The expats (and one Italian) bringing comedy to Rome

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R-L: Liz Knight, Jose Salgado, John Gilbert, Francesco De Carlo and Marsha De Salvatore. Photo: The Local Italy
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Once you’re done with Rome’s numerous historical sites, take yourself off to the Rome Comedy Club for some laughter.

It takes a lot of courage to stand on stage and try to make people laugh, especially when the audience is made up of a mix of people from around the world and Italians.

That audience can be highly judgmental and expectant – it’s Friday night, they’ve had a tough week, and they’re depending on the group of expats, and one Italian, who make up Rome’s Comedy Club, to lift their spirits.

But going by the number of people who flock to the venue in Rome’s Trastevere area on the last Friday of each month, the comedians need not worry.

The comics, led by Marsha De Salvatore, an American of Italian origin, seem to not only have managed to transcend humour barriers, but are also raising the bar in Italy's stand-up comedy scene.

They muse over life as an expat in Italy and all the country’s charms, quirks and complexities, while at the same time striking a chord with the Italian audience with a humorous insight into their own peculiaraties and way of life.

For De Salvatore, whose parents are from Calabria, connecting with both the foreign and Italian audience seems to come naturally.

In fact, much of the material in her sketches involves the highly entertaining conversations had around the Italian family dinner table while growing up in Ohio.

“I come from a very self-deprecating family, we don't take ourselves too seriously,” she tells The Local.

Frustrated by the lack of an English stand-up comedy scene in the capital, Rome’s Comedy Club was founded by De Salvatore in 2009, seven years after she moved to the city.

Marsha De Salvatore: Photo: The Local Italy

De Salvatore, who also teaches English, was encouraged to take her humour to the stage after joining the English Theatre Group, and soon found herself putting together a hugely successful show – in Italian - that she would eventually perform up and down the country.

She captured her Italian audience by sharing her battle with thalassemia, a blood disorder.

The topic's not funny, but pairing health – something Italians love to talk about a lot – with humour, went down a treat.

“It was a kind of tragicomedy, and really worked with Italians,” De Salvatore said.

“When you touch upon life’s challenges it helps people to connect and deal with their problems – they were able to feel lots of emotions, and hear someone's personal story while laughing at the same time.”

De Salvatore’s self-deprecating style was a refreshing change from the slapstick humour that dominates Italian comedy, usually involving men falling over scantily-clad women akin to the late British comic, Benny Hill, who Italians loved.

"Italian humour brings in a lot of slapstick and irony to being Italian, whereas British comedy is dry and sometimes surreal - for example in shows like The Office," De Salvatore says.

"In American comedy, it's more about poking fun at themselves and everyday life, like Seinfeld or Louis CK."  

An Italian comedy show is typically akin to a cabaret, which includes sketches, musical numbers and monologues.

But stand-up comedy, which has a long heritage in the UK and US,  is becoming more of a trend in Italy, De Salvatore adds.

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"Now that Comedy Central has come to Sky Italia, there are shows focused on stand-up. Italians are beginning to watch stand-up comics like Eddie Izzard and Chris Rock and are learning the art form," she says.

"In the end comedy is cultural but people are curious to know and try different styles...which is what has happened with the stand-up scene in Italy."

Anyone can try their hand at stand-up with the group, but the regulars include Liz Knight, an American lawyer, Jose Salgado, a Mexican who came to Rome with his Canadian diplomat wife, and Francesco De Carlo, a professional Italian comedian, who also performs in English.

John Gilbert, an 18-year-old student whose father works at the US Embassy, made his debut with the club last Friday.

De Carlo, who has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, has a theory on why Italian start-up comedy has been slow to take off.

"We haven't really needed comedy because everyone here is a natural comedian - in the UK, they're all boring, so they need comedy," he jokes.

The next Rome Comedy Club show is on Friday 1st April. For more information on venue, time and tickets, click here.

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