Steen Raskopoulos: The Coolest Kid in Competitive Chess is a real lesson in audience-led sketch comedy. The craft on display is hugely impressive, and the content is intelligent, brave and even quite conceptual.
Flick open the Edinburgh brochure, randomly jab your finger at something in the ‘Comedy’ section and jump in a uber. I reckon there’s an 80% chance your Toyota Prius will pull up to find an ‘alpha’ male type lazily abusing the power dynamics that come with being the holder of the microphone, and essentially humiliating audience members he’s identified as ‘betas’ for cheap, short-lived laughs. That’s why I don’t tend to do that.
And that’s why I really, really enjoyed Steen Raskopoulos: The Coolest Kid in Competitive Chess. Everything about the first 15 seconds of Raskopoulous’ latest Underbelly show suggests you’re going to be watching the former. A relatively macho, overly confident white man shouts into a microphone, accompanied by bassy music. House lights haven’t gone entirely down, making you feel like you’re not safe. Your heart really does sink. The moment the first (of many) audience members reluctantly make their way onto the stage though, you see the extent of Raskopolous’ craft and the warmth of his approach. And everything sort of changes.
Steen treats participants with a remarkable kindness. Both the manner in which he asks for contributions, and the way he then respects, incorporates and weaves each together into a relatively respectful narrative, is really quite a formidable art. And a really quite unique undertaking.
I’m not going to dwell on the specific sketches too much, because you really just ought to see them yourself. But – talking in the abstract – the type of humour Raskopoulos attempts, and consistently achieves, is anything but lazy and irresponsible. It’s hugely impressive, intelligent, and brave audience-led sketch comedy. As an interactive theatre maker myself, I’d go as far as saying some sketches are really quite ambitious, ground-breaking and even ‘conceptual’ in their interactivity. And everything – crucially – is being facilitated by someone at the top of their game.
Steen has the ability to expertly feed participants everything they need, whilst making both them and the remainder of the audience feel they’re in total control. Of course, it’s Steen who’s really making everything funny – but the way he accepts and runs with every audience input displays a real sense of generosity. Put really bluntly, he (humbly) makes other people look like the funny ones – when it’s usually just him. I think that’s a real art. And just a real nice thing to set out to do.
Every instance of audience involvement is turned into a positive. Raskopoulos always ensures he’s the ‘butt’ of the joke, never the audience member – and in doing so, makes every participant feel good about themselves. The venue becomes a surprising, unexpected ‘safe space’ of sorts, with both those onstage – and comfortably sitting in the semi-darkness – put at ease by his generosity.
I’m rambling about this one now, but I also just want to say The Coolest Kid in Chess is super smartly structured. What seems like a random skit (which other character comedians are doing in every other venue at the Fringe) smartly and unexpectedly combine towards the end of the piece. Raskopoulos’ recall ability comes into its own towards the end – he’s built a framework in advance of the run which lets him wrap together ‘spontaneous’ names, decisions and audience contributions from the night into one single, logical narrative.
Raskopoulos deserves a hell of a lot of respect for boldly facing into a type of sketch comedy that many would not only claim to dislike, but actively avoid. Each scene is highly reliant on audience involvement, but cleverly crafted so that – deep down – he’s pulling all the strings and can more or less guarantee the humour. I found it hugely impressive – and highly encourage you to check it out.