Carmen Lynch on Translating Comedy from English to Spanish and an Unexpected Career in Standup

New York-based comedian Carmen Lynch didn’t come to the city planning to do standup, but she’s been at it for more than a decade. She’s appeared on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, as a contestant on Last Comic Standing, and recently made her second appearance on Late Show with David Letterman. The Spanish-American comedian performs primarily in English and has also translated her deadpan, personal style of comedy to audiences in Spain and Costa Rica.

You can catch Lynch performing on A Night at Whiplash, the concert movie version of the popular live standup showcase Whiplash at UCB NY that we recently released via our digital distribution label, Splitsider Presents. The film also features performances from Eugene Mirman, Janeane Garafalo, Sean Patton, Jared Logan, Michael Che, and Sheng Wang.

I talked with Lynch about Whiplash, her recent appearance on Letterman, and how she fell in love with standup comedy.

You performed for the second time on Letterman recently. How was it?

It was amazing, exciting, and still surreal the second time around. It all happens very quickly. You work on your set for months and then you’re in and out in maybe an hour. That must be what it’s like to plan a wedding and then suddenly it’s happened. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to getting married.

Did you feel more comfortable having been there before?

Ha, not really. The first time it’s so fresh, so new. I didn’t know how it was all going to go down, especially since I’d never done a late night set before. So ignorance is bliss. Then the second time all of those same exciting feelings come back, but they’re mixed with more nerves because now I know how it’s supposed to go and I feel an added pressure to do well because I’ve been asked back.

Don Rickles appeared as a guest on the show that night. How was it doing your set in front of him?

Being on the same show with him is something I will always remember. He actually had to leave so he didn’t see my set. But I met him as he was leaving, and, as I was about to go on, he asked me, “Are you a singer?” which was hilarious. It takes a lot for me to even do karaoke.

When did you first start performing in New York?

I started in 2001. I took a class because I didn’t know much about standup, and I was just curious about it. I wasn’t really looking at it as a career choice, but then I became hooked and performed for a few years. I stopped for about a year in 2005 and picked it up again a year later.

What attracted you to it initially, and what made you come back to it?

I moved to NY to act but then became frustrated because I wasn’t getting acting jobs, so I I took a standup class thinking I’ll just write jokes for other people because I never expected to want to do it myself. It just didn’t seem like I had the right personality to be a comedian. Once I tried it — and loved it  I hit the open mics regularly, and started to get things relatively quickly. I became a semi-finalist on season one of Last Coming Standing and then right after got Premium Blend. But I guess I wasn’t writing enough, and I got bored with my material and considered getting a 9-5 job and being a normal person again. But about after a year, I was unhappy with my regular job and just started going out at night and performing again. I guess I just needed to stop and see if I really wanted to live this kind of life, and I did.

What did that change in motivation or work ethic look like?

I guess I realized I wasn’t taking enough risks on stage or having any fun. I wasn’t really focused. I’d just been expecting things to happen because I thought that’s how it worked. But there’s no one behind you, telling you what to do. You have to do it all yourself, and I still constantly have to remind myself of that.

Has that habit of changing things up and doing new things been what’s kept your experience interesting the last nine years?

There’s definitely a lot more brainstorming on my part as to what else I should be doing. Like, I want to write a book. Maybe start another web series. But I’m good at starting things and not finishing them. So right now my goal is to complete things, and I’m getting better at that.

How did your web series, Apartment C3, come about?

My two roommates and I were stuck in our apartment because the subways were shut down. Hurricane Irene was apparently on her way. Chris Vongsawat, one of my roommates and a videographer, and my other roommate Liz Miele, also a comedian, were bored so we made a silly video about Liz finding me pressed to a window as a result of Hurricane Irene. After Chris edited it, we decided then and there to create a web series. So we shot 40 episodes and released one every Monday for 40 weeks. We have the weather to thank for that.

