Stand-Up, Croatia

If the cerulean waters of the Adriatic Sea aren’t enough to compel you to visit Croatia, then perhaps a burgeoning comedy scene will tip your scales in its favor. If you head inland from the beaches of the aforementioned sea, you will reach Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia and home to the country’s first ever comedy club. Though modern Croatia is barely two decades old — its nationhood was officially recognized by the European Union and United Nations in 1992 — Croatian culture dates back nearly fourteen centuries. It’s unclear in which century humor entered the picture, but for the past six years live comedy has enjoyed a growing popularity amongst Croatians.

A document on Croatian culture created by cross-cultural consultancy Communicaid defines Croatian humor as follows:

“Croatians enjoy irony and dark humour and will often laugh at difficult situations and personal flaws. Croatians find humour in sarcasm and do not typically change their tone of voice or facial expression when telling a joke. For these reasons, it can be difficult for foreigners to understand Croatian humour. Croatians tend to tease others, especially foreigners, but mean no ill intent and expect you to behave the same towards them.”

Studio Smijeha, which translates as “studio of laughter,” officially opened its doors this past April, but has long been an active organization in the Zagreb stand-up world. Croatia’s first female comedian, Marina Orsag, with the help of Slovenian stand-up, Andrej Težak-Tešky, founded the seminal club. While Zagreb boasts an increasing number of comedy venues and shows, Smijeha is the first and only club devoted exclusively to comedy. It currently hosts four to five shows a week; two professional nights, an Open Mic night, an amateur night and Tuesdays are always reserved for their monthly foreign guest comedian. The Studio also has eight resident stand-up comedians who perform every week. I had the opportunity to speak with one of the eight, Andrea Andrassy.

How did you get started doing stand-up comedy?

It was a spontaneous decision after seeing some of my [now] colleagues perform, and I decided to go give it a try on Open Mic night. I was lucky enough to meet Marina Orsag, who welcomed me with open arms and gave me some excellent advice on how it all works. I won Open Mic night and started performing as a guest comedian in the Studio.

How would you describe your performance style?

I’m still searching for my on-stage persona, but I try to be as natural as I can. I’m a total mood swinger, so I can be really happy at one show, and be crankier than Denis Leary on another. The most important thing to me is being honest with myself and the audience, because I could fake happiness when I’m not in the mood, but they will never buy it. I used to be a fan of demented humor resembling Sarah Silverman’s style, but I toned it down and tried to explore other areas, since the audience wasn’t too receptive of a tiny girl with a potty mouth.

How long have you been doing it?

I have been doing it for a year and a half now, and thanks to the guidance of my mentor and the overall great atmosphere in the club, I believe I have progressed quite a bit since my first Open Mic. I have become a resident of the club and the second professional female comedian in Croatia, and I have recently expanded my stand-up to English as well, and did a mini tour with a UK comedian, Vince Atta. A year and a half is not much, and I have a lot to learn, but I believe that our way of doing things in the club will help me flourish and prosper comedy-wise.

I hate asking this question, but is it more difficult as a female to be accepted as a stand-up comedian or are [Croatian] audiences pretty receptive to everyone?

Croatia is a traditional country, so the audience does tend to get a little judgmental when it comes to female comedians. But a quality comedian is able to turn a disadvantage into an advantage, and as much as I sometimes do get trouble for being a woman, there are also a lot of things I can get away with. And exactly because I sometimes have to work a little harder to get people, especially men, on my side, once I do it’s that much sweeter for me. I love it when a man comes up to me after a show and says I changed his perspective on women in comedy.

What do you think makes live comedy unique in Croatia?

Comedy in Croatia is specific and unique, because we’re sort of limited since there aren’t many clubs we can perform in. To draw a parallel, an American comedian can tour the States for a year, even more, with 20 minutes of material he wrote, while we have such limited options we are practically forced to constantly write new material.

The Studio’s policy regarding material is 20 minutes of new jokes every month, and our audience knows that they can visit us repeatedly and never hear a joke they heard before. It can be hard, but it keeps our brains sharp and we are constantly trying to improve ourselves, and I believe the result is more than visible. We even have a group of enthusiasts in the Studio who come only on premiere nights of new material, because they love to see us sweat.

We also do gigs a lot in Slovenia, and we do gigs in English in other countries as well, so we are bilingual funny people.

How would you describe the Croatian sense of humor?

It’s more of an individual thing I would say, some of us are more oriented towards dark jokes, some of us are more into light themes, but the one thing that is common to us all is that we love joking about ourselves. Be it our appearance, heritage, accent or just making fun of our general flaws is one of our favorite things to do on stage, and we all love communication with the audience, especially with those prone to heckling.

How would you describe the current comedy scene in Croatia, generally speaking?

The Croatian comedy scene is really blooming at the moment… Stand-up comedy in its purest form has been present in Croatia for over six years, but we are constantly struggling for it to become more mainstream, which is starting to happen now.

Can you talk a little bit about the Panč festival?

Panč Festival is a Slovenian project founded by Andrej Težak-Tešky in 2008, which also included Marina Orsag as a guest from Croatia. The two sat down after an excellent show, and began collaborating in terms of bringing the festival to Croatia. The festival has been active in Croatia since 2009, counting more visitors each year.

The concept of the festival is a three-day stand-up mix of comedians from the entire [Balkan] region, as well as international comedians from all over the world. This year we had a comedy-musical act at the end of the show, and people really enjoyed it. Its primary goal is to introduce stand-up to a broad audience, and those people often continue going to our shows. It has been held in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Zadar, and we hope to expand it to other cities as well.

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According to Andrassy, Ivan Šarić is the most famous comedian in Croatia today. In addition to stand-up gigs around Zagreb and elsewhere, he hosts the Croatian equivalent to American Idol called Hrvatska traži zvijezdu, or “Croatia is searching for a star.” If you Google him you will find many videos of his stand-up like the one below (in Croatian, sorry tourists), and also that he shares his name with an archbishop, a chess player and an aviation pioneer — he is none of those people.

You will also likely find Ivan, as well as Andrea, Marina and a host of other Croatian comedians at next year’s Panč Festival. If you were hoping to catch it this year, you just missed it. But you can check out Stand-Up for details about the festival in August, along with updates on all things Balkan comedy. And if you’re feeling so inspired, you can check out the festival website from ’09 which features bios on all of the stand-up comedians from that year…in English!!! I try to make it easy for you where I can.

The comedy scene is still young in Croatia, and Zagreb seems to be the main metropolitan hub for now. A diverse range of cable and IPTV options have only recently become available in cities, and the film industry is relatively small and mostly supported by government grants. The fight to become mainstream that Andrassy describes seems ever present, especially for anyone looking to create new content — particularly for comedy, which has to compete with subtitled Western imports that cost a mere licensing fee.

It is difficult for me to imagine stand-up comedy’s very existence in a country to be only six years old, but mostly I find it quite exciting to witness a new evolution of comedy at its birth.  Mainstream may be the end game for Croatian comedy, but for now the comedy scene in Croatia can already guarantee 20 new minutes of material from every comedian every month. That’s a feat “primetime” can’t offer.

For all you young Twitter-snappers out there, you can follow Studio Smijeha and Andrea Andrassy.

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

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