WHATS THE DEAL WITH GOZLEME?
I LIKED IT BETTER THE FIRST TIME WHEN IT WAS CALLED
On a saturday night, one month into our Second City contract aboard the
Norwegian Jade, we docked in the only city in the world that sits on both
Europe and Asia; Istanbul, Turkey. I had heard about a turkish comedy
club that sat off the main drag of a hip little area of Turkish night life
known as Taxim Square. After a night of Effes beers and strawberry
hookahs, I convinced fellow Second City cast mate Dean Evans into going
with me to check out the local comedy scene. Old City Comedy Club was it's
name. Why it's name was in english I still don't know. We walked up a side
street and through a doorway that sat in between a dozen posters boasting of
Turkish comedy shows scheduled throughout the week. We bought two
tickets from the box office attendant who didn't understand why two english
speaking tourists wanted to see an all turkish show.
While the rest of the week is stand-up, Saturdays at midnight they had
improv at the club. A troop of seven actors were performing short form
improv comedy. Although completely in turkish, they played the same
improv games as we do back in Chicago. While Dean and I were generally
at a lost of what was going on in a scene, every now and then we could at
least get a sense of why something was funny. They played a game called
'blind line' where just like in the states, the improvisers' lines are made up
of what's written on pieces of paper strewn across the floor. And just like in
the states the audience laughs, because what's written on the paper was
their idea. At the end of the night Dean and I joke about how funny it would
be if I tried to get booked as a stand-up in the club. It seemed like a
ridiculous, horrible idea.
I had to give it a shot.
I met a guy who worked there named
Haasan who spoke a little bit of english. I told
him I did stand-up in the states and wanted to
know if I could perform at one of their shows.
"But people here don't speak english."
"Well, I think that I would learn some Turkish, and maybe do bits set to
music where I don't speak."
He said he would talk to his boss for me and we exchanged e-mails. After a
month of cruising the Mediterranean, we were back in Istanbul. Hassan
never got back to me, so I returned to the club for another attempt at
launching my Turkish comedy career. Although this time when I arrived
nobody was at the box office. I walked upstairs to find the club, unlit and
empty. Empty, not counting the eight guys on the far side of the room
standing around a movie camera aimed out the window, pointing at the
street filled with people below. I bump a chair in the dark room and eight
startled Turks turn to see who just walked in their obviously closed club. I
tried to act as if I was just one of the guys.
"Hey, what's up dudes? Is Hassan around?"
The most intimidating of the Turkish camera crew took a long drag of his
cigarette and responded with, "Why you want Hassan?"
I give the long explanation of my stand-up
background, how I've been performing on
an international cruise ship for
audiences from all over the world with
Second City, and how I had talked to
Hassan about doing stand-up at Old City.
Eventually he slowly put out his
cigarette, handed me a card, said the
turkish words for, "e-mail me". He then
walked back to check on the rest of his
crew who were still silently smoking and
video taping unknowing pedestrians from
above. Why they were video taping
people, I also still dont know. After
enough time in Turkey you grow to
accept that most of the time you are
there, you won't understand what's going
The smoking man was the boss and the boss's name was Ali Bibber, as his
hotmail account dictated. Ali also never returned any of my e-mails over the
course of the next month. Once in Istanbul for the final time of our contract,
I made my last ditch effort for the chance to possibly get booed off the stage
in a whole new continent I've never been booed off the stage in before. Again
I walked through the front door of Old City. A waiter, Yahmas, who spoke a
small amount of english recognized me and welcomed me in. I asked if Ali
was around. He said, "No, Football, March!!'
Under the assumption that he meant that the booker of the club was
playing soccer for the next six months, I asked Yahmas if I could perform
stand-up at his club. He didn't seem to understand. I then began to mime
doing stand-up with a microphone. He then pointed at me and said, "You?"
and then did a slight impression of my stand-up miming.
"Yes! Yes I want to do comedy here."
