Russian comedian Olga Koch was nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Awards' prestigious Best Newcomer prize in 2018 with her first ever solo, hour-long show, Fight. As she tours it around the UK, we sat down to talk about her unique history, award nomination, and next show, Button...
You have a fascinating background - for anyone who hasn't been lucky enough to get tickets to see Fight, can you explain it for us?
No one reading this will know what my accent is like! But my accent is American: I was born and raised in Russia, then I moved to the US and now I live here. Fight traces back the history of the fall of the Soviet Union and rebuilding of the new country now known as Russia, through the personal story of my family. My dad became involved in Russian politics - it gets pretty crazy!
The tagline for the show is that in 2014 my father got stopped at the Russian border and it resulted in the craziest year in my family's life. But if you see the show you'll realise it wasn't just that one year that was crazy - there were a lot of crazy turns! It gets quite political: the way I've been promoting it is "do you like the Chicago Bulls, post-Soviet economic reform and dick jokes?"
A lot of the other promotion for it has been quite pompous! Cold War-loving dads have arrived and they are not ready for the amount of dick jokes that're up top. So now I try to warn people...
That tri-country background must give you a rather unique insight into just about every current international news story?
Hahaha! I'm a spy who hides it so poorly.
Yes, I do sound American but I only lived there for four years of my life, studying in New York. Sometimes I identify as American in my head: "oh we don't do it that way" but then I'm like "I only lived in that country for four years, why am I saying 'we'?" I don't really have a 'we'.
I learned English from a Canadian lady in Russia and watched a lot of Cartoon Network. Because - in the early 1990s in Russia - there was none of that stuff, when it started coming in, whether it was Disney movies or whatever, I'd sit and watch them with my mum. She was just as fascinated by Cinderella as I was, even though she was in her late 30s.
Cinderella, that infamous capitalist conspiracy! That's quite a mix of identities and cultures: do you still see yourself as Russian, even though it's not really safe for you to go back?
Oh boy, that's a really good question. The idea of "do you see yourself as X", well, to be honest you never wake up in the morning and think "I'm British! I'm going to have a wonderful British day and breathe this British air!" You only ever think about it when you're confronted with a question - otherwise you're just looking at memes online...
And with that background, what or who are your comedy influences?
Ooh - that's a lovely question. Let's approach this methodically!
So, Flight Of The Conchords is the reason I got into comedy. My comedy is absolutely nothing like Flight Of The Conchords, but they came at exactly the right time for me, a hormonal teenager, to find something to get obsessed with. It was like "where do I channel all this energy of obsession?" and it just so happened Brett and Jermaine arrived. So I spend three years at the altar of these guys.
I think next I saw Maria Bamford. I thought "holy shit, I've never seen anything like this before, that's amazing". I remember her doing a joke ages ago, one of her greatest jokes still, which I won't try to paraphrase but was about having suicidal thoughts amongst all her many bad ideas. I remember thinking "oh my, that is SO dark".
So there are layers. There were sitcoms, and because I was living in New York got introduced to some great stand-up. Then I moved to Britain and I was like "oh my God - Fringe comedy! Fuck me up!" Kim Noble, Zoë Coombs Marr... seeing all of them. Just ... incredible.
How long have you been in the UK now? Have you any current influences and inspirations from the scene here?
Oh, I think now I'm fully British. I've been here five years. I can acknowledge good American stand-up still, like Hannibal Buress will make me absolutely pee my pants because he's hilarious, but now - for better, for worse - I think of everything with Fringe brain. Sometimes at the detriment of my straight stand-up sets where I'm thinking "But where can we get some pathos? Where do I start crying and sweating on everyone?" Because - at the end of the day - no one has made me feel as much as Kim Noble and Zoë Coombs Marr have.
It's also really interesting to have turned my friends to fringe comedy, who would only ever previously have watched American sitcoms or whatever's on NBC. Then they're like "oh my God, I need to only see Spencer Jones for the rest of my life".
So Fight was your very first full hour solo show - and was Edinburgh Award nominated at the 2018 Fringe, with much acclaim. How did you deal with that?
Well it was the happiest day of my life, obviously! I screamed, I cried, I ... I was like, "if I am ever going to have kids, they will never come close to this". It was the best day of my life for sure.
The full and true answer - oh gosh, I don't know whether to give the true answer! Okay; I am so so grateful and so happy, but also the doubt in me, oh, your brain doesn't let you have it for even 45 seconds. You're immediately thinking "everybody's going to say that I didn't deserve it", next 45 seconds "oh it mustn't be that hard if I could do because I'm a piece of shit". You're telling your own brain, "please just let yourself enjoy this for a minute!"
You're now starting performances of your next show, Button - can you tell us about that?
It's going to be about computers and love! I studied computer science at university - which is something I try to shoehorn in to every conversation... The show isn't written! I'm selling you snake oil!
The central premise is that I have throughout my life been treated as "a woman in comedy" or "a woman in computer science", and whilst I love being a woman, I love being in comedy and I love being in computing, once the two converge you're kind of constantly cursed. You're either consistently confirming a stereotype or constantly defying a stereotype. You're constantly that archetype as opposed to yourself.
