Comic Michael Van Peel looks for smiles in the dark

Summary

Antwerp stand-up comedian Michael Van Peel doesn’t want to become cynical, but after a year of horror, that isn’t an easy job

Searching for the light

His comedy show about 2014 is the darkest Michael Van Peel has ever written. “It was really hard to keep it funny this time,” the Flemish stand-up comedian and newspaper columnist admits. It’s been a turbulent year, but, once again, he survived it.

When he started preparations for his fifth annual comedy review, the 36-year-old was reminded by his notebooks that the year had started promisingly. “We were all ‘one world’, enjoying the sunny weather, dancing to Pharell Williams' 'Happy',” he says. “All the political parties were promising us that they would keep the retirement age at 65. And no one had ever heard of IS or ISIS, or even MH17.”

It’s true that the national and international turmoil – a national strike, a new Cold War and remorseless terrorism – only began in the second half of the year.

So it’s not surprising that Van Peel (pictured) has constantly been searching for smiles in the dark. “I’m now trying to bring some more light into the show,” he says after a successful 90-minute performance in the cultural centre of Aarschot in Flemish Brabant.

There’s still a bit of time left for changes before the live recording of the show in Antwerp’s Arenbergschouwburg, which will be broadcast several times on Flemish radio and TV between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

“I’m trying to ease the harsh jokes with some silliness,” he says. “But sadly, silly things have been rare this year. It’s been very hard not to become cynical when watching the news. What can you say about the Israel-Palestine conflict after another failed ‘peace process’?”

Still, by mostly avoiding the blackest of humour he keeps on entertaining his public with a show that’s part comedy, part storytelling (with many references to his intelligent, thought-provoking columns about society in Flemish daily De Morgen).

Loser terrorists

Even in these difficult circumstances, there are funny monologues. Like everybody else in the audience, Van Peel would have liked to see the face of the young suicide bomber who made the mistake of arriving an hour early at the scene.

My only weapon against fear is humour

- Michael Van Peel

“It really happened, and it had something to do with daylight saving time,” Van Peel smiles. “The best jokes are often those you don’t have to come up with yourself.”

So the ‘loser terrorism’ of IS, Boko Haram and warriors in Syria is a big topic, just like other distributors of fear – often politicians. “Make no mistake, I’m not laughing at the suffering, only at the reporting about it in our media and social media, and the effects these actions have on us. My only weapon against fear is humour.”

The idea behind the Van Peel Survives… comedy shows is not to give a chronological summary of what’s happened in the past year. “Instead, I want to capture this one zeitgeist idea that will remain and will be remembered,” he explains.

From his former acts, we remember, for instance, that Big Brother is watching us. This year that big idea could just as well be the polarised world in which we live. “It seems to have become only more polarised, by spreading more fear.”

Laughing and talking

For Van Peel, making a comedy show doesn’t begin by coming up with jokes. Often it starts in a bar with fellow comedians, drinking and chatting.

If they ain’t laughing, it’s just a guy talking

“But that doesn’t prevent my first attempts from being a disaster,” he admits. “Basically, I just start talking, with hardly any jokes at all. Slowly they slip into the story, and then it’s a matter of finding the right balance between the talking and the joking. In the meantime, I try to remember [fellow comic] Alex Agnew’s advice: ‘If they ain’t laughing, it’s just a guy talking’.”

Van Peel’s ease at talking and arguing is rooted in his youth. “My father was a doctor and a local politician. As a public figure, he encouraged discussions around the dinner table. Arguing loudly was rather common in our family, which was represented by various colours and parties.” The fact that Van Peel’s sister became a member of the Flemish nationalist party N-VA, for example, did not hinder discussions.

Still, as a kid he used to be a bit of a loner, hidden between his books and CDs. “I made a little headquarters of my bedroom, surrounded by encyclopaedias and a modem with early internet connection, which allowed me to chat and download files at the speed of a fax machine. I’ve always been a bit nerdy,” he laughs.

Cold feet

Contrary to popular belief, he says, comedians are not the most social of creatures. “I stand in front of an audience, but I’m there all by myself, doing a monologue. Musicians are better off: At least they’re surrounded by colleagues.”

So it took him a long time to take the stage. He remembers his nephews playing with theatre but being scared to join them. “I had cold feet,” he admits. “During creative summer camps, I always hid in the broom cupboard when we finally had to present the theatre piece we had prepared.”

After entering university to try his hand at chemistry, he graduated as a commercial engineer with the idea that he might become a manager, or a banker, or start a business, like his friends.

It’s only due to his friend Nigel Williams, the Antwerp-based comedian with British roots, that he ended up on a stage. “He pushed me from the right to the wrong track,” says Van Peel, who finally made his comedy debut in 2005. “But my first public appearance was like a shot of heroin. I was addicted right away. I wanted more, and, though it never got as good as that very first shot, and there were periods when I felt like I was dying up there, I never gave up. And look at me now: I keep on surviving.”

Michael Van Peel overleeft 2014 (Michael Van Peel Survives 2014), in Dutch, until 6 February, across Flanders

More performance this week

With the school holidays in mind, here’s our pick of more stage shows this week, good for the whole family.

Metro Boulot Dodo (5+)
Nevski Prospekt
It’s that time of year again: Theatre and concert halls are closing their doors while artists take a break – unless they can play for the youngest, like the Ghent collective Nevski Prospekt do here. Slapstick, theatre and dance meet in their wordless show about the strange and otherworldly Herman, who discovers it’s worth being yourself, even if you’re not like anyone else. 28 December, 15.00, Bronks, Brussels

Cowboys huilen niet (Cowboys Don’t Cry, 7+)
Laika & BonteHond
Brothers Gert and Jo Jochems play two cowboys who were invented by Gerda Dendooven, the celebrated illustrator and writer of children’s books. After they lose their mother (a tornado passes by) and another brother disappears, they decide to look for a new life behind the horizon of the seemingly endless prairie. 27 December to 4 January, 15.00, De Studio, Antwerp (on tour until 29 May), in Dutch

Het vertrek van de mier (The Ant’s Departure, 6+)
Het Paleis, Toneelhuis & kunstZ
Stage director Guy Cassiers directed and adapted the book by Dutch writer Toon Tellegen about a friend – an ant – who’s departing for another country. All emotions concerned with leaving and missing a loved one are present in this ambitious collaboration between the main Antwerp theatre houses and kunstZ, a socio-artistic organisation supporting a multi-cultural theatre landscape. Until 25 January, 15.00, Het Paleis, Antwerp, in Dutch