The Language of Stand-up Comedy

Ten comedians from around the world reflect on the challenges of translating their act to English.

Flula Borg, Vir Das, Bassem Youssef, and Gad Elmaleh. Photo: Vulture and Getty Images
Flula Borg, Vir Das, Bassem Youssef, and Gad Elmaleh. Photo: Vulture and Getty Images

Taking the stage and sharing their best five minutes is already as terrifying an experience as any stand-up comedian is likely to white-knuckle their way through. Now imagine partaking in that self-inflicted humiliation in a foreign country speaking a language you’re still learning. This is the life of countless stand-up comics who have made the leap from their native land and decided to ply their comedic trade in their second — or in some cases fourth — language, English.

For many comics, it’s the natural progression from the corner they’ve carved out in their native homeland. For high-profile performers like Gad Elmaleh, the anointed “Jerry Seinfeld of France,” it was the last remaining milestone in a landmark career in comedy. Either way, it’s a considerable challenge that starts with taking on a working understanding of a foreign language. But the journey to America’s ruthless stand-up clubs doesn’t end there. The path also requires gaining a working understanding of the tone and nuance of Western comedy as well as a familiarity with certain cultural cues.

Even after mastering these elements, it doesn’t take long for most foreign-tongued comedians to realize that a word-for-word translation of their best material simply won’t do. Translating your act to English, be it in the U.S. or the U.K., typically involves a far greater degree of complexity — a unique wrinkle that took Elmaleh two years to fully understand when he came to the United States and established an English-language act.

In order to grasp the enormity of this career pivot, Vulture spoke with ten different comedians, including Elmaleh, hailing from a cross-section of nations. Some grew up functionally bilingual, while others had to learn English from scratch. All overcame linguistic, cultural, and a variety of other hurdles to translate their acts for an English-speaking audience, which can potentially take their act from quiet clubs to packed theaters. They addressed a variety of topics, including the beauty of foreign accents, how American and British audiences are simultaneously more and less approachable, and why Germans aren’t exactly known for their sense of humor.

Gad Elmaleh

Native Tongue: French, Arabic, and Hebrew

Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for GOOD+ Foundation

In the beginning, I would write my material in French and then I would give it to a translator so then he could give it to me in the right English. And every time I gave him ten pages, he would give me back seven pages. I was like, “There is some material missing, no?” Then I discovered the English language is so quick, efficient, and short. You don’t have to use that many words. But an interesting fact is there are more words in the English language than in French.

Also, words in English mean what you hear. They don’t mean something else. In Arabic it’s very complicated, in French it’s complicated, in Hebrew too. Also, some expressions make my life much easier. In the beginning, I would say to someone, “I understand what you are trying to explain to me.” The day I discovered “Got it,” I was so happy. In French, it takes so many words to say you understood what the people are telling you.

I have to say, I was really surprised in a good way to see that you can make fun of Americans in front of them and they’ll patiently laugh. It means comedy is in the culture. More than the French, they agree to be self-deprecating.

If I go back to America, I would love to write a bit about how I started to do comedy in English two years ago and I just had to talk about my accent. But now that I know English, [and] my accent is not that strong, I need jokes. I used to be this sweet, cute little French guy trying to do things in English, and it was charming. Now that I speak English, it’s not enough.

Bassem Youssef

Native Tongue: Arabic

Photo: Tara Ziemba/Getty Images

[Comedy] is a third language. You can be the best English speaker out there, but that’s a third language. It’s timing, delivery, pacing, cadence, references, knowing your audience, reading the room, voice pitches. I don’t say that I got all of that, but I started learning the hard way, and I started recording myself. I knew that my jokes were funny, but I didn’t know why people didn’t laugh. I listened to myself and I was saying the jokes, not telling the jokes.

I think this was more a personal journey, much deeper than being funny or not. Dealing with your insecurities. Accepting that you, at the age of 45, are doing something that people in their 20s are doing. After being an established doctor, after being the most famous person in your own region, and you’re coming here and starting from scratch. It’s scary, but it’s very fulfilling to expand your mind and expand your ability to continue to learn something new.

The funny thing is that I cannot do stand-up in Arabic. I can’t. It’s crazy now that I’m thinking in English. People tell me, “We want you to do stand-up in Arabic,” and I sit down and write and I don’t find it in me. I’m not saying I won’t, but it’s crazy that I’m in a place where I’m developing myself in English.

Flula Borg

Native Tongue: German

Photo: Jim Spellman/Getty Images

In Germany, I am not considered funny. I’m just considered very German. Just another one of those guys waiting in line at the supermarket purchasing fresh blueberries. That was always what it was like in Germany.

