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Circuit Training 137: The Isolation Conversations - Olga Koch

Olga Koch. Copyright: James Deacon

This is an interesting time to be talking comedy. Our long booked-in call to Olga Koch happened a few weeks back, while the wider world began protesting violent injustice and a pandemic still raged, so chatting gags and crowdwork did seem a bit incongruous. Comedy needn't just be light relief, though.

Koch has largely stuck to writing during lockdown, as she looks ahead to big career shifts onstage and off in the months to come - more of which below. So far, her shows have been splendidly candid affairs about family dramas, and actual affairs, but with much to say about the modern world along the way.

In 2018 Koch's debut Edinburgh hour Fight recalled how the St Petersburg-born comic's father unexpectedly became Russia's deputy PM, then vanished - it earned her a Best Newcomer nomination. And last year's If/Then sounds oddly like the recent sci-fi drama DEVS - Russian computer scientist goes to the US, starts an unconventional relationship, weird stuff happens - and also mused on Soviet vs Western equality, dodgy dudes, and predicted pandemic life in one freakishly prescient moment.

Now that tech-powered show is going analogue: it's one of three recorded for vinyl by Monkey Barrel, the excellent Edinburgh venue and now record label. John Kearns's Double Take and Fade Away and Ari Eldjárn's Eagle Fire Iron will also become lovingly-crafted LPs, as their kickstarter has just hit the target. So that's good news.

More on that to come too, plus sinister tech giants, Tarkovsky vs Chernobyl, Koch's brief right-wing swing, how studying shapes your life, and where life goes from here. Let's head back to an edgy North London in early June.

Olga Koch. Copyright: James Deacon

So this is our latest Isolation Conversation, Olga, although a lot of people are on the streets right now...

Well, I think now there's obviously more important news than the lockdown itself. I suppose, if there is a silver lining, it's that we have no other choice and nothing else to do other than educate ourselves. So that's the odd and maybe crazy way to look at a terrible situation.

You know the world's gone to shit when there's a global pandemic and it's third on the news.

Do you even remember the Dominic Cummings thing? Because I don't...

I've just heard a sneaky preview of If/Then, which was a lovely break from current traumas - is that taken from the Fringe?

Yes, it was recorded on the last day of the run in Edinburgh. Hearing people in such close proximity is very soothing right now.

I saw a fun early WIP of it at the Leicester fest, where you got the audience involved in workshopping it, and helped a strange couple's first date - gigs like that stick in the mind.

Especially with a date. Obviously a lot of performers live with the illusion that they're at the centre of the audience's mind. So when you're reminded that you're just the obstacle between them and the sex they're going to have later, it's really grounding in a fascinating way: "ohhh, this is you pretending that you're trying to do anything other than fuck each other's brains out". If anything you're a formality that they have to do.

Love and computers are big themes in the eventual show - was that always the plan?

The basis of it was genuinely a conversation with another comic where we were talking about how what you studied at university teaches you how to think. He studied history, so, subconsciously, he will see any event on the news as part of a timeline. And computer science, it's taught me to think in a very logical, rigid way, I think. I see most things that happen as a tree diagram.

Olga Koch

I did psychology and now interview comedians...

Right! So since then I've worked a lot with my director, Charlie Dinkin, who's brilliant at getting a structure out: I'm just throwing out anecdotes and screaming and crying and she'll go "wait, wait, let's find a pattern". It felt right to have something as illogical as first love mapped onto something as rigid as computer science.

Because love is basically a magical concept we're not sure really exists.

I think we both saw love exist in the front row of the Leicester Comedy Festival.

What made you get into computer science? You mention in the show that your grandma was a programmer.

Well, anyone who's coming from an Eastern Bloc country will have a conscious or unconscious bias, that anything technical will inherently have more virtue than anything artistic. So I remember as a teenager, "when I go to university I want to study something real". This is coming from a stand-up comedian...

There's a really interesting bit in the show about how computer science is male dominated in the West, but was a lot more equal in the Eastern Bloc.

I mean, part of me... the second I say "in the Soviet Union everyone did every job and there was no gender discrimination" - that is true. But also there were no women in positions of power, and it doesn't mean that women weren't doing housework: women worked and did all the housework. So I don't want to paint a rose-tinted vision of the Soviet Union.

Some aspects are more progressive: I remember reading how in East Germany they were providing contraception for all women, everyone was on the pill.

Crikey, that's interesting.

And it resulted in a huge syphilis outbreak! But the fact that it was fundamentally a socialist society meant that it wasn't religious, so the stigma around sex wasn't the same. Imagine America providing contraception free to all women - it's impossible. But also in East Germany they had the Stasi. Do you want the pill, or do you want to be bugged?

But I suppose everyone in America is bugged too. We live in hell!

Olga Koch. Copyright: James Deacon

So you take inspiration from the past, for a more progressive future? Not that the world currently feels very progressive...

Yeah, I love computer science but I also don't hate gay people - that's the beauty of growing up in both the east and the west.

What have you been doing during lockdown then, any side hustles?

I've focused on writing more, but the answer now would obviously differ from what I'd say a couple of weeks ago: then it was boredom, ennui, melancholy, general fear of what's to come, whereas now it's anger. I think we're just much more emotional at the moment, and everyone feels a bit selfish about complaining about lockdown, given what's happening in America. And the UK.

