Even if you’ve only just arrived here in Estonia, you’re more than likely to have already come across a poster, seen an image at Tallinn Airport, or just noticed through your peripheral vision one of the many other creative representations of Louis Zezeran – founder, integral force, and one of the best-known personalities behind Comedy Estonia.
As part of a developing company that has grown in leaps and bounds in the past few years, Louis is a busy man – but in getting the opportunity to chat with him, he proves to be a warm, intelligent and endearing person, who is as funny and full of wit in person as he is on stage. So it’s no wonder that he’s gotten several gigs around Estonia (and elsewhere), including most notably (besides Comedy Estonia) as the ‘Work in Estonia Guy’, perhaps his best-known guise to the wider world. This is in addition to his recent role during this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, as the face and voice of the media coverage for Azerbaijan’s Samra!
Sitting down with Louis to find out how Comedy Estonia became the biggest player on the Estonian comedy scene, he is enthusiastic as he laughs throughout his story. Though he hails from outside Newcastle, in New South Wales, Australia, he’s been an active part of the Swedish, Finnish and Estonian comedy scenes for longer than many may have guessed.
Originally arriving in Estonia as a backpacker over a decade ago, Louis spent many years living between here and various other Nordic countries while working in the IT field. Estonia had already made its way into his heart though, ‘because it was one of the first places we came to, we spent more time here, so we spent some weeks in Tallinn, and some days in Pärnu and I think I just kind of liked it from the beginning. I like living here,’ he says.
This IT background of his raises an important question though – how does someone make what appears to be a huge leap, from techie to front stage?
Delving a little deeper, Louis admits that at least a little credit should go to his first IT bosses back in Australia: ‘I got a first class honours degree in computer science from the University of Newcastle and I then worked for a few years as an IT consultant in Sydney. During that time I was mainly involved in IT training, as I guess my boss quickly worked out I was better at talking than sitting down doing projects!’
It wasn’t as simple as just that though. After working in ‘his’ field for a few years, some friends invited him to their student theatre production. ‘I had literally never been to the theatre before in my life. So I went and I enjoyed the show and it was their final night and I had nothing to do so I stayed around, helped them pack up and partied with them. I enjoyed being around these people, they were unlike anyone I’d met before, fun, emotional, outgoing, artistic. I started to work on a show myself … I figured if I could run an IT project I could run a theatre one,’ Louis explains.
After about three months of that, Louis had quit his full time job and was just producing theatre and doing IT jobs on the side, and it is clear through the passionate and emphatic way he talks about this experience that he owes a lot of credit to this phase in his life.
‘I enjoyed the influence those people gave me and I gave some stability to them in return. I became the lead of publicity for the group [and] many of the ideas I got then we went on to use in the early days of Comedy Estonia,’ he explains.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Louis was pretty easily sold when he found an innovative way to combine his entrepreneurial edge, his comedic and theatre background, and his love for Estonia.
‘I started to run a comedy club in Stockholm, Sweden and that went well for a couple of months and because I already had an association with Estonia, a [American] chap called Eric Seufert reached out to me. We started to talk, and then went “why don’t we do a comedy show, let’s do a comedy show in Estonia!” and it grew from that inspiration. We didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t know how it would come out.’
The very first set of shows the pair put on were open-mic nights (where newcomers can try out stand-up alongside more experienced acts) in Tartu’s Eduard Vilde Inn & Cafe.
After lining up Joe Eagan, a Canadian headliner Louis had known from his days in Sweden, and committing to three shows, Louis chuckles as he recalls that they guessed that maybe 40 people would attend. So it was quite a surprise when, as it turned out, over 150 people showed up for the opening, with dozens more streaming in as the night went on.
Their Tartu story still rings true today, more than six years later, which is without doubt a good sign for any type of organization. When I personally went to check out one of their open-mic nights at Protest Bar in Tallinn there must have been well over 100 people there by the time I arrived.
Comedy Estonia has showcased international acts from day one, and they have been putting some extra power behind this recently, with a very well-received [Sgt. Larvelle Jones from the Police Academy movies] Michael Winslow show in March, a six-city-tour of the Baltics with British superstar Jimmy Carr that started on 15 May, and have just announced a show featuring the musical comedy genius of Bill Bailey, taking place on 2 October this year.
