Zulu Comedy Festival: Rape and pillaging makes way for japes and silliness

Danish stand-up comedians are increasingly honing their skills in English abroad, and for one night only at the Zulu Comedy Festival

Every year sees increasing numbers of English-language comedians come to these shores. From the long-established Wisecracker’s night at the Dubliner on Strøget to the recently-launched ventures at Bar 7 on Studiestræde (in co-operation with the Copenhagen Comedy Club) and Kennedy’s Bar on Gammel Kongvej, English-language comedy has never been as popular, and this is never more evident than during the ten-day Zulu Comedy Festival, which starts on Friday August 23 and will once again include a large number of Anglo acts in its programme.

However, the invasion is no longer a one-way street as Danish comedians are increasingly travelling abroad, particularly to Britain, to hone their skills on comedy circuits more challenging and sophisticated. It sounds like a rough gig, but as one comedienne contends, nothing can be harder than actually performing a routine in Danish.

“English is an easier language to joke in – it’s made for comedy,” argues Sofie Hagen, who moved to the UK last year to perform and immediately found success. She was the runner-up in the Leicester Square Comedian of the Year awards and a finalist in the Piccadilly Comedy Club ‘New Act’ competition. This year she won the Laughing Horse ‘New Act of the Year’.
“Danish is clumsy and rough. You often have to use more words and that slows the whole joke down.”

Hagen owes part of her success in Britain to her nationality – comedy clubs, she explained, are always looking for something a little bit different, and Danish stand-up appears fresh, almost rebellious in its relative youth by comparison.

“When they hear ‘Danish comedian’, they feel like they already know me,” said Hagen, who will be performing at the ‘Danes in English’ gig at Huset on Thursday August 29, where every single comedian will be a Dane speaking English. “They expect the comedian version of Sarah Lund to take the stage.”

But the real test is on the stage, and Hagen is adamant that the Brits are a far tougher audience than Danes who tend to be grateful just to see live comedy.

“One of the main differences between British and Danish audiences is that if the comedian makes a joke that is hacked [stolen] or just too easy, the British audience will let them know about it,” she said. “While they won’t get shocked by my material, they won’t laugh just because it’s edgy. They want quality”.

Stolen material has been an ongoing problem in Danish stand-up comedy since its early days in the late 1980s. There was the memorable occasion when one of the country’s biggest stars was stopped on his way to the stage in 1994 by a couple of lawyers from Los Angeles. Turns out he had translated Robin Williams’s show word-for-word. And then there is ‘Klown’, Denmark’s most successful ever sitcom, which is a blatant rip-off of ‘Curb your Enthusiasm’.

But Alex Thelander, a nominee as the ‘Best New Act’ at the 2012 Zulu Comedy Festival who went on to win this year’s Danish Stand-up Championship, claims this is a thing of the past.
“When stand-up comedy started out in Denmark in the late 80s/early 90s, it was common practice for comedians to steal and translate material from US and UK comedians,” he contended. “But while there are some exceptions among the older generation, the upcoming generation of stand-ups are committed to coming up with their own stuff.”  

Danish comedy, says Thelander, is successful in Britain because the two have many similarities: particularly the use of self-irony. “Whereas US comedians tend to point fingers at the world, Danish comedians look more inwards when writing material,” he said. “I think Danes are very down-to-earth and light-hearted, and they don’t take themselves or any subject too seriously. Danish humour is very honest and unpretentious.”

And now you can add ‘travels well abroad’ to that list as well.

Both Sofie Hagen and Alex Thelander are performing at the Zulu Comedy Festival. Hagan, along with several other Danish comedians, will be performing in English twice at Huset on Thursday August 29, at 18:30 as part of the ‘Danes in English’ show, and then at 21:30 as part of ‘Comedy in the Dark’. Thelander will be performing solely in Danish. Hie first performance is at the Comedy Zoo on Saturday August 24 at 20:00. For full details regarding this year’s festival, see zulucomedyfestival.dk.