On stage, no one can touch Carol Zoccoli
Words by celeste yim
Photo by elena senechal-Becker
An ESL comedian’s lesson about power and perfectionism
In a creative field, there are at once many and no requirements for success. No one knows the secret to becoming a famous comedian, but it certainly might help to be funny, be brave, and speak English. For Carol Zoccoli, a comedian from Brazil, learning all three was the first step she took to becoming a Canadian resident; being one of the country’s best comedians came second. For young comedians like me, having role models like Carol to aspire to is invaluable. Anyone who knows her professionally can attest to how her great talent matches her hard work. If youre lucky enough to be her friend, she is a joy to be around and makes you laugh to the point of pain. She was wearing a leather print baseball cap when I met her at a coffee shop to talk about having power over hecklers, squashing jed4cfe0alousy and perfectionism, and comedy as a second language.
Celeste Yim: What was doing comedy like in Brazil?
Carol Zoccoli: So sexist. I was like, if I stop doing comedy, there will be no women doing comedy and I was good at it. If a woman goes on stage, the guys will heckle, Get the fuck out of here! Youre boring! I got this! Im like, Hello guys! And [a hecklers] like, Boring! But then I would go up and crush it. After a year, I was really good. I was writing so much, I had jokes. And then I learned how to humiliate those guys. I destroyed some mens lives. I learned to get all the anger out of my heart and just put it up to their asses.
You put your anger in mens asses?
Yes. Once there was this drunk guy in the audience who was heckling everybody, and I was headlining the show. I started to shit on him so much and he got so mad because I was a woman. He stands up and says, Fuck it! Im going to beat up everybody here! I was like, Oh my god youre so mad at me but you cant beat me up because Im a woman! Oh no! Go fuck yourself! A fight broke out, it was a mess. I watched the security guard take him out and I was like, Sorry pal Im just here on stage.
Oh my god, you were just MC-ing a brawl? You had the perspective of God!
I really relate to what youre saying, though. That first leg of stand up is so confusing, youre like, What the fuck? When I started I was the only full Asian female comic in the city for a long time. Now there are a bunch of us but for a good year and a half, almost two years, I was the only full Asian woman with an Asian last name and I was jarred by how comfortably people heckled me about race? I was like, are you serious? What year is this?
Its hard, it is hard. Whenespecially women or people of colourcome to me, I just say, dont think about it. If you want to do it, do it! Its not illegal. No one can take you out of the room. It is a hard businesstelling jokes is fun. But there are a lot of other things about it that are very hard.
Yeah the jokes are such a small part of it. I felt like I was still doing shows and getting better but getting your voice out and saying what you want to say is only 10 percent of it.
It is a very, very hard path.
What were the paths you had to take to be a working comedian in Toronto?
I learned English not long ago, when I moved here to do comedy. But I didnt really speak English. I could read, I could understand sixty-five, maybe seventy percent. But speaking, I started speaking English here. Its so different. Understanding and speaking are two completely different things. So at the beginning, I didnt even know if it would be possible! The week I moved here I started taking classes at Second City. I thought, if a year from now it turns out that I do have to go back, at least I learned something that we dont have in Brazil: improv and sketch. And I studied at The Second City, which to me is like where all of these great people came from. So I started taking improv lessons everywhere. Improv helped me a lot with English, which was hard of course.
Yeah, well its interesting because youre great at improv. It does feel like you had the option to do improv if you want but why did you choose the stand-up path?
I just think Ive never connected to the improv classes. It was hard. You have to remember, too, I just got here. I didnt understand the dynamics. I felt like a fish out of water, people would be joking and I didnt understand. I was like, Oh.
I cant believe you didnt have a speaking proficiency in English while you were doing these things That is unbelievable. To me, it doesnt seem like a barrier for you.
Well, are your parents immigrants?
Yeah? Thats why! People who have immigrants in the family or who have a lot of contact with immigrants are way more understanding. Theres people who come from small towns who have never seen an immigrant before. Sometimes they get very uncomfortable when you start sharing your stories, or your jokes even.
Youre doing your show Comedy As A Second Language now, where the comedians who perform are immigrants. What do you think is the value of those kinds of spaces?
