Asli is a Turkish British Stand-up comic based in Istanbul. She is the host of The English Language open mic night Take Me Up The Bosphorus, The Turkish language KoMikrofon and the all girl troop Çok Da Fifi, we met up in her Istanbul to talk about her work and the art of stand-up. She can be found on Facebook here.
Luke: Firstly, who are you?
Aslı: My name is Aslı Akbay and I’m Turkish-English. With a Turkish background, I grew up in London and have been living in Istanbul full time since 2014.
Luke: You’re a stand-up comic yes?
Aslı: Yes, I started doing stand-up in London around two thousand and eightish and stand-up is quite addictive. Once you start doing it you just get more into it, you get better ideas; you start thinking about what will work better. So I started doing loads of stand-up in London and carried on when I came to Istanbul.
Luke: What got you into stand-up?
Aslı: Really, really, really randomly. There were loads of people that you speak to who are like, “Ohh, I was a huge stand up comedy fan and I watched loads of this and that." I only really watched stuff on TV when I was a kid, Jasper Carrot and that kind of stuff. I never really got into the whole watching it on YouTube thing.
So how it happened was, I was working on a children’s BBC program called Smart and one of the presenters Kirsten O'Brien one day randomly invited us to see her stand-up show. We were like, “what!?” We went to see it and I was like, “ok. This is just, so cool, it looks so much fun.”
At that time, because I did a lot of student radio, I was toying with the whole TV presenter thing. But then the more I worked at the BBC and saw TV production, the more I realised how boring it actually was. Because, you’re just reading it of a script and it’s just kind of boring. I realised it was more boring than radio, because with radio you’re pretty much free to talk about things you want to talk about.
Anyway, I went to watch the show and I was really impressed by it. Then I found out that Kirsten went to a stand-up workshop run by this guy called Logan Murray, who’s a really good stand-up comedian. I went to the workshop and basically, it was a workshop that entailed us coming up with material, playing improv games, and the way we graduated was that we did a final student show. That was my first ever stand-up comedy show.
Luke: How did it go?
Aslı: It went really well. It was absolutely terrifying but you know, it went really well. It was a bit of a fake show, because it was people’s friends and family and everybody wanted you to do well. When you don't have your friends and family and it’s just complete strangers, comedy can be different.
After that show most of us just stayed in touch and carried on doing stand-up.
Luke: So my next question is about who inspires you, who do you try to emulate?
Aslı: As I said, I was never one of these people, and I still don't do it, who watches stand-up on YouTube. I’m someone who wants to see stuff live and I’ve seen so much live comedy. When I was living in London, and I still go to the Edinburgh Festival every year and watch as many shows as I can. Before I started doing stand-up, I was a huge Seinfeld fan, still am. I really like Jerry Seinfeld; he kind of does stand-up in quite a classic, quite PC kind of way. But I also started watching Louis C.K. and I really like Bill Hicks’s stuff.
Luke: Bill Hicks is the best.
Aslı: Yeah, it’s such a shame he died so young.
Luke: I don't know, I kind of feel that if he’d kept going he would have got worse, he is perfect, like he’s preserved in amber.
Luke: Like Jimi Hendrix of comedy. [As Bill Hicks said himself “I like my rock stars dead!” Ed.]
Aslı: Yeah, cause Bill he just became so anti everything.
Luke: So, how do you write a joke? Small question.
Aslı: How do you write a joke? Generally something funny happens and I think, "ok is this something I can talk about on stage?” So it can be just a funny idea, something that occurs with someone or whatever. A simple way of putting it is, people laugh when they’re surprised. So when you say something people aren’t expecting they laugh. That’s just the easiest formula for joke writing. Most people will know this already, but if you pull the rug out from underneath someone they’re going to laugh.
You’ve got to think about where your punch lines are, if a joke has a long build-up then it has to be funnier. If it's a one-liner it doesn’t have to be really funny.
