A (Funny) Englishman in New York



A (Funny) Englishman in New York

An expat comedian’s story of laughter-filled days and long-distance love.

By Claire Bolden McGill

Global Living Magazine – Issue 17 | March/April 2015

The expat network that is available at your fingertips, if you just want to reach out and find like-minded people, is a wondrous thing. I first connected with Chris Williams through Facebook and my blog, www.ukdesperatehousewifeusa.com, and since I happened to be in the Big Apple for a weekend jaunt, we decided to meet up on a sunny fall afternoon in New York City, where Chris resides, for a face-to-face chat.

IMG_1635Chris, 38, is a British expat who is a project manager by day and a comedian and writer by night. When you’re billed as a ‘funny guy’, there’s always a bit of pressure when you meet someone and they expect you to be funny on the spot. Luckily, Chris’s British humor, sarcasm and endearing quality of being able to laugh at himself and us quirky Brits shone through during our Bellini-filled afternoon. Plus, he’s from my ‘neck of the woods’ in the U.K., so we had a lot to talk about.

Chris has taken on the tough task of being a funny man in the city of laughs and spends many nights gigging, telling expat-based jokes to his mixed audiences, and using his ‘Britishness’ to win them over. This is Chris’s expat story of laughter-filled evenings and long-distance love.

Tell us a little bit about yourself: what you did back home, when and how you came to the U.S., and how the transition has been for you.

The reason I found myself in the U.S. … I fell in love. I met a beautiful Irish woman named Fiona, a few weeks before she moved to New York with her work, so we did the long distance thing – transatlantic. And yes, it was very expensive, but so worthwhile. The concept of long distance is very different in New York; from what I understand, if you live more than 15 minutes away from somebody, it’s too far and won’t work out!

We dated for less than nine months, and that was it… I knew she was the one. I asked her to marry me in April 2012 and we got married three months later. I tell this story when I’m on stage, as it is completely true, and for the romantics in the house it gives hope that it could happen to them too. However, for those couples who have already been together for a bit longer… 2 years, 3 years, 5, 10… but not yet had ‘the marriage chat’, I have to apologize in advance for their awkward subway journey home.

Once I got my paperwork through, I moved to New York. It was an incredibly exciting time for us, but in October 2012, I found myself on the other side of the Atlantic, and I only knew one person… my wife! My family and friends in England were now five hours ahead. Fiona had already worked and lived in several other countries, so she knew what to expect and was incredibly supportive in holding my hand, but it was the first time in my life I had done this. Whilst I spoke the local language (which does help), I had to start afresh… find a new job, make friends and embrace the adventure!

How did you become a stand-up comedian? What obstacles did you overcome?

When I moved to the U.S. I wanted to try something new. What is New York City famous for? Stand-up comedy! So I started with a writing course at a comedy club, where for two months I worked on putting material together and performing (often rewriting and reworking stories, over and over again) and, once I completed this, I went to some open mics to road-test it. Then, through some of the contacts I’d made, I was asked to do some real shows in Greenwich Village. The first time I performed I was buzzing with nerves and energy. Several friends came to support and, much to their relief, I was funny, and it worked! From there I started making more contacts and now I regularly host and perform shows all over the city.

As for obstacles… there is a lot of healthy competition here: so many performers, and the standard is high. For every big name, there are hundreds of people who are working on their material day in, day out and performing constantly to make their stuff even better. As for networking in comedy – it’s not the worst thing to have to do, heading to bars and clubs to support other shows! People are trying to make you laugh. They have all been very supportive of this misplaced Brit.

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

Share with us your ideas and inspirations behind your comedy. Do you think Americans and Brits have a different approach and understanding of comedy and humor?

It’s all about real life – I’m nearly 40, recently married and a long way from home. My material goes under the title of ‘Love Your Accent’ – which initially was just the phrase I heard the most when I moved here, but it has became something more. Starting afresh enables you to take stock and reflect on yourself and your identity. There is such diversity of people in the U.S., and self-expression is embraced here more than in the U.K. – it all feeds into what I’m doing. The U.S. encourages individuality, and my material focuses on individual identity and what it is to be yourself. So now the accent I talk about is the thing that makes you you. As a result, my material covers everything from making friends as an adult, discussing the range of sexuality, differences between tea and coffee… even buying a bed!

10468471_803883736323378_5574588034209245367_oWhat advice would you give to expats wanting to establish themselves in the field of comedy in their host country?

First of all – go support live comedy! It doesn’t have to be a big club; it could be the back room of a bar. Get a drink, sit, watch, and laugh! Believe me, the performers will really appreciate it.

From a practical point of view, being able to speak the local language is key, and understanding the local customs and points of reference. Even here in New York, I had to change any sporting metaphors I used from British to American! 

