İsmail Türküsev and a Quick Guideline of Comedy

We’re at İsmail’s place in Moda. The month of June is about to be over. Istanbul has surrendered to its swampy heat. The night before, we’ve watched Euro 2020’s best night of football with İsmail. One hour later, İsmail will leave the house and go to the shooting of the podcast he does for Socrates Dergi. I open my laptop. Run the recording software. “İsmail”, I say, “come, let’s get the interview out of the way”. This is the level of familiarity one has with each other after six years of friendship.

İsmail Türküsev is a comedian and a digital content creator. I intend to chat with him about it. The Dolmus squad has given me some questions and I have some more in my head. I open with the first one that falls down to my mouth. Is İsmail happy with the definition of his job? Does the term “comedian” fully encapsulate what he does?

Comedian encapsulates it very much so, actually” says İsmail, “but the term itself doesn’t have an equivalence in the public eye. When you say you’re a comedian, people are like ‘Okay, but what else are you doing? Like I also fish but that’s not the first thing I say.’ ”

Of course, when you’re interviewing a comedian you have to accept finding some jokes in the answers you get. I invite İsmail back to seriousness. İsmail is talking about a reaction specific to Turkey here. He’s saying that being a comedian is not taken seriously as an occupation in the country. As a follow-up I ask him whether or not that has changed.

Of course, it’s been changing for a while.” answers İsmail, “I’ve kind of entered into it in its golden years, while it’s on the rise.”

This is exactly the assist I’m looking for because I’d been meaning to ask İsmail how he got his start. So I do. The conversation keeps flowing without breaking its course.

Apparently I’d been doing comedy for years in different mediums. Actually I started on radio.” he says. İsmail’s talking about the popular comedy show O Tarz Mı here. O Tarz Mı had started its life on radio in 2015, with the crew of Can Bonomo, Can Temiz and İsmail Türküsev.

All three of us were already friends and we managed to pull off that thing everybody talks about in between themselves, which is ‘how great would it be if we could put our conversations on the radio.” says İsmail as he’s describing those days, “but because there was somebody who does it in our group, meaning, not just because he does radio but because he does things in general; Can Bonomo did and led us to do as well.”

O Tarz Mı, after starting its life as a radio show; switches to digital platforms and becomes Turkey’s most popular podcast show for long years. İsmail interestingly states that this wasn’t something the O Tarz Mı squad actually followed up on.

We were pioneers in the podcast world without estimating to do so.” he says, “Because we switched to the digital fast, because we were young and radio was entering into a different conjecture what with the selling of Rock FM and stuff. Then with the rise of Spotify, we started to put our stuff there and for a while we weren’t aware that there was a podcast category there and we were leading it.”

That’s why O Tarz Mı is a turning point in İsmail’s life. He was working in advertising as a copywriter before, and with this; he switches to performance arts.  

Yes, blood dropped on the wolf’s tooth” explains İsmail, using an amazing Turkish idiom. Specifically, he’s talking about O Tarz Mı’s first live performance. “In our third or fourth year we staged O Tarz Mı Live in IF Beşiktaş and 1500 people showed up. We performed O Tarz Mı in front of 1500 people and my role in the show was more or less the guy who makes reckless jokes. And 1500 people laughing to the things I said deeply impressed me. It was incredibly different to imagine and hear the collective laughter of 1500 people.”

When İsmail says that, I think to the recently released Friends Reunion episode when the actor Matthew Perry said that when the jokes he performed didn’t do well with the live audience Friends was filmed in front of, he was filled with great anxiety and only felt a sense of completeness when he received laughs. I remind this to İsmail and ask: Is seeking laughter a form of validation?

İsmail laughs and answers: “No I received plenty of love growing up, it has nothing to do with that”. İsmail generally seeks laughter in life, it’s his disposition. The opposite side of what Matthew Perry was talking about, which is the anxiety a performer feels when their jokes don’t land, is a shield the comedian should develop early.

I knew that 3-4 jokes going badly shouldn’t stop me from trying out the other 7-8” says İsmail, “and I think I was in a good place percentage-wise. When you’re making people laugh in 6-7 of your jokes, you burn 2-3 of them. If people are tolerating it, you become convinced that it is in general tolerable.”

Then we’ve got to talk jokes. We’ve got to talk about what a joke is. I start the conversation by asking if İsmail had followed the work of any comedians before. He responds by saying that he watches the classics, the famous ones. I ask him if he reviewed those works with a new eye after he started performing. “Of course” he says. Then what’s different about a standup show when you’re watching it as a performer?

The empathy about what that person thinks when they say something becomes very strong. Because you inevitably put yourself in the performer’s place and see why they did that, what that action serves next and what they’ll transition into.”

So İsmail sees the ropes. Which is to say that he understands how much of a construct a standup is.

Very much so. There’s that duality anyway. How good it is directly relates to how loose and improvised it feels and in order for it to feel that way it needs to be that much coherent and planned. Sometimes the comedian doesn’t trust their joke and immediately go like ‘so that was a joke I had’ or something. That breaks reality in terms of the audience. The audience then feels tense because they feel like something is being done to them. But the ideal is the feeling of doing something together. There’s engineering here, a schematic which turns feelings into reality.”

But it’s tough to make people forget that obvious power, because as Jerry Seinfeld correctly pointed out there’s only one person talking in a standup show. Everybody else is quiet. İsmail feels that this is what makes the performer – audience relationship special.

In order for the audience not to turn on you you always have to be welded alongisde them and at the same time draw the lines of authority kindly yet firmly, otherwise you understand the audience is not always your friend.”

When is the audience your friend?