In a way it’s trial and error, you write something one way then try it out on stage. Some of it will work some of it won’t then you have to go back, change it and try again. Normally you’ll know if something works after about three times. So that's the lazy way of doing it, just have ideas coming into your head and be like “well, that's funny”. Or the more kind of disciplined way, which... I’m totally not disciplined like that, wish I could be, maybe I will be at some point. You sit down an you kind of brainstorm. A lot of people sit down and brainstorm a subject and how you can make it funny, or strange things that could happen.
Luke: Do you think of your comedy in terms of, “I’m going to make a set”? Or do you think of individual anecdotes and gags then just throw them together at random?
Aslı: The thing is, there are the broad topics that you can talk about, relationships, feelings about life in general, public transport, whatever. What happens normally is that you have some jokes that are already in the same kind of family of jokes you've already done. So, yeah, you can build up and add gags to the pile of stuff you've already done.
Writing a show, like an hour show is a completely different. Lots of people who write an hour show have a theme and then you have to start from scratch, think about the message. about what the premise is.
Luke: Do you have a perfect length for your set?
Aslı: I don't think I could ever do an hour, I don't think I could take it really. My ideal kind of length is around forty minutes, which isn’t that long. The thing is some people do stand-up for an hour, hour and a half it’s really bloody hard to do it.
Luke: All right. You do comedy in English, you do comedy in Turkish, to what extent do you tailor your material for the audience, When you switch languages and, also, when you do your all women show?
Aslı: You absolutely have to think about who your audience is. I’ve got different batches of material. I’ve got material in English for people that live in England than I can do when I’m over there. I’ve got English material for expats, because I can’t go to England and talk about the dolmush. There are so many weird things that happen in Turkey that expats get, and again Turkish material for Turkish people, a lot of Turkish people don't really notice or find the things we find funny, funny any more. They’re just used to it.
With the girls show the audience is predominantly female but there are some men and, sometimes I feel like I should take out the jokes about men because if there are just five men in an audience of women they feel like they’re targeted, but I also want to grab the attention of the women.
I guess make it less offensive for the women’s show.
Luke: That kind of leads into a question I wanted to talk about, it always comes up in comedy, how offensive can a joke be, how far are you willing to go?
Aslı: Yeah. If I wasn't thinking about censorship I’d probably be even more offensive. I do self-censor.
Luke: Do you sit down after writing a joke and think, “oh shit I can’t say that”?
Aslı: Way too much. And sometimes I don't really understand it. I wrote quite an offensive joke about going to a football match with my dad and him being protective of me. It involves a penis [if you want to hear the full joke you’ll have to go to one of her gigs Ed.] and a friend of mine who’d heard me do it in Turkish was like, “that's completely outrageous. You can’t do that. That's incest” [just go see the show Ed.] but I’m like, "it’s just a joke, it’s not real."
Luke: Do you worry when you get that kind of feedback?
Aslı: Well I realised that Turkish audiences are more easily offended.
Luke: Interesting, and in the UK, or with expats do you self-censor at all?
Aslı: No. Well sometimes, but I don't think I could actually offend anybody. I think they’re more used to comedy, more used to just taking it on face value and not delving into it.
Luke: We’ve all been watching too much Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle.
Aslı: Yeah, exactly.
Luke: Well, we’ve talked about audience feedback earlier but going into a bit more detail. How do you process audience feedback? Do you have some sort of method?
Aslı: I take it into consideration, if somebody comes up to me and says I liked this or I found it really offensive. But it’s very rare for people to do that.
Luke: I meant more generally, just from the feeling of the crowd, what makes them pop?
Aslı: The thing is you can tell. If you're telling a joke or a story and if the expressions on people’s faces is of horror. You know to cut that bit. You can do it live, censor yourself put stuff in or take it out. Did you say think about?
Luke: Yeah and rewrite.
Aslı: The thing is if it doesn't work you have to take it out. Or it’s to offensive. But you’re not just taking about offensive stuff.
