Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mackenzie Taylor, RIP

Last August at C Venues. among so much theatre and some comedy sketch groups, the only solo stand-up shows on offer were mine and Mackenzie Taylor's two shows. I didn't know him, but I got in touch before the festival and he came to see my first performance, answering my cry of help for the presence of two critics. I met him only briefly at the bar afterwards, thanked him for coming and mumbled something vaguely apologetic, to which he didn't reply, probably charitably so. The day after I went to see one of his shows: "No straitjacket required". It was the story of his battle with manic-depression and his attempted suicide and I found it compelling and moving. It was at moments very funny too, although it was wisely listed in the "Theatre" section of the program. I must admit, however, that it reminded me of what Ivor Dembina once told me about his own take on "not for comedy" subjects matters: you need to be careful of not being "too real". Probably the reason why the show wasn't listed as comedy is that it was indeed still "too real". Of course it might be the advantage of hindsight, but I got the impression that Mackenzie's wasn't too confident in the possibility of the irony and laughter to do that much for his pain, a lot of it was just laid bare on the stage, making sometimes for difficult viewing. This made it a truly unique type of show, in theatre proper in fact you know that every is fake, while here you had the sincerity of the best confessional comedy, but performed sometimes without the emotional safety net that comedy usually provides. Mackenzie was also running a second show called "Joy", with the intention I guess of offering a more upbeat take on things, unfortunately it clashed with mine so I couldn't see it. But I saw a short extract from it during the C Venues opening showcase: a funny and masterful comic magician's trick that did indeed show me a more playful side of Mackenzie. The idea of running two solo shows everyday for almost a month filled me with awe, unfortunately a week or so into the run I overheard some venue's staff discussing the scheduling for the rooms and saying something like "now that Mackenzie Taylor is dead". I asked them what they meant and they told me that they didn't mean it literally, but that he had some sort of breakdown and cancelled his run. And I didn't hear from or about him until yesterday, when on Facebook his sister announced from his account that he had "lost his battle with the demons in his mind". I cannot claim to have really known him, our paths crossed only briefly, but through his art he gave me and so many other people a truly deep glance into this battle. As cliché as it might sound, I'm very sad for him but also happy that he found peace at last.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


As a diary of my Edinburgh experience(s) this blog doesn't see much action outside August and the months leading to it. Instead, it's becoming a dump for my (failed) contributions to Chortle. This time it's an interview with the founder of ComdeySubs, a group of people who volunteer their time to write Italian subtitles for English language stand-up comedy DVDs. Unfortunately the editor of Chortle found that the subject didn't meet the requirement of being of sufficiently general interest (in his words: "it would interest only you and Giada Garofalo"), so here it is instead. One thing I didn't say is that I'm now collaborating with ComedySubs myself (I have just finished my first complete DVD translation, not released yet, and started on a second), in fact I didn't want the article to sound too self-referential. On the other hand, self-referentiality is practically mandatory in blogs, so I'm saying it here instead. Staying on the subject, on the ComedySubs website you'll find an inteview with me (in Italian), with a link to this blog. Be careful of not being caught in an infinite loop!


Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining. In my previous
contribution to Chortle I wrote on how disappointed I felt watching a
documentary on how one of my favourite Italian comedians, Daniele
Luttazzi, had stolen most of his material from English speaking
comedians. That same documentary, however, made me curious about the
people credited for adding Italian subtitles to the clips from
American and British comedians used to show the extension of those
“loans”. I had a look at the website and I was
amazed to discover a community of people so passionate and competent
about English speaking comedy to volunteer their time to write Italian
subtitles for many of the most classic stand-up comedy shows available
in DVD. Users can download the subtitles file for free and display
them along with their DVD on their computer. The catalog is impressive
and include the greatest names of comedy, such as Bill Hicks, George
Carlin and Billy Connolly. I then decided I wanted to know more and
share the news, so here is a brief interview with the founder of
ComedySubs, Roberto Ragone, aka ReRosso.

