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Do Estonians laugh? Comedy in Estonia

If you’ve lived in Estonia, or if you’re coming to visit and you’ve read about local culture, then you’ll know that laughing (or any emotion) in not at the top of a locals list of things to do. Even a courteous hello seems a struggle. So when I tell you that stand up comedy is fast becoming a big scene here, it might put a smile on your face.

I didn’t know Estonians like to keep an eye on what is going on in the rest of the world, so when I first came here ten years ago, I was quite surprised to hear that many people I spoke to, had heard about the comedians that I so much loved to listen to back in England.

I remember when I had just moved here, that I took a DVD player that I brought across from the UK to be repaired (I think it was either the frozen temperature in the planes hold, or the -35 degree temperature on the Tallinn streets that broke it). Turns out there was a disk stuck inside it, and when the engineer took it apart and popped out the DVD, it was a copy of “Fawlty Towers”.

Fawlty Towers

I looked a bit embarrassed and muttered something about English comedy not making the transition from the UK to Estonia, but the guys face lit up and for about the next ten minutes, he recounted every episode, quoting Waldorf Salad, recounting Manuel’s “I’m from Barcelona” speech, and screaming “Ze Germanzs” at the top of his voice. I did everything I could to stop him doing a silly walk around the shop.

There’s comedy on Estonian TV. The problem is, that it’s a bit old. Most mornings it’s quite easy to tune into the 80’s American sitcom “the Nanny”. If you’re looking for a bit of classic British humour, then around 7pm you’ve got a choice of 90’s favourites “Last of the Summer Wine”, or “Keeping Up appearances”. So in order to get the most up to date comedians on screen, Estonians turn to something else that makes them smile – surfing the internet.

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Louis CK, Ricky Gervais “The Office” and Chris Rock are very well known. Dylan Moran and Bill Bailey almost set a trend for making books cool again. Chatting to Estonians, I realised that they knew much more about current comedy than I did. And I’m English. We invented comedy. Embarrassed, I went home and clued myself up on the latest comedians. After watching a few episodes of Jeeves and Wooster of course.

But there’s nothing quite like seeing a live performance. I’d never really heard of live stand up comedy in Tallinn before, and doing a bit of investigation, I realised that it did exist, but mostly in the cabaret, variety style aspect. “Making a night of it” involved a late evening trip to Viru hotel to watch some live acts of music, dance groups, magic shows and a bit of comedy thrown in for good measure. All good natured stuff, with not a swear word in sight. Plus a potato salad (not a Waldorf) during the intermission.

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Someone else had the same problem as me. An Aussie guy who had moved to Tallinn in 2010, quickly realised that there must be more to entertain the crowds than wife carrying and jumping over bonfires. He set about gathering a group of like minded individuals, and with mic and jokes in hand, began to get these to perform in Tallinn and Tartu bars. At first it was a whisper. Hard core fans of stand up who had got bored of watching gigs on 13” screens came. To the next show they brought their friends, and soon the bars were full of around one hundred comedy fans each looking forward to the monthly performances.

One of those places was a pub I was managing at the time. I quickly realised we had a problem. It was a small place, and the definition of “stand up comedy” isn’t meant to mean literally that. We didn’t have a stage, so the comedians took turns on a coffee table in front of a standing crowd. The atmosphere was raw, intense and heated. Just trying to get to the bar was a joke in itself. Louis also shared this concern, albeit a nice one.

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Just like me, he totally underestimated the Estonian desire for humour, and now his audience were getting too big for the venues. Rather than scrap the small shows completely, he put on monthly shows at a bigger venue with bigger audiences. The smaller shows were kept for new, upcoming local talent, where the bigger shows featured head-liners from Finland and beyond, with a duo hosting the whole evening. I’m not sure there was potato salad at half time, but the event had a much more professional look which garnered new fans.

And that’s how it all began. A company called “Comedy Estonia” was founded, and pretty soon they were hosting weekly open mic shows in bars and pubs, monthly shows in bigger venues, and one off “big star” shows in theatres.  We’ve had two of the guys I mentioned in my opening paragraphs – Dylan Moran and Billy Bailey, plus luminaries such as Eddie Izzard and Jimmy Carr.

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I’d still say though, despite getting these famous guys to Estonia in a relatively short space of time, comedy (both performing and learning to laugh at it) is still being learnt  here. There’s a nice stable group of comedians who go through their throws at every town in Estonia, but sometimes you’ve heard their jokes before. Then there’s the few who decide to take the risk and perform at an open mic night. Invariably these guys are so bad it’s funny. The problem is, many of these don’t come back for a second gig. They didn’t like getting laughed at and decided to go back to their job at (delete as appropriate) Skype/Transferwise/Startup.

