The rise of the European comedians performing in English

Europeans are appropriating the English language, just for the laughs

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“Wait, what did he say?”

Your partner stops the stand-up comedy show you’re watching. You did not understand either. The accent was too strong. Or maybe it was a reference to an American personality you don’t know about. You go back 15 seconds to listen to it again.

“It is a joke about the lack of healthcare in the US.”
– “Oh, about that, again?”

Funny but not funny. How it is possible that the most advanced economy in the world is lagging behind so much in social protection? You wonder if there would be a way to enjoy comedy with themes, references and performers closer to home.

Here it is. 

European Comedy, level 1

A Frenchman, an Englishman, and a Spaniard walk into a bar.
The bartender says: “Is this some kind of joke?”

In its most basic form, European humour seems to be about making fun of the neighbours. There’s even a Wikipedia page on the topic titled: “An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman”, and it lists other regional variations:

  • In Finland, land of the joyful, they go: “A Finn, a Swede, and a Dane…

  • In Poland: “A Pole, a German, and a Russian…” A history lesson! 

  • In Spain, Portugal, Italy and Bulgaria, they all refer to the French and the English as their foes. Go wonder.

United in (making fun of) Diversity

You reach “European Comedy, Level 2” once you enter a gift shop in Brussels and you find this classic poster.

"The Perfect European should be" poster, showing a cartoon of each of the 15 European nationalities in 1995 together with their stereotypes.

We have left behind the “rule of three” and now go make fun of all the EU15. EU27. EU28. EU27 again. Because size (of a country) doesn’t matter. There’s always something funny to be told of you, even if you’re small (No, not if you’re Liechtenstein, there’s a limit to everything. Oh, wait, did I hear the Vatican?).

The “Perfect European” poster is a thing from the past.

  • It was drawn by a British cartoonist, called John N. Hughes-Wilson. He had previously drawn a version for NATO members, from where he reused some stereotypes.

  • There are only 15 countries depicted. This poster was not updated when the Eastern Europe countries joined the EU in 2004.

  • Men are the main characters. Women are secondary. United in the diversity of the white man.

Let’s fast-forward to the present. We have two options to move ahead.

We can go down the rabbit hole of the local jokes, pitting country against country, in a confrontation in which there will only be losers, from which Europe will emerge as the sum of its nationalities making fun of each other.

Or we can look at Europe as a whole, to see if there’s anything funny about it, if at all. Behold Europe! The institutional, the boring, the grey, the scapegoat for everything bad that happens at national level! What can be funny about it? (Except, maybe, for Jean-Claude Junker’s tenancy as President of the European Commission).

If you have been here before, you know this is where we like to go, the European way. Because the downside of making jokes about individual European countries is that it’s too easy… (wait for it)… to cross the border.

Researching European comedians

We have carried out an extensive research operation trying to establish if there’s something such as “European Humour” (or “European Comedy, Level 3”).

Our methodology has been heavily data-based: we have ingested hours and hours of comedy sketches, wasting several weeks of our life that could have been more productively used for anything else (and now that you’re here, we’re going to waste yours, too).

By the way, have you considered becoming a paying contributor of The European Perspective? Be serious, support our work!

Our careful sampling is based on the following criteria:

  • There are many great European comedians who perform in their native language. Well, all those are out. No more Babel Europe, we have retained only the comedians who perform in English.

  • Then, we confronted the masters of comedy, the British. Who are not so keen on being European. So we threw in some politics and left them out as well.

This is our niche: European comedians performing in English. After having added such strong constraints, is anybody out there?

Our top European comedians performing in English

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to tonight’s show, European Comedy at its best! Clear a full hour from your schedule, sit back, relax, and enjoy the short videos that we have carefully (and scientifically?) curated for you.

Let’s start in Australia. If they join Eurovision, why not European Comedy too?

Anthony Locascio

Meet Anthony Locascio: born down under from a Greek and Italian family. Here he explains how he realised he was an “ethnic” kid.

Even though he’s from the future, he found time to talk with us (he lives 9 hours in the future, in Sydney’s time zone). We asked him if what he did could be called “European Comedy”, and he gave us something to think about: the potential reductionism of the term “European Perspective”.

