Adam Mulholland

10 minutes with…Abi Roberts

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Abi Roberts is taking a leaf out of Dylan Moran’s book – and performing stand-up comedy in Russia. Roberts, a singer turned stand-up from Durham, is fluent in the language after studying Russian at university, and in 2014 she’s heading to eastern Europe for the UK-Russia Year of Culture. Adam Mulholland takes ten minutes – or half an hour, if we’re honest – to find out more about the trip.

AM: Hi Abi. You’re looking to perform in Russia as part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture. Is this something you have done before?

AR: Hi Adam. No, I’ve only being doing stand-up for about 2 years, though previously I was a singer and was in the music business. I used to do cabaret and jazz venues and – gradually – I did more and more talking and telling funny stories and less singing, until the talking took over completely! I studied Russian at university and both of my parents were experts in Russia, so it was natural for me to go there at some point. After uni, I trained as a singer in Moscow at the Conservatoire and ended up singing for [former President] Gorbachev.

I have a huge crush on Russia. It’s a big, brown grizzly bear of contradictions. In spite of the cold winters….and we Brits really have no friggin idea how cold winter can get (try getting to work in minus 30 degrees when your Lada windows are freezing over), I want to go back to Moscow and St Petersburg and perform comedy to both ex-pats as well as Russians.

There is an emerging comedy scene in Russia, with quite a few clubs opening. 2014-15 is the Year of UK-Russian Culture, so I will be doing my stand up over there in both English – to the very large ex-pat English community – as well as in Russian to the Russian comedy scene. Fingers crossed, but we are talking to a TV company about covering the tour and the inevitable struggle it will be to get a UK comedy show into Russia. The bureaucracy alone will require a whole team!

AM: What is the biggest difference between British and Russian stand-up comedy then?

AR: Russian comedy is very much ‘funny do’ as well as ‘funny say’ – they don’t really have the equivalent of a Stewart Lee, or a Russell Howard over there. Lee Evans would be their comedy type – physical, but with funny words attached. The Russian spirit has endured many more hardships than we have… I mean, just look at their history. They love the humour of the underdog and they love physical humour over there and all the more so if authority figures are mocked. It’s probably got something to do with the legacy of Communism and Stalin.

Russia’s most famous clown, Slav Polunin, is a good example of how they got round the dangers of satire. Polunin was dubbed “the best clown in the world”. Under Soviet rule, stand-up comedy performances (even ones skirting around overt political satire) were strictly prohibited. But nimble performers such as the now 60 year old Polunin, were able to get their message across under the guise of kids’ entertainment.

The Russians also love black humour and wordplay. Russian comedy is heavily based on popular culture and their unique social situation, and I think to be funny in Russia you need a very good understanding of the language: the tics, the slang, the rhythm. UK and US comics have tried to do comedy in English over there but have been surprised that it didn’t work.

One very well-known comic [Dylan Moran] had live translation as they were doing their act, but it just didn’t fly. You need to understand the language and the physical nuances – which is why doing comedy in English to Russians won’t work and why there is an inbuilt obstacle for non-native speakers.

AM: Are there any surprising similarities?

AR: Yes, actually. The Russian comedy scene is very like the UK when the alternative comedy scene emerged in the early 1980s…very underground, very subversive, a very grass roots thing. Back in the 1980s, Alexei Sayle (Russian, strangely), [Ben] Elton, and the Comic Strip weren’t doing it for the money… they were doing it to change the old comedy order. This is the similarity to Russian comedy now.

One of my favourite jokes is one which could easily have been written here: In the Soviet Union only one in seven people actually owned cars and it often took a long, long time for the order to come through. So a man goes to order a car, puts down the money and the man behind the counter tells him, “You’ll get the car in ten years”, so the customer asks ,”Morning or afternoon?” and the man behind the counter replies, “What difference does it make if it’s ten years away”? So the man replies “Well, I’ve got the plumber coming in the morning…” I could easily use that joke about British Gas in the UK.

Over there, everything has to have state “approval” or a permit and you risk jail for not having either. Imagine that applied to the UK comedy scene?! At the moment in Moscow there is an “official” comedy venue called Comedy Club which has its own TV show attached. It’s basically Saturday Night Live, produced by Russian Ministry of Jokes. They even have Female Comedy nights called “Comedy Woman”, involving quite a few sexy’s basically Hugh Hefner meets the Comedy Store. A few nightclubs have comedy put on during the night but this is more of a sketch troupe type thing. There is a gay disco in Moscow called Three Monkeys that hijacks the clubbers with comedy. I can’t wait to play there!

