Simon Talbot is a Danish stand-up comedian with an Irish accent who grew up as Jehovah’s Witness. A dynamic upbringing of which he jokes about in his sketch on The Russell Howard hour, “I have to defend the fact that I am a Danish guy trapped in an Irish accent. I am Trans-Danish. I identify as a humble-rye-eating Danish person, but I sound like I am going to f**king batter ya!”
Photographs: Céline Martin-Pedersen
Text: Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen
The first time Simon Talbot did stand-up, it wasn’t to a packed theatre hall or an open mic event in a hippie club – it was in front of his mirror. He was 14 and aching to make people laugh, but his jokes were too lame even to make him laugh. Within a few years, he would find himself leaving his hometown of Skanderborg for Copenhagen, where he would go on to become one of Denmark’s top comedians.
Simon’s stand-up career ascent has been intense and rapid - he is only 33 - but in many ways his rise to comedy stardom isn’t surprising given his natural funny bone, passion, persistence, and originality. In 2007, after arriving in Copenhagen when he was only 21, Simon spent much of his time visiting comedy clubs to practice his jokes. After a stint of unskilled jobs and corporate gigs, both of which tested his tenacity, he would later, in the same year, emerge winner of the Danish Championship for Stand-up Comedy. This win, together with his televised participation on the Comedy Fight Club, was the launching pad he needed to make headways in the small but competitive Copenhagen stand-up scene. “I had it a pretty good start in my comedy acts when I started performing. Because organisers would put me on a ‘sweet spot’ and rally the audience to support my act, since I was new and young,” explains Simon as we chat amid bursts of laughter via Skype.
A funny bone born out of a Danish-Irish upbringing
Understanding Simon Talbot cannot be done without unpacking bits of his religious, bicultural and bilingual upbringing, all of which is a total sum of who he is today; personally and professionally.
Simon was born in Skanderborg, the son of an Irish father and a Danish, Jehovah's Witness, mother. As a child, Simon spent countless hours either in bible study or doing what Jehovah’s Witnesses do best, door-to-door preaching. His early encounters with one-sided human interactions (Witnesses aren’t known for receiving a warm welcome in Denmark when they randomly knock on strangers doors) would in hindsight, afford him the ability to perform his monologues. His parents divorced when he was three. Simon grew up in his mother’s house where there were strict rules to be followed and would spend some weekends with his father whose approach to life was nonchalant: His dad's philosophy was 'you only live once, and rules are made to be broken'. The contrasts between his parent’s beliefs and approach to parenting led him to feel like he was living a “split personality childhood,” Simon jokes.
Life meant playing the role of a performer at an early age, becoming fluid in his interaction with his church and school peers, and learning to accept that he could be a freethinker. An awareness that drove him to leave Jehovah’s Witnesses when he was only 14-years old. Something that perfectly encapsulates Simon’s view of stepping outside his comfort zone.
In retrospect, he reconciles that he inherited structure and discipline from his mother, and the ability to laugh and make light of situations from his father. “I have always had a knack for performance since I was a small kid,” he says, “humour was a great way to get attention and make people feel better. My mother was quite funny, and so was my father, but for him to it was more important to be funny. He didn’t care about work but drinking and having a laugh.”
By his 20’s, Simon was making a comfortable living from his hour-long one-man gigs as well as hosting comedy on Danish TV. He had a loyal fanbase, ticket sales were steady, and he was engaged to his then long-time girlfriend-now wife- actress and jewellery designer, Katrine Køhler. Life was good; Simon should have been basking in the glory of his hard-earned home success. Yet he felt unsettled. He wanted to spread his wings further into International stand-up, or at least try.
