THE EXPANDING BORSCHT BELT

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By Rory Winston

In the mid-70’s, comedian Robert Klein in a set recalled how frustrating it was to watch early Borscht Belt comics: ‘Each joke came with a ‘beauty of a lead-in’ only to succumb to an incomprehensible Yiddish punch-line. Translating these show-stopper phrases was impossible since they often amounted to no more than an idiomatic nuance whose meaning – or absurd lack thereof – was hidden under a catena of cultural associations.’

Klein’s observation was astute: whereas visual arts such as film could be dubbed and subtitled, and songs could rely on their music to transcend linguistic boundaries, stand-up comedy could not survive cultural transplant. The main reason being: it was an art form integrally bound to the presence of its creator. With highly idiosyncratic rhythms, allusions as advanced as those found in poetry, and personal gestures integrally bound to the material, it could not – like a play – thrive in translation or even reinterpretation.

Though a few multilingual comics like the British Eddie Izzard have ventured into foreign territories, most Anglo Saxon circuits were limited to North American-British crossings. Still, the inconceivable was happening. Youtube was creating a new Borscht Belt Circuit, one that included all of Europe.

Not far from the birthplace of Borscht itself, Helsinki recently hosted UK headliner Michael McIntyre and Jeff Green, Australian Brendon Burns, and Canadian Stewart Francis. Of course, the Finnish season’s icebreaker was our very own Pablo Francisco – who together with his supporting act, Flip Schultz – managed to sellout 4 theatre-sized shows. The audience – ranging on average from 17 to 26 year olds did not differ greatly from Francisco’s home crowd.

Mouthing along with the invisible bouncing ball of Pablo’s more renowned sets, the internet savvy crowd went from groupie-like adulation to connoisseur-like approbation over the course of one hour.

Undeniably, Pablo’s oeuvre is at the forefront of border-crossing comedy. As the over-the counter version of a counter-mass media voice of a generation, Pablo is able to briskly romp from imitation to critical social commentary to dazzling sound effects in a hectic matter of seconds. With frenetic pace, Pablo’s Helsinki gig had him whirling through his ‘Baritone Movie Trailer Voice’ shtick and winging his way through a Hell’s-sinki Angels convention. Revving his engines, it was the crowd that roared as the comedian side-stepped imaginary trams whose sounds he vividly reproduced.

If Helsinki’s response was anything to go by, American comics may indeed have stumbled upon a new and thriving Borscht Belt circuit. And if the few local talents were anything to go by, the next upcoming minority comic in the states could easily be a Finn Swede. “Isn’t that somewhere in Queens?” – the comic Flip Schultz mused.

Interviews with the three comics

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PABLO FRANCISCO:

Entertaining crowds since the age of 17, the Tuscon born son of Chilean parents had worked his way through Comedy Central’s Make Me Laugh, Short Attention Span Theater and Mad TV.

R: Is it the TV and film work that accounts for most of your success with audiences abroad?

PF: The TV and film stuff (in Keanu Reeves voice) – Yah sure it’s great but like it’s not what accounts for most of my… umm… my success… yah, that’s the word. (Pablo cleared his throat in Looney Tunes fashion) Most of my fans here (Finland) know me from Youtube.

R: So for you free downloads on Youtube, are more publicity than money loss?

PF: Well, unlike record labels, I don’t consider those downloads a threat… people still want to see the full act and they don’t watch Youtube as replacement for what’s live. Internet is more like a contemporary ‘word-of-mouth’. I mean, do you remember those idiotic guys that went to parties and did really bad replays of a comedian’s sets like “and then the guy did this crazy face like… this” – well, luckily, we no longer have to go to parties where people recount a comic’s act. Nowadays they just say – ‘hey man, check out Youtube – and they give you an address and that’s it.

R: Your act seems to take real life experiences you have and then put them in the guise of caricature film personas and sound effects.

