It is a cliché that comedy is getting to be a serious business. But that won’t stop me writing it again.
This morning, I got an e-mail from Brunel University’s Centre For Comedy Studies Research saying that Palgrave Macmillan publishers are actively looking for academic comedy books. By coincidence, yesterday afternoon, I had a chat with Italian comedian Giacinto Palmieri.
He is in the first year of a three-year PhD research project for the University of Surrey at Guildford. It is on the self-translation of stand-up comedy – comedians who translate and adapt their own material from one language to another – and he had sent me a short section he had written which was centred on a blog I wrote in December about going with comedy critic Kate Copstick to the fortnightly Italian-language London comedy show Laboratorio di Cabaret – Il Puma Londinese.
“We must meet up and do a blog about it,” I told Giacinto. “It will seem like I am increasingly prestigious because my blog is in someone’s bibliography. Also, it’s the perfect academic thing – where you are studying the act of studying.”
“Well,” said Giacinto, “your blog entry was partially about the experience of watching my set. So I wrote about your blog’s reaction as part of my research and now we are discussing, for another of your blogs, my act of writing about your blog. I love circularity.”
“I think,” I said, “when this conversation becomes part of a new blog, you should write about that too in your research.”
“I will,” said Giacinto. “It will be like Escher. Mirrors inside mirrors inside mirrors.”
“And,” I suggested, “when you write some more research about this new blog, I can write another blog about that… Anyway… Why did you decide Copstick and I were worthy of inclusion in your academic research?”
“Because you were observing bi-lingual comedy and that gave me the idea of observing you observing it and analysing your perspectives and expectations.
“Copstick said of me: In Italian, it’s like someone has lit a fire under him. In English, he is black and white; in Italian, he is in colour.
“Of course there is something objective there; I am not saying it is all a projection of expectations. But comedy is not just a performance. It is always an interaction: a projection of something meeting an expectation of something. It’s a dialogue. Why is she experiencing me as more in colour? Is it because I am performing differently? Or her expectations are different? Or because she likes Italy? It is probably a mixture of all these things.
“All of us regulars at the Puma Londinese are sort-of developing our material in parallel in both languages. Some routines are born in English and translated into Italian. Some the other way round. Some stay in one language and are never translated.”
“So,” I asked, “have you done some of your English material in Italy?”
“Yes, but only in English. I want to do it in Italian now, because it’s interesting for my research. But, of course, comedy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So, if I do material in Italian in Italy, I’m also dealing with different expectations and different types of audiences, different types of comedy clubs. That bit scares me the most, because I don’t really know the comedy scene in Italy.”
I said: “You told me sometime that Italy didn’t have a tradition of stand-up, gag-telling comedy… that the tradition was character comedy…”
“and sketch comedy,” added Giacinto. “Yes. Stand-up comedy is emerging now as some sort of alternative.”
“Why research this idea of translating comedy?” I asked.
“First of all to describe the phenomenon,” explained Giacinto. “It is a subject that has never been studied: I found a gap in the scientific literature and it’s a gap I can fill because I have direct experience of it and I can observe other comedians doing the same.”
“No-one has ever done this research before?” I asked.
“Not as an oral form. There has been research about sub-titles and dubbing but none, as far as I know, about adapting stand-up comedy from one type of oral form to another. The Guardian recently published an interview with Eddie Izzard, but I don’t think the phenomenon has been studied academically.”
“Even dubbing is bizarre,” I said. “I always wonder what happens with the James Bond films, which are full of English language puns. There’s a bit in Diamonds Are Forever where a girl says her name is Plenty O’Toole and Bond says: Named after your father, perhaps? Now that must be impossible to translate because it revolves round O’Toole being a surname. I mean, in Goldfinger, presumably Pussy Galore must have had no double-meaning outside English. What was it in the Italian version?”
“I think it is kept as Pussy Galore,” said Giacinto. “In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, the character is called Alotta Fagina.”
“But translating puns in Bond films must be impossible,” I said.
“You look for a way to replicate the same kind of wordplay,” explained Giacinto. “In a way, puns are the easiest jokes to translate, because you don’t have to keep the meaning, you just create a new pun in the other language.”
“So,” I said, “it doesn’t matter what the joke is, provided there is a line which provokes a laugh at the same point in the action?”
“Yes,” said Giacinto. “Some are so brilliant in Italian, you wonder what the original was. In Young Frankenstein, there is a brilliant pun in Italian but I have no idea what the original was. A lot of things are lost in translation, but a lot of things are also found in translation. Translation is a creative activity and if it is done by creative people – by comedians and so on – it is a great chance to express new comedy ideas.”
“Have you delved into this before?” I asked.
“A few years ago, the comedian Becca Gibson organised a literary festival in Earl’s Court and invited Delia Chiaro from the University of Bologna, one of the biggest experts on the translation of humour. Becca booked me to do stand-up comedy during the event, because she knew a lot of my material was based on language. As a result, Delia invited me to do the same during a conference about translation at the University of Bologna. So I discovered there were these two fields – Humour Studies on one hand and Translation Studies on the other which, of course, overlap in Humour Translation. And I realised, if I researched the way comics translate their own material, it could be a way to bring together all these threads of interest.”
“It’s the ideal research for a stand-up comic,” I suggested. “You can write about yourself.”
“Yes,” agreed Giacinto, “I am doing research which is partly about me doing comedy, but I can also do stand-up comedy routines about me doing research about me doing comedy. I am performing my Ride of The Wagnerian show at the Leicester Comedy Festival this Saturday. I am probably skipping this year’s Edinburgh Fringe because I will be too busy with my research. But I am planning to do a show at the Fringe in 2016 about my research. My plan is to call it Giacinto Palmieri needs a PhD For It.
“You see?” said Giacinto, “The show is working already.”