We made up our own form of sign language to communicate with each
other. It ended with him telling me to come back the following night at
seven, where, as best as I could tell, he was going to let me go up and
perform. I said thanks and told him I would see him tomorrow at seven. He
shook my hand and with a big smile said, "Barrack Obama!!" Which is
turkish for "Barrack Obama!!"
As far as I understood, I was now booked
at the Turkish comedy club. The hard part
was over. All I had to do now, was learn
Turkish. During my initial trip to Istanbul I
bought a 'Learning Turkish' Book. It was
made up of standard greetings and
pleasantries. But unless I was going to do
jokes consisting of listing the days of the
week or naming different kinds of vegetables, I was going to have to seek
elsewhere for my turkish vocabulary. The next day I dropped by a local
coffee bar I frequented on previous trips. The bartender was excited to see
me, it was as if he had never recognized
anyone before. He was happy to help me out
and one thick turkish coffee later I had
notebook page full of turkish phrases. Since
every word in the turkish language contains
either an umlaut or a dollar sign, he
phonetically wrote all my words out. I bid my
bartender Mahaba, and I spent the rest of
the day memorizing my new turkish act .
At seven I was back at the club and ready for my Istanbul debut. Yemas
was there. I told him thanks again for letting me do stand-up at his club. His
response was, "You? You want to stand-up here?"
Despite our thirty minute game of charades the previous night, he
seemed completely surprised that I wanted to go up at his club. He brought
me in a back room into an office where Ali Biber was sitting behind a desk.
I guess 'Football March' is turkish for 'he's upstairs'. Ali was in the middle
of a conversation with a turkish comic. The comic looked at me and
said,"Are you american?"
"Yeah, Im a stand-up out of Chicago."
"No kidding, I did stand-up in Denver for six years."
Tarkan was his name and he spoke perfect english and turkish. He
helped talk the boss into letting me go up that night. I asked Tarkan if he
wouldn't mind going over my Turkish jokes with me. He told me that the
turkish my bartender taught me, wouldn't work for the jokes I wanted to
tell. I was then given a new notebook page full of phonetically spelled
turkish phrases to learn within the next hour and half. The show was at
nine that night. At ten till, about thirty or so Istanbul locals filled the small
club. My Second City cast showed up to guarantee that I would have at least
some laughter that night; even if their laughter was at the absurdity of me
bombing on stage in a foreign land. I paced the back of the club, going over
all the new phrases I had just been taught. Three other turkish comics were
performing that night. They all came up to me and were super nice and
supportive. The emcee came in the back and told me it was time. A minute
later he jumped on stage and began to talk to the audience in the most
serious tone I had ever heard a stand-up speak. His minute long, incredibly
dry, turkish monologue, (which did not get one laugh, nor look like it was
meant to) led up to the word 'Neeeeek', which judging from the audience's
applause, was my introduction. I entered the stage and met the audience
with 'Teshica durum, teshica durum',
which meant, 'thank you, thank you'. It
was a phrase I would wind up whipping
out any point in my set when I was at a
lost for turkish. I dove into my first
joke. There's often a bit of uncertintiy
on whether a joke you've never told
before is going to work or not.
Especialy when you're quite even sure the
meanings of any of the words in that joke.
"Mahaba, ben Nick choke turch supare," which was turkish for "Hi, I'm
Nick and my turkish is really awesome!"
It got a laugh, probably because my loose grasp of the turkish language was
possibly the equivalent of a foreigner in america saying, "Hi, Nick
awesome my I'm english is truck!"
When I purchased my book on how to speak Turkish, it came with a
learning turkish CD. For my first bit I played the CD and was going to
attempt to use it to learn Turkish right in front of my audience. Except I
edited the tracks so that it sounded like the CD was skipping on the phrases
I was suppose to repeat. I tried to repeat the phrases, skipping parts and all
best I could. Fortunately the bane of skipping CD's is universal, and the bit
went well. So far so good. Time to segue into my next joke.
"Senenele elanda dans, eh, elanda dans, eh,..."
At this point twenty turkish words started
swirling around in my head. The phrases I had
spent all day memorizing, intermingled with
the ones I had learned only ninety minutes ago,
I tried to back up and get momentum to find
the right the word.