“Australia is such a big country, but very similar. Whereas in Europe, Southern Europe is so different from Northern Europe. And within Southern Europe, Spain is so different to Portugal, to France, to Greece. Labelling comedy as “European” is not helpful to me, it doesn’t make justice to the richness of each country.”

Would he like to perform in Europe?

“I want to perform in Greece. I speak good Greek and Italian, but the show would be in English. There’s a different level of slang. You need to understand well the current local culture. I know it would be hard.”

However, as his videos are online, he has already reached a global audience.

“It’s a double-edged sword. A lot of my material is for Greeks and Italians living in Australia. But when you go on the Internet, you get everything: people accusing you of perpetuating negative stereotypes, and others that love it. Nevertheless, I have a good audience in Greece and Italy.”

Not bad for our first European gig!

Let’s go back to Europe. Let’s go back to the UK (wait, what?)

Luisa Omielan

Luisa Omielan is not just another Englishwoman from Poland. Buckle up your listening skills because she’s fast.

Luisa has been doing comedy for more than a decade. Three of her specials are available on her YouTube channel, together with the teaser of the latest one, “God is a Woman”, produced by herself. She has done a series for BBC (“Politics for bitches”), she’s running a podcast, and last but not least, she had time to talk with The European Perspective.

In the clip we have selected, she takes on migration with the joke “don’t blame us for the influx”. In her podcast, she says that she is not doing it that much today. Why?

“The Polish people that I was referring to are no longer in the UK, because of Brexit. I’m so frustrated with the UK.”

She was recently on a 3-month tour in Europe. She performed in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Poland. In what she defines as an experiment, she stayed for 1 week in each place, joined open-mic performances, and rounded it up with her own show.

“Whenever I arrived somewhere, I looked for a comedy club. I never feel alone in a comedy club. I observed the other performers while finding the appropriate rhythm and language for the place.”

That experimental tour went well, and she has shows programmed in Paris and Barcelona in the near future. She’s aware that her European public has English as their second language, but she’s very optimistic about this scene.

“I’ve found that in Europe, the audience appreciates one-person shows, especially one-woman shows. Comedy in English seems to be on the rise. Everywhere I performed, it felt much like the exciting early days of a new scene developing.”

Luca Cupani

Luca Cupani is an Italian that moved to London to make a living in comedy, got comfortable, and, plot twist, became British too. And it’s not that he was unaware of Brexit! Let’s hear his take on it.

The concept of “European Comedy” hits close to home for Luca. Maybe that’s why he agreed to talk with us at 8 AM from the airport before going on tour. He has performed in many European countries and can venture opinions on the concept.

“European Comedy feels like a community between the performers and the public, most of them using English as their second language. It’s distinct from British humour. Many in the audience are expats, open-minded, they like to laugh about themselves.”

In the UK he’s the Italian, in Italy the Londoner. But if he had to perform, for instance, in Spain, how would he prepare?

“I think I would keep most of my topics, playing on the similarities between Spain and Italy. What I would need is 1-2 weeks beforehand in the place to avoid being stereotypical.”

He seems to want to jump in the pool of European Comedy in English. Is there water?

“To start with, the label just works. There’s no overlap in material between European comedians performing in English, and quality-wise, we’re getting better. I think that, as we do it, we’re trying to define ourselves, and finding our voice.”

But beware. Luca has co-created a brand called “Comedians of Europe”, with 12 performers from all over the continent. Of course, he would say that! And of course, we would agree with him!

Comedians of Europe

Luca Cupani, from Italy. André de Freitas, from Portugal. George Zacharopoulos, from Greece. Remember? It’s the setup from our opening joke! An Italian, a Portuguese, and a Greek walk into a bar… but it’s closed because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

So they do what everyone else did: meet online, share their knowledge and experience, create a network… (now it gets interesting) …exchange their contacts in comedy clubs, ask other comedians to join, and register a company in the Czech Republic to operate from there.

Are you looking for a special gig for your corporate event? If you can find them, maybe you can hire them: Comedians of Europe.

