The quintessence of satirical stand-up is Russia’s Oleg Denisov
Hello Oleg, first things first, where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Hi, I’m hailing from Moscow, Russia.
When did you first realise you could make people laugh?
It was early, age 7 or 8, and at the time it was mostly what I was busy with. Then I tried a few times to have a normal life, but failed and came back to the roots.
How did you get into stand-up?
I’ve been writing comedy since school, putting on little plays and sketches, then did the same at University (In Russian Unis comedy sketches and improve form a competitive team sport called KVN – “Club of funny and inventive”, however it’s been neither of those things for the last 10-15 years). Then after a few low-paid and disrespected jobs (like teacher, film critic, data analyst etc) I got a job as a screenwriter, writing additional material for sitcoms and advertising. And after getting fired from there, I decided to take back creative control. So here we are.
You are a graduate in philosophy, has that in any way helped your comedy?
It has I suppose, in a way that both reading and teaching philosophy involves trying to make difficult (or core) idea clearer by putting in into context that’d help a particular person/group of people to understand it. When writing comedy, I go from the punchline (something that I find amusing myself) to the setup, and not the other way round, so my goal there is to make the audience see the stuff from my perspective in order to realize it’s funny in the same way I do. Therefore, understanding of people’s thought processes, what can influence them, and also structuring the routines are the things which are crucial to my comedy, particularly because I come from completely different background and live in a different culture than my foreign audiences. Philosophy (as well as screenwriting) help a lot with those.
Can you tell us about the comedy scene in Russia?
Stand-up is quite new to Russia, in the modern sense it appeared no more than 12-13 years ago, and got popular only after some sketch comedians produced a show called “Stand-up” on TV (what else would they have called it). Since then, and especially in the last 3 years it’s been gaining popularity rapidly, there have been big stand-up festivals in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. Lots of open mic nights happen in Moscow every day. However, in terms of style it’s quite different from more developed markets like the UK, there’s no huge variety of styles (as the TV show is mostly the only point of reference to young comedians), mostly it’s either telling short anecdotes or basic observational. However, political humor seems to be getting increasingly popular, even though it’s not allowed on TV. Stand-up comedy in English started about 5-6 years ago in Moscow, there are about 20-25 comedians in town who perform more or less regularly. “Stand-up Cellar” is currently the most consistently popular weekly night that we started at over a year ago. It’s a PWYW show that runs every Friday in a small underground bar at the very centre of Moscow, and we’re really proud of the audience that it has shaped over this period of time. I think what characterizes it best is that visiting foreign comedians hardly need to modify their language, pace or material while performing, even though the audience is usually about 70% locals.
You’re performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; what are you bringing to the table?
An hour of magical realism and investigations into human nature, carefully disguised as political satire.
What research materials have you been using and what have been the creative processes behind writing Russian Troll?
The final version of the show will contain a lot less current affairs stuff than originally intended. The name comes in part from the “Russian Trolls” as a popular news story, and in part from a scholarly version of how the mystical creature called “Troll” was invented by Scandinavian people. It says that in the old times, before people could draw maps, sometimes they would get lost in the familiar landscape at night, and after blamed it on some nocturnal creatures, “Trolls” that had meddled with the landscape and changed the positions of rocks, hills and so on. I find this a good metaphor for modern people getting lost in the landscape of their information bubbles and… well, you can work out the rest.
This is your third appearance at the Fringe – what advice do you have for a comedian making their debut?
Don’t expect anything, don’t worry, just enjoy your time. However, this advice seems to be a lot more relevant (and harder to follow) for people who are returning to the Fringe, like myself.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the show to somebody in the streets of Edinburgh, what would you say?
This is a show about Russia and the West, Putin and Trump, time and space, and other things that are a lot less definite than they seem.