The Ex-Pat Revolutionaries of Estonia

An American, Australian and an Estonian walk into a bar…

This may sound like the lead-in to a joke about general stereotypes, but it is actually how one might describe Comedy Estonia if one wanted to slightly mislead the reader into thinking one was about to tell a joke about general stereotypes. If we’re splitting hairs here, my clever little lead should have included a total of two Americans entering said bar — but I thought that might muddle the joke. Still with me?

The key players in this set up are Australian Louis Zezeran, Americans Eric Seufert and Stewart Johnson, and Estonian Andrei Tuch. The implicated bar is Club Prive in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, or a bar in the city of Tartu or elsewhere. The activity, as their company’s name might have already implicated to you, is comedy. It is at Club Prive, located in a rather hip part of Old Town Tallinn near some embassies and the American Business Center, that Comedy Estonia hosts a monthly show aptly called “Stand Up Comedy at Club Privè.”

Launched in April 2010, Comedy Estonia is not the kind of start-up we’re used to blogging about here in the states. But, at its core has a very entrepreneurial spirit. The organization describes itself as an organization devoted to “developing the art of stand-up comedy, showcasing the best comedians from around the world and encouraging local talent.” That sounds like a fairly ambitious plan to execute in a country whose total population barely exceeds 1.3 million. Yet, Estonians are known for their dark sense of humor, which includes a love of mockery and irony. Along with its trying political history, particularly a recent stint in the Soviet Union, Estonia seems primed for a robust stand-up comedy scene.

Which is exactly what expats Louis Zezeran and Eric Seufert thought when they arrived in Estonia. Zezeran had already spent time with Comedy Finland, a similar comedy business model that fostered stand-up in Estonia’s northern neighbor. Much like Comedy Finland, the initial goal of Comedy Estonia was not to impose American/Western stand-up comedy on Estonians, but to develop stand-up comedy from an Estonian perspective.

I spoke with Louis Zezeran about both Comedy Estonia and comedy in Estonia.

Describe, from your perspective, the Estonian sense of humor. Does it vary from region to region?

Estonia is such a small country it would be hard to break it down via region… I think Estonians have quite dark humor, maybe a symptom of living through such dark winters. They love sarcasm. Being a small country, they love to hear an outsider’s perspective on them.

How did you get involved in comedy?

I have a background in IT and after that got boring, I moved into theatre production in Sydney. In 2006, my mates and I backpacked across Europe and I first visited Estonia and thought it was an excellent place…Due to life’s course I ended up in Sweden and wanted to make friends. I saw they had lots of comedy so I had a go and within a few months I had started Stockholm’s first all-English comedy club.

What was the inspiration to start Comedy Estonia?

After a while I felt my time in Sweden was done. Around the same time I met a guy who would become my good buddy, Phil Schwarzmann. He was running nights in Helsinki, Finland. At the same time Eric Seufert, an American living in Estonia, contacted me and wanted to know if I knew of any comedy going on in Estonia. We started to talk and eventually we had the idea to start a night see how it went. Thankfully those nights were a big success!

How has it evolved from its original goals?

Originally [the goal] was to do some fun shows and to introduce stand-up to Estonia. Our goals are not dissimilar now, except we have founded a business around Comedy Estonia, doing larger shows and private gigs. However the core remains the same, to spread stand-up across Estonia…I believe stand-up is a great way to deal with problems and this country definitely has some interesting things to talk about from the last 100 years.

Was there any kind of stand-up comedy scene in Estonia when you arrived?

Not stand-up in the American/British sense. During Soviet times in Estonia, there was a strong tradition of one-man theatre, which exists to this day. However, due to social controls by the Soviets it was very much about what was said “in between the lines.”

It was our goal to bring the international style to Estonia where it is one person writing his/her own material and standing on the stage.

Does Estonia have any comedy clubs?

Not yet. We hope to get there one day. At the current time, we have a few venues and we work closely with them to establish them as places where people come to see comedy — we don’t just perform in any club around town.

Is there one city where comedy is more prevalent? Or rather, one specific place that is the comedy capital of Estonia?

Again, the country is so small it’s hard to break it up. We run 3 shows a month in Tallinn, but also 2 shows a month in Tartu. Soon we will be getting out to other towns too.

However, while most of our shows are in English, we have started to do shows in Estonian language. I am the only dummy in our group who doesn’t speak it well, so I host in English and everyone else does their sets in Estonian. The cross-language thing works fine, Estonians understand English pretty well.

But, it is good to perform in Estonian. It is important to us to say “stand up in your own language too, it’s not just an English thing.”

What are the different kinds of programs you have?