- How did you come up with the idea of ComedySubs?

A couple of years ago I was watching “Zeitgeist”, a web documentary
that includes George Carlin’s routine about the "Invisible Man". I
thought "Hey... this is a routine by Daniele Luttazzi, how come it's
in English?!". So I did some research and I found out about Carlin. I
had never heard of him before, in Italy he's not famous at all. When I
watched his version of the Invisible Man routine, I was awestruck. It
was so much better than Luttazzi's version! I just had to translate it
and share it. So I I added subtitles to the video and shared it on my
personal blog. After that, I translated other bits by Carlin, then
Bill Hicks, Billy Connolly and Ellen DeGeneres. My audience enjoyed it
and so, with the help of a friend, I decided to make the subtitling
project autonomous from my blog. And ComedySubs was born.

- Some people think that stand-up comedy is impossible to translate.
Your experience seems to demonstrate the opposite, doesn’t it?

I'd say that sometimes comedy is indeed impossible to translate. It's
really hard to convey a comical idea in the small space of a subtitle
line, especially when it involves a cultural background that is really
far from the the viewer’s. Most of the times we pull that off quite
well, but sometimes we have to resort to using annotations to
"explain" the cultural references behind a joke. We try to keep the
amount of these explanations to a minimum, but we prefer doing so
rather than going too far in the adaptation.

- Who is your audience? Do you think there is much interest in Italy
about stand-up comedy in English?

Our audience is made mostly of comedians and comedy authors.
Apparently Italian comedians love us because we allow them to gain a
deeper understanding of English language comedy with little effort,
for them ComedySubs is like a library where they can go and study
comedy techniques. Of course our audience also includes "normal"
people, who don't work in comedy. Italians, however, are not really
subtitle fanatics - we like our movies dubbed - so I'd say that our
target audience is some sort of a niche, but it's growing fast.

- I hope that this time those Italian comedians will not borrow so
heavily from the library! Actually, some people think that the
internet is making stealing jokes easier, but I think it's opposite,
you can't steal a joke if people know its real paternity. Do you

I totally agree. By popularising this material we also make it very
hard to steal from it. We are very well known in the Italian comedy
industry so any comedian copying from shows we published subtitles for
would be exposed by their colleagues from the very start.

- So far you have translated mainly American comedians. Did this
happen by chance or by choice?

A bit of both. Even though the USA are further away than England, in
Italy American culture, society and politics are more widely known.
It's because of Hollywood and the American TV shows, which are very
popular... well... everywhere. This makes easier for both the Italian
translator and the Italian viewer to grasp the cultural references.
Moreover, American comedians don't use the same amount of wordplay as
the British ones and jokes with wordplay are probably the most
difficult to render. In any case we're trying to improve our British

- You provide only the subtitles, inviting your audience to buy the
DVD. I noticed that you are very careful about never promoting file
sharing, but I got the impression that this is the way most people get
hold of the video anyway. Can you confirm?

Yes, of course people do a lot of downloading. We don't support it but
it's their choice. Personally I think that in a perfect world ideas
and art would be shared freely but there is a law and comedians of
course need to make money out of their job. So we invite people to buy
DVDs. I think it can work, for example many of our followers bought
Eddie Izzard’s DVD collection because it comes with Italian subtitles.

- Which brings me to my next question: I heard that you are trying to
enter deals with DVD production companies to include your subtitles on
their products, Can you confirm? Maybe you can launch an appeal.

Yes, we made some cautious approaches but it's not easy when you don't
know which door to knock on. So, my dear copyright holders, if you'd
like to open a brand new market for your products, with 60 million
potential buyers, on a very small investment, just contact us

Good luck with that. Thank you Roberto for your answers and thanks to
all the people who collaborate with ComedySubs for giving me, at last,
some very good news from my native Italy.