PF: It’s the way most of us see life. No one lives their own life purely… somehow we are all affected, infected, inflected, whatever (in his favorite bimbo-bitch voice) by the thriller-suspense-horror-action movie figures we grew up watching…Suuuoh, it’s like we all kinna have our own blockbuster moments going through our heads – reverting to normal) only most of them involve daily things that happen to us like buying a hot dog from the wrong street vendor or singing karaoke while trying to impress a hot stripper who couldn’t give a shit… so imagine if they made Hollywood trailers of our own lives and then you get the idea of what I’m going for.
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FLIP SCHULTZ:

Unlike Pablo’s work, Flip’s own repertoire did not rely on globally familiar pop cultural associations. He was in fact an underdog in many ways. Few – if any – even knew him.

Eschewing both impersonations and sound effects, Flip did not astonish audiences with grandiose voice modulations. Nor did he rely upon the Pablo trademark of having multiple personalities carry on a simultaneous conversation. In fact, Flip’s brand of humor favored observational humor. Neither pandering to the ‘readily available TV and film crowd’ nor to the Euro-trendy ‘let’s make fun of how dumb President Bush is’ set, Flip did what his own idols like Howie Mandel, and Steve Martin had done for ages. He made intimate contact with the audience.

And, the reserved Nordic crowd – reared mostly on performers who refrained from breaking the performer/audience barrier – adored the transgression. At times, one was hard put to tell if Flip’s material had been conceived just the night before. He had clearly gone to the trouble of familiarizing himself with the city’s women.

R: Much of your material seemed based upon particulars observed about the local audience. Do you manage this everywhere you go?

FS: I always write new stuff. Didn’t you see what I did to the heckler? You missed the heckler? – Hey, can you keep it down.
(Flip’s last comment was directed to my photographer who had been mutely taking shots for over 10 minutes).

R: How did you end up touring Scandinavia?

FS: Last year was the first time Pablo took me along with him. It was to Stockholm. I mean, it’s a pretty new phenomenon that US stand-up comics are getting foreign non-English speakers for an audience. And did you see the size of the theatre? For me to get an entire hour in that kind of venue – that really is something.

R: As opposed to…?

FS: This is a capital city… I mean of a whole country not a state. In New York or LA, new guys barely even get a place to practice. They go on for like 10 minutes next to big comics. In Miami – where I started – it was a bit better. I got lots of practice in small clubs. But not like this. And what surprised me the most was how little I specially had to cater my material to the culture. They all get it. Okay, I removed a few overt American pop-cultural references but in general… hey, I’d have to remove a lot more if I was playing Alabama.

R: How many foreign comics did you get see growing up?

FS: We’re more an export country obviously… so basically Very few. Well, Monty Python reruns… does that count? Guess not. It’s not exactly stand-up. Okay, yah, Billy Connelly – once. On TV. I’m familiar with British playwrights – I mean that’s what I studied… but not their stand-up.

R: Have you done monologues or characters yourself… I mean in the vein of Eric Bogosian or..?

FS: Like Leguizamo? No. I mean I’d love to be able to pull off a 2 hour show like that, but I do only stand-up. I’m not an alcoholic, I’m not a drug user, my parents weren’t abusive – I had this boring fucking life so it doesn’t really keep people enthralled for that long a period. Besides, I’m not so much that raconteur stuff. I also don’t do the monologue art bits. There’s a lot of that going on in LA. I like to separate writing something for the theatre and doing stand-up.

R: I take it you’re not a big fan of Performance art passing itself off as comedy?

FS: The kind of stand-up that pretends to have been art all along – especially after it doesn’t make you laugh? Don’t get me started. That’s like half the actors from Julliard who decide ‘why not do comedy’ in a very abstract way, of course. My own mentors were a lot simpler. I took classes with Shelly Berman, saw Joan Rivers in the Fountain Blue, and watched Jackie Mason eat a bagel while advising me how to get screams from a nursing home crowd. They’re basic premise was – it has to be funny, and it doesn’t have to rely on cheap gags or cursing. Observational humor, you know. Then I met Pablo Francisco. And he had that fresh feel – like Robin Williams does. He was the kind of guy who looks like half of its spontaneous and like he’s having loads of fun himself. Anyway, he was kind enough to ask me to join him as a support act for The Improv in LA… Now years later, he asked me to join him again on this tour.

R: Are you planning to do return gigs in Europe?