Breaking the Law of Jante in pursuit of English stand-up
In 2017, Simon left Denmark, where he was at the top of his comedy act, for Los Angeles, where he was just another comedian jostling for 10 minutes of mic time at the Flappers Comedy Club in Los Angeles. He went from The Simon Talbot to a Danish guy with a funny Irish accent. And yet taking the risk to try his hand at English stand-up was a lifelong dream that he could no longer ignore. It is in his DNA. “From the very first time I began doing stand-up, I always wanted to do it in English, but I was afraid of jeopardising my career in Denmark,” Simon admits, acknowledging that a break from comedy is akin to career suicide. However, it was his wife, Katrine’s, resolve to pursue her acting career full throttle that motivated him to leap into English stand-up.
“The average Dane is risk-averse, unlike Americans who are driven by the ‘you can do it’ mentality. In Denmark, jantelove (law of jante) dictates a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But I knew that I wanted to look back at my life and realise I gave English comedy a shot,” Simon says, pausing. “Because I know regret is worse than failure.”
In the year he spent in Los Angeles, Simon had to contend with the uncomfortable reality of starting over as a foreigner. “It was brutal starting because the comedy scene in America is so different from the Danish one. A complete contrast to when I started doing comedy in Copenhagen and got a lot of support and encouragement from people who knew I was new in the city,” says Simon. “But in America, no one cared. Americans are used to people claiming they are exceptional, so when I said I was doing ‘ok in Denmark,’ I got the dismissive response of ‘whatever,” he says. “Ultimately, this rough start got me what I wanted. It made my stand-up much better in English as it is in Danish. I learnt how funny you must become when no one knows who you are, and you must win over the audience, every, single, night. I am getting closer to being as natural with my English jokes as I am in Danish. Having Irish roots has given me an advantage,” He adds.
"For me stand-up comedy is about empathy: It is about entertaining, spreading positivity and bringing people together."
On impressions and internationalising his stand-up comedy
His year in the USA felt like a baptism by fire, Simon received an abridged introduction in American culture, comedy and politics. Although he did not achieve stardom success in American, he used the time to hone his language skills. He slowly began to work his experiences, both pleasant and embarrassing, into new jokes for his autumn 2018 one-man show ‘Make Denmark Great Again,’ making it one of his most popular shows yet, with 50,000 tickets sold in Denmark and a cascade of positive reviews. “I was much funnier when I came back to Denmark because I had that one year of being unfunny. Being in the US allowed me to elevate the quality of my material.” Simon contends his experience in America taught him that one should not let the ego determine their goals.
In the same vein, Simon believes that Danes can learn a thing or two from American life and culture, namely ambition, self-confidence, and positivity. In his case, he had to learn the American way of tooting his own horn. “I had to learn to sell myself, to say I am a great comedian. Something that was against the Danish way of letting one’s work speak for itself. I had to learn that the idea of your work speaks for itself works when you live in a small village, but not in a cosmopolitan like Los Angeles or New York. If you do good in your work as a comedian in Denmark, word will spread out fast.”
Simon’s comedy, by admission, now encompasses a more culturally sensitive approach. “There are no rules in Denmark about what we can or cannot joke about, a joke is a joke. In the US, for example, they take their material seriously, and a joke is a matter of opinion,” adds Simon, citing that comedy has been around in the US for more than a hundred years compared to the three decades of existence in Denmark.
There’s no doubt Simon is talented and puts a great deal of effort into his material. His next ambition is to sell his upcoming English summer tour to Netflix. And why not? His appearance on The Russell Howard Show has garnered over 870,000 views on YouTube and 890.000 views on Facebook. He has more than 200,000 followers on Facebook. And now, with his presence on the gaming channel, Twitch, Simon is proving that he can rock the English crowd as well as he does the Danish audience. Can he tackle Danish sarcasm, irony, casual misogyny, and inappropriate jokes and translate these to an international audience while retaining his authenticity?
“I dreamt of doing an English comedy tour 13 years ago. I have worked on this vision from the end of 2016, and now everything feels like it’s coming to fruition at once. My belief as I go forward is that one can get around any topic in comedy, regardless of the language or culture, as long as you let people know of your intent.” He says with a confident smile.
Look out for Simon’s 2020 English speaking tour dates in Denmark, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, and England. More details can be found on his website, www.simontalbot.dk or on Facebook as Simon Talbot.