Screenshot of the website of Comedians of Europe

For a taster, see George Zacharopoulos, explaining why he’s stuck with that Greek accent, even after having lived in the UK for 17 years, and André de Freitas, talking about the melting pot of cultures that London is.

We’re on a spree! European Comedy is a thing! We’re rocking it! Let’s now listen to the European Comedian that nearly died on a tour, and now she doesn’t do “stand-up” comedy any more because she is on a wheelchair.

Katerina Vrana

Hold your horses about the previous paragraph, it was her own joke😉. In our conversation, we reviewed the concept of “European Comedy” following a sort of geographical order.

Katerina gave us this outline of what it means to be a European Comedian towards “the world”:

“I think that there’s a European stance on humour, like a European way of being in the world. The way Europe makes fun of the US is different from how the UK does it. Also, Europe is old, so everyone knows something about European culture or landmarks, and this underpins the cultural differences.

With her experience in Greece and the UK, she can frame how it is to do comedy “from Europe to Europe”:

“Europeans know a lot about each other’s countries. We travel a lot in the continent. We can go beyond the stereotypes and break them down. And then, of course, you get laughs about Eurovision in every country.”

In London, she has had the opportunity to perform regularly. She highlights this insight about being a European Comedian “in London”:

“The audience that got me the most were the foreigners that came to London. I had the best time performing for them.”

And what about performing home? A Greek, European Comedian “in Greece”:

“Greece is still quite conservative. It’s a smaller country, and the mentality is that if you have a disability, it has to stay hidden. The show, called “Staying Alive (I nearly died, you know)” is my story told from the wheelchair, and I was concerned about the reception. But it has been very successful. Nearly dying made me super famous in Greece. If had known about it, I would have done it sooner!”

Katerina hopes that she can champion the needed reforms in Greece to make cities more accessible. She feels the attitudes are changing.

In 2012, Katerina delivered the talk at TEDxThessaloniki “Stereotypes – funny because they’re true”. She went back to the same stage 7 years later, on a wheelchair, staying alive, always a comedian.

Just scratching the surface

The European comedians that we have featured wanted to share their story with us. As we investigated the topic, many more names came up. You might have your favourites, please let us know about them!

Here are other European comedians that we think you can’t miss.

Jen Brister comes from Brighton, but her mum is from Spain (pronounced: EHS-PAIN). How can it be to live with a Spanish mother in the UK?

Christian Schulte-Loh is a funny German. The only one! (Yeah, we copied the joke from his website. Sue us, Christian!). Writing the European Perspective is a good way to learn new things. For instance, the meaning of the word “heckle” (when you interrupt a speaker). Here’s “the best heckle ever”.

Ari Eldjárn is a Nordic comedian, but of a different kind. The kind that has a Netflix special (Pardon my Icelandic!). Instead of an excerpt from that show, we give you Ari improvising in the British comedy show “Mock the Week”, where he had to talk about “travel”.

Matteo Lane is an Italian and Mexican comedian in the US. He likes to interact with the audience a lot. Labelling Matteo’s humour as “European” might be a bit of a stretch, but the topics covered in this video relate very much to the crossroads of cultures that Europe is.

Ismo Leikola, from Finland a.k.a. Comedyland, tackles a topic close to the heart of those who speak English a second language, which is, well, English itself.

Find a comedy club next to you

While writing this piece, we have understood that comedians don’t like very much to post videos of their performances, for two reasons: other performers might steal their jokes, and they make a living not from YouTube, but from show tickets.

So the videos that you have seen are relatively old. Comedians keep improving and developing new material. A video from 5 years ago might not make justice to the current performance.

All this to say: go see them live if you have the opportunity.

European comedy performed in English is taking place in clubs all over Europe. The main cities would be London, Berlin and Brussels, but in any big city you will find events.

In Berlin, the place to be is the “Cosmic Comedy Club“, where they will regularly feature comedians in their own languages (Portuguese, Polish, Spanish are currently programmed).

In Vienna, the Vienna Comedy Club programs English shows on Friday and Sunday. This is the only women-run comedy club in Austria.