Aslı: You have to do things a few times then you have a better idea but you can’t just give up on it because one audience didn't like it.
Luke: Fair enough. Do you think about stagecraft when you’re writing?
Aslı: Personally I don't, it just happens naturally, you can think about where you’re going to stand. If you’re telling a story about a conversation with someone it makes sense to move sides and that sort of things. I work it out on stage but there are some people that do, I know a Turkish comedian who is an actor and he does comedy. He really thinks about what he’s going to do with his face and his hands. He training pushes him in that direction.
Luke: Where do your inspirations come from?
Aslı: Just stuff around you. Just by stuff around you. Stories people tell you, maybe.
Luke: Does it change your perspective on the world if you're always looking and thinking “where is the joke in this?” Do you end up in that kind of situation at all?
Aslı: Yeah, you can do. Someone can be telling you a horrible story about something and you can just be like, thinking of funny things and you can’t tell them.
Aslı: You have to realise when you’re doing it sometimes and stop yourself from being crass or something. Sometimes a good joke’s too good to ignore.
I’ve forgotten your question.
Luke: Does the way you look at the world change when you're writing comedy? Because I know it does when I’m writing stories.
Aslı: Yep, that happens.
Luke: Ok, next question, this is something I’ve always wanted to ask a stand-up because I’ve never really got it. Why is joke stealing such a heinous crime? I ask because other art forms steal from each other constantly. Musicians cover each other’s songs; writers reference each other and borrow each other’s characters. It seems like comedy is uniquely passionate about it.
Aslı: Musicians can cover each other’s songs, but you're homaging it and most people know it's a cover. It's really hard to write a really good joke and it's an unwritten rule. It’s another unwritten rule that it has to be written by you, it has to be your work. That's what makes it different to theatre, that's what makes it a unique art form if you like. So, stealing a joke is really like stealing a baby. Everyone takes it really seriously.
Luke: I get that, I’ve seen it, and it sometimes even gets into the news when they're having particularly bitter feuds, again because in other art forms it seems like it’s not as much of an issue, I was just curious about your opinion on it.
Aslı: How it works is, that if a comedian sees somebody doing a similar joke they will go and say, “oi, so and so does that joke.” You know comedians warn each other that their joke is similar. If it's a true coincidence, you know, it’s fine but if it’s obviously stolen.
I sometimes say, “my friend has a joke about such and such, but I reference them. I think it’s ok with reference. Like you said with songs, if it's a cover, we all know who wrote the original. That’s the thing no one’s claiming it’s theirs. If they’re not referencing and claiming it’s their own material. It's a sin.
Luke: It’s a sin, got it. What kind of other art forms feed into stand-up?
Aslı: I guess acting. You've got to be careful with acting. You know like you were saying with expressions. You've got to know how to use your body. Part of stand-up is also knowing how to be on stage, how to behave you know direct your voice and blah blah blah. But I’m always a bit wary when actors go into stand-up because l think they’re going to be acting too much. There is a fine line, they can be good stand-ups but some actors who go into stand-up are a bit to theatrical.
So there is that I guess, which is a bit obvious. I don't know there are people who write funny stories. Am I making this up? Do a lot of stand-ups write? Nah, they probably don't.
I guess people who are good with words, with language that would feed into it.
Luke: If you could advice to somebody starting stand-up what would you say?
Aslı: If you’re thinking of getting into stand-up first of all, go and see what’s going on in town. Go and watch as much stand-up as you can. Then get in touch with an open mike like mine at Take Me Up the Bosphorus if you’re English or can do it in English or Komikrofon if you want to do it in Turkish. But come and watch, watch as much as you can and watch it live. Don't watch it on YouTube. Then just write some material, just five minutes, that's all you need to start. Five minutes seems like a short amount of time but when you’re standing on stage in front of thirty people and you’re like, “ah shit, that didn't come out right.” Start from there.
Carry a notebook with you and a pen. At all times, write any and everything that seems funny. Then look back on it after a few days.