When you make them laugh. So much so that if you make them laugh they’ll support you in anything you say. When you don’t believe what you say, they won’t, you all won’t laugh and then they will question the interior of the things you say.”

It is of course a weird dynamic to be on stage and to be the only person on stage, which reminds me of another part of this that I find weird. İsmail is somewhere between the underground and the mainstream, which means that he performs in polished stages like Zorlu PSM and BKM and bars like Aylak at the same time. On one hand, a comedian that stands elevated from the audience an on the other hand, a drinking environment. I ask him about the difference between the two.

The higher the stage goes, the higher the expectation goes. For example I was very nervous in this beautiful theatre stage called Sahne Beşiktaş. Because we were very high up, there was this big stage light and the stage itself was huge. And the hall had a theatre setup and in that setup the audience acts like they’re watching a play. They don’t feel very involved. Because you know how laughter is also participation? It minimizes participation. On the other hand in bars and places where the audience – performer distinction is blurred people are much more relaxed. But that’s only possible in underground standup. The other is something else.”

Which brings the topic to the usage of that stage. We chat about how other performes fill the stage. Because İsmail prefers standup performances that rely on speech, he feels the types of performances -like the one Bo Burnham does- that rely on light, shadow and music shows is far from being pure standup. He follows the example of Cem Yılmaz and Dave Chapelle who fills the stage with pantomime or horizontal movement and expresses that these are advanced skills in this branch of performance.

I get worried about who I’m telling my jokes to when there are three angles.” he says honestly, “They do it 360 degrees. For example let’s take Cem Yılmaz, how many floors does the place at his show have? He tells some of his jokes to the balcony, turns light, turns left. You’re so in control of your text and your performance that then you’re able to turn around and control the environment. I haven’t yet mastered my speech in order to be able to perform it the same way in all the environments, that’s another level.”

When the conversation comes to text, I ask him about his writing process. He says everything, including improvisational breaks and interactive parts are written down.

Where I’ll improvise is set. I will improvise there if something comes up, if not, I’ll move on to the next one. The interactive parts are set.” he says, but adds: “Of course there’s a unique feel to each performance. The hecklers, people who react differently etc. Sometimes the joke feels different because I said it differently and then I take it and use on my next show.”

Then the jokes have a lifespan. They are born, they grow up, they change. Do they die?

For example let’s say I write a joke and realize that joke became a hit, it always draws a laugh and it always works. I do that for a while, because it makes me laugh. It’s hard to talk about something as if it’s entertaining if it’s not entertaining you anyway. That joke is an instrument, so you start making that joke better the more you make it. When you stop being better about it, the joke sort of peaks and after that peak the possibility of you discovering something new about that joke is finished. When that’s finished, it stops exciting me. When that happens the joke dies.”

When İsmail says that I’m reminded of Louis CK, then simultaneously alt-J’s oath-like songlet Ripe & Ruin. Like the balance of life, the lifespan of jokes resembles good fruit. There’s ripe. There’s ruin. We talk about the pandemic in regards to that. Just at the beginning of his comedy career, just as he made the jump from a full-time job into his dream; the pandemic came and put him under terrible financial and emotional strain. We talk about this. İsmail had spent this period writing, believing he’ll return one day. And after a year anda half, in the summer of 2021 in which these lines are being written; he’s slowly returning to stage. I ask him if he’s noticed anything different.

There’s something sikko about it” he says laughingly, invoking the unique Turkish word ‘sikko’ to explaing that there’s something amiss and not all there. “Not just with me, there’s something sikko in the entire world. Everybody’s laughing but they’re laughing nervously. That nervousness spills over to us. I’m sure it spills over to the grocer too.”

I have a different idea about this topic. I’m reminded of the recent research I carried out on the history of the bikini. There a historian talking about the topic, who says that there’s a common ground in the fact that after WW1 women abandoned their corsets and after WW2 they cut their bathing suits; which is to say that there was a celebration of body and joy after moments of big crises. I ask İsmail about it, telling him that I expect such a reaction post-COVID. Is that summer this summer?

I don’t know, I feel this summer will be about recovery. Because people have been hurt a lot, I don’t know if we’re at the point of throwing away the bottom part of the bikini. Maybe next summer. At some point a discharge like that must happen.” he says. Then perhaps because he said that or perhaps because conversation opens conversation, he shares an observation he made in one of the open mic sessions he participated in recently after the pandemic. 

I see a lot of young people in these open mic sessions. They’re incredibly offensive. They spit poision. I don’t know if that’s going to bring about a comedic revolution or if they’re going to fuck us all. Young guys don’t know of course, but I for example had to give up some of my jokes six months ago because of external pressure. There have been people who were jailed, who were lynched, whose lives were turned upside down. If the youth come like the flood and break down the barriers maybe it’ll be a light of hope for us.”

I throw myself out to the streets of İstanbul filled with police barriers because of the Pride walk the day before. The weather’s dirty and swampy. The weather’s filled with a weird smell of hope. People’s faces aren’t smiling, because perhaps this summer is not that summer indeed. But there’s a summer ahead. Me and all the people who are trying to crawl under a year-and-a-half-long pandemic know this. The youth or the people who feel young, doesn’t matter. Somebody needs to turn into a flood and break all these barriers.

I arrive at the destination where I’m supposed to meet İsmail again. I take out my computer and sit down. İstanbul’s dirty. İstanbul’s swampy. İstanbul’s streets are filled with barriers and İstanbul’s stages are waiting for all the raindrops that will turn into a flood and wash over all of these things.

Aesthetics are the only requirement. Everything else is permitted. 

Interview: Yiğitcan Erdoğan

Translation: Yiğitcan Erdoğan