In Barcelona, The Comedy Clubhouse offers English comedy shows every night. In their line-up of resident comedians, there are several European performers.

In Brussels, the location might change, but the website to check is “English Comedy Brussels“. We talked with Xavier, who has been for the last 10 years in charge of bringing English-speaking comedians to the European capital, many of which would be European themselves.

“The Brussels scene is a very particular one. While in other cities (including Antwerp) there will be a lot of locals in the audience, and some foreigners, in Brussels almost every one is a foreigner.”

This is international Brussels. People from all corners of Europe and beyond, most of them highly educated, with English as their second language, as we saw earlier.

“When I’m looking for a performer, I have to leave out those with strong accents, because my audience would not understand them. Also, if their sets have too many local jokes, that would not work either.”

As an “English-as-a-second-language” speaker myself, I feel better now about not understanding the natives.

European comedians often perform in Brussels. If you happen to be there on November 21st, Xavier has programmed Luca Cupani and Katsura Sunshine, in a combination of stand-up comedy and the Japanese storytelling art called Rakugo. Tickets are available here.

The most challenging comedy of all

We will close with a company which does “comedy with a purpose”. They’re on a mission to make fun of European politics, while explaining how it works: it’s education and entertainment. Enter “The Schuman Show“.

“We want to demystify “Brussels” and European politics. Together with the political content, there are human dynamics. Human nature is funny, politicians and their egos as well. Doing comedy around this is difficult, but not impossible. And yes, we choose to do it not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard!”

These are the words of Kelly Agathos (co-founder, director, writer and host) and Tristan Barber (writer and performer), part of the team at The Schuman Show. They have experience both in performing arts and in EU politics. They guided us through the creative process that allows them to come up with new material every month, following the EU news.

“It’s very dynamic, it has to be. Right after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we changed some jokes the day before our show. In our writer’s room, we constantly discuss where’s the line, what’s appropriate. Once, we did a fake advertisement about the EU trying to prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean by providing financial support to Libya’s coast guard. We made sure the satire was focused on EU policy, not making light of the situation of vulnerable people.”

Is this an “Eurobubble” thing? Can they perform outside Brussels?

“We want to get out of the bubble. There’s no easy answer for how to do that yet, but maybe if we’re on the road, we should link more with local politics. The feedback that we’re receiving now from online viewers all over Europe is positive, and it makes us feel very good.”

Let’s wrap up with the question that underpins this whole article: is there such a thing as European humour?

“Our team is very diverse in terms of types of humour. More than nationality, we see differences in the individualities. Some people in our team like absurd humour, some others dry, and some others pay more attention to the mainstream. In our shows, we combine all that.

Our last video entry for today is about a job interview to become an assistant to a Member of the European Parliament. For those not familiar with the EU bubble, the way in which the politician is depicted is not too far from reality…

You read it first here

By filtering out other types of comedy, we have identified a niche which is poised to grow. European Comedy in English is on the rise.

European Comedians are working hard, listening to their audiences, adapting their performances, finding their voice, opening up a new scene across the continent. They are doing what is needed to succeed.

As this genre evolves, remember that you read about it first at The European Perspective.

Now you can take a second to share this article mentioning your favourite performance. Thanks for reading and watching!

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Comments

6 responses to “The rise of the European comedians performing in English”

  1. Lorcan Lyons avatar
    Lorcan Lyons

    The Greek one was the best! Most of the videos didn’t work for me though, just a white square where the clip should be

    1. Rafa Font avatar

      Katerina Vrana is amazing. I really enjoyed talking with her.

      Can you share your browser setup? In Firefox it seems to run OK from my side.

      1. Lorcan Lyons avatar
        Lorcan Lyons

        Actually I’m in the substack app on my iPhone

        1. Rafa Font avatar

          I’m going to assume that this is an issue with the Substack App. After all, I just inserted a YouTube link in the text editor.

  2. Lorcan Lyons avatar
    Lorcan Lyons

    Actually for a follow-up, you could do anglophone comedians attempting shows in other European languages – Eddie Izzard is the most famous but I think a few others have tried

    1. Rafa Font avatar

      I was not aware of this, thanks!

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