In the show you admit to briefly going quite right-wing while studying in the States - you even say 'fascist'. Did America cause that?

I don't know how much of it was America or me, my parents growing up in the Soviet Union and me just reacting against socialism by swinging really hardcore the other way. The full version of that joke is that kids in America go to university and become socialists to rebel against their parents, and I rebelled by going right-wing.

Obviously my parents aren't socialists. I grew up demonising the Soviet Union and everything it represented, so much so that I was looking for any ideology that was the complete opposite of that.

Was there a computer-based career plan, originally?

I think I was going to become a developer, but working for a tech company 10 years ago meant something completely different: it was much rosier the way that we saw Twitter, Facebook, they weren't like sinister data collection agencies. This was pre-Trump and pre-Cambridge Analytica. I thought that the tech world was much more utopian than it was in reality. That maybe has to do with how much more radicalised, politicised and informed I am now.

Olga Koch. Copyright: James Deacon

When did you switch to stand-up then?

I started doing stand-up in around 2015 I'd say - but I only quit my tech job right before lockdown. Which I think is hilarious. And sad. Lockdown started and I thought "oh well". Timing!

A lot of acts would probably have ditched the day job a few years ago, with the career points you'd reached.

That's very nice of you to say - but yeah, I'm going to grad school in September. I thought I'd give myself time to travel because I've never had a gap year, but here we are...

Will comedy fit around the studies?

It's a part-time degree, but who knows, now it'll probably be an online class, paying thousands of pounds for a couple of YouTube videos.

There's some bizarrely prescient stuff in If/Then - the bit about the Skype funeral would probably be too normal to get a laugh now.

Honestly, someone just said that to me and I thought "fuck, so true". The anecdote about my mother not being able to attend my grandmother's funeral. It was sad, but we found a way. Now it just sounds sad.

The word 'virus' crops up in pretty much the first sentence of the show too!

I mean, I am the cause. I bet you have a red thread wall about my hour in your house now, how I predicted the lockdown.

But I hope it's very clear that I did write that bit two years before.

Olga Koch

Context is such a big factor in how we enjoy entertainment, how we come to it.

I think the best example of this was Tarkovsky's film [Stalker] about the 'Zone'. After Chernobyl happened they created a zone around it that was completely empty because of the radiation: now everyone assumes that the zone in the Tarkovsky film is about Chernobyl, when he actually made it years before. That's the ultimate example of someone assigning meaning to something over time.

I know a couple of top Tarkovsky documentarians, who I can just about keep up with - although I like to think they're talking about the Kardashians before I arrive.

Ha, that's so university kitchen. "Quick! Tarkovsky!"

How did you respond when you heard about the vinyl idea?

I think we all have this moment in our teen years where we transition from "oh my God that cool person is doing that cool thing" to "nothing is stopping me from doing this". For me it was a tectonic shift, "anyone can do this stuff, I can get a vinyl player!"

I did wonder if you three comics have decks to play your own records on...

I talk in the show about interning at record companies. At one they had a warehouse where, it was cheeky, but you could go and get 10 vinyls a day. At some point I decided I didn't care, so I would walk in and get 10 vinyls. All birthdays were covered, cool gifts for everyone. So I have this vinyl collection, from bands I don't even necessarily like, but it was just so cool.

Were you getting old classic albums too?

Yeah, whatever was there: as a girl of 20 I'd be like "this picture is pretty!" but there's this relationship with vinyl I personally have, I thought it was the epitome of cool. So the idea that not only have I transitioned into owning vinyl, now I get to be a vinyl, it's honestly the teenage dream come true. So I really hope this Kickstarter reaches its goal.

There's a great tradition of comedy albums: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy...

Oh God, did you see Dolomite is My Name? So good - the way he became famous is by making vinyl. And Ari and John are so cool. It's very exciting.

Olga Koch

Monkey Barrel have been very positive during lockdown.

As far as venues go, Monkey Barrel is incredible, best venue in the world, genuinely. It maybe sounds a cliché, but there's magic to it, it feels like the space was designed for comedy, and they're just great at supporting acts. If you want to support comedy, they're a good way to do it, at its core, at its root.

Do you have any other comedy projects ongoing?

Yep, a couple of scripted things are in development, and I'm still very committed to the show I was going to do at Edinburgh 2020.

What's the theme?

It's about immigration, and how I'm an immigrant. But also I think now, given the global context in the last couple of weeks and months, it won't be as personal as my previous shows.

So this time the context is changing the show?

I think when it comes to immigration and nationality in general there's so much talk about belonging. The basis of everything happening in America right now, the debate always has so much to do with belonging, and with so many immigrant NHS workers here.

I would not dream of being able to speak for them, but with my limited experience of immigration, living in three, four different countries, it's something we can all relate to more now than ever. There are so many hardcore applications in the real world, of this amorphous concept of belonging.

Let's hope things change and you get the chance to do it soon - and that things just change.

I think the bottom line is, I'd love you [the BCG readers] to support Monkey Barrel, they're incredible, I'd love you to support any of the three records - but only after you've donated to anti-racist causes, in the US and UK. That should be the priority.

Some excellent fundraising efforts can be found here:

For Koch & Co's vinyl album project, see Kickstarter

And for all other Olga Koch updates, head to

Published: Wednesday 24th June 2020

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