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Romanian musical comic Dragos aka Titus and a theory of universal comedy

I blogged about Dragoş Moştenescu almost exactly a year ago – around four weeks after he arrived in the UK from Romania.

In Romania, he was a TV star, appearing in his own hit TV sitcom La Bloc for seven years and more than 700 episodes.

This coming weekend, he will be starring in his almost two-hour show All Aboard! at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.


JOHN: You have been in the UK for almost a year now…

DRAGOS: Yes. I came to London because – first – the language. And second because – no matter what your field of work – if your performance is good, then they will accept you here. Britain – especially London – is already a mix of cultures. I like it. I have decided to move here for good, with my wife and kids, maybe next year – my son and twin daughters – non-identical. One is blonde; one is brown-haired.

JOHN: The Leicester Square Theatre event on Saturday is a one-man show?

DRAGOS: Not quite. The Romanian comedian Radu Isac is opening for me… and Luca Cupani from Italy, who won the So You Think You’re Funny contest a couple of years ago.

JOHN: Why do you bill yourself as Titus and not Dragos?

DRAGOS: Titus is my middle name and I think, when British people see a poster, Titus is easier to pronounce and keep in mind and Dragos is more East European so I think is not so appropriate whether or not Brexit happens.

JOHN: I can’t think of any big-name Romanian musical comedians in Britain. So I guess that’s your Unique Selling Proposition.

TITUS: I would try to put being Romanian to one side. I doubt that being Romanian is a selling point.

JOHN: Well, it makes you stand out from the opposition.

TITUS: I am not really trying to compete with very well-known and very talented stand-up comedians in the UK. I do not do stand-up comedy. What I do is more of a one-man show where music is involved and live piano and non-verbal moments. Like a pantomime, more-or-less. Musical comedy and non-verbal.

JOHN: So your act can appeal to anyone…

Titus/Elton as you won’t be seeing him on Saturday – possibly

TITUS: Yes, this is why I keep everything on the stage to general topics – family, kids, money, iPhones or technical things which have taken over our lives lately. I speak about Count Dracula, who is an international icon.

JOHN: And you do some songs as Elton John, who is known internationally.

TITUS: I won’t be doing Elton John on Saturday. Well, maybe as an encore. But I am trying to show people how I can combine music and comedy more generally. If I am only known for doing Elton John, I will never make a name for myself properly. Elvis Presley impersonators only get known as Elvis Presley impersonators; people do not even remember the name of the performer.

JOHN: Your Leicester Square Theatre show is an attempt to get seen by influential people.

TITUS: Yes. My next step has to be to try to get an agent, which would ease things for me. You cannot thrive by yourself.

JOHN: I heard about one agent who said they would not represent a 26-year-old performer because she was too old. Agents tend to want young, inexperienced people so they can mould them and take credit for their success.

TITUS: Being older than 26 has its downsides and upsides. My 20 years of television and performance experience means I don’t need to build up my performance or act in the same way a 26 year-old has to.

JOHN: Do you own La Bloc, the Romanian TV sitcom?

TITUS: Yes. I was not only the producer and an actor in it, but I created it. I created it from a blank page to what it became. It ran daily Monday-Thursday for roughly seven months a year over seven years – over 700 episodes.

JOHN: That’s a lot of sevens and a lot of plot lines.

TITUS: Yes. I developed a team of about ten writers.

JOHN: Not seven?

TITUS: No.

JOHN: How does British comedy differ from Romanian comedy?

TITUS: What we do not have in the Balkans so intensely or so consistently is one-liners. Here in the UK there are a lot of one-liner comedians: punchline after punchline after punchline. Short jokes one after the other.

JOHN: At the Edinburgh Fringe, the successful shows in the last ten years or more have tended to be story-based. The comics have to fill an hour and that is very difficult with just gags, unless you are Jimmy Carr or Milton Jones or Tim Vine. 

TITUS: Yes. I went up to Edinburgh this year to see shows and there were several shows like this. They were doing a type of storytelling where you do not necessarily have to laugh every two or three minutes. They build you up a little bit, then there is a good section of laughs and they end with an idea.

JOHN: And they love a bit of autobiographical tragedy in comedy shows at the Fringe. There is the ‘dead dad’ moment…

TITUS: Dead dad moment?

JOHN: The audience tends to lose concentration after about 40 minutes, so you suddenly throw in some unexpected tragedy like your father died of cancer – it has to be true – and the audience is grabbed by the throat and pay attention again. Their emotions fall off a cliff and then you build them up again to an uplifting, happy ending.

Titus: “Comedy equals Truth plus Pain”

TITUS: Yes. Comedy equals Truth plus Pain.

JOHN: Truth plus Time?

TITUS: Truth plus Pain. What is Pain? It’s Truth and, if you can extract comedy from this, that is genuine, pristine comedy.

JOHN: I suppose the classic cliché comedy gag is someone slipping on a banana skin although, in the real world, that is not funny; it’s tragedy. So you are laughing at someone else’s troubles, from relief they are not yours.

TITUS: Exactly. In Henri Bergson’s book Laughter, he breaks the mechanism down to the basics and he explains how and why people laugh. He states there that punishment or accidents apply on human subjects and…

JOHN: I guess one reason why people laugh is the unexpected. A release of tension. Even if it is tragic, like slipping on a banana skin, they will laugh because it is unexpected. People laugh at one-liners for the same reason: because the punchline is unexpected.

TITUS: Yes, the book How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not is interesting. It mentions the Rule of Three.  

JOHN: And it does always tend to be better with three. Two or four don’t work. It’s all in the…

TITUS: …timing. 

JOHN: That is universal. But if, in Romania, there was no tradition of punchline-punchline-punchline comedy, what was.… In Italy, they had Commedia dell’arte… What was the tradition in Romania or the Balkans in general? Storytelling?

