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Stand-up comedy thrives in crisis-hit Argentina

The country is going through a sustained economic crisis, but stand-up continues to flourish, helping to lighten the mood in dark times.

(CN) — As Argentina experiences its worst economic crisis in three decades, one industry that continues to thrive is comedy, with the country’s stand-up scene reaching wider audiences in search of comic relief.

Argentina is living with yearly inflation of 58%, one of the highest in the world. Around 37% of Argentines are living in poverty and inequality continues to unravel. Despair and disappointment are generalized while uncertainty clouds any thought of the future. Beneath these darkened skies, people are seeking out spaces of relief, with comedy coming to the forefront.

“There is a greater need for humor during times of uncertainty,” said Diego Fantoni, a comedian and teacher at the Escuela Argentina de Stand Up, which operates a number of schools around the country. “Argentines have been living through economic crises ever since I was born, and I’m 47 years old. We live on humor. In the worst situations, living the worst experiences, Argentines will make a joke, and this is cultural.”

Researchers have revealed the marriage of humor and hardship, with comedy playing a crucial role during times of uncertainty, capable of bringing people together, and can help us recover from painful moments.

The pandemic sharpened this feeling in Argentina, which entered 2020 after two years of recession and would end the year with its economy shrinking by a further 9.9%. In the capital of Buenos Aires, residents endured the longest continuous lockdown in the world, with strict stay-at-home measures stretching 234 days until November 2020. Social lives were paused as people slouched on the couch in front of the TV. We shunned sci-fi and horror, with Netflix noting a huge increase in demand for stand-up comedy.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, Argentine stand-up was gaining commercial traction. Netflix began streaming stand-up specials of comedians like Lucas Lauriente, Luciano Mellera, Fernando Sanjiao, Rada, Grego Rossello and Sebastián Wainraich.

When Covid-19 reached Argentina, clubs, bars, and theaters closed — spaces where stand-up naturally thrive most. Comedians had to find new spaces to seek sanctuary.

“We had to invent ourselves again,” said Fantoni. “We had two years practically without being able to work and we are just now recovering. During the pandemic, comedians needed to express themselves. Humor doesn’t stop. But we couldn’t go out, we couldn’t perform. Performing on Zoom was quite uncomfortable. We would hit a punch line then begin a new bit, only for those with the slowest internet connection to start laughing.”

Some comedians found a digital outlet by livestreaming shows and recording podcasts. Laila Roth is a comedian who has appeared on a number of shows and channels, including Comedy Central.

“They were complicated years. We couldn’t perform because everything was closed,” Roth said. “I’m not in favor of doing stand-up online; I don’t like to do it myself. So, I explored other things like streaming on Twitch and seeing from where else I could continue doing comedy.”

Stand Up Argentina launched live shows on YouTube, including Comedians in Quarantine, which featured comedians including Laila Roth, Connie Ballarini and Mike Chouhy.

People discovered other comedy outlets during the pandemic. Cecilia de Luca is an actress, theater professor, and clown.

“There was a demand for theater during the pandemic, but it was difficult to accommodate,” said de Luca. “A lot of people, having free time, could dedicate themselves to explore a type of art, anything to get away from the pandemic and the crisis. When we offer clown courses, the first thing that many people ask is ‘are we going to laugh?’ And we say yes, obviously, but while there is a very humorous part of the clown, which is to find your own clown, not everything to do with the clown is laughter.”

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For de Luca, simply escaping our routines and distancing ourselves from uncertain times is part of the process.

“There is a great need to get out of our everyday lives, and art in general tends to manifest in some way that we cannot express in daily life,” said de Luca. “It is a way of channeling ourselves. Many people go in search of that, and I am one of these people myself.”

The role of the clown can also poke political criticisms at everyday life.

“Every play is political,” added de Luca, “because while giving a message told through art, through humor and parody, what the audience ends up seeing is something funny, but if they ask themselves what they’re laughing at, it is terrible! And this is where the humor lies. You are laughing at the misfortune of what we are.”

Now that the pandemic has largely receded and most restrictions loosened, stand-up has resumed its growth despite the economy worsening.

“When there is a crisis, people need to laugh more,” added Roth, “which is maybe why I’m looking for it a little more, too. Stand-up is a form of performance that can resist the crisis because it’s very cheap to produce. I mean, all you need is one person with a microphone, a light, and not much more.”

Modern stand-up in Argentina dates back to the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the same time as the country’s great economic depression that culminated in broad civil unrest and rioting in 2001. Much of the current crop of headliners emerged during this period.

The scene has been exposed to American influences while maintaining a local character.

“That’s where the genre was born,” said Roth. “Almost all the comedians learned to do stand-up in stand-up schools and all of them have as teaching methods the studying of Yankee comedians. So, it’s very influential. But the local culture is also influential. It’s a mix of both things that we do here. We kind of found a way to put an Argentine mark on it.”

Yet the Argentine scene had a predecessor. In the 1960s, while Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor were redefining stage comedy and pioneering modern stand-up, Argentina had its own prototype: the café concert. The French cultural import fused the music hall with cabaret, where packed bars fueled by smoke and whiskey hosted edgy musical shows interspersed with comical monologues. The café concert contained all the tools of stand-up: an intimate stage, improvisation, creative license, humor, and low production costs.

Today, while audiences have shown a sustained and growing appetite for stand-up comedy, for some, they’ve decided to get up on stage and tell their own jokes. Gisela Milanesio is an English teacher from the south of Buenos Aires and began taking stand-up lessons a couple of years ago.

“Honestly, I wanted to change the way I taught my classes. But then I felt that I could do something different, to be able to laugh at myself, to enjoy the laughter of others, to make people happy even for a moment when you grab the microphone on stage,” said Milanesio.

“These days, with the stress, anguish, and tiredness of everyday life, knowing that you can make people laugh is very important,” she added. “Maybe you don’t even want to laugh that day because you’re going through a stressful situation, but you go on stage and you just let yourself go, and when you start to feel the laughter, you relax more and more until you forget all your problems, and you’re there making people forget theirs, too.”

Milanesio had gradually developed material for her first stand-up show, yet a family tragedy led to her ripping up her notes and, instead, talking about the loss of a loved one.

“I had a monologue prepared and my cousin told me that he was going to be in the first row,” said Milanesio. He couldn’t pass up the moment to laugh at her up on stage. “Unfortunately, a week after he told me this, he passed away. It was terrible, and everyone thought I wouldn’t be able to go on stage because I couldn’t stop crying.”

It then occurred to her to get up on stage, but with different material. “I changed my whole monologue and decided to just talk about my cousin,” she said. “I went up on stage with his photo, and my stand-up took on a life of its own. He wasn’t sitting in the front row, but he was with me on stage. From then on, I understood that there is no time, no reason, or place to not make people laugh.”

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