Which British and American comedians do you love, and why, and how do they influence your comedy?

This could be a long old list. From the States: Jim Gaffigan, Mark Norman, Louis CK, Michael Che… all of their writing is so sharp, observational and polished. From the other side of the Atlantic: with my mum coming from Glasgow, I grew up on a diet of Billy Connolly, but today there is great stuff from shows such as Chewing the Fat from Scotland, and then Dave Gorman, Sarah Million… Going a bit further afield than Britain, Republic of Telly from Ireland deserves special mention too. It is helping me with my cultural appreciation of my wife.

The influence comes from the writing, style of delivery, and how to address both everyday and contemporary topics in a creative way. I have been lucky enough to see many of these performers live, in both large and small venues, and every time you really appreciate the quality of their work.

What are your favorite lines, monologues, quips, etc. that you use in your routine?

One of my favorite stories comes from a family Christmas in 1994. I was studying archaeology at university and my parents asked me what I would like for Christmas. I mentioned in passing that I would love a whip like Indiana Jones, and we all laughed and I thought nothing more of it.

A few months passed and Christmas Day arrived. After we had exchanged gifts, my mom said, “We have one more thing for you,” and handed me a large red box. I opened the lid, and inside there was blue tissue paper, which I folded back, and there, inside the box, was a proper authentic leather bullwhip.

I was stunned – amazing gift! I went out into the garden and tried it out. “Crack!” I was so touched. Then over Christmas lunch, I started thinking about this. See, this is back in the 90s, when the Internet didn’t really exist. I realized my parents had gone around my hometown of Bristol, into every shop, and asked, “Excuse me, do you sell whips?” Mortified…

Then I started thinking… “Did they only buy one?”

1836791_761920987186320_2214911045135192315_oWhat’s the best/worst heckle you’ve had and how did you respond?

Heckling can come in many forms… people shouting out their own jokes, or worse, actively distracting the room. As for addressing it, I was always taught to kill with kindness! I was recently hosting a show in Times Square, and there was one couple who were right at the front, at the bar, being very noisy. While it wasn’t deliberately rude, it was putting both the performers and the audience off, so in between acts I thought I’d politely say “hello” and get their attention. The couple is best described as follows: him – early 40s, overweight, ill-fitting suit, short, balding. His companion: 25, if a day, six-foot, peroxide blonde, curvaceous and dressed to the nines.

I get on stage, take the microphone, thank the last act, and I can’t help myself…

“Sir, I wanted to ask you something… how did you two meet? And have you ever heard the phrase ‘punching above your weight’?”

The room laughs warmly. He takes out his wallet from his jacket and waves it at me, in front of everyone, bragging: “It’s sex, sex, sex.” Cue an audible intake of breath from the audience. I play dumb.

“So how long have you known each other?” The room is on tenterhooks. She says two years; he says five. The room cracks up.

So I then ask: “…so…have you talked about marriage yet?”

I start telling a quick joke, but I can see her now rushing her drink whilst berating him. They leave the venue… and as they go, there is an almighty cheer from the audience!

Many people have said that Americans ‘don’t do’ nor do they ‘get’ irony. What’s your view?

It really does depend on the audience. I think they are more aware of it now, especially thanks to shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but I don’t think some Americans are truly comfortable at laughing at themselves. They are self-aware, but some may not like the idea that they can’t be Number One.

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

After just over two years in New York City, do people still ‘love your accent’?

I like to think so! Audiences are growing on the Internet and at shows, and people are always interested in my ‘exotic’ views (like I said, not everyone gets the irony!). Performing here has been a truly unique opportunity and I am very grateful to every person who has turned up, laughed, or booked me – and especially to my wife who has now heard everything so many times!

Tell us your favorite British and American jokes or one-liners!

I will combine these… You can tell a lot about countries by their national anthems. America has ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ – a rousing song from the battlefield about a flag in the ground which is still there the next day. My national anthem is ‘God Save the Queen’. We ask an imaginary person to look after a little old lady.

In addition, America has ‘America the Beautiful’, which is a little bit forward; we would have ‘Britain the Modest’, and there might be ‘North Korea the Mandatory’. My favorite is ‘Hail to the Chief’; I cannot think of anything more British than wishing bad weather on a politician.

And finally….

We have relished our time in New York. It has been an amazing place to start our married life together and we have a lot of friends and memories here, but we know that eventually we will be returning to the other side of the Atlantic. Our adventures will continue there, but a little closer to home, and that will be the next chapter. I know we will be back to visit the Big Apple, though, where the city never sleeps.

You can follow Chris via www.thatbritguy.nyc and on Twitter @thatbritguynyc.

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