One of the big names at this year's Tomatoes festival talks about the history and future of stand-up in Finland and why being the warm-up act for Eurovision isn't a joke. After more than ten years in Finland, Rich Lyons still gets the same two questions as every other foreigner and he’s got the answers down to six words - New York, married to a Finn. But what everyone should be asking is what he’s been doing in Finland. As one of the few stand-up comedians paving the way in Finland, Rich has been in the game long enough to say how the comedy scene started and where it’s going. He does bar gigs, club gigs, corporate gigs, and even arena gigs. BTSB sat down with Rich to talk comedy.
Better Than Sliced Bread: How long have you been doing stand-up? What got you started?
Rich Lyons: My first gig was maybe ten years ago, eleven anyway. But not much work back then. I did it, it was fun, occasional thing, back then you were lucky if you got maybe three or four gigs a year. And then in the last five, six years it just took off.
BTSB: This is all in Finland?
RL: Mostly. I do gigs elsewhere - Ireland, Sweden, London. I'm going to London next week.
BTSB: So what got you started doing stand-up?
RL: My friend, Riku Suokas, he's the guy who is mostly responsible for stand-up being what is here. He had some gigs and had some clubs back in the old days. It was actually a weird thing. When I came to Finland, my first thing was I wrote a ten episode sitcom (Tulta päin!) that was put on TV and Riku was an actor in it. And the producer, for some reason, lied to Riku and said, “Oh yeah, Rich has done stand-up in the States,” just for no reason. And I didn't want to lie to him, but I didn't want to blow the other guy out of the water, so I said “Well, I did a little.” I played it down and said I had done some open mic's. And he said “Oh, you have to come to my club. Do twenty minutes.” And finally he pushed, and pushed, and pushed and I went and I did twenty minutes. The first five minutes were great, the second fifteen minutes was shit, but anyway. 'Cause nobody does twenty minutes their first time out. But it was a good experience.
BTSB: So, you play shows all around Finland?
RL: Yeah. Name a city and if there's been comedy there, I've been there.
BTSB: Then the next question is what are some of the better places and some of the worse places?
RL: Uh, hell, I don't want to say "the worst" because it will offend somebody who runs it. But best places, of course, in Helsinki there are great clubs. Then there's one up in Jyväskylä called Seisomapaikka, which is a university place, and there's always 300-350 people and it feels like a real club. It's fantastic.
BTSB: Doing your routine in English, do you find it hard to make jokes for an audience whose native language is not English?
RL: Well, I'm limited in terms of I can't do much word play, things like that. I've just written several bits in the last week or so that will never work here. But I write them anyway, because when I go to London, or English-speaking places, I have a better shot. And maybe I'll try some of them here, just to see but I hate trying something that I'm pretty sure is not going to work just because there's too much language involved. I keep it universal most of the time.
BTSB: So that leads to the next question. What influences making jokes for such an audience? Are there certain things you won't say or certain things you know you can't say? How do the limits work?
RL: It's changed a lot in the last couple of years. In the early days here, comedy was in its infancy, so it's had a growing period. Back then, blue stuff, nasty stuff just didn't really work. But now it does. And it's coming along, it's slowly coming along. But I've gotten into the habit of working, I wouldn't say cleaner, but staying away from blue - I do blue occasionally - but it's broken the habit of thinking that way. And when I do blue, for me it's got to be clever anyway. You can't just get on stage and say pussy and cock and expect it to work. So I have a blue set but I mostly do that on blue nights. They have these special blue nights that are just nasty comedy. But now you don't need that anymore. You can pretty much do… it's come a long way fast.
BTSB: Where did the change come from?
RL: I think because of the internet and a lot of people interested in what's going on in comedy in other countries. I mean, I've had people come up to me and talk to me about George Carlin, and they know it. Now that stand-up has come in, they were interested enough to look around. And so now they see what's going on in the scene. And a lot of people know if you come to a comedy club you can expect anything, either feel-good comedy or rough stuff, whatever. But of course you still get older people who are coming for the first time and they might get a little jarred if you get right into the religious stuff. But the younger audience knows the deal. They see YouTube and they see some really hardcore stuff on there.