FS: Are you kidding? As many as possible… these are grateful and large crowds in serious theatres. It makes me feel like Richard Pryor in Vegas. Like a rock star from a different world. The only thing is I feel like telling everyone back home but am tempted not tell anyone… I mean, these are great venues and I think me and Pablo should keep them all to ourselves. Alone. Ours. Sharing is for pussies. Really, I’ve done my share of toiberty hoiberty (sic) University circuit before…and this is like a general audience with nearly the same educational level as that. And that is great. Besides, we get a chance to meet lots of local comics too – like the guy who opened for us.
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ANDRE WIKSTRÖM

With mannerisms more akin to Jarvis Cocker than a young Woody Allen, Andre Wikström the foremost innovator on the Finnish stand-up scene introduced himself – oversized glasses and all.

R: What’s the stand-up scene like in Finland?

AW: Just a few years back there was no stand-up comedy to speak of in Finland. Not visiting… and not our own. Till then it was more like vaudeville, Cabaret, Benny Hill – without self-irony.

R: What got you interested in Stand-up?

AW: The lack of interest in everything else. I mean, I was studying acting. And it wasn’t very interesting – especially the fact that I couldn’t alter the lines that these dull characters (me) were saying. Besides that, there was incentive to do other things: Eddie Murphy’s video Raw and Stand-up from Sweden was available… I knew they were doing something that I wanted to do here.”

R: To observe things in your society like they do in theirs?

AW: Hell no. In those days, I just wanted to steal what they did. My main influences at the time were George Carlin and Eddie Murphy… Okay, they weren’t actually influences – they were more like victims. I stole. In those days it was easy. No Youtube. No one could check. Also imitation is the best form of flattery, right? So plagiarism must be even more flattering – no?
They influenced me a great deal. In Finland they think Swedes like me are all homos anyway. So that made me kind of like a black man in LA. Bad try? Never mind then. Anyway, my own background is from a Swedish speaking Finn family. That was our mother tongue. Actually, when they first asked me to do stand-up here, my brother had to translate my material and I
memorized it because I didn’t speak any Finnish

R: What about research trips abroad and performing your work for other audiences?

AW: Yes, certainly, it’s what I am doing. I mean I was asked to do a TV show here – it ran already a few seasons with relatively good success… but they never quite found the budget or free-wheeling process that I had envisioned. I wanted more of the team writing energy they had on shows like SNL or Mad TV or what everyone classically refers to as the Sid Caesar show – it was the springboard for major talents like Woody Allen, Alan Sherman, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and countless others. It gave birth to a whole new approach – an apprenticeship program from where new young comics can develop.
For my own show I wanted to scout stand-up personalities more than actors. As fortune would have it of course, I have recently been invited many times to perform stand-up in Sweden… There, at least, I am surrounded by the kind of humor I grew up listening to. Of course, in Sweden I am usually playing on the Finn Swede thing – meaning that I am able to represent Finnish stereotypes in Swedish language. We are laughing at me – at my Finnishness. In Finland, it is very different, we’re laughing at my Swedishness.

R: Do you travel elsewhere?

AW: Yes, I regularly go to New York to scout new talents and hear new material… I always learn something. And if not, at least I have a good laugh at an educational expense. My own forte is storytelling, anyway. I tell humorous tales…

R: Like Woody Allen?

AW: No, it’s really flattering being asked about such an icon but honestly no – I am not that intellectual nor that abstract and my method is based on far more classical repetitions. I mean new comics and old comics – they are different but still rely on many of the same techniques. Woody Allen doesn’t. So you see… it’s just my glasses.

R: Comedy Promoter Meeting the spokesman of the Helsinki Laugh Riot organization… How did you successfully market such US-circuit comics?

LR: Our audience loves this stuff. We didn’t advertise. Not a single newspaper even wrote about it not even as an upcoming event. Nevertheless, we sold out to full houses every night. Best advertisement went by word of mouth – through chatgroups and myspaces. The fact is these kids checked their computers and they waited in front of the ticket offices – sometimes sleeping there the night before – just to get a ticket to these shows.

R: So, in this part of the world, comics were indeed rock stars.

LR: It’s the Youtube generation alright”, he continued; “They simply google up an incoming name and decide for themselves if they want to see the act. They rely on no local experts to tell them what’s good… they go to the source. It’s a pretty healthy way to bypass the behind-the-times reviewers.”

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