Monday, January 31, 2011

I'm dissertation material!

An Italian student, Umberto Costa, honoured me with the request of an interview for his dissertation entitled "The language of satire and its development in the era of new media (Analysis of techniques, jokes, gestures and the processes that influence the public’s mind)". He also kindly agreed for the interview to appear on this blog, so here it is. Thanks Umberto for your interest in comedy and in the opinions of the humblest of its servants.

- Hi Giacinto, tell us a bit about yourself, your studies, your travels and what brought you to comedy.

- I studied Philosophy and I have been working in IT since graduation. I have now been living in London for ten years and it's here that I started to become interested in comedy. Comedy is huge in the UK, it's bigger now than ever before, so it's almost impossible not to bump into it in a way or another. One evening I discovered by chance one of those comedy clubs in the function room of pubs and I was mesmerized. I was simply amazed by the level of energy and creativity. But at first I really struggled to understand the jokes, even if I had been living in the UK already for five or six years back then. Comedy is full of topical and cultural references, puns and exaggerated accents. So I started going to comedy clubs as a challenge and as a way to improve my English comprehension skills. With the time I started to understand more and more and so to enjoy it more and more. Meanwhile I wrote a short satirical piece, a mock anthropological study on the British tradition of the corporate Christmas party. I wanted to send it to a friend called Adrian but by mistake I sent it to the MD of the company I was working for, also called Adrien. He liked it very much so, instead of firing me, he read it in front of everybody during the actual Christmas party, getting big laughs in response. He said that he had received it from an employee, but he thought it was better non to say who that employee was. I was flattered by the response but I also felt deprived of the rightful recognition. So I thought: why not writing this kind of stuff as a stand-up material set and perform it myself? I put two and two together, the discovery of the comedy clubs scene and the discovery of my comic writing instincts. The only thing I needed was the confidence to perform, so I joined a stand-up comedy course, after which I started doing my first open spots.

- How did you chose to do comedy in English?

- I think the explanation is in my previous answer. It's in the UK that I discovered comedy, it's in the experience of being an Italian in Britain that I found my first source of inspiration and it's in the comedy clubs of London that I performed my first sets. So I can say that English is my comedic mother tongue. Actually one of the subjects that interest me is what sociologists call "reverse cultural shock", the fact that going to live abroad changes you to the point that you actually struggle to adapt back to your own country. For me a clear example of this is that I would really struggle to do comedy in Italy and particularly in Italian. I did comedy in Italy once, but it was in front of an international audience and it was in English.

- What are, in your opinion, the main differences between the Italian and the English-speaking comedy scene? Some time ago I saw an interesting discussion in which Italian culture was described as a “culture of images” while British culture was descibed as a “culture of words”. Do you agree that this is the case?

- Yes, I think that's an interesting way to put it. Once I took part to a gig where the MC asked the audience to take part to a limerick writing competition. I was staggered by the number of people who did take part and by the quality of the limericks. Can you imagine the audience of Zelig competing with each other in writing the first "stanza" of a "sonetto"? Here people are educated to play with words since they are still very young, for instance through nursery rhymes. Newspapers readerships are in the millions. It's easy to make fun of the English tabloids, but their existence is the proof of how is spread newspaper reading is across all the social classes. The reason why Italy doesn't have tabloids is not that their readers are more sophisticated, but because the kind of people who would constitute their natural market simply don't read at all. It would be very strange if this stronger focus on verbal communication and especially written communication didn't have any effect on the type of comedy that the British are able to produce and to love.

- In our exploration of satire we have analized comics such as George Carlin, Emo Philips, Ricky Gervais, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks. Has any of these inspired you or influenced your style?

- Not directly. My comedy education consisted in watching people on the London live scene, trying to learn from comedians who were just two or three steps above me and who were playings the same type of room as me. It's only recently that I have started watching the DVDs of the great masters and to go to proper theatres to see the big names.

- Regarding satire, do you think that Italy meets the right political and social conditions for satire to flourish?

- This is a difficult question. I don't think that the political situation in Italy is bad for satire, you could argue that it couldn't be better, in the sense that it couldn't be worse. What worries me is the attitude of the audience and the the influence of television. There is a predominance of character comedy and sketch comedy, often based on catch phrases. This seems to be what the audience expect because it's what they have been fed through television for ages. Here in the UK the live comedy scene is so big that most people develop their taste by watching live comedy and even TV comedy needs to imitate it in some way. In Italy, I think, it's the other way round, TV has created a taste for repetition and easily recognisable characters. There doesn't seem much room for comedians who simple say what they think, speaking as themselves. I'm not saying that you can't do satire through characters (Cetto LaQualunque is a good example), but you also need to be open to people who can challenge your patterns of thought by simply speaking their minds.

- Watching some clips from your shows I noticed that, despite your long residence abroad, you still have a strong Italian accent. Is it intentional? And what are the effects on your English-speaking audience?

- It couldn't be less intentional, it's the only accent I have got. They say that in comedy you should always address "the elephant in the room" and my accent is my elephant, along with my unpronounceable (at least for the non-Italian) name. It helps to set the scene, to introduce my themes, which are national identity and the difference between languages. And it might also make some jokes funnier. Of course the danger is not been understood, but if I stick to well rehearsed material I don't have big problems. At least not in London and during festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe. I noticed that I tend to struggle more to get a good response in provincial England and the fact that people there are less familiar with foreign accents might be one of the factors.

- Do you think that satire can evolve in this media-dominated world? Or is it stuck at tackling the same problems in the same ways?

- I'm a great believer in the superiority of the live scene, where comedians are really free and where audience responses are really spontaneous. In Britain it's possible to make a good living as a comedian without ever appearing on television, which is something that in Italy and in many other places is probably not possible. This restricts freedom, since of course television has much stricter rules and is more conditioned by politics and business. But you don't need to make a living out of comedy, for instance I don't. I hope that in Italy and everywhere else people will set comedy clubs in bars, schools, restaurants and so on just like people here in Britain do in pubs, charging few euros or nothing at all and enjoying the total freedom that comes with this kind of choice. As I said, what worries me most is the question on whether the audience are actually ready for this.

- What are your project for the immediate future?

- I'll keep doing short sets in comedy clubs and I'll do something longer during the Brighton Fringe in May and the Edinburgh Fringe in August. I'll probably share the bill with one or two comedians in both cases though, I did solo shows in Edinburgh for two years in a row and I need a break. At least if you do the show with other people you can share the chores, such as flyering, which in Edinburgh is a crucial task. And I hope that the interaction with other comedians might also stimulate my creativity, as well as being good fun. Let's see.

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