German, I think, has some very interesting words. For example, we have something called treppenwitz. It means “staircase joke.” Let us say you and I are having a debate and we are insulting each other, and you say something really good to me and I feel stupid. As I’m leaving your apartment, I’m going down the stairs, and then this is when I realize a nice comeback for you. It’s too late. I’m in the staircase. This is what is wonderful about German.

I would say German has some more interesting words, but English has the most dope slang. There are many slangs I think are weird and fun, and I have explored some of these many times after a techno session in my automobile. [There was] a colleague I had who was called Jennifer, and I heard people saying in my office as I worked there that she was a real party-pooper. I did not understand how people know that she poops at parties. This should not be something people would know.

Our word structure is very different. In German, often the verb is at the very end. So if you are telling a joke in German, there is a very long delay sometimes, because you do not know where this is going. What will happen in the end? In English, it is not like this. So this can make a structure of storytelling or a weird joke feel very different.

Vir Das

Native Tongue: Hindi and English

Photo: Rick Kern/Getty Images

I write in Hindi for movies and series and that stuff. I feel like you have to do stand-up in the language that you think. And for me, that is English. I think I could write [stand-up in Hindi], but it wouldn’t be as good because it’s not the first thought that you have. It would be derivative.

In terms of thinking in one language and writing in another, the one difference is in Hindi you have to get to the punch line and get to the laugh faster. I think Hindi is just a more direct language than English in those terms. There are more direct ways to convey any emotions or what you want to convey in Hindi.

Different areas of the world throw different things at you. I think people laugh in Norway at things that they wouldn’t laugh at in France or that they wouldn’t laugh at in London. All of a sudden, it starts to be clear that if one joke works in 17 different countries unequivocally, then that really is a good joke and it’s culture agnostic. Then you try and write more jokes like that.

Language is a bubble at the end of the day. Whether I speak Hindi or not, I have an Indian face to my English. I have an Indian cadence to my English, Indian pronunciation, I pause at different points, and that’s dictated by who I am. Even my English is different from your English, and that’s very visible onstage. That’s an entity that I own.

Jocelyn Chia

Native Tongue: Mandarin and English

Photo: YouTube

When I do my jokes in Asia, even if I do it in English, things have to be changed or shaped or just completely cut out just so it can culturally translate. Because it’s very tiring going to a different country and writing a whole new set for them.

You always want to end on the funny word. In English that is very easy to do. The reason why Germans are known for not having the greatest sense of humor, linguistically what I’ve heard is it’s harder for them based on the syntax of their language to put the punch line at the end. So German humor ends up being pretty different from English humor.

In English, you do have to get to the punch line faster. I don’t know if it’s different in any other language. It could be a cultural thing because in Asia, in the U.K., in Australia, audiences can be more patient. They’re willing to let you go on a little bit longer. So I don’t think it’s a language thing, I think it’s a cultural thing.

[In English, if] you start any line with “Bitch!” you’re going to get a laugh. In Singapore, for those who speak Mandarin, if somebody pisses you off you just have to say, “Ta ma de!” which is like our cuss word for “your mother.” They always laugh.

Singaporeans talk really fast. I have to remind myself to speak more slowly. We speak quickly, so I have to slow down a little in America. Especially having an accent, it just helps them understand more. So I have to consciously slow down in America. At least, I try to.

Francisco Ramos

Native Tongue: Spanish

Photo: YouTube

When I think of bits, I think in English; I write them in English. There’s no translating. I actually do the opposite: I take bits that work in English and try to translate them to Spanish and see if they work.

English is a very short, right-to-the-point language, which is why stand-up works. With stand-up, it’s finding the word that could get to your point faster, to get to the joke faster. The more you talk, the more people are like, Hurry up, get to the point.

One of the things I’ve found that is most challenging is in Spanish there is Central and South America and Spain. Everybody has their own way of talking, accents, and different words that they use. For me it’s finding the word that everybody understands. If I do a bit in Spanish and I use Venezuelan slang or Venezuelan words, then people from Mexico or Colombia are not going to get it. Spanish allows you to talk more, and the audience kind of respects that or is used to that. In English, you’ve got to go fast.

I definitely have my Venezuelan accent, but I try to neutralize it as much as possible in order for anyone to understand me. If I speak too fast, some people might not understand what I’m saying. When I started doing stand-up, I would always remind myself, Go slow. Because I speak fast already, so if you speak slow people will understand you. It’s not like you’re speaking slow, you’re speaking normal.

Ismo Leikola

Native Tongue: Finnish

Photo: Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images

It’s easier to talk about America to Finnish people than the other way around. Everybody knows something about America, but nobody knows shit about Finland. Sometimes the idea and the joke or the observation can be translated, but for some reason it’s only funny in one language. That’s the mystery.

For example, this is a bit I’ve been doing about the phrase “If I’m completely honest” and wondering about that. We have the saying in Finnish, but in Finnish everything is in passive form. So in English it’s “If I’m completely honest” and in Finnish it’s like “If honesty is happening.” So things like that — some parts of that bit can be translated, but some can’t be translated.

