“I am from Croatia,” Pedja Bajovic shouts as he walks into the bright spotlight on stage at the Market Theater.
His opening line is no joke (a good thing because the audience didn’t laugh). Bajovic is indeed Croatian.
He’s in town for the Seattle International Comedy Competition, his first-ever performance in the US.
Like all the other performers Bajovic needs to make the audience giggle. But first he has to build a level of trust to make them feel comfortable enough to laugh.
Ron Reid, who has produced the competition for 15 years and is producer of this year’s show, explained that one of difficulties that comes with performing in front of a US audience as a foreigner is the audience’s own self-consciousness.
“There’s something in the back of your head as an American audience member if you see somebody who is doing standup comedy in English but its not their native language, and you can tell, there is a point where there is this certain level of uncertainty” said Reid, “…you don’t know if you’re laughing with them or at them.”
Bajovic tackled this uncertainty right off the bat. He used the audiences’ unfamiliarity towards him to his advantage by relating to them through it. With a joke he lets them know that he is just as unsure of them as they may be of him.
“No one really knows about Washington State,” he jokes. “We know about D.C., we know about George himself, we know about Denzel, and then you.”
Seattle through the eyes of Croation comedian Pedja Bajovic
This line gets a big laugh from the crowd and demonstrates that the Croatian comedian knows a little about the U.S.A.
In fact Bajovic is no stranger to American culture. He spent two year in the US getting his MA in communications at Ohio University. Bajovic said that it was during this time that he became familiar with the idea of standup as a format of comedy.
Bajovic lists off topics that he thinks can get people chuckling in any country: “men, women, family, international celebrities, international politics, and national stereotypes.”
But Peter Greyy, Director of Talent for the SICC, says that the 779 applications for this year’s competition included Turkish, Cameroonian, and Nigerian comedians who didn’t make the cut. Greyy explained that while many of the applicants were competent they weren’t compelling.
For instance he said that the Cameroonian applicant was talented but that “all of his jokes were very specific to individual members of the Cameroonian national soccer team. Very funny I’m sure if you were familiar with the Cameroonian national soccer team but most aren’t.”
Along with Bajovic, there are only two other foreigners in the second round of preliminaries and only four total in the competition. Two of those four are from Canada, making Bajovic and Ria Lina the only two competitors from a continent other than North America.
Lina is from London, she too has been tackling cultural differences in her routines.
Greyy said she constantly asking for clarification that the audience will understand her jokes, “’Will they know what a farthing is? Will they know what posh means?”
The cultural differences they face certainly aren’t new to comedy. During the Cold War, Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff, made an act out of his Russian background, and American stereotypes of repression in the Soviet Union.
Bajovic understands the technic of making cultural differences laughable. His ability to adjust to his audience and present material that an American audience can relate to is what set him apart from the other international applicants.
“He’s an other, he’s something unusual and he makes people stop and consider what he is presenting,” said Greyy. “He’s got great jokes – he’s got jokes that do work for an American audience.”
Those jokes didn’t work well enough to bring Bajovic past the semi-finals, though.
And after a quick performance at Sarajevo Lounge last weekend, he’s off to Toronto for another performance in his comfort zone, making other Croatians laugh in his native language.
You can still catch a few more nights of the Seattle International Comedy Competition performances. Check out the remaining schedule here.