BTSB: With what you were saying about comedy growing here, how it's still kind of young and how the internet is bringing it up, when you go onstage and you see the audience, do you say to yourself, "Ok, now I can't go so deep with some of the jokes or I know I got people who are here for the first time?”
RL: Not when you just look at them. Sometimes you just feel. You start to go in one direction and maybe they're a little tight. I've been on corporate gigs where, in the early days, they would say “We want it very clean,” and I would do everything clean. Then just a little hint of something and you feel that's what people really want but the person setting it up was just nervous about it. But I've also been on corporate gigs where they've said “No, be nasty. We sexually harass each other so you can do whatever you want.” So it's come a long way. But there are some specific things, like, I have a bit about handicap parking and if I see a wheel-chaired person in the audience, I won't do it because my feeling is that the person in the wheelchair would probably love it because they want to be dealt with just like you deal with everyone else but I think the rest of the room would get really uptight. It actually happened in one gig in, I think, Oulu. I didn't know there was someone in a wheelchair way in the back and this was in a big room, like, 500 people and it was packed so I didn't know what was going on back there. So I did the bit and it got a big laugh because not everybody was so big and not everybody was aware of the wheelchair. But one of my friends who was in the back said the people around this woman in the wheelchair got a little quiet, although she was laughing. She loved it. So that kind of confirmed what I felt about it. But in a small room, I wouldn't do that, just because it's going to put everybody else off - bunch of fuckin' hypocrites.
BTSB: Pablo Francisco’s show here was not received well, despite him having a big following in Finland. Some said the problem was that his show was too rehearsed and none of his jokes were new. Granted there are a lot of Pablo's shows available online, but how do you keep a routine alive? And what's the process of adding or removing jokes like?
RL: Well, it’s just over the years. In the early days, I used to actually sit down and write, thinking “Ok, I’m going to do something about this.” Now it’s just when things come to me, just being in a situation, like, I got a couple of speeding tickets recently, so that goes in. I was up in Lapland, that’s a routine. It’s just whatever I do, usually, it brings material. I don’t sit there writing it, but life is material. So, I work that way now and if I have a joke about something specific, but it’s just one quick joke, I’m not the kind of comic who can do one-offs. There are some that do it and do it really well, but I don’t like to do that. So if I get a specific joke that’s like a one-off but I have other material from the past that is on the same subject, I’ll put it in. The old material, I’ll revamp it with the new stuff.
BTSB: When you do think of new stuff, is it hard to throw out something that you know is going to be funny or something that has always been a hit?
RL: It’s heartbreaking. Something I love, that I’ve been using, I hate to part with it. But there comes a time… And that’s how I mark time now. I remember when I did this joke for the first time and I’m like “Oh, fuck, it’s been a year already. I’m gonna have to let that go soon.” Unless it’s a new town, where I’ve never been or a new club. Even if it’s in the same town, if you’re in a different club, it attracts different people. But the stressful part is always coming up with new stuff.
BTSB: And trying new stuff?
RL: Trying new stuff, memorizing it, if it’s kind of complex, sometimes I do things with lists of things. And I’m lazy by nature. But then once you have it, once you’ve done it a couple of times and you know it works, it’s like finding gold.
BTSB: So, in your last few shows, how much of the stuff was new?
RL: Well, in the last couple of shows, there wasn’t that much new stuff in terms of in the last year I wrote a decent percentage of it. And since then I’ve been making notes. So what I try to do, the way I work is, we have this festival in Hämeenlinna called Tomatoes [Tomaatteja tomaatteja - April 21-24] and it’s every May and it’s the biggest comedy festival in the Scandinavian countries, so I work all year coming up with enough new stuff for that show. Then when fall comes again I start seeing what I can put in, make new, and all that. I have got a lot of work, though. I have a lot of material but now I have to put in to some kind of semblance to see what I’m going to do for the festival this year. But I think I have enough new stuff. I try not to repeat too much from the year before.
BTSB: Tell me about this festival.
RL: It’s three or four days with some international acts too, some pretty big names - Rich Hall has been there and Colin Murphy, one of the biggest acts in Ireland. It’s in restaurants and bars, but also theatre. There are two new venues this year. All the information will be on their website [www.tomaattejatomaatteja.com] and tickets go on sale in the beginning of April.
