Vahe Berberian and the art of making you get over yourself
June 26, 2009
Here’s a rule of thumb: comedy thrives on misery. The more errant, lost, down on its luck, or for any reason suffering from collective hallucination a society is, the better it is for comedy. But comedy does more than simply profit from adversity; it can, if plied in the right hands and hurling its arrows in the right direction, help us overcome – even transcend – misfortune.
Comedy is also all about people power. Say you find yourself living in times of utter senselessness and absurdity (the Stalin era, the Bush years); or you happen to be in an environment where values are no longer defined by things like intellect, civic engagement, and altruism, but rather the relative size of one’s bank account (the Armenian diaspora comes to mind, but especially a wondrous spot I like to call Nagorno Glendale). And say, in situations such as these, time-honored agents of change such as unhindered public debate are either nonexistent, out of torque, or banned outright. Then comedy takes over – or should. Comedy is just about the cheapest, and surest, way to mount a revolution, and do it where it counts most: in people’s hearts and minds.
Vahe Berberian has the astonishing ability to brighten your mood at hello, almost without trying. It’s in the diabolically mischievous twinkle in his eyes, a knack for instantly uncovering the story behind the cover story but not quite making a fuss about it, and his voice: a breezily humor-laced, at turns street-wise and literate twang that can communicate as much Beirut and Los Angeles as a mahogany-lined Dublin pub.
But geography per se is hardly the point. What comes through is that Berberian has been both here and out there, both a citizen of the Armenian ethos and a denizen of the world, and has come to realize that, in terms of the core human condition, there’s not a whole lot that separates an Armenian from, oh, a blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian – notwithstanding the thousand and one quirks, tics, taboos, and prejudices that make an Armenian an Armenian.
It’s precisely this larger knowingness that fuels all good comedy, and in Berberian’s case it does double duty since he consciously appeals to the full complement of hyphenated Armenians: those hailing not just form the old Western-Armenian communities but also Iran, Armenia, and whatever diaspora corner you care to include in the mix.
One fine Thursday night in June, Berberian came on stage to perform his latest stand-up act, Sagayn – which means “however” in Armenian. The venue itself, Glendale’s Brandview Collection – a hall known for its opulent wedding banquets and fundraisers, not comedy routines brimming with biting commentary – was ironic enough, though surely not intentionally so.
As Berberian’s towering figure appeared on the makeshift stage, the lights were dimmed, and a night-clubby spotlight zeroed in on him, the crowd went wild, like schoolchildren let loose onto summer recess. Berberian’s conspiratorial smile, flanked by his iconic braids, had given the only signal worth a hoot: it was OK to frolic to our hearts’ content, so long as we understood that laughing at our own selves was key.
If Jesus were to be sent to Armenia instead
Always folksy. Always below the belt. Just a couple of friends shooting the breeze, letting off some steam around mezze and beer. Except that there were some 200 of us in the hall, and Berberian’s topics ranged from the foibles of married couples to the antics of macho Armenian men, and from the new American vogue of aggressive ignorance to the shenanigans of superpower politics.
As Berberian delivered his punch lines with impeccable timing and deft transitions, I was reminded of the late George Carlin, whose exhilarating, brutally honest stand-up routines provided so many of us with a measure of sanity and a sense of shared outrage vis a vis the foolishness of empire and the grand scheme of runaway consumerism, among other things. But whereas Berberian’s performances are reminiscent of Carlin’s thematic diversity and acerbic wit, Berberian is careful not to pass the vulgarity speed limit, given the demographic that attends his shows. Maybe Armenian audiences aren’t, or at least aren’t perceived to be, prepared for the kind of no-holds-barred comedy that stops at absolutely nothing to expose the sacred cows. Or maybe, at the end of the day, Berberian remains basically a nice guy.
But a nice guy with a stick, let there be no doubt. Berberian’s last one-man show, Dagaveen, which he performed in sold-out halls throughout 2004, thrilled audiences with its loving jibes at sundry Armenian ways of doing things and clever reflections on the awkward or unpleasant moments that visit us on a daily basis. With Sagayn, not only has the comedian’s subject matter branched out into an ambitious expanse and his style been further polished, but there’s a marked jump in his satirical voltage. It’s as if Berberian is saying, “I’ll work my barbs with all due respect and good taste, but I’m not shying away from calling a spade a spade, wherever and in whatever guise it may occur.”
I’m very much tempted to mention some of Berberian’s latest quips here – like the one about a new GPS system that comes in Lebanese-Armenian, Iranian-Armenian, and Hayastanian versions; or the one that muses about what if Jesus were sent to Armenia instead of Palestine; or, indeed, a flurry of jokes about how God deals with boredom, keeping up with the Joneses Glendale-Armenian-style, six-figure wedding extravaganzas included, alternative Armenian and Turkish names for medical conditions obsessively labeled by big pharma, and the Hayastanian habit of slapping you with a chi kareli for even the simplest request imaginable. I won’t reveal the full flavor and sheer inventiveness of these jokes because I’m simply unable to, and because that would be akin to giving away a cliffhanger.
What I can tell you is this: long after Berberian finished unrolling the last joke of the evening and sent a thank-you kiss to the audience, his stories and quips were being told and retold all over town: in cars on the way home, in late-night coffee shops, and at Glendale’s Phoenicia Restaurant, which is where a bunch of us went to relish the aftertaste.