For over two years, the Moscow Comedy Bar has been putting on stand-up comedy shows in English every week in various venues around the city of Moscow. Sometimes, whether bar managers and audiences wanted us to or not.
In August 2016 it was time for us to test our chops at the Mecca of comedy â the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, part of the Edinburgh festival â the biggest comedy and arts festival in the world. So off we went to take part in what surely is a rite of passage for any comic performing in English this side of the Atlantic. Armed with five thousand flyers and our big âplease-like-meâ smiles, some of the best and brightest from our modest Moscow scene flew over to see if we could fill a 50-seater room at the back of a sports bar and extract joyous laughter from this sophisticated audience reared on Billy Connolly, Arnamno Lanucci and Frankie Boyle.
Flyering, promoting and getting bums on seats, to say the least, was competitive, with 400 Free Fringe shows a day to choose from; not to mention tickets being sold for dozens of established household-name acts all around the city including Bill Burr, Al Murray and Paul Merton.
For any performer, doing a show or sometimes two, every day for a sustained period is, of course, an invaluable opportunity to learn about oneself as – hell or high water (or hangover) a show must be put on and with any luck, done better than the show before. Refining oneâs material in what was essentially an intensive performance workshop was a thrill and a privilege although all emotions tended to be intensified: more nerves and uncertainty but also the rush of a new joke landing or the reward of sending another audience away satisfied, having justified them kindly taking a chance on us.
I guess we were all experienced enough to feel comfortable enough on stage but it was the bits either side of being on stage that could often feel overwhelming. And for the Russian lads, it was a chance to acquaint themselves with a breakfast incorporating haggis, black pudding, square sausage and brown sauce. âNo wonder Mel Gibson always looks so angryâ one commented.
For me, one of the standout impressions I left with was probably the feeling that we were part of an ancient tradition of entertainers, like the travelling troupes you sometimes see in western films or other costume dramas â entertaining the huddled crowds with magic and potions. After your Free Fringe show itâs perfectly acceptable and expected that the performer waits by the door with a vessel of some sort so that the crowd can drop in whatever cash they felt the show was worth. Like many before us we were singing for our supper by flinging out punch-lines.
It turned out our potions worked. Perhaps unexpectedly. But thatâs fine. Surprise is a key ingredient of comedy. Roll on next August.
The Moscow Expats Podcast is available on ITunes, soundcloud.com/belkovsky and stitcher.com. The open mic show starts at 7pm on Fridays, Novy Arbat 21 at Stand Up Club#1.