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 you’re 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! You’re boring!” I got this! I’m like, “Hello guys!” And [a heckler’s] 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 men’s 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 men’s’ 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! I’m going to beat up everybody here!” I was like, “Oh my god you’re so mad at me but you can’t beat me up because I’m 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 I’m just here on stage.”

Oh my god, you were just MC-ing a brawl? You had the perspective of God!

Yes.

I really relate to what you’re saying, though. That first leg of stand up is so confusing, you’re 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?

It’s hard, it is hard. When–especially women or people of colour–come to me, I just say, don’t think about it. If you want to do it, do it! It’s not illegal. No one can take you out of the room. It is a hard business–telling 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 didn’t really speak English. I could read, I could understand sixty-five, maybe seventy percent. But speaking, I started speaking English here. It’s so different. Understanding and speaking are two completely different things. So at the beginning, I didn’t 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 don’t 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 it’s interesting because you’re 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 I’ve never connected to the improv classes. It was hard. You have to remember, too, I just got here. I didn’t understand the dynamics. I felt like a fish out of water, people would be joking and I didn’t understand. I was like, “Oh.”

I can’t believe you didn’t have a speaking proficiency in English while you were doing these things… That is unbelievable. To me, it doesn’t seem like a barrier for you.

Well, are your parents immigrants?

Yeah.

Yeah? That’s why! People who have immigrants in the family or who have a lot of contact with immigrants are way more understanding. There’s 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.

You’re 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. There’s ESL plus classes for immigrants who just got here so that’s where the fees are paid. (Laughs) In those classes they have all kinds of immigrants—people who just got here, people who have been here for years, and just need to develop. There’s all kinds of levels and people in those classes and I realized that those people don’t 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 you’re not part of a culture of a city, you’re not part of the city. There’s a lot of funny shit that happens when you move to another country. In my head, I was always like: “I’d love to do a show for these people.” I was like, “Man, I’m going to do this show.” I started doing it in January. I’m happy because we ask, like: “Who is ESL here? Who is an immigrant?” Most of the audience put their hands up—boom. I’m very happy about that.

That’s so interesting because the value of that space expands to a whole community and to arts in general. Do you think it’s 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 we’re 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 don’t get it or they’re afraid to laugh. We laugh at our disgraces and it’s 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 don’t 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 they’re part of the culture.

I’m always so amazed by your material. It’s never alienating, I really feel like you can do any audience and I’m jarred by that. That’s hard to do for a white guy who grew up here! It’s very political for us. You don’t want to be pigeonholed, you don’t want to do accents and you have to be able to do a show in Nowhere, Ontario.

It’s also a challenge, a good one for me, to make a Barrie audience laugh. It feels very good when I’m able to do that because this is communication. There’s a responsibility because, for some people, it’s the first time they’re seeing an immigrant on stage—I have this on my shoulders.

Do you think there are wrong paths to take as a comedian? Something that people do that they shouldn’t?

I think so. This business is very competitive. There’s like a thousand people and three jobs. (Laughs) Sometimes people get too… jealous. Too jealous of each other. I’m friends with a lot of people and I don’t even want to know the gossip. That turns you bitter. I was talking to a friend today, she’s kind of new, she’s 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, that’s your whole world. Then you start to compete with each other and feel that people get things you deserve when they don’t deserve it. You start to hold grudges. Don’t even start it! When you start feeling jealous of other people, just breathe. Because if you go there, baby, you’re screwed.

There are so many methods of survival. It’s so dog eat dog. Dude, I think it’s so funny when immigrants say idioms wrong. Yesterday I was like, “I’m 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!

Hanging out!

So funny. What is something you think has been integral to the path that you’ve 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? That’s what they taught you? That’s some highbrow shit.

(Laughs.) Yes exactly. I swear to god, I just found out that I was a perfectionist.

You’re 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.” There’s 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.

It’s not really a measure of what you’re doing.

Exactly. I realized this and it was so liberating. I let go of it—you can be dedicated and love what you do.

You have to not care. You have to care so much and not at all. It can’t be about anything except what you want and like.

You’re 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.

Yes, please.

Carol’s 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.