BTSB: The stand-up comedy scene in Finland is so young it's almost non-existent. What is this like from the comedian’s point of view? How has the scene changed over the years?
RL: Well, now it exists. I mean, of course, if you compare it to London or New York, but you got to take it per capita, I mean there’s five million people here and some really small towns, but it’s amazing that a comic can actually live [in Finland] on just doing comedy. It’s not, like I say, it’s a small percentage, there may be twenty or twenty-five of us that do nothing else but stand-up. But I never thought that would be the case.
BTSB: So, how has the scene changed over the years?
RL: It’s just gotten more and more popular. I guess TV might have helped it a bit although everybody’s who’s seen stand-up on TV say “Oh, it’s so much better in person.” But it’s made people interested enough to come and check it out and people do go. Like the night I met you [after a gig in Painobaari], some girl was there and she said “Oh, I saw you two weeks ago at such-and-such place.” So there are people that follow. And she thanked me. She said it was great that I did different material than what she saw. Because Painobaari is a place that I haven’t been to in years, so I figured I could mix it up and do anything. So, I don’t just do the same set every time but it depends on where I’m playing and all that. Lately I’ve been trying to mix it up.
BTSB: Do you think the stand-up scene in Finland is going to eventually grow into something like New York or London, where comedians can play arenas?
RL: I don’t know… [Laughs.] It depends.
BTSB: Like, is it going to blow up into something big or is it going to be mostly a crowd following?
RL: That’s how I foresee it, but who knows. It’s very hard to say. I mean, I had two arena shows. Did I talk about it, the Eurovision song contest? [BTSB: No.] Ok, well I was the warm up comic. 9,000 seats in Hartwall Arena. And I talk about this in stand-up. And they didn’t tell anybody that there was a warm-up show. So it was 9,000 empty seats. And they made me do it anyway.
BTSB: And you’re onstage in front of just the camera men?
RL: Yeah, the sound crew and the camera men and they’re just sitting around looking at me like “What the fuck is the point?” And you maybe have fifteen people there, thirty there, but it’s like 9,000 seats, it’s like being in an empty place. And to make it more embarrassing, my face was up on the big screen… [Laughs.] So then I, uh, the first night I was really depressed. I was hoping this would be a big break. 9:30 I get in my car, I’m driving home, I figure I’ll stop at a bar and have a drink, try to forget the whole fucking thing. 10:00 I walk into a bar and there it is on their big screen and there’s 9,000 screaming fucking people that weren’t there a half hour ago. But thank god my thing wasn’t televised, though, because it was just a warm-up show. It’s weird though, I actually did hear an occasional laugh from, like, about a mile away. But that’s humiliating. And twice I had to do it.
BTSB: So what’s it like when you try something new and it doesn’t go over well, but you get a laugh from somebody, like there’s someone in the back that just bowls over?
RL: Yeah, that could happen. And especially, I could always tell when there was somebody who was either a native English speaker or they’ve been an exchange student, because even though I know there’s some little turn of phrase or just the way you say something that can really give a joke that extra oomph, just that little edge or a little sarcasm. And I could always tell because people would laugh at the general joke but then I hear somebody give it that extra. And I’ve talked with them, “Yeah, I’ve spent time there” or whatever. And it really depends on the audience. Either they’ll get those little quirky things that take it that extra step to make it really funny. Or they just won’t and they’ll just laugh at the general idea. But that’s the thing about playing to an audience where it’s the second language, you know, you have to… I’ve learned to accept that. And I still throw in the things that make me laugh, just because I do it for me and hopefully there will be somebody there that’ll appreciate the little nuances and things.
BTSB: Well, if you figure that most of the people that are coming now are watching comedy and most of the comedy out there is in English, so if they’re watching enough of it they’re going to get these jokes.
RL: Yeah, and you just do the best you can. Like, some jokes will work one night, mostly the ones you know and you love most, they work all the time. But there are some that will work and not work and it just depends on the audience.
Some of Rich's upcoming shows: Vaasa April 18 Kitteä April 19 Tampere April 26 Tampere May 21 Turku May 22 Hämeenlinna May 23 & 24 Kuopio June 6 & 7 London June 25th - 28th
[tags]Rich Lyons, stand-up, Finland, Tomatoes festival, Tomaatteja tomaatteja[/tags]