Even if you find the exact translation of something, there might be hidden feelings. Kind of like the tone, which can be completely different or wrong. It’s really hard to tell the tone in a second language. Sometimes you just don’t know the word and you just have to ask.

I’m actually planning to do this social-media post about some of the silliest expressions that we use regularly [in Finnish]. We say, “Not even with an axe.” Like, “I couldn’t pass that car, not even with an axe.” Meaning I just couldn’t do it. It’s really ridiculous. How would an axe help unless it was with killing something? We use that in everything. Like you need an axe to do everything. It could be, “I couldn’t find my keys, even with an axe.”

There are way sillier ones. The amount of words we have for a penis, for example. There are so many and they are so funny. There’s lots in English, too, but they are too weird. Like “wiener.”

Christian Schulte-Loh

Native Tongue: German

Photo: Comedy Store/Wikipedia

In other European countries, people think Germans have just no sense of humor whatsoever. I wasn’t really aware that this was such a big thing, but apparently it was and still is. When I say that I’m German, people who haven’t seen me before think that’s funny that a German can be a comedian. They think Germans can be funny, but not intentionally.

I think I have two comedy brains. I write stuff in German and I write stuff in English, because I do very different material when I’m gigging in German compared to when I’m gigging in English. If I do a one-hour show, maybe ten minutes of that would be the same in both languages. The rest would be completely different.

You get away with more stuff in English. In England, if you said “Shut the fuck up” to somebody in the front row, that would be something that you hear quite often in Britain. People would even laugh. If you literally said that in German, it would be too harsh. [It’s] the same with certain jokes. In Britain, they drink more, so there is more energy in the room; it’s rougher. If people don’t like the act they start to interrupt, and then they get up and have a drink. In Germany, they watch it and sit through it.

There’s the famous line: Germans are too honest to be polite, and Brits are too polite to be honest. I think in Britain there is more coding, sarcasm. In Britain and America, if you say “I love this guy,” it doesn’t mean you love the person. You like the person. In Britain, I think the entire society is being held together by sarcasm. It’s a very important tool to use.

Rafi Bastos

Native Tongue: Portuguese

Photo: Vanessa Carvalho/Shutterstock/Vanessa Carvalho/Shutterstock

A few jokes you can translate and they work in English as well. When you talk about marriage and dating and Tinder, those subjects are international. Talking about my kid and pregnancy — we are the same in those areas. Those jokes work on the same level. Of course, you have to change a little bit, find the right word, find the right verb. There is a math behind the joke, and I respect the math when I’m translating.

In order for me to do a joke in English, I have to be completely memorized to make it look fresh. I can change the rhythm, I can make it quicker and make it slower. I can play with the joke. If I’m not memorized, I’m thinking so much in the way I’m going to say it that it looks memorized. It’s crazy. It’s almost like reverse psychology.

What I think is amazing is there is a likability to a foreigner talking in English. In my language I am considered an asshole. In English, there is a likability behind the way I speak, and I’m taking advantage of it. I don’t feel I’m starting again writing the material, but also, I found a new perspective on my own personality talking in a different language. That’s the craziest thing for me.

I feel clubs treat us as a special type of comedian: We need to have a woman and we need to have a foreigner. It’s almost like a brand. So that’s what I’m trying to run away from. Because otherwise I’m a category. I don’t want to be a category.

Yuriko Kotani

Native Tongue: Japanese

Photo: SOPA Images/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

I don’t think in Japan we even call it “stand-up comedy.” It’s more like two people talking, like a double act. One person just talking and doing set-up and punch line was very difficult for me at the beginning, because in Japan you say something and then the other person says something. It’s different.

Right now my rhythm is an English rhythm. In my case it’s about rhythm, so when I’m writing or thinking material, it’s in English. I must write it down in English. One time a while ago, I MC-ed in Japan in Fukuoka. So I translated my English set into Japanese. Some stuff got laughs, but one bit I did the joke and the audience went “Uuuhh.” They acknowledged the information. It’s live and learn.

As a Japanese thing — this is not comedy, but it’s a general thing — swear words were very interesting. Like the F-word. For example, in movies people say, “Fuck you.” But this F-word can be used for everything. Like, “This fucking chair.” It becomes an adjective? Or “Fuck off.” It becomes something like “Get out” or some similar meaning. In Japan, we have swear words or something to say harshly or make others feel bad. But the F-word can be used in many ways.

It is difficult, but it is awesome when you get a laugh. It is just tremendous. Anyone who wants to do it, I’m telling you, please do it. Sometimes you hear someone say it’s not good enough doing it in a second language. Ignore those people. Just go for it.

The Language of Stand-up Comedy