A few stick to it, and are generally pretty promising. I heard a girl tell a joke that actually made me clap (those that know me, know that I’m not one for laughing like a drunken hyena at everything). She told the audience, that her mother had visited her in Tallinn, and said that she was going to visit the Estonian institution for jobs. When she asked her mother where that was, her mother told her that she should look up the Occupation Museum on a map. Funny. Problem was that the girl who told this was American. Why couldn’t an Estonian come up with that joke?

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I’ll tell you why. It’s because Estonians think differently about comedy. In the same way that Michael Jackson had every episode of Benny Hill on loop at his Neverland cinema.

Some good examples of this have been recent shows I’ve been to. Last year, A comedian who apparently is a big name in Ireland, Tommy Tiernan, decided to throw his script out of the window, and do a whole two hour show in Tallinn based on the experiences he had of the country. And that summed up to four hours walking round the city. With an hour for lunch. And an hour to find some New Balance trainers. Must be New Balance he said, had to be New Balance.

Fortunately he found a place in Estonia selling this brand, and managed to purchase a pair. The ironic thing now is, that every fucker who comes to a stand up show wears NB trainers, and it’s impossible not to find a shop not selling them. Anyway, he died a little. His lyrical Celtic ramblings and insights were lost on the audience. Where was the punchline we’ve heard Louis CK do? Where’s the clever interplay of music and comedy that Bill Bailey does? Why can’t we hear the filth that Jimmy Carr spouts? Why is he wearing New Balance instead of high heels?

This week, I went to the Dylan Moran show. He’s been described as the new Oscar Wilde, but looking and hearing him, I’d say he’s more like the new Oscar the Grouch. Middle aged man problems narrated with a bottle of wine might be right up my street, but for the majority of the twenty something crowd, there was no connection. “This is not funny!” one heckler shouted. I got it, but I also understood why some others didn’t.

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I grew up on Derek and Clive s swearing and bumbling through stories. I’m a middle aged man with many of Dylan’s problems myself, but I think maybe he could have tuned into the crowd a bit more. I suspect he realised this himself, when at one point he looked at his watched and asked “how long have I been trying?”

One contrasting comedian that came here last week, and actually inspired me to write this blog, was a young Scottish lad called Daniel Sloss. He came with his house mate and fellow comedian Kai Humphries and they had an absolute ball. Start the evening off with a curry and a some beers before the show, meet and great fans over a few naan breads. Get on stage and make the audience laugh about things they can really engage with. Daniel got so into his crowd, and vice versa, that he over ran the show by fourty five minutes. And no one wanted him to end.

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Afterwards, more beers, more hugs and photos with fans. It’s ironic that his opening jokes were about him being intellectually challenged. I couldn’t disagree more. This is a twenty five year old who is destined for big things, simply because he can adapt his set for his crowd. You need to do that sort of thing in Estonia, and it’s a clever person who can spot that. Tommy Tiernan is back in a couple of weeks. I wonder if he’ll ditch his New Balance in favour of some new material?

Reading back, I’ve realised that although Estonians do sometimes find it hard to smile, there is in fact a lot to smile about in this country when it comes to comedy. A huge, diverse range of international acts are performing here now, when only five years ago it was an Aussie on a coffee table. And you know, I wouldn’t want the audience to change. Sometimes an established comedian needs to face a brick wall in order to get over it. Certainly the young comedians cutting their teeth here know it, and I’d like to think it makes them work harder to be funny. No one laughs at arrogance in this country – it makes Estonians feel insecure, because they thought they were more arrogant than you.

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If you haven’t been to a show yet, then think about. The great thing is, that if you don’t find it funny, you don’t have to be embarrassed about not laughing. Most of the people who are enjoying themselves are quiet. But the ones that really do laugh, really laugh. And I mean laugh. Hearty, rolling on the floor, back slapping laughter. It finally dawned on me why this is. It’s a kind of therapy. For thirty days of the month quiet job, quiet family, quiet friends, quiet social life. One night of the month, comedy night – BANG! Let it all out. People are crying with laughter. I’ve often wondered why the most expensive seats aren’t a group of chaise lounge nearest to the stage.

So if you need some therapy, and there’s nothing on TV but an old Monty Python film, then I’d certainly recommend you get down to one of the many shows that are performing in Estonia. Or better still, have a go yourself. Don’t worry – they won’t laugh at you.

Written by James Ramsden

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