Familiar jokes in a foreign language
If you are a foreigner living in İstanbul, things that are normal for Turks may seem extraordinary to you. After a while, such observations may serve as humorous material. Aware of this fact, one woman is holding special stand-up shows in English, geared towards foreigners living in Turkey.
Her name is Aslı Akbay. A young woman, Akbay was born and grew up in the UK, and has been living in İstanbul for the past two years. She worked in the entertainment department of the BBC in London for three or four years. After that, she stayed in London and dealt with stand-up work. She took the stage at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s most comprehensive arts festival. Moving to İstanbul in 2014, Akbay started to organize open mic comedy nights, titled Komikrofon, at the Old City Comedy Club, one of Turkey’s first comedy clubs. While it is quite popular abroad, Open Mic nights can be considered a relatively novel activity for Turkey. In this show, people who want to try their luck take to the stage for their own five-minute shows. Akbay hosted these shows and conducted stand-up shows in Turkish.
Later, a Polish comedian reached out to her and said he wanted to hold a stand-up show in İstanbul. Akbay told the comedian that they did not have shows in English, but she still conveyed his demand to the club’s operator. “Why not?” the operator said and they organized the first stand-up show in English. Seeing the demand, she decided to hold regular shows. Currently, Akbay is running the stand-up show “Take Me Up The Bosporus” at the Old City Comedy Club. Foreigners living in Turkey frequent her shows, but Turks also attend. Her client profile is quite diverse, including Erasmus students and foreigners working on a temporary or permanent basis in Turkey. Their nationalities differ broadly and include Brits, Canadians, Australians, Moroccans and Syrians.
We ask if coming up with jokes ever proves a challenge given that humor is closely linked to culture and her audience is quite broad. “Frankly speaking, I have several groups of materials: the stand-up shows I held for the British in the UK, the shows in Turkish for Turks, and the shows in English for expats in Turkey,” Akbay replies. She explains that when she used her UK program for her Turkish stand-up in Turkey it wasn’t a success. “The cultures and senses of humor differ,” she explains, before describing the differences. “Turkey’s stand-up culture is more story-oriented. That is, a short incident is exhausted with numerous jokes. In the US and UK, you need to come up with a joke momentarily. Turks also have lots of taboos about humor. It is virtually impossible to make jokes on certain topics such as kids and parents. Turks are more sensible,” she says. In her English show, Akbay jokes about the experience of living in Turkey as an expat, focusing on the comedy resulting from cultural differences.
Explaining why she came to Turkey, she says her reasons usually prove to be similar to those of expats. Listening to these stories told with wit and humor should be an enjoyable act for expats. Akbay says she has family ties in Turkey and had always thought about coming to İstanbul. “It may sound simplistic, but even the weather is an important factor. London is always gray,” she says.
She voices another reason. “The British are really nice people, but it is easier to make friends here. When I am introduced to a friend of mine, we quickly start to make plans. This is not possible in the UK.” Akbay believes that these reasons also apply to the expats who choose to live in Turkey. “We like the tragedy here. With tragedy, I mean the chaos. I know this is not attractive for Turks. They may even be bored, but we aren’t there yet. For this reason, Turks cannot understand why expats should live there,” she says. She already uses this contradiction in her jokes on stage.
‘I get those who are confident about their English on stage’
So, does any other comedian in İstanbul run a stand-up show in English. Comedian Aslı Akbay says that for the time being there isn’t, but she has a plan: “I invite people who are confident about their humor skills and English on stage for five minutes as part of my show. I am planning to take some of them to the Edinburgh Festival.” Can Turks with average or above average English understand her show? “Most of it,” she says.