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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Brian Logan

‘I wanted to be serious – but people would laugh so hard’: Julia Masli on her accidental comedy masterpiece

‘I wanted to do something beautiful on stage’ … Masli at Soho theatre, London.
‘I wanted to do something beautiful on stage’ … Masli at Soho theatre, London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

‘But it’s a serious show!!!” tweeted Julia Masli when her fringe hour ha ha ha ha ha ha ha was nominated last summer for the Edinburgh comedy awards. “I can’t believe you all are pranking me, because it’s a serious show!!!!!!,” she added, when she won best show at the Comedians’ Choice awards. As the accolades rolled in (five-star reviews, further prizes), the 27-year-old continued to insist, with ever more exclamation marks, that ha ha ha ha ha ha ha is not – title, be damned – supposed to be funny.

The joy of the show is that Masli must take it seriously in order for it to be funny. Its ridiculous premise is that a clown – with wide eyes, a Victorian frock and a mannequin’s leg for her arm – can solve an audience’s most intractable life problems. The surprise is that, with straight-bat commitment from Masli and a little help from the audience, she often can.

Masli, who is Estonian, accomplishes all this largely wordlessly. At the Edinburgh fringe, her show played in an underground bunker at midnight, before moving to a 1.30am slot when it was extended. The vibe was hot and gigglesome even before Masli began to prowl among her crowd, singling out punters with an outstretched prosthetic leg, and posing the simple question: “Problem?” Whatever the response – recent breakups, issues with body image, homesickness, broken glasses – Masli would then endeavour to solve it, often by inviting her patient on stage and deploying all the resources in the room, with gimcrack creativity, to the task.

“Some people asked me, ‘Are you being an agony aunt?’” she says. “And I was like, ‘What is that?’ I looked it up and it’s really cool. I’m into it.” Unworldliness is part of Masli’s shtick. She gets some of it from her soupy European accent, some from her saucer eyes. On stage, it translates into a complete lack of cynicism. Into this vacated space, Masli’s audience comes forward, turning ha ha ha ha ha ha ha into as much communal healing ceremony as comedy show, a surrealist celebration of how kind we can be to one another. Masli’s job is to hold the odd space she has created, powering it by faith, goodwill and an eye for the funny.

‘It’s a serious show!’ … Julia Masli in ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
‘It’s a serious show!’ … Julia Masli in ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Photograph: Kit Oates

Only months after her partner and fellow clown Viggo Venn (he of the hi-vis vest) won Britain’s Got Talent, Masli’s show was the runaway hot ticket of the fringe, with big names elbowing their way into its crowd. Not that Masli noticed: “People were telling me, ‘This or that comedian is coming to see it.’ But I didn’t know who they were.” It all recalls 2022’s award champ, Sam Campbell: both their shows arrived in town under the radar, still in development and with limited runs, but ended up showered in laurels. “It was a weird experience for me,” Masli says. And as for the comedy award nomination – well, “I never even thought of myself as a comedian and I still don’t.”

Masli thinks of herself as a tragedian – or at least, an aspiring one. Having grown up in Tallinn, the daughter of lawyers, she went to boarding school in the UK aged 12, and later tried to get into drama college. Most of them turned her down – but École Philippe Gaulier, in Paris, didn’t. (“When I heard there were no auditions, I was like, ‘Yes!’”) While he insists he offers training in theatre, not comedy, Gaulier is the world’s most celebrated teacher of clowns, with Sacha Baron Cohen among his alumni. Masli went there to learn tragedy, “because that’s what I was good at. As for comedy, I was really bad. I was the worst one there: every day, silence, silence.”

The would-be tragedian was forced to try to make people laugh. After clown school, she pursued comedy only because all her friends were doing so, and because “it’s not like an agent was going to give me an acting job”. She went to open-mic nights, “and people did start laughing after a while. Because I took it seriously, I guess. I wanted to do something beautiful on stage, and people would laugh at me trying so hard.” In 2019, she had a hit, alongside the Duncan Brothers, with nonsense body-comedy sketch show Legs. In 2022, she brought her first solo show Choosh! to the fringe, a Chaplinesque migrant story of a clown’s journey from eastern Europe to the US.

Choosh! (it means “bullshit” apparently) was lovely, and got lots of fond attention – but elsewhere Masli was planting the seeds for a bigger hit. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha was a response to the pressure of making that debut solo. She wanted to feel freer, more careless. So she booked herself a gig at London club The Bill Murray, with only that chucklesome title to go on. “I just felt, ‘I’ve done my first solo show. I’ve nothing to lose any more, now I can start to try things.’ For me, that spirit is what the show is: just fun and not caring about who sees it.”

‘I just started saying I’m a clown because that’s what people recognised’ … in the 2022 show Clownts with Sami Abu Wardeh.
‘I just started saying I’m a clown because that’s what people recognised’ … in the 2022 show Clownts with Sami Abu Wardeh. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

No one is more surprised than Masli that it evolved into something which – alongside the fun – could be meaningful, caring and vulnerable, too. “That’s down to the audience,” she says. “Every day they surprise me.” But of course, she is still “more interested in the tragedy. Deep down that’s the thing I seek out. When people cry in my show, that’s when I feel the most, ‘Yes!’” That impulse was given external sanction when Masli started working with performance artist Kim Noble, whose extraordinary, tragicomic work she fell hard for earlier this year. “Kim was like, ‘It doesn’t matter if people aren’t laughing. Take the risk of going deeper.’ He made me trust in that and not worry that I had to be funny.”

Does that bring with it a duty of a care to the audience? The day I saw the show, one female punter confided a cautious wish to get naked on stage. The audience’s vocal enthusiasm for this risked, to my mind, feeling coercive – until Masli defused that danger brilliantly. “I guess,” she says, “it’s trusting that if the intention is good, then everything will work out. A lot of the time, I just open it out to the crowd and someone is like, ‘I have a problem with my mother too, so I’ll give this person advice.’ And I’m like, ‘Thank you.’ Sometimes I don’t have to do that much in the show. The people give everything. We’re always like, ‘humanity sucks.’ But this show makes me realise there’s some really cool people out there.”

Has ha ha ha ha ha ha ha reconciled Masli to a life in comedy? Not entirely. She still harbours serious-acting ambitions, even while confessing: “I’ve never seen a good tragedy. I may have an idea of it that actually doesn’t exist.” And for all that she is part of an extraordinary wave of creative clowning in the UK and beyond – which includes Venn, Frankie Thompson, Natalie Palamides, Luke Rollason and others – she is ambivalent about her identity as a clown. “What is that anyway? We don’t really know. I just started saying ‘I’m a clown’ because that’s what people recognised. But I don’t think I’m just that and I don’t want to do it my whole life.” Instead, she asks: “‘What’s out there that I can learn about?’ I enjoy going out of the bubble of clowning to learn more about performance as a whole.”

While reworking ha ha ha ha ha ha ha for its London run and a short tour, Masli is also talking to TV people about screen possibilities for its odd healing-meets-havoc format. And she is still discovering the myriad ways in which the show can work in the room. “It’s a constant work in progress and it will always be. And that’s OK – that’s why it has life in it.”

• Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha is at Soho theatre, London, 30 January to 17 February, then touring.

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