"Senenele, elanda dans, eh, elanda dans, umm...'
"Yapallama!!" screamed Ali Biber from the DJ booth, who was not only
doing my sound cues, but now filling me in on my set ups as well. The next
few moments consisted of a faceless voice from the booth feeding me words
essential to my joke, as well as on the fly coaching of how to pronounce said
words. This interaction of someone shouting my own jokes to me, and I
inaccurately repeating them to the audiences, produced more comedy for
both myself and the crowd, than I ever could have intended.
Reluctantly I took out my piece of paper of phonetically spelled turkish
phrases so that I could string together a much more fluid version of all the
words Ali had been yelling at me. As much as I wanted to speak Turkish
without the aid of my cheat sheet, I figured that was better than taking the
chance of just speaking complete nonsense. I read the words that conveyed
that I was now going to Irish River Dance, but only from the waist up.
When I stated the last phrase of the set up which consisted of, "sawdeja
elanda dans bellthen ederim" slight chuckles came from the audience,
enough to acknowledge they got what I was about to do.
I momentarily got a detached feeling of dissecting comedy and language to
an exaggerated idea that all laughter consists of, is a reaction based on
the arrangements of sounds that come out of your mouth. But it was only for
a moment. For if there is one thing I always say, it's that being on stage at a
turkish comedy show is not the best time to be internally waxing humor and
Ali played my Irish River track. I put my hands on my hips and with legs
perfectly still, I jerked my head around slightly to the music. Despite my
struggles with the set up, the audience got the gist and the joke worked.
While the telling of jokes has to change based on culture, laughter is the
same in any language.
Unfortunately, so is silence.
For my last joke I did a bit where I pantomime locking my keys in my car to
the Flaming Lips song, 'Do you Realize'. In my pursuit of speaking as little
Turkish as possible, I thought that I could just go right into it without any
real setup. I sat in a chair and parked my imaginary car as the music
cued. From that moment on, I'm not sure the audience understood anything
that was happening for the next three minutes. Or maybe they did, but didn't
know why I was doing it. Maybe no one locks their keys in their car in
Turkey. Maybe when I tried to use a hanger to open the lock, the entire
room was wondering why no one in Turkey had ever thought of that, and
they found the whole piece more informative than humorous. Maybe I was
unknowingly miming in english and not turkish. Whatever the case, the
three minute piece was met with nothing more than polite smiles and the
sound of people ordering drinks. That is except one guy in the front row who
laughed at it harder than anyone ever did back in the states. I wasn't sure if
he was laughing with me, at me, or if he was just watching u-tube videos on
his iphone. I though it best to assume he was enjoying the piece, or at least
he was laughing at u-tubevideos I had posted. The bit ended with applause
which I couldn't quite tell was "wow, that was great" applause, or "wow, it's
sad when someone puts so much effort in something so bad" applause. I gave
a few more 'teshica durums' and then got off the stage.
The next three comics went up and did very
well. I think their success lied in their timing,
and the fact they spoke the language of the
majority of people in the room. I can't say enough
about how kind everybody at the club was. Ali
Biber thanked me for coming and gave me a Old
City Comedy Club T-shirt. The comics bid
congratulations and thanked me for sticking
around to watch their sets. I told them that I
really enjoyed their acts, although the one thing I
didn't understand, was anything they said. The
first comic said that in his act, he was doing a
parody of the movie 'Scream', but instead of a
killer calling people in the middle of the night, it
was a turkish guy making the phone calls. I think
the comedy there is pretty self explanatory. The
second comic said he talked about too many things
to really be able to mention any of them. And the
third comic said simply, "My whole act is about
how I'm tall."
The night really was the best of both worlds, there were moments on stage
that could not have gone any worse. But there were also jokes that the
turkish speaking audience enjoyed. Sadly those jokes will be completely
useless to me back in the U.S.. Although don't think that will stop from
telling them. For my own amusement I think I will continue to open with
"Mahaba, ben Nick choke turch supare", just so when it's met with complete
silence, I can say, "That's weird, that joke totally killed in Istanbul."