, the really amazing thing of the evening was the turnout from my friends. I promised the promoter to bring at least 20 people and I was very worried, since most people don't like the idea of travelling to Stockwell, but at the end I contributed to the event with 23 guests and they were all very supportive. It really felt very nice.

Now I'll have a last, semi-private preview for a group called Italian Meetup, made of people who are studying Italian or who are Italian themeselves (even if the show will of course be in English), then up to Edinburgh. I'm really enjoying the road.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Suffering for my art

I spent a week in Southern Italy and my God if I felt a misfit! I was born and brought up in Milan but my family are from Puglia in the South, where my parents spend the summer and most of my other relatives live all year. There is a huge cultural difference between a big city in the North and a small town in the South and I have always felt an alien there. The most frequents arguments of conversation were food, money and gossip. Fortunately every now and then the subject of politics came out. Italians say that they hate politics but they can't stop talking about it. I saw a newspaper with the headline "Berlusconi bastona gli inglesi", i.e. "Berlusconi gives stick to the English" (meaning the British). The reference was to Mr B's reactions to an article in the Guardian. My father showed the headline to me and joked that I should better be careful. I said that I was preparesd to seek asylum in nearest British consulate, like a British Asian girl forced to marry a cousin in some Pakistani village.