You’ve performed in English and Spanish. How did you prepare for your shows on your tour in Spain?

My friend Luismi, a Spanish comedian, invited me to open for him in six different cities, but I didn’t know of any comedy shows in New York that were Spanish where I could run my jokes before touring with him, so I just translated my jokes and tried them out at the actual shows in Spain. As I went on the tour I learned what worked and what didn’t. It was pretty challenging but also quite fun. My jokes sounded so strange in another language that it was like having a whole new set.

How was your persona different? Did you invite your family in Spain to your shows?

Performing in a different language kept me on my toes, so I think I was just me but more intense.  Although I’m fluent, I still had to put some thought into what I was saying – it didn’t all just come out as easily as English. And the word order is different, and that changes the rhythm and the timing. I also kept telling myself “you don’t live in this country, so who gives a shit?” and that made me less nervous, knowing I’d never see any of these people again. And no, I didn’t tell family where I was going to be performing. I was nervous enough.

Do you remember any jokes that didn’t translate? 

I used to do this joke about how I have a daughter who lives in Bolivia, and I pay $28 a month to feed her and send her school supplies. After trying that twice in Spain with no laughs, I stopped. I even joked around about how they must not help children if they looked so confused, and I got nothing. And that joke did well in the States, so I just dropped it. I had other jokes I could do.  But by the end of the tour, I was ready for my next tour because I knew what worked and what didn’t. Hopefully I’ll get to do it again.

What’s been your connection to Whiplash, and how did you get involved in the standup film?

I’ve been performing at Whiplash for a couple years, and that show consistently has an amazing audience and the energy is so very supportive. So when Jeremy Levenbach asked me to be a part of it, it was an easy decision.

How have you seen the New York standup scene change?

There are just so many damn good comedians now. It seems like there are more now than before. New York City can get on my nerves because it’s so intense, so crowded, and so busy, but living here and seeing all of this great standup keeps you on your toes. You want to write and write and keep up with all of the other great comics. I think it’s the best place to be writing jokes.

Does LA interest you?

When I land in LA, it absolutely does. I always tell myself, “Why the hell don’t I live here?” The weather makes me so happy, even if the traffic doesn’t. Both coasts have their benefits. But yes, if something came up in LA career-wise, I’d have no problem moving out there. And I’d have to get a car. So yeah, one day, maybe.

How have you seen or felt yourself change as a standup?

I think I’ve gotten more comfortable talking about whatever is on my mind. What I’m saying may not always be super relatable, but I think if it’s just who I am, someone will either relate or just find it funny. I try to give jokes more of a chance now instead of just giving up and moving on. Maybe I just need to word it differently. Also, if I bomb, it doesn’t kill me as much. I used to hide for three days. Now I’m down to half a day with cake.

Do you have any specific comedians who were influential to you when you were starting out?

Growing up, I watched a ton of I Love Lucy and The Carol Burnett Show. I loved anyone who was acting ridiculous, like Jack on Three’s Company or old SNL sketches. Once I started standup, Mitch Hedberg was one of my early favorites and one of the first comics I watched on Comedy Central.

There are those people with specific standup loves and aspirations, but it’s definitely interesting when you find people who have a unique voice but came to it from a different angle. 

Since I wasn’t that aware of standup before I tried it, I only followed the really famous comedians who had TV shows – Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, to name a few. When I moved to New York, I went to my first comedy show – I wish I could remember who was on the show – but I couldn’t believe these comedians could be this funny, and I wondered if they were like this all the time, off stage. I didn’t even know they were writing jokes. I thought they were just that funny and had a funny gene.

Did you find that once you started doing it that you had other assumptions that were dispelled?

I guess the biggest one was that I assumed I wouldn’t love standup that much when I first tried it, that I just had to do it to help me get acting gigs. But here I am about 12 years later and still doing it. I never expected that to happen. Ever.

Photo by Luke Fontana.

Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.

Carmen Lynch on Translating Comedy from English to […]