AM: Is there anyone on the Russian circuit you think the discerning comedy spectator should be aware of?

AR: Well, let me think.. Yakov Smirnoff is one of my favourites. He emigrated to the US in 1977 and became known all through the 1980’s. I only discovered him on YouTube recently. One of his jokes is that when he arrived at the airport in New York he saw an advert for Vodka: “Smirnoff is the best” and his catchphrase then became “What a country!” Another one of his is “Homosexuality in Russia is a crime and the punishment is seven years in prison, locked up with the other men. There is a three year waiting list”. I’m really looking forward to meeting the new comedians when I do my research: Andrei Averin, Zoorab Matya, Alexander A Ryeva, Ekaterina Skulkina…

AM: You met and performed with Bette Midler in Las Vegas as part of a comedy film called Beached. Did she give you any singing tips? In return, did you offer any help with her stand up routines?

AR: Ha ha! Yeah, I met her in the States when I was out there making Beached. The plot revolved around me being convinced that Bette was my real Mother and I had gone out to Vegas to find and be reunited with her. She was in the film at the end and was very supportive of the whole thing – she gave me lots of encouragement. Many people forget that she is an exceptional comedian in her own right, not just a singer and in some ways, she inspired me to do stand-up. At the time we made the film, I was still in the music business and had an album of covers out to coincide with it. She even invited me back to perform in Vegas at her show!

I plan to go back out there in 2015 when she is next doing her Vegas show doing both music and stand-up. While I was there I saw Robin Williams’ stand-up show, Weapons of Self Destruction

AM: Back to you, then; you’ve done quite a bit of work with Funny Women at the Leicester Square Theatre. Who is your favourite emerging female act?

AR: Oh, no question…Suzy Bennett. We met doing those Funny Women nights [at the Leicester Square Theatre]. For those of you not familiar with her yet (and you will be), she is a very funny lady from the West Country. If you get a chance, go see her Dancing on Thin Ice 2013 Edinburgh show. I saw a preview about a week ago and honestly, I thought I was going to shit myself, it was that funny. I see a lot of comedy and I rarely laugh as much as I did at Suzy’s show. She has proper funny bones. I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t get some kind of award this year. There you go, I said it. She will win awards this year. It’s that good a show.

AM: Tell us about your new show. Apart from the wind, what is your favourite thing about Edinburgh at festival time?

AR: It’s the diet of haggis and deep-fried Mars bars that gives me the wind. Because I have just gigged around the UK non-stop in the last 12 months (I counted them up last week and I’ve done 300+ shows since January 31st 2012), I’ve decided that this year I won’t be taking a show up to Edinburgh. I just haven’t had the time to write a full show. I really want to spend this year writing and honing it and making it the best show it can be. But I will be at Edinburgh doing showcases and other gigs. Hopefully, I will be doing my favourite Edinburgh gig at SPANK! again. I did it last year for the first time and it’s bonkers!

So, hopefully in 2014 I will be taking a stand-up show to the Fringe which will feature lots of musical observations. Music is still my passion – if I’m headlining in a comedy club, I try wherever possible to include some musical impressions/riffs. *No Ukuleles or whimsy will be used in this show.

AM: What are your immediate plans for the future? Where can we next see you perform?

AR: To keep getting better at what I do. You never stop learning in stand-up and every gig is a new learning experience. I really want to earn the title that a journalist gave me last year – they said: “Roberts is Robin Williams with tits”, I’m guessing because I use a lot of energy on stage and because I do voices and sort of do impressions. But that’s a hard comparison to live up to.

Over the next two years, I want to take my solo show on tour, go to Russia and then eventually head off to do stand-up in the US. In the meantime, I’m going to keep working and honing in the UK comedy clubs. I absolutely love doing stand-up, and I love the fact that some of the best clubs in the UK are up north…its also very handy for me as I’m based in Durham, even though I’m virtually never there! One of my favourite gigs is the Gala Theatre in Durham run by a chap called Warren Speed. Not only is it a top gig, but it’s also about 100 yards from our house!

Follow Abi Roberts on Twitter (@abiroberts) or via her website: Read our review of Roberts here.