TITUS: More-or-less, yes. Monologues. Not necessarily told from your own perspective, which British and American stand-up routines are. In our monologues, you can talk about something that happened to another guy or it can be pure imagination and fiction.

JOHN: We had that sort of tradition in the Victorian and Edwardian music halls and in the 1930s – Stanley Holloway and others. There are storytelling nights cropping up in London now – Spark, Natural Born Storytellers and others. Have you seen any of those?

TITUS: No. But this is what I do in my show. A sort of storytelling. I come up with a kind of a theme, make a statement, a premise, build it up a little bit, then turn to music.

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Mansplaining storyteller Dave Pickering

SennMicrophone_wikipedia

Comedy – the new rock ’n’ roll. Storytelling – the new comedy?

I’ve blogged before about the interesting rise of storytelling nights in London, one of which is Stand Up Tragedy. Their next event is this Saturday at the Hackney Attic in London.

I talked to Dave Pickering, who runs the events. He also runs a storytelling night called Spark London – next one is on Monday, also at the Hackney Attic.

When I pressed record on my iPhone, he said:

“I’m very used to being recorded. I record people all the time myself. Very few moments of my life aren’t audio form on the internet these days it seems to me.”

“Except sex,” I joked.

“There is stuff about my sex life that is online,” Dave replied. “I told a story about sex for the Risk! podcast, which Kevin Allison does in America.”

“What’s the difference between Stand Up Tragedy and Spark London?” I asked.

Dave Pickering comperes Stand Up Tragedy

Dave Pickering is compere of Stand Up Tragedy in London

Spark is true storytelling. Stand-up Tragedy is tragedy which can involve true storytelling but can also involve other disciplines.

“My podcast Getting Better Acquainted is about me trying to get to know people I know. I’ve had conversations with my stepdad, my mother, my dad, my friends about things I would never actually normally talk to them about.

“It’s been a fascinating four years of doing that show. It’s about people. For a lot of years, I didn’t really think of my day job as being very connected to outside of it. I was doing that job just to scrape by so I could do what I wanted: I was in bands; I write novels; I write plays; I do lots of different things. Which is why I call myself a storyteller: because that broadly covers all of them.”

“And your day job was…?” I asked.

“My background work-wise, day-job-wise was that I worked as a library assistant for quite a lot of years and then I slowly but surely moved into doing stories and songs for children in libraries – generally under-fives. Then that became my full-time job: I went into children’s centres on behalf of the library service, like an ambassador for the libraries. But then my job was not needed any more: it was part of the government cuts. And that’s how I ended up being a freelance storyteller – whatever that really means.

“I got involved in Spark London about five or six years ago through storytelling. I came along and told a story, got addicted to telling stories and then they decided to put me on stage getting other people to tell stories. Now I run the Hackney branch of Spark.

“We’ve go Spark Preston and Spark Bristol both starting up and we’ve got Spark Brixton and we’ve got a show in Exmouth market every month.”

“Storytelling,” I said, “is getting to be a big thing in America.”

“I think it started with The Moth,” said Dave. “A storytelling podcast. That’s the moment when storytelling hit people’s imagination. Then there are other storytelling shows in America like Risk!

Dave Pickering is a very busy storyteller

“When comedians come to perform at Stand-Up Tragedy, they find it a unsettling – laughs don’t work in the same way”

“I think it’s growing in this country too – people standing on the stage and talking – whether it’s comedy or storytelling – people want a live experience. Comedy has had storytelling moments before. It’s a pendulum, I guess. I think more comedians are moving out of the necessity to make people laugh all the time. When comedians come to perform at Stand-Up Tragedy, they find it a bit unsettling, though, because the laughs don’t work in the same way in a room where you’ve had sad things and then happy things.”

“I think,” I said, “that storytelling needs a better, sexier name to break through. Alternative Comedy took off because it had a sexy name, but Storytelling isn’t quite a strong enough name.”

“Though,” argued Dave, “once you get someone along to a storytelling show, they kinda go Wow! This is something I’ve not seen before and then they come back and, thorough that, I think it is growing. Doing Spark in three parts of London, we’re getting big audiences now.

“One of the things you get out of a storytelling show is you get to be voyeuristic about other people’s lives in a way you don’t feel guilty about and I think we all are interested in each other’s lives.”

“I have,” I said, “been involved in some autobiography books and I’ve told the people writing them: It’s not about facts; it’s about thoughts and emotions. People aren’t interested in a list of facts; they’re interested in people people people.

“With true storytelling,” said Dave, “people think it’s about narrative, but I think it’s about character. When people stand up on stage and reveal something of themselves, we forgive them if they’re clumsy with their words if they’re being genuine and authentic.”

“You are,” I checked, “doing your first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year?”

“I guess so,” Dave replied. “It’s called What About the Men? Mansplaining Masculinity.”

Dave’s Edinburgh Fringe show

Dave’s Edinburgh Fringe show: all explained in the title

“It talks about things that have hurt me because I’m a man. Being bullied. The way my mum treated me when I was growing up. The way my stepdad treated me when I was growing up. Violence and stuff. Emotional abuse. It is going to be revealing bad things that have happened to me, but also bad things I’ve done.

“I do think there’s something important in sharing the worst of ourselves as well as the best. Not just bad things but awkwardness. On stage, I try to be an awkward presence. That gives audiences permission to think: Right. We’re all awkward.

“I’ve been doing a survey of men’s experience of being a man. How patriarchy has affected them and how they’ve hurt other people. Lots of men have got very angry about the word patriarchy, but that anger’s also part of the response to my survey of nearly 1,000 men.”

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Filed under Comedy, Podcasts, Psychology, storytelling