We organize our shows on three levels: the top is our main event show, Stand Up Comedy Club at Club Prive. That has 2 international headliners and a jazz band before the show [Sidebar: the band is named “The Laugh Track”].

Eric and Louis generally host Stand-Up at Prive. Here’s a promo for the show.

Then we have the “Drink Baar Comedy Night” which is five comedians, local guys plus one international act — more knock-around, showcase style.

Then we have open mics where everyone gets six minutes and anyone can have a go. The idea is if you do well at the open mic, you get a spot at the next level up. To us it is very important that doing well is rewarded with more gigs, there’s no special glass ceiling.

We have this same structure for our shows in Finland, which is just two hours away. Also, we cross comedians a lot between the countries. If they want to travel, they can get more gigs in the next country. We have strong contacts across Scandinavia and the rest of Europe.

What has the reception been like for Comedy Estonia? Are some programs more successful than others?

The overall reception has been fantastic. When we ran the first shows we thought maybe 30 or 40 people would come out. When 170 turned up, we knew we were on to something. Our shows are regularly sold out each month, but sometimes a concept doesn’t quite work so you change it and try again.

For example, we wanted to run an open mic at a venue where we have one of our larger shows and it just wasn’t suited. So, we changed the venue to one more suitable for open mics, and now it’s much better.

The Tartu Comedy Festival?

The Tartu Comedy Festival was just the fancy-sounding name we gave to the first shows we ran. In reality, it was just us doing 2 shows in a week. We have plans for a genuine comedy festival in Estonia coming soon.

What are some of the biggest challenges in growing a stand-up comedy scene in Estonia?

Getting the word out to people. You can be so wrapped up in your comedy world you forget people haven’t heard of Comedy Estonia. Of course, because they live in the real world. Because our scene is so small, we align gigs with our Finland shows so we can bring comics out for three days at a time. But then you need to coordinate three cities and three venues in a row, all with their own priorities and needs.

How do you foster an Estonian-language stand-up community being a foreigner?

I don’t speak it because I am stupid with languages. However, my partner Stewart Johnson is an American who has lived in Estonia for 14 years and speaks fluently. The guy has a killer 30-minute set in Estonian.

Here are two clips of Johnson’s stand-up, one in English and one in Estonian.

It hasn’t been so hard to foster the scene being a non-speaker. I mean I do understand a bit and I am surrounded by good people who do speak and want to help out at every opportunity. I think it’s important to be doing this for local people. I see other shows in other European cities and they seem to just do it for the ex-pats there.

Comedy Estonia is for Estonian people; any foreigners are just a bonus.

Who are some of the most exciting Estonian comedians you have come into contact with?

I love our open mics. Seeing new people try, seeing them struggle and then get laughs. We have three Estonians who perform as part of our core: Keiu Kriit, Janika Maidle and Andrei Tuch. I’m excited two of these are girls; it’s been important to say, not only is comedy for Estonian people, it’s not just for guys too.

What’s your dream for comedy in Estonia?

We want nothing less than to change a nation. Introduce more comedy, make great events where people can come and enjoy themselves and know they can be loud, they can laugh, they can yell out stuff. These are not typical Estonian traits.

We want Estonians to perform comedy and talk about what it means to be Estonian, what about today, what about the past. I’d like Comedy Estonia to be at the front of this, putting on more shows, encouraging comedians, and being the sort of movement people want to be a part of.

* * *

This April will mark the two-year anniversary of Comedy Estonia, but they have already been reaching milestones. In December of last year they hosted their first big Estonian language show at their marquee show, Stand Up Comedy at Club Prive. Among the performers was celebrity comedian Peeter Oja, who Zezeran calls a “national icon” in Estonia. In addition to recently publishing his memoirs, Peeter Oja has appeared on stage, screen and television – often seen with his comedy group Kreisiraadio (Crazy Radio). You can find clips of their stuff collected here.

As a little bonus for you, here’s a video of Kreisiraadio performing a tongue-in-cheek song as the official Estonian entry for the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest.

Despite Oja’s vast experience, the performance at Club Prive marked his inaugural foray into stand-up comedy. Apparently, he nailed it. Which for Zezeran and company is hopefully a sign of things to come for stand-up comedy’s entry into Estonian mainstream entertainment.

It might seem presumptuous of Zezeran and Seufert that Estonians will completely embrace this traditionally American/British art form. Zezeran himself admitted that many aspects of stand-up comedy are contrary to traditional Estonian traits. What they have irrefutably built, though, is a lively outlet for multicultural exchange. While the exchange of ideas and local humor might be limited to the Scandinavian region for now, if the Comedy Estonia (and Finland) model continues to thrive as it has — these comedian entrepreneurs could be sitting at the precipice of a continental phenomenon.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

The Ex-Pat Revolutionaries of Estonia