If Life Gives you Lemons
Writer Narek Margaryan knows what to do with them
January 28, 2018 | by Creative Armenia
Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow Narek Margaryan exploded in Armenia through his show ArmComedy, but his stand-up sets and screenplays are no less important to him. Through his rare vision, Narek perceives and presents unique perspectives of life in his works.
CA: You write and perform for an Armenian audience but you studied comedy outside of Armenia. Have you noticed any significant differences in how Armenian audiences perceive and process humor versus other cultures?
NM: I guess the only significant difference between Armenian and other, let’s say Western audiences, is that we have more subjects that are off-limits for comedians. As I started doing stand up in 2007 the number of topics to joke about was way more limited than it is now. Of course I joked about politics a lot and as broad as the subject is, back then it seemed a bit risky, a bit dangerous. But my colleague and I went as far as making a political comedy show on TV and I think the situation now is very different.
As for the more relaxed Western audience, I can see how today’s overblown political correctness and constant social media outrages are starting to damage comedy, because comedy needs to have no limits. Nobody there can make a joke right now without some small group getting offended. So in comparison we may even have more freedom to explore comedy in Armenia.
It’s the comedian who sets the limits, he’s the one who decides what to joke about and what to leave alone. Once an audience takes that role, that’s a form of censorship. Censorship is comedy’s natural enemy.
CA: What is your process for writing sketches and pieces for your TV show ArmComedy?
NM: Writing an episode involves watching hours and hours of news reports. Too many, really. Sometimes I go as far as watching the same piece from different angles, to find a funnier, a more telling angle. Then there’s a lot of writing and deleting and structuring. Comedy is always funnier when it’s structured. Once there’s a draft, my writing partner and I punch up the jokes, give it a read through, and start to tape. Often new jokes are improvised at taping.
CA: What is the difference between writing sketch comedy for TV and writing feature film comedy, as you’ve also done?
NM: There’s more time to refine the writing for a feature film. With TV you have only a couple of days, until you get to the next episode. If something wasn’t quite good, well, you can try next time. Screenplays are different — they take about 3 months to write, you really get to know the characters, you really try and mess things up for them, make it harder for them to reach their goals. And then you have plenty of time to polish the dialogue, individual jokes. I love working on screenplays, because they are not rushed quite as much. And they give a much greater sense of accomplishment than an episode of television.
CA: Tell us about your creative routine.
NM: It’s quite boring actually. I read, I live, I walk around and experience things. I let them sink in, I process them, and whatever I think is funny I try to put it in writing. I operate in many forms. I write satirical articles for our website, the TV show, there are ideas that are just for stand up, just for a movie and just for a book. I sit down and write, and I snack. Snacking is the worst part, really, because then you have to spend time to get back in shape. But sometimes there are shortcuts, like an idea in my sleep, or an idea in the shower that’s so well formed you just need to write it up.
CA: Who or what are some of your creative influences?
I guess the first thing that I thought was hilarious is the Karlsson-On-The-Roof book series by the Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren. I was maybe 7, and I kept re-reading them over and over, laughing out loud, enjoying specific sentences, picturing scenes in my imagination. They were not just modern fairy tales full of very good humor. I think Astrid Lindgren found a shortcut to teach children to dream, be creative, inspire them to try out wonderful, crazy things. While slightly veiled, imagination and creativity is the core and metaphor of most of her stories.
As I got older I fell in love with the work of English writer P.G. Wodehouse, whose Jeeves and Wooster series is just timeless comedy gold. It teaches you to savor humor. It led me to discover the TV adaptation wonderfully performed by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, who also happened to write and perform their own timeless comedy classic, a BBC sketch show A Bit of Fry and Laurie.
I found great influences in Russia. Ilf and Petrov, the authors of 12 Chairs and The Golden Calf, are perhaps the only writers to write two books such that any sentence randomly taken out of context is still hilarious and smart. I read a lot of Russian satires by Zoshchenko, Chekhov, and Zadornov. And to see an Armenian guy like Garik Martirosyan literally reinvent standup comedy in Russia was very inspiring.
But my greatest influence is American humor. It’s a great range and legacy, from Mark Twain to The Onion, which I equally enjoy. In its turn American humor is greatly inspired by British humor from Wilde to the Pythons. I consume an alarming amount of American TV shows. But what really got me into it were stand up comedians like George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, and Chris Rock. It was so different from what I’d seen in Russia and Armenia, so free, so seemingly effortless it actually makes you believe you can try it too. And the first time I saw the Daily Show with Jon Stewart I remembered I felt so sorry that Armenia never had one. It felt like America was light years ahead of us in terms of comedy.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
NM: I want to continue doing the show for as long as I find it useful, because I’m convinced comedy and politics were made for each other. I want to pursue a writing career in film and in literature and I don’t want to be bound to Armenia in the creative sense. Right now I’m at a sweet spot where I have more ideas than time to execute them. I keep my fingers crossed that balance doesn’t shift. I want to tour more with my stand-up. I’ve done a U.S. tour, with English material, and I’d like to do it again, visit more cities, more countries.
CA: You were raised in three different countries — Russia, Poland and Armenia. How do you think this affects your perspective on life in Armenia?
NM: My rather lengthy stay in Russia really gave me a new perspective on Armenia. The first year I was back, I really felt like an outsider. It took me a lot of time and many great friends to feel at home in my own home and that’s a strange feeling, but that’s what eventually sparked An Alien’s Guide to Armenia. I discovered comic books during my stay in Poland. Superman and Spider-Man really blew me away. And during my stay in the U.S. I discovered a lot of great American music, that I’d never find on my own.
CA: As a comedian, what do you find most inspiring about working in Armenia?
NM: We’re a tiny country and everything resonates fast. There were several instances when I felt like my work had a small but substantial effect on decision-making in the country. That’s what I’m proud of the most.
CA: As a comedian, what annoys you most about working in Armenia? If there is one element of the nation’s comedic atmosphere you could change, what would it be?
It’s all fine, really. We have a great sense of humor as a nation. We’re so colorful and unique that a comedian has years of material to embark on. There’s a genre of humor for everybody, so I wouldn’t change a thing.
CA: Tell us a joke.
NM: If life gives you lemons, you must order lahmajoun.