Do you think that’s funny?
How stand-up comedy is making people laugh in Czech (and in English)
If you’re not sure what stand-up comedy means, think of Chris Rock, George Carlin, Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy. Of course, each comic has his own set of fans (as well as critics) and a stand-up comedian that you like may not be the crowd-favorite. But then again, finding out what makes you laugh is a big part of the appeal of stand-up comedy.
The Birth of Stand-Up in the Czech Republic
Until about ten years ago there was no such thing as stand-up comedy in the Czech Republic. Despite the genre’s existence in the UK and US since the 19th century, stand-up comedy was too risky for the Czech Republic. Social satire – politics, race relations and sexual humor – was okay in comedy, as long as it was well-disguised with costumes, props and other devices. To stand up in front of a live audience in a night club, dressed in plain clothes and openly joke about everyday life simply wasn’t done.
Looking for a new type of show to pique viewers’ interest in the early years of the millennium, the local HBO station decided to give Czech stand-up comedy a try. HBO producers recruited some known Czech comedic actors. They put on them on stage with a mic and started live taping. After the first taping met with positive response, HBO sent out an open casting request. Interested participants met in a bar where they each had five-minutes on stage to show they were funny. The show that emerged was called Na Stojáka or Standing Up.
Dominik Heřman Lev, a Czech stand-up who came to Na Stojáka as a comic hopeful in the second wave of shooting says, “We were all trying out our jokes for the first time. Some of us were good, some of us were pretty bad. When the show was taped, we’d be saying jokes that we'd tried only twice in front of other people.”
As the show evolved, so did the comedians and their various styles. Comic Iva Pazderková built her stand-up act Blbá blondýna (The Stupid Blond) on the persona of a dumb blond in real-life situations. Dominik tried to bring audiences a more Anglo-American model of stand-up by switching subject matter throughout his act, which, at the time, was a novel idea here.
The beginning wasn’t easy. Dominik remembers, “Czechs were used to seeing actors with props, or comedians dressed in guise, playing a role. The audience wanted a story, and people weren’t ready to switch from topic to topic like a stand-up does. In my head, I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have the technique. I had to learn how to relax and interact with the audience, which meant I needed chances to perform live.”
Na Stojáka became popular with the Czech public about the same time as YouTube was getting started, and stand-up gained followers through the success of individual comedians’ You Tube videos as much as it did the live HBO shows. Once Czech stand-ups had a following, they approached bars, clubs and coffee shops and began performing live.
Ironically, when Dominik told his friends back in the US that he was going to be on HBO, they thought he was a big celebrity, instead of just a comic starting out. Here comics were on TV before they were in front of a live audience, whereas in America a comic could spend his whole career performing in small, local clubs without ever getting on television.
Na Stojáka produced a core of 8 -12 stand-up comics who make a living doing stand-up comedy across the Czech Republic today. In addition to live comedy shows, the comics also work as moderators for shows and events.
The Truth about Stand-Up
The worst thing that can happen to a stand-up comic is to tell a joke that doesn’t work. When no one laughs at something that you thought would be funny, you start sweating and get nervous. The audience can sense if you’re afraid. Unlike acting, when doing stand-up, you can’t pretend the audience isn’t there because you need their reactions to make your jokes work. Even though it’s you in your jeans and tee-shirt, it’s still a role, but it has got to have a great deal of honesty in it. Experienced comedians agree, it’s not what you say but how you say it that makes a stand-up comic a success.
When Dominik first started performing, he remembers that he had his story written down from A-Z, including all the “whoops, ohhs and awes.” He went onstage and threw his story out there. Initially, it didn’t work that well. After time, he discovered that he actually had to relive his story like it really happened in order to create a connection with the audience.
Today, Dominik goes onstage with a basic idea, plus a few funny lines. The first time he performs new material it is half improvisation, and it works about 70%. Though the work on improving any comedy bit is ongoing, by the time he's performed the new material for about fifth time, he has the stories polished, along with the rhythm of delivery. Instead of clamming up when a joke doesn't work on stage, now he might use a gesture of grabbing a paper and pen. He might joke, "Oh, you didn't like that one, I'm crossing that one out." That's how stand-up starts, the interaction with the audience.
Instead of trying to tailor jokes for the majority, Dominik has learned to stick with material that he, himself, finds funny at this stage of his life. He says, "Not everybody will consider your topics and delivery style as their brand of humor. That also changes during one’s life span. What's hilarious to a twenty-year old most probably will not amuse a fifty-year old. But audiences can appreciate a comic who's being honest."
The Crown Comedy Club: Professional English Stand-Up Comedy in the Czech Republic
Once Czech stand-up comedy took off, Dominik began thinking about bringing professional Anglo-American style comedy in English to the Czech Republic. Although Prague had had its share of stand-up comedy nights, in the past, there was no consistency in the quality of English-language comics. An open-mic night at a local expat pub might be great or it might be a flop depending on who showed up.
The organization Crown Comedy Club was born five years ago when Dominik was approached by an agent in the UK who wanted to collaborate. The agent supplied the performers, Dominik created the name and the concept and handled all the ground level arrangements. Dominik paid for the first show himself, offering free tickets to anyone who wanted to see professional English stand-up in Prague.
Today, Crown Comedy Club brings professional stand-up comics to perform in two-hour evening shows in Prague’s Phenomen Club & Bar and Brno’s Metro Music Bar a few times a year. Each show consists of three comics, with a headline comic who draws the crowd. Since comedic styles vary, Dominik does his best to invite comics with different backgrounds. If a guest leaves the show having enjoyed at least two of the three comics, it’s a success.
Since his audience is about one-half Czech and one-half native English speakers, choosing which comedians to invite can be difficult. Dominik says, “As far as language, American and Canadian performers have the best accent. London is good, but other areas of the UK, I have to research first. There are great Scottish performers, but I can’t have them here because their accent is too difficult for Czechs, and even some Americans.”
He says, “In general, female comedians have a harder time, but in the Czech Republic we have a strong tradition of very funny female actresses – and we don’t discriminate on gender – if she’s funny, people will love her. Black comedians are also well received here. Sometimes there aren’t any Black people in the audience, but people in the Czech Republic really enjoy Black comedians.”
Crown Comedy Club’s first big act was Michael Winslow, Sgt. Larvelle “Motormouth” Jones, from the Police Academy films of the 1980s. Winslow was easy for Dominik to market; he’s funny and he’s the godfather of beat boxing. When Winslow sold out a 600-person performance in Prague in 2014, Dominik proved that he could successfully produce a bigger show.
This spring, Crown Comedy Club will host its most famous guest yet, superstar British comedian Jimmy Carr. More than 1.5 million people have seen Carr perform live. Carr delivers his jokes dressed in a suit, but his repertoire includes some of the dirtiest and most politically incorrect one-liners in stand-up, including controversial jokes about pedophiles and terrorists. Carr gives audience hecklers their money’s worth, and no material is off-limits for his edgy style. Although Carr’s 9 pm show on April 1st is sold out, tickets for his 6 pm show are on sale now at www.ts1.cz
Whether you’d like to watch a Na Stojáka artist in hopes of hearing local Czech humor, or whether you’re nostalgic for an evening with an English-speaking comic, the genre of stand-up comedy in the Czech Republic has enough diversity to keep you laughing, regardless of the language.
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