One of the best aspects of Comedy Estonia though, and perhaps the main reason they are still bringing in such huge audience numbers, is that they are true to their brand name. Comedy Estonia is primarily for Estonian audiences, rather than ‘expats’, and Louis tells me that: ‘I have always been quite proud that our shows have not fallen into the trap of being simply expat hangouts. Yes there are inevitably quite a few non-Estonians in the audience, but still the vast majority are Estonians at these shows.’
It seems a little daunting to me in how an outsider – both from the country and its language, could enjoy the success Comedy Estonia has had, so Louis elaborates for me a little more.
‘From the beginning, I have had very good employees who know the Estonian culture and tell me what I need to know, and so we do the right things based on the Estonian approach. While Comedy Estonia is run by an expat, or a foreigner if you like, I believe that our marketing and what we’ve done has been directed by Estonians, and towards Estonian sensibilities … I rely greatly on my employees, and I think that any foreign businessman has to do that, ie. to rely on good, trusted local people to tell them what they don’t know themselves.’
But what of the humour content itself, how does that go over in Estonia? Stand-up has but one golden rule: the coarser the joke, the better should it be. Estonians tend to like black humour and sarcasm in particular. Louis knows that if an Estonian audience doesn’t like the joke they won’t heckle. They just remain stoically quiet. And this icy silence is perhaps way worse than being heckled. But then again, if they laugh, it comes from the heart.
Louis also appreciatively points out how open Estonians are to other languages, and in fact the problem was never that he was English-speaking, as the majority of the regular comedians are Estonians, but that it was Estonians’ own self-scepticism which was coming to the fore: ‘I feel like I spent the first three years of comedy Estonia having everyone go: “You can’t do stand up in Estonian, it won’t work” and I’m like “why? It works in Finnish, it isn’t a grammatical issue, there is no technical issue … can you have a conversation in the language? – Yes? Then you can do stand up in that language!”’
It surely looks as though Estonia is starting to come round to Louis’ point of view as well. The recent ETV televised showing of their m‘Tõuske püsti!’ (Eng: ‘Stand up!’) comedy special just this last New Year was so well received that they were able to use it as a launch pad for an impressive 13-show, solo tour for up-and-coming young Estonian comedian Sander Õigus.
According to Louis, all of this ties into his future plans for the company. When I ask him for more details, he tells me his goal is to keep developing local Estonian comedians: ‘I really believe in these guys, I think we’ve got a really great crew. And I really think they are going to be the next generation of entertainers in the public spotlight.’
He also fully believes in the businesses’ cultural mandate: a commitment to nurturing the stand-up comedy scene and making genuine, sustainable, long-term growth. ‘To me, we are growing slowly and steadily because we want to still be around in 10 or 15 years. We’re not trying to be some flash in the pan, something that comes and goes and gets forgotten about. So we think very long term,’ he explains.
It’s not all ‘talk’ either, they’ve already diversified quite a bit. In addition to this, Louis is also active in bringing stand-up to the other two Baltic states with Comedy Latvia and a partnership with Humoro Klubas in Lithuania, as well as another concern in Finland, and a number of other outlets as well. They even produce their own speciality beer for the shows, called Heckle! and brewed by Estonian craft beer company Lehe, and the team produce a number of fantastic podcasts and a great online radio show with Tartu Radio too. All of which is done in an effort to increase the personal development of each and every comedian, as well as Louis himself.
As Louis says, Comedy Estonia aims to ‘Chase respect, not popularity’ – in his opinion the former will lead to the latter, but not necessarily the other way around.
I, for one, can truly say that I think Comedy Estonia, and Louis, have thoroughly earned both monikers. To highlight this fact they also selflessly focus on keeping ticket prices as low as possible – in fact this is one of Comedy Estonia’s mandates, also helped by the fact much of the audience consists of young professionals and students. In short, they want people to immediately be able to say: ‘Yes! I’m going to go to a show!’ rather than having to pick and choose based on price.
So I urge everyone to take the opportunity to check them out. You can follow the schedule of shows on their website at www.comedyestonia.com or their Facebook page, where they frequently post information on upcoming or regular shows.