As a teenager in Argentina, Eliana La Casa wasn’t exposed to a lot of comedy. At the time Netflix wasn’t around and there were no Comedy Central specials—it was in a high school class in 2009 that La Casa first started learning the form and then became an audience member herself. Since then, she’s built a comedy career in the country performing and running shows of her own. Last summer she was featured on the TV special Comedy Central Stand-Up: Argentine Edition. In May she came to the United States for only the second time in her life to widen her comedic scope and study improv at Second City for six months. While here, she quickly found herself being booked on stand-up showcases, proving that jokes about some experiences—like worrying about your Tinder date being a serial killer—transcend all cultures.
On Sunday, August 25, at 5 PM La Casa will host the first-ever all-Spanish-speaking showcase at the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival. Ahead of the fest I chatted with La Casa about the challenges posed by translation, the need for more all-Spanish-speaking shows, and the relationship between comedy and activism.
What were the main things you first noticed about the difference between comedy in Argentina and comedy in the United States?
I feel there’s a style and a content difference. Of course there are trends in stand-up, and I feel like now what’s on trend is a very natural-sounding anecdotal, almost storytelling style. I feel like most people here are moving in that direction, and I would say in Argentina stand-up comedy is still a lot more setup, punch line. We have this way of thinking that whatever happens in the States is best, but actually I see a lot of people trying to go for that natural feeling and that natural tone by riffing, riffing, riffing until they get to a joke and feel natural. I feel that most comedians who sound really natural but also have great jokes actually do it the other way around. They develop a very good joke, and they run it so many times that eventually it sounds so natural that it feels improvised.
Obviously your jokes are translating very well in Chicago. How do you go about creating material in Spanish and English?
It’s something that I’m still trying to figure out. In Argentina I do produce and host a show in English, and what I’ve been doing in that show for the past couple of years is that I literally translate my jokes from Spanish into English. Of course not every word can be translated, and not every cultural reference works for English speakers. What would happen was out of an hour of material, I would only be able to translate 20 minutes. Ever since I’ve been here I’ve been trying to develop new material, and I find it really hard because being here it didn’t make any sense to write in Spanish and then translate it into English, it made a lot more sense to go directly into English. I’ve been able to pull out some one-liners or I’m a big fan of jokes about whatever’s happening that day or anything to present myself to an audience who doesn’t really know who I am, and that I can definitely manage. But to work on a five-minute new bit, I’m still struggling. We’ll see if I can come up with something new.
Are there other differences in the translation, like working on the rhythm of how you hit punch lines or things like that?
Of course grammatically it’s a challenge because whatever the funniest word or funniest point is, that has to be at the end. Spanish and English work grammatically opposite, so in Spanish it’s like “un auto rojo” and in English it’s “a red car.” So if your punch line is “red,” in English that’s not going to work so you have to build it like, “Oh the car, it was red” or whatever you can manage to do so it works for you.
Why do you think it’s important for a full Spanish-speaking show to continue in the city?
I’m not from here so it would be weird to say, you people should definitely have this regularly, but being a Spanish speaker in this city that has so many other Spanish speakers, it’s weird that [an all-Spanish-speaking show] is extraordinary. I would think that this would have been happening for a long time now. Americans love having a taco festival or love listening to Colombian mariachi, clearly there is an interest in Latin culture or Hispanic culture in general, so why not approach it in its original language? In translation you miss out on a lot.
What continues to draw you to comedy?
For me, stand-up only comes from having a strong feeling about some subject, it doesn’t matter if it’s excitement or hate or rage or embarrassment or whatever, I just feel that those ideas are so much easier to digest if you’re making people laugh. For me it’s also a form of political militance because you’re getting your thoughts across. And maybe you’re performing for an audience that is already aligned with your ideas, sometimes you are not, but your ideas will be there anyways. I just hope that one of those ideas will stand in those people’s heads, and I can go home being like, “I changed the world!”
In Argentina there is a small but at the same time thriving comedy scene. There’s a strong women’s movement down in Argentina. We had the abortion bill discussed for the first time last year, and actually all the women in comedy in Buenos Aires gathered together to sign a petition for Congress members to approve the bill. We made a collective called Feminist Comedian. The bill didn’t go through, but in a way it was just the first step of visibility. I hope that that same activism would reach other parts of the world. I feel there’s such a strong collaboration between comedy and activism, and I truly hope that we have it here too. v