Standing Up for Stand-Up in Estonia
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the next Louie C.K. might be performing right now in Tallinn.
By Libby Coleman
Sander Oigus, 25 and dressed casually in a red hoodie, stands up to shut off blaring music so he can hear me better. In the process, he kicks his computer to the ground. He awkwardly leans down, face close to the camera, and puts it back on the table in front of him. When he comes back, he gets a phone call. “I’m so unprofessional,” Oigus says, grinning. No, he’s not auditioning for the next entry in the Dumb and Dumber franchise — at least, I don’t think he is — though he is a comedian.
And not just a comedian, but one of several working to make stand-up comedy a popular art form in his homeland of Estonia. In half an hour he’ll be onstage at a Tallinn club called Protest, getting LOLs from 200 or so people. Not at all bad for a guy who’s a chef by day but out on a Thursday night.
Hear someone say “Estonia” and it might come up as the first place you’d go for cheap blood sausage, but probably not as a capital of stand-up comedy. Yet Estonia is standing up, outpacing its fellow Baltic states, many of which are also honing their comedic chops, in yuks per capita. Five years ago, Australian Louis Zezeran, a former backpacker with a computer-science degree, started the troupe Comedy Estonia. Since then, open mics have popped up everywhere — there are 10 monthly shows from the student town of Tartu to the capital Tallinn to towns out in the sticks like Haaplsalu, each regularly drawing a few hundred fans, and at least 16 regular comics touring the country and neighboring states.
It’s a huge change for a country with a population about the size of Rhode Island (1.3 million) that most Americans might try to locate by vaguely gesturing at a map as if to say, “It’s near Russia, right?” (It is.) The old adage “Dying is easy; comedy is hard” might not be truer most anywhere else in the world. Following World War II, Estonia’s Communist puppet government cracked down on anything resembling local comedy, which might have strayed into forbidden political criticism; for good measure, it also banned most popular entertainment from outside the Iron Curtain. During the Cold War, the closest you could get to stand-up were estradas, or variety shows, according to Liisi Laineste, who studies humor in Estonia; these allowed actors to question the regime via allusion, music, and dance.
So stand-up — you know, people with low self-esteem getting up in front of drunken strangers to tell stories they scribbled out at 3 a.m. — hadn’t been much of a thing in the Baltics. Then the Berlin Wall fell, and after another decade or so came YouTube, which brought an unlimited supply of Western comedy to anyone with a computer and the Internet. (Ricky Gervais is a “one-in-a-billion genius,” says Oigus, who’s watched his videos repeatedly.) About the same time, Zezeran and his partner Stewart Johnson had the idea of starting their own stand-up start-up (well, sort of), called it Comedy Estonia, and a movement was born. People now realize, says James Ramsden, owner of the Pudel Baar in Tallinn, “that comedy is not just the slapstick humor which they’ve had to put up with.”
One sign of that movement: The popularity of Estonian-language comedy has soared. (Local stand-up used to be primarily performed in English.) Oigus, for instance, keeps his set in Estonian because he can pun and add vivid visuals that wouldn’t make sense in translation. The humor is dark and sarcastic, and nothing’s sacred. Often it digs into political issues — homophobia, immigration policy — that play well with younger and more liberal crowds.
The country has also established itself as a regular touring stop for Western comedians, says Stuart Garlick, an Estonian culture writer. Irish comedian Dylan Moran — best known for a supporting role in Shaun of the Dead and his cult sitcom Black Books — and Australian Felicity Ward are a couple of the bigger names that pass through Estonia. Zezeran, in fact, credits Moran’s 2012 performance in Tallinn as a breakthrough moment: “Dylan really is loved by Estonians. Somehow, his stand-up and Black Books really connected with them.” (Moran’s representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Not everyone, however, thinks Estonian stand-up deserves an ovation. “I think we don’t have a stand-up culture,” Estonian producer and performer Karl Kermes reportedly said in an interview. “It’s coming, but it’s not there yet.” Since traditionally comedians are trained as actors, some say it’s difficult to train them to speak as themselves onstage, as stand-up requires. And the struggling-comic trope is as true in Estonia as anywhere else. Most local comedians have day jobs and many shows are unpaid, with the comics at open mics compensated solely by donations. Many are lucky simply to break even on trips. Plus, the scene is male-dominated, a problem that persists abroad as well.
Even so, Oigus is happy. As we wrap up our conversation, he still has no idea which set he’s going to perform that evening and says he might just improvise. At least he knows that when he steps onstage, he’ll have an audience. “We now have a scene in the middle of f*cking nowhere, Estonia,” he says.