Luke: So you've been doing stand-up for a while now. Do you think your appreciation of it has changed since you started? Does the way you watch it change?
Aslı: Yeah, you can become jaded because I’ve watched so much stand-up and there was a running joke when I was in London that a lot of stand-ups don’t really laugh. We would turn to each other and say, “that was funny.” You can lose your natural laugh because you’re thinking, “oh, they were talking about that. And that made that funny,” and you’re kind of dissecting it rather than enjoying it. Which is not a good thing really. It’s better to just enjoy it. I guess you just become a bit jaded and find it hard to find it as funny.
Luke: Do you want to tell me about any projects you're working on?
Aslı: So I run a Turkish stand-up comedy night called Komikrofon, which is on Facebook, which is every two weeks normally. And then I run an English stand up comedy night called Take Me Up The Bosphorus, which is roughly every two weeks, again we are on Facebook. For Take Me Up The Bosphorus I sometimes bring over professional English comics.
Luke: Have you got any lined up soon?
Aslı: No I haven’t. I have to bring Phil Nichol back. I’ve just taken a bit of time out of that. Because of the political situation comics think it’s a bit … I’ve spoken to a couple of comics who’re like “ohh I don't think I’m going to come to Istanbul.”
Luke: I though comics were supposed to be a bit tougher.
Aslı: Nah man they’re not.
Luke: They'll survive Glasgow dive pubs but won’t come here.
Aslı: Yeah, exactly. And also I’m in this Turkish comedy girl gang thing. Sounds quite kinky when I say girl gang. We’re called Çok Da Fifi. So I’ve got quite a lot going on actually. Like three different comedy ventures, I’m pretty much doing comedy every other night.
Luke: How did the girls group start? Because it sounds like a fantastic idea.
Aslı: How it started up. March 2015. BKM, for women’s day, decided they wanted to do an all female stand-up show. So they got in touch with girls that were doing stand-up. Not all of us were there. So there are seven of us in our group and maybe three of us took part in that. They said they wanted to do another one a month later so we did it again. Then other venues started saying, "come and do it here come and do it there," and just over time we established this seven person group.
A few people dropped out a few people joined. The final seven came together a year later. In March 2016 the guy that runs the Ankara comedy festival a guy called Deniz. He invited us to come and do the festival. He was very impressed and was like, “I want to tour with you guys” and so we started touring and that's where it all kicked off. So it’s been about a year. It’s going really well.
Luke: It seems like such an obvious idea. Have you seen shows like that in England?
Aslı: No. The thing is, I guess because stand-up is quite a new thing for Turkey. So when it's a new thing and it’s all female it grabs the attention of people. So they are like “oh, what’s this?” When a bunch of guys get together they're not impressed but when it’s women they are like, “who are these girls?”
People say there are all girl stand-up groups in America and in England but where? Who? I haven’t heard of any.
There might be a show where they get together for a one-off. But in terms of touring together I haven’t seen it happen.
Luke: Not even at Edinburgh [Fringe Festival]?
Aslı: Not as a stable gang. There could be all female gangs.
Luke: You going to keep going with it?
Aslı: Yeah. We’re going to keep going with that. Who knows we might have some interesting projects coming about. Keep your eyes and ears pealed.
Luke: I will do that. Last thing then. We’re The Bosphorus Review Of Books so what are you reading at the moment?
Aslı: I’m reading two books. I’m reading a debut short story collection written by my friend Anna Maconochie. It’s a great book called Only The Visible Can Vanish you can buy it.
Luke: Available at all good book sellers?
Aslı: Online actually, it's published by cultured lama. It’s really good, it's a bit futuristic, kind of, I don't know. Just read it. The other book I’m reading is called Attempting Normal and it’s like a memoir by an American comedian called Marc Maron which is really good. I’m also going to read everything on The Bosphorus Review.
Luke: All right, you should, everybody should, because it’s great. Thanks for talking to me.