Around the time I was studying I started dating my first ever boyfriend, who was, I assumed, the love of my life. And now he's getting married! (Not to me.) So there's a lot to work with... I am completely shameless: my big hope is that for every audience that ever sees me, half of them leave laughing and half leave asking "is she okay?"
And are you okay?
Well you'll have to come to the show to find out! If you want to see the more 'not okay' part, see it in previews - there I'm definitely going to be walking the line! I feel like I made people feel very uncomfortable in my last preview, but nothing's worse than stopping and saying "guys, I'm fine!" because that just digs a hole for yourself even further.
Anyway, I want to teach the audience to code. I'm coding a thing for the show. I'm really, really excited about it.
That sounds exciting! For the more nerdy reader, what technologies will you be using there?
I'll probably be using Python as it's easiest to use. Maybe I'll be using some Arduino, for any Arduino-heads in the audience: some physical computing, yes thank you!
Basically the idea is, and I hope I'll be able to do it, because I've got so much communication with this person, I will be able to simulate a machine of some sort that speaks like him. Whether it's text, emails, Facebook conversations, WhatsApp conversations, all of this - I'll be able to upload it to this machine that I can then have a conversation with.
Wow! So you're building your own artificial intelligence?
Exactly - but the artificial intelligence just has one question to answer, which is "But whyyy? Why not meeee?"
That sounds pretty amazing. A very impressive ambition!
Let's hope I succeed! But as you can imagine, whilst you can see the final thing being really exciting and funny, you know that every step of the way till then is just creepy. SO creepy and sad. But you need to walk the path of creepy and sad... Every night now, developing the show and this AI, is just me reading the old emails and being a bit sad and pathetic. Ha ha!
It must take some strength to put yourself through that?
Oh - you're reading your own voice, but it's like a completely different person writing it all. It's unsettling. It's like a sci-fi High Fidelity!
You've done a couple of previews of the new show already, and some more coming up?
Yes. I've got a bunch of material written and that's what I've been working on in previews, but it's all very stand-up-y. I'm happy with the jokes that are there, so I can put the personal stuff over it and not worry yet about the personal stuff being funny just because I've got those bits running through. I've got bits about Emma Watson, and pregnancy tests (as you do), but I'm in really the very preliminary stages of getting the personal stuff out there.
There's also so much comedy that can come from coding, but that would mean I would then have to explain some basics of coding to the audience - but without being condescending. Button is the work-in-progress title, but Olga Koch: If/Then will be the name of the finished show.
How do you intend to continue developing it over the next few months ahead of this year's Edinburgh Fringe; what's your process?
I will say this to anyone who will listen: the only thing that got me through making that show - and not quitting so many times - was because I had Charlie Dinkin, my director, who's absolutely incredible, and the support of the live production company Berk's Nest. They were so good.
Every time I completely gave up on myself, I'd remember that they wouldn't completely embarrass themselves: Charlie wouldn't put hours of work in and her name on the line working with me on something she didn't believe in. Berk's Nest wouldn't put me on their posters and do everything that they do, if they didn't believe in me. I feel like that support is what gets me through it. Berk's are very good in keeping a timeline of "this is where you need to be at this point". And every half-hour conversation with Charlie is a new, fantastic fountain of creativity to me. So hopefully just more talking to Charlie and more performing.
Get a director. One hundred percent. If you're intending to put on a show that's my advice. Get a producer and a director if you have the chance. Especially with a producer, you're a comedian, no one's expecting you to be a good producer so it's okay for you to outsource production. If you say "get a director" a lot of people say "... I'm sorry. What?" because they don't want to share their genius. But in the same way nobody's expecting you to be a good director.
But maybe I'm talking out of my ass. I've done one show. But in my experience, that was key and is the only advice I'd feel comfortable giving.
Until then, you've got a few more dates left touring Fight...
Oh my goodness, the tour has been incredible and people are really, really nice. I can't believe people are coming to see it.
A woman in Brighton actually got a tattoo of a line from the show. Can you imagine?! It's not technically my own quote, but something I relay that [former USSR President] Mikhail Gorbachev said: "What we need is Star Peace and not Star Wars." She posted it on my Facebook page though, so I'm presuming she found out about it from the show!
I can't quite believe it. The thing is, I could quit comedy right this minute, but that tattoo's going to be on her body forever. I love it. I love her. It's just - yeah. Wow. When I saw that I felt at the same level as the day I got nominated. Even though it's not directly my quote, it's something I introduced her to.
Gorbachev of course is the greatest writer of the show! He should do the Fringe actually - in fact he does do performances, charity music nights where he sings with a guitar. But nothing I could in a million years afford to go to because they're fundraisers - but if anybody reading wants to buy me a ticket...!
Have you any other work coming up?
I've got a couple of things in the mix. Nothing I can talk about just yet. Watch this space...
Published: Saturday 23rd February 2019