TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
THE ALMOST FUNNY MAN
…Which, it must be said, threw a curve ball into my little life. I decided, after reading, watching, and absorbing everything I could about the life and works of Bill Hicks, to become a comedian. Not that I would quit my work as a teacher, but that I would have a proper go at stand-up comedy. Hicks inspired me to get up on that stage and try to make people laugh.
Turns out, it’s fucking hard. All those comedians that have ever made you laugh, they make it look easy. The jokes just roll off their tongues like stones down a mountain. Little did I know that each and every one of those jokes, no matter from Hicks, Pryor, Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Beth Stelling, or Louis C.K., was carved and forged, chipped away from the bedrock in near scientific fashion. It is mind bending work.
I attempted to write a few jokes at home, trying to stick to what I knew: being a professional foreigner in a faraway land. Despite the fact that there is plenty of potential material on being an American outside of the United States, I wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire with my joke writing. I decided I needed help. My search for help led me to a great and wonderful place located smack dab in the middle of Amsterdam: Boom Chicago.
Boom Chicago is an improv comedy troupe and theater, the first of its kind in the Netherlands, founded by some relentlessly entrepreneurial and highly funny American comedians from Chicago. The theater is based on the model made famous by Chicago’s legendary Second City improv group. As the story goes, the gentlemen left Chicago, moved to Amsterdam, and proposed the idea of an English speaking improv theater in Amsterdam to the mayor. Apparently the mayor wasn’t feeling their vibe and informed the newly arrived Chicagoans that English speaking comedy wouldn’t work in Amsterdam. According to the Mayor, English speaking comedy was just too foreign.
Luckily for us, the eventual founders of Boom Chicago ignored the mayor’s advice. They pressed on. They built their theater. They became a hit, laying the foundation for improv comedy to get a foothold in Dutch culture. If you’re Dutch and you’ve seen the Llamas on TV – please know that the men and women of Boom Chicago, my fellow professional foreigners here in NL, paved the way.
In addition to being fabulous in every way, the Boom Chicago theater taught comedy workshops! I could go there and learn the ropes. I signed up for their very next “Improv for Beginners” workshop and traveled to Amsterdam with bells on. The workshop was phenomenal. I couldn’t get enough. As soon as I finished the beginners course, I signed up for the advanced course immediately.
Several weeks later, flush with my newfound knowledge of basic improv techniques and still inspired to follow in Bill Hicks’s footsteps as a comedian, I traveled to Boom Chicago’s old theater on Amsterdam’s famous Leidseplein (The theater has now moved to a newer, bigger location in the city). The advanced improv workshop began on Saturday morning and lasted for two days. As always, I arrived early and walked into the narrow bar which fronted the theater. I pulled up a stool next to an interesting looking, young, African-American gentleman who sported thick Run-DMC style spectacles and a New York Yankees cap. As a devout Red Sox fan, the Yankees cap would normally put me off, but this dude was clearly no loutish New Yorker looking for trouble. He looked over as I sat down and we got to talking. Within minutes he made it clear that he was a cast member at Boom and that he’d be teaching the workshop. Exciting! I was alone at the bar with my teacher, a living, breathing, PROFESSIONAL COMEDIAN! What a great opportunity to pick his brain about comedy.
I explained to him that my reason for coming to the workshop was because I wanted to get into stand-up comedy. Boom Chicago being an Improv theater focused on the techniques and execution of improvisation, this wasn’t really the best place to learn stand-up comedy. But it was the only game in town, so here I was. He listened carefully, slowly sipping a cappuccino and taking long, sometimes uncomfortable, pauses before replying to my questions. Finally, after draining his cappuccino and fixing his steely gaze upon me, he turned and said:
“workshops are fine, man. But there’s only one place to learn stand-up” he offered matter of factly.
“Where is that?” I asked.
“On stage, bro” he replied knowingly.
Our little talk marched on. I told him of my love for Bill Hicks. He agreed. We talked about Richard Pryor and Woody Allen and George Carlin. We talked about his work at Boom Chicago, and how he felt about being a New Yorker in Amsterdam. We shared a belly laugh about our mutual fascination for Dutch “coffeeshop” culture. As the other workshop students slowly began to dribble in from the street, he left me with a profound thought that I remember vividly, to this very day, both for its reflection of the absolute truth and of his own personal bravery:
“Dave” he said, pushing his thick glasses back onto his nose, “if you really wanna make people laugh, there’s only one thing to talk about up there on stage. You gotta talk about your own vulnerablity. You gotta tell people about your own scariest shit, man. The stuff that makes you feel weakest about yourself. That’s it. Anything else is just noise” he said, pushing himself away from the bar and standing up…