Laughter is often called the universal language. But in the world of comedy, where so much relies on double meanings and wacky figures of speech, humour doesn’t always translate – even when everyone is speaking English.
Improvisation comedy teacher Jay Sukow learned this lesson pretty quickly after making the move from Los Angeles to Copenhagen in October.
“Copenhagen is a very unique city because people are fluent and learn English from early on,” he told CPH POST.
“But even though they speak English, they don’t necessarily understand certain phrases or references. I’ve noticed that when you play more physical and less verbal in your choices onstage, people can relate to that a lot more. How people act is more universal.”
Brits and Americans tend to be more verbal in their comedy, he has noticed. When teaching and performing for international audiences, as Sukow has done for the past seven months at the Improv Comedy Copenhagen (ICC) theatre, it is important to interact with the audience using physical cues as well.
Sukow has also taught in Spain, which was more of a challenge.
“When you go to another country where [English is not widely spoken], you have to adjust how you communicate,” confided Sukow.
“Even when I’m teaching, I might say: ‘Don’t throw your scene partner under the bus,’ and people might take it literally.”
After attending a comedy festival in Spain last year, he met representatives from ICC who offered him a seven-month contract as the artistic director, head of training and teacher.
On May 1 that contract ended, and Sukow headed back to Los Angeles to continue a stateside career that started in 1992. In his early days, he trained under several US comedian superstars, including Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert.
“If you had told me then that there would be festivals around the world where people would be improvising, I wouldn’t be able to comprehend it,” he said.
Spring in his step
Sukow ended his stay in Denmark by attending the sixth annual Copenhagen International Improv Festival in mid-April. The festival, which attracts international visitors from countries as far flung as New Zealand, was a marked success and a highlight of Sukow’s experience in Copenhagen.
“It was amazing to see everyone coming together to celebrate what this art form is, and because it’s Copenhagen it’s almost a celebration of ‘we’ve gotten past the darkness and cold of winter,’” he said.
Seeing the city “explode with energy” at the recent emergence of the spring weather has been particularly enjoyable, according to Sukow.
Another special part of the festival: many of his friends came from the United States to Copenhagen to teach alongside him.
With seasoned pros
“I guarantee that if everybody took one improv class, the world would be a better place. You are focused on the ensemble and making good choices,” he said.
“You will laugh, but there’s no pressure to be funny. You’re never by yourself – it’s all about games and play.”
Sukow emphasises that everyone going to an improv class for the first time is nervous and hesitant. However, the lessons learned in practice can be useful in making friends, succeeding in a team, and interacting with co-workers.
ICC provides instruction and shows in English, making it the perfect place for expats to find friends, branch out and build a network and home in Copenhagen.
Ahead of returning home, Sukow was looking forward to it, but also a little sad to be leaving.
“This is a second home for me now, and I can’t see myself not ever coming back,” he said.
Since moving to Denmark, Sukow has most missed his family and friends, his favourite park near his home, and his favorite burger place in California.
Now that he is preparing to head back home, he has begun to reflect on what has made his time in Copenhagen so wonderful.
“What I’ll miss most is the people. Anybody who takes an improv class or who performs – they are the most interesting, smart people. You encounter that the world over and you can’t replace that,” he said.
“You have a dinner party and you look across the room and see people from all over the world. And Copenhagen allows that to happen because there are so many expats here. I’m going to really miss that.”