Radu Isac came to the island shortly before the referendum to work as a stand-up comedian. In the meantime, he knows which jokes the British might misunderstand.
Radu Isac: "I got used to the beans for breakfast. But …" Photo by Stefan Wermuth/reuters
Le Monde diplomatique: Radu Isac, by the time you went to Britain, you had already made a name for yourself as a stand-up comedian in your native Romania.
Radu Isac: Yes, but artistically I was at a dead end. I just didn’t feel like staying in Romania anymore, I wanted to do English-language comedy. It was pretty boring to always take the same road.
How? The road to the only comedy venue in the country?
Oh no, Romania has 80 cities with stages where you can perform as a comedian. But there are more in the world, and I thought to myself: Okay, I’ve been everywhere three times now, and I’m 28. How will I feel when I’m 48?
What is the difference between writing punch lines in English and Romanian?
English is easier because it has more words than Romanian. That may sound snobbish: But when you paint with words, the more nuances you have at your disposal, the better you can paint.
Is there anything you would consider typically British?
I can easily identify people as British by their faces. The lack of sunshine over hundreds and hundreds of years sets these faces apart from those of the rest of the continent.
Others would say that it is the food that separates Britain from mainland Europe.
British food is mostly industrial food. I’ve gotten used to the beans for breakfast. But the sausages seem to be all made by McDonald’s.
So Great Britain is not a dream destination.
I think most Romanians come to the UK solely because English is the language they usually know best after Romanian. That’s how I ended up in the UK too, just because of the language. If I could have, I would have gone to the USA. During my youth there were only American series and movies on TV, the British culture did not make it to Romania. To this day, I don’t know most of the comedians who fill stadiums in the UK.
Some of them are funny.
But it’s not entertaining for me if I don’t understand the references or the backstory of a character. But I am starting to become familiar with the British scene.
Do you think there are jokes that British comedians can’t make in front of a British audience, but comedians from Eastern Europe can?
He would be interpreted as racist if a Brit made a joke about Poles, but I can make as many jokes about them as I want. Conversely, I know that I’m not allowed to talk about sex on stage as much as, say, a British male comedian. I would lose the crowd faster, because from their point of view, as an Eastern European, I am automatically suspected of sexism.
On stage, you claim that a Brit is friendlier than a Romanian, while a million Romanians are nicer than a million Brits. What makes such a large mass of Brits so unpleasant in your view?
I didn’t really work out the joke: Because the British were strong together, they could invade other countries. They built the empire and stole the diamonds from the Indians. And now they don’t want to give them back. I think they did it because they work better as a team than Romanians.
But a Brit is friendlier than …
… the average Romanian? But also only because the British want everyone around them to be happy. And then when everyone is happy, a million people working well together get a chance to do really nasty things to the world.
Aren’t Romanians or Eastern Europeans, at least here in the UK, in solidarity with each other?
Through my show, English Speaking Comedy Borsch, I’ve found that Eastern Europeans don’t communicate with each other that much. Those who know English just blend in and make friends only with Brits, while the Eastern Europeans who don’t speak English just stay in their own country club. Solidarity is most readily apparent in grocery stores, where a Polish flag, a Romanian flag, and a Bulgarian flag hang side by side.
Romanians have been the largest group of newcomers to the UK every year since 2016. Have they not been sufficiently informed about the Brexit?
They tend to think it’s better to hurry before the door closes.
Do Romanian migrants experience more discrimination in the UK than other Eastern Europeans?
Poles clearly bear the brunt. When they came, the talk about Eastern Europeans started, and the Poles got all the stereotypes. After all, Romanians have only had the right to settle anywhere in the EU since 2013. When they showed up in the UK, it was just the old soup being reheated. One of the best jokes about Romanians comes from a Brexiter, of course: in the 90s you couldn’t find 25 Romanians in London, now you can find 25 in one house.
The media already refer to the London borough of Burnt Oak as "Little Romania."
Well, there are a lot of Romanians living in most suburbs of London, not only in Burnt Oak. Sometimes I happen to meet people from my former secondary school on the street. Most of my former classmates now live in Bucharest, but London is already a close second. It’s completely normal to go somewhere else. My Romanian friends here in London have a wide variety of professions, including those of the financial juggler type in Canary Wharf.
This interview, along with articles by Kate Connolly, Raphael Honigstein, Kenan Malik and Paul Mason, can also be found in the Issue No. 25 "Britain. Goodbye and Hello" of the series Edition Le Monde diplomatique, paperback, 112 pages, 2018, € 8.50.
But some can’t tell a story in their home country about the great success on the island after all.
Well, the pound is still stronger than the leu. Even if they have to share a bedroom with four people in London, they can still throw a round for a whole pub in Romania, as it costs at most as much as two drinks in London.
Are your parents happy that you moved to the UK?
The political situation in Romania is not exactly rosy. After years of having to watch on the news what is going wrong in Romania, my parents think: Well, at least our kids don’t have to live with that shit.
But on stage you described yourself as the most impoverished professional comedian in the whole of the UK.
There’s no question of that now.
Because you earn a sufficient income from performances?
Still, isn’t that a tough life? Having to compete as a freelancer in a market with so much other talent?
I don’t really see myself in a permanent position with regular hours. So it suits me, and I’m happy with the way it is.
But you’ve had to take temporary jobs to keep your head above water, haven’t you?
After I moved to London, I worked for a print shop that printed ballots for the EU referendum. In a big warehouse, we put those ballots in envelopes and mailed them out – all migrants, only the owners of the company were British. If I told that on stage, it would come across as a bad joke.
What was the pay like?
About 8 pounds an hour, about 10 percent more than the minimum wage at the time. And the pay was project-based. I told all my colleagues to just slow down because the sooner we sent out all the ballots, the sooner we would be fired. They wouldn’t listen and simply thought I was crazy.
So you were the only one who worked slower?
I did practically nothing. I sabotaged from the inside. But we were all fired five days earlier than expected because the work was done so quickly.
What were your first thoughts after the British voted to leave the EU in 2016?
Honestly, to this day, I don’t think that’s going to happen. A joke I should make on my shows goes like this: the UK and the EU remain sex buddies. The whole world knows about it, only they just won’t admit it.
Have you applied for British citizenship?
No, I’ve only been here for three years. After five years, you can apply. But I will stay until they kick me out. Since it’s unclear how this will turn out with the Brexit, I’m not worried about something I can’t control anyway.