When I got here, I took some ESL classes. Theres ESL plus classes for immigrants who just got here so thats where the fees are paid. (Laughs) In those classes they have all kinds of immigrantspeople who just got here, people who have been here for years, and just need to develop. Theres all kinds of levels and people in those classes and I realized that those people dont participate in the culture of the city. I started doing comedy when I got here so I pretty much feel part of the culture of the city. I feel part of it. Those people, maybe they go to a restaurant, they go to the mall, they go home! They probably watch their own TV shows from their countries. If youre not part of a culture of a city, youre not part of the city. Theres a lot of funny shit that happens when you move to another country. In my head, I was always like: Id love to do a show for these people. I was like, Man, Im going to do this show. I started doing it in January. Im happy because we ask, like: Who is ESL here? Who is an immigrant? Most of the audience put their hands upboom. Im very happy about that.
Thats so interesting because the value of that space expands to a whole community and to arts in general. Do you think its important for comics who are not part of the dominant scene to expand their audiences like that? Or is it more about making sure that were creating specific spaces for specific people?
Both. Because everything is niche now. Which is great because if you have comedians who are immigrants and audiences who are immigrants, I can do jokes that I could never do elsewhere; either because they dont get it or theyre afraid to laugh. We laugh at our disgraces and its so good!
People keep telling me, Market this show to white people! Put it up at Comedy Bar! But I want to create a new audience that we dont have yet. Today they can watch Comedy as a Second Language and tomorrow they can come to a show that has Canadians [in it], everybody! Because now theyre part of the culture.
Im always so amazed by your material. Its never alienating, I really feel like you can do any audience and Im jarred by that. Thats hard to do for a white guy who grew up here! Its very political for us. You dont want to be pigeonholed, you dont want to do accents and you have to be able to do a show in Nowhere, Ontario.
Its also a challenge, a good one for me, to make a Barrie audience laugh. It feels very good when Im able to do that because this is communication. Theres a responsibility because, for some people, its the first time theyre seeing an immigrant on stageI have this on my shoulders.
Do you think there are wrong paths to take as a comedian? Something that people do that they shouldnt?
I think so. This business is very competitive. Theres like a thousand people and three jobs. (Laughs) Sometimes people get too jealous. Too jealous of each other. Im friends with a lot of people and I dont even want to know the gossip. That turns you bitter. I was talking to a friend today, shes kind of new, shes been doing it for a year and a half. I was like, Stop hanging out and going to parties with those people. Have somewhere to go because, otherwise, thats your whole world. Then you start to compete with each other and feel that people get things you deserve when they dont deserve it. You start to hold grudges. Dont even start it! When you start feeling jealous of other people, just breathe. Because if you go there, baby, youre screwed.
There are so many methods of survival. Its so dog eat dog. Dude, I think its so funny when immigrants say idioms wrong. Yesterday I was like, Im going to throw my hat on the ring! I knew it was wrong immediately.
(Laughs) I said once, Bitch resting face.
(Laughs) Just a mean girl relaxing!
So funny. What is something you think has been integral to the path that youve chosen and to your identity as a comedian?
Badass-ism. You have to be a fucking badass to do this.
Did you learn that word in ESL class? Thats what they taught you? Thats some highbrow shit.
(Laughs.) Yes exactly. I swear to god, I just found out that I was a perfectionist.
Youre coming out?
I just came out a couple of months ago. I was reading this article talking about perfectionists and I was like [to my husband], Claudio! I might be a perfectionist! And he was like, Um, yeah, a hundred percent. Theres a difference between dedication and perfectionism; you can be dedicated to something and put love into. Perfectionism is more to do with what other people think.
Its not really a measure of what youre doing.
Exactly. I realized this and it was so liberating. I let go of ityou can be dedicated and love what you do.
You have to not care. You have to care so much and not at all. It cant be about anything except what you want and like.
Youre not going to be thinking of what anyone else thinks! The thing is, no one cares.
No one cares if you succeed, no one cares if you fail!
Yeah! We have to remember.
We have to be selfish in a good way. We should hang out more.
Carols show Comedy As A Second Language is on monthly at 120 Diner, featuring immigrant comedians performing in English (their second, or even third language!).
This interview has been edited for length, style, and clarity.