Alan Drop on his journey to laughter
An interview with the South African comedian and public speaker poking fun at Norway
A journeyer is one who travels a considerable distance, either physically or in the sense of personal progress. This is the perfect word to define Alan Drop, for he is a journeyer in both senses of this word. Born in South Africa, he has traveled to over 40 countries and lived in eight.
Alan’s employment trek has been arduous. He has worked as a soldier (not by choice), created a tennis school, penned words as a journalist, taught English, and opened a sports store. He has also worked as an activist and in a corporate environment. Today, he resides in rural Norway.
What do you do with this type of resume? Become a comedian and public speaker. Drop has been quite successful performing on four continents.
He headed to Brooklyn this month, where he had graciously agreed to do a benefit show for the Scandinavian East Coast Museum. It was wonderful to speak to him about his life, journey, and current location.
Victoria Hofmo: Alan, you were born in South Africa. Can you speak a little about what is viewed as humorous in that country?
Alan Drop: I come from Durban, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Not as diverse as New York, but leaning in that direction so the range of opinions and brands of humor is enormous. The history of South Africa is particularly violent and unjust. Philip Roth posited that it is difficult to write fiction when reality is so bizarre. That is the challenge for authors and comedians in SA. Violence is unfortunately still part of the current fabric of the society. People often use humor as a coping mechanism and this results in some dark and twisted humor. Since I make most of my living from doing corporate jobs, my comedy is generally clean and “friendly.” The only time a Norwegian audience ever turned on me was when, during some audience interaction, a reply from someone in the front row provided me with the possibility to retort with a comment that I found hilarious although it was rather dark and touched on a sensitive issue. I was the only one laughing in a theatre of 400, and most others voiced their disapproval.
VH: You have a tremendous wanderlust. Where does that come from and how has it shaped you?
AD: During apartheid years, South Africa was culturally isolated and state censorship tried to control people’s views of the world beyond. My show in Brooklyn is a mixture of storytelling and comedy (perhaps more of the former), and I will share a story about a single incident that sparked my curiosity to engage with alternative realities. Having been raised in a controlled environment in which our futures were mapped out for us, I suppose I had an instinct to lose myself in the world. I am not sure that my wanderlust has shaped me other than making me increasingly aware that, despite differences, people have a lot more in common than superficial appearances suggest.
VH: You have traveled to over 40 different countries and lived in eight of them. When and why did you decide to settle in Norway?
AD: My wife, Guri, is Norwegian. I will save the story of the bizarre circumstances in which we met for the show. She agreed to move to South Africa provided I first spend a year in Norway so that I had a modicum of understanding of her roots and culture. She has always spoken Norwegian to our son Martin, who was born in Hammerfest, [one of] the most northern town[s] in the world. When he was eight weeks old we moved to South Africa and then on to Swaziland. Even when living in Uruguay, Martin spoke Norwegian with his mother, English with me, and Spanish with his friends. Despite being born in Norway he had not spent significant time there so we made a conscious decision to return about six years ago so that he could experience Norwegian culture.
VH: Do you intend to stay in Norway or are their other countries beckoning?
AD: John Lennon wrote that, “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.” Chance incidents have taken me to places and situations I never even previously contemplated. Guri is happy in her work and I enjoy the time on stage so for the moment we have no other plans. Despite our mutual wanderlust, we have thought it always important to provide a stable environment for our son so that he has a sense of “home.” Martin starts studying theatre at NYU Tisch School of the Arts this week so he has flown the coop and we are not yet sure if that will affect our decisions. Here we have the beauty of the fjord-filled landscapes, yet for me the biggest attraction is that Norway is one of the safest countries in the world. Given my previous flirtations with danger, I find that infinitely charming.
VH: When did you decide to take your show on the road?
AD: I have been doing stand-up comedy for over 15 years. A lot of my comedy involves telling short stories in a funny way. After my shows, people often ask me questions, wanting to know more about the stories upon which I fleetingly touched. People urged me to create a different kind of show in which I give myself the space to tell the stories more completely without having to constantly “chase the laughs.” The result is “Roads Less Traveled,” a show that I have been touring with for the last two years.
VH: How has it been received?
AD: The challenge with the show has been in cutting it down since it inevitably involves deleting stories that I think should be included. The first time I did the show at a university in Norway, I was asked to perform for 90 minutes. When I closed the show the audience asked me to continue. I got the same response twice more, but we eventually ended after 2½ hours. One of the shows I did in Washington was for elderly people. The organizers said that their attention span would be no longer than 50 minutes so I delivered a truncated version. At the end the audience wanted me to continue. I suppose that is fair indication that the show has been well received.
VH: You have been doing shows for native Norwegians focusing on the idiosyncrasies of their language. I have watched it online and the audience’s reaction has been amazing. How do you account for being able to resonate so much with this culture?
AD: The language is just one of the idiosyncrasies with which I play around. When I moved to Norway, I initially did not perform there since I thought that the cultural gap between South Africa and Norway was so huge that I would not be tuned into the audience and they would not get my humor. When a friend convinced me to do a show, I was overwhelmed by how positive the audience was. I discovered firstly that the Norwegian audiences are incredibly friendly and have a strong sense of fairness. They are open-minded and prepared to go along for the ride as long as they feel that the comedian is being fair.
I also usually start my shows by speaking Norwegian and using a lot of self-deprecating humor. I suppose they think that if I am prepared to make jokes at my own expense then it is okay for me to poke fun at them. It is all good spirited, without a sense of malice. Norwegian culture has a strong sense of fairness, so I have a lot of license to dance around controversial topics as long as I do not cross that line. A lot of the humor derives from me exploring what I perceive as absurdities in what locals take as norms. The audiences tell me that they enjoy the alternative perspectives on things they had taken for granted. My wife grew up on a farm in Norway so she often explains things that I find bewildering.
VH: You performed in Brooklyn this August. Where else will you be touring in the U.S.?
AD: I am also doing some shows in Florida at the Center for the Creative Arts. Since my son will be living in New York for at least the next four years, I suspect I will dive at any opportunity to return. I also have a show that deals entirely with Norwegian culture and it would be fun to later do a U.S. tour with the show. I have spent time in Minnesota and other parts of the U.S. and am impressed by the extent to which the Scandinavian communities are organized and active.
We Norwegian Americans in New York were happy to have the chance to catch the culmination of Drop’s life choices and serendipitous occurrences’ that have led to his unique perspective and insight; truly a journey to laughter.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.