Nula: Butterflies Rise is a decision-making game that explores the experience of living with anxiety.
Inspired by puzzle adventure games of the early 90s like Myst, the surreal comedy of Flann O'Brien, and the author's experience of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Nula creates an immersive textual experience, an insight into the daily struggle anxiety can be.
Closing a set with a gag which involves squirting and the murder of women hangs some dark, visceral bunting from the roof of the comedy club basement. It’s a look that Erika Ehler enjoys. ‘Thematically, I’m not afraid to go to certain places with my material’, she tells me over the phone from Toronto. ‘I’d describe it as me trying to be as nasty as possible with a base level of respect’. Performing stand-up for nearly three years, Ehler lives and works in the north of England, and this year was the recipient of Chortle’s Student Comedy Award (whose vaunted alumni includes Jamali Maddix and Joe Lycett). Making good of the accolade, Ehler later wrote her late-night stand-up show ‘Ghost Orgy’ with fellow comedians Hannah Lawrence and Bria Hiebert for this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, performing to a packed-out crowd for the duration.
¶ Where did you grow up?
‘I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, a very rich suburb. It always was and still is very multicultural, but I do remember the kids being weirdly racist. Like even though we were so used to being around different types of people — I’d say it was maybe 60% Asian and then the rest white and whatever else — if you were white in school you were the cool kid. You didn’t need to do anything to earn that position.
It probably also helped that white people had more money. Contributes to the “cool factor”, I guess. Growing up, I remember there was a time when we would play on the street and I knew all my neighbours. Now, we don’t have any kids on our block. Nobody knows each other. It has become quite an insular community. My parents still live in the same house, and I don’t think they really care or notice the change. Their property value keeps on going up and they are happy to talk only to each other. I can’t help but notice that at Halloween, we don’t get any kids trick-or-treating anymore’.
¶ There seems to be an ironically hostile relationship between the States and Canada in comedy — comparable for Brits, I guess, to those old jokes about the French. What has your experience of that been?
‘It’s one of those things that would never come up if you’re in the States — I mean the accent is almost identical unless you’re in Newfoundland or whatever, I don’t know. It would always bother me how lazy those jokes were. There are much better things to use if you want to make fun of Canada. I mean, our native reserves don’t have clean drinking water… we sold out for pipelines… Canada is very hypocritical’.
¶ You have a great bit when you are warned by your mom about your trip abroad: “you don’t want to Amanda Knox yourself...” Then you address the audience directly. “And to be fair, if I did murder my roommate, she’s from a third-world country. Who would care?”
Attitudes to race drive a lot of your jokes. Would you say that is fair?
‘Oh for sure. That’s where I started getting my first laughs — jokes about race. I like my material to be something only I can say. Because if I don’t write it, who will? It’s part of my worldview. White acts in the north of England aren’t going to be writing my material.
I like to use race to surprise an audience. A sex joke becomes one about race, and then through race becomes about my relationship to that other person, and other people. It trickles its way into everything’.
¶ Do you feel responsible, or obliged to talk about race?
‘Yes and no. A buddy of mine struggles with this. He is from Lithuania, and has told me that if he doesn’t address his accent then every joke that he tells is met with a “who are you? Where are you from?” I think a part of me sympathises with that. Not accent, obviously, I’m immediately perceived as North American, but if I don’t say something initially, I find my audience might not be paying attention to the jokes, and instead is trying to place me: “what is going on here? What are you saying? What are you?”
¶ Chris Morris was recently interviewed on Channel 4 News about his new film The Day Shall Come. He was confronted with that question that all “satirists” are asked, namely that satire is dead. That today, satire’s targets are too self-deprecating, too gaseous. He basically said that he didn’t see the point in comedy unless there is something underpinning it, and that “something” is an examination of complex, sometimes troubling political subjects. There’s a quote: “We have got used to a kind of satire that in a way only placates the court” — which makes you think of Boris Johnson absorbing the barbs of Have I Got News for You, say, and coming out stronger and widely likeable. Is that something you recognise and wrestle with yourself?
‘I would agree that all comedy when boiled down has a social point. It has been used that way historically. I’m thinking of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ as a brilliant satire of race relations — they even took images straight from the civil rights movement, with cartoons being hosed down in that way that happened a lot in the States. Comedy is such a great tool for opening up conversations — it doesn’t feel invasive, but it really is. It seems like a pleasurable, passive thing, but no, you are being subtly informed, called to action, to agree or disagree with the opinion you’re posed with. Anything in the guise of a joke is more palatable’.
¶ You’ve been in Manchester since September?
‘From September last year. I took a two-year comedy programme at college, and after you’ve finished the two years, you have the option of going to Manchester to our sister school at Salford University for one year, to get your full degree. It was the only option for a quick and easy way to finish my schooling!’
¶ What does a comedy degree entail? Do you have to study down into the detail, the structure, vocabulary of a joke?
‘The stand-up elective is mostly practical. We built a set for an end of year showcase. I chose to put together a project that was twenty minutes of interactive stand-up — my research topic was Online Dating.
On the course, we would analyse structures of a joke, you know, like the Rule of Three etc. (though my jokesmith tutor would say only use the Rule of Three if there isn’t anything more concisely funny — or you could always push a list to make it do more). A stand-up class is weird, though. We were basically taught to cook different foods on the road, because apparently we wouldn’t have microwaves anywhere we stayed when gigging. So we all know how to make chilli in a coffee pot. In the UK leg of the course, the main consideration was persona. I found that very difficult. They really wanted us to figure out who we are, and for the jokes to grow organically from that starting point.
There was a monthly open mic on campus. It was always packed out and the crowd was really nice, but then, you get a sense that this is how all audiences will be, and the temptation is not to move outside of that one comfortable show. That can hinder you.
Now we’re done, I would like to stay in the UK. I’m headed out today to pick up my visa — I don’t know what the status is, but it has been decided. It isn’t the best time for visa applications. Someone I know is struggling to ensure their wife can stay in the country. I thought that would’ve been a less protracted process, but it appears not’.
¶ What is your experience of Manchester?
‘Although I haven’t played a whole lot in the south to compare, a Manchester crowd I think really wants you to prove it to them. I think that makes you a much better comic, to not have a crowd on your side immediately. I also think that crowds in Manchester heckle a lot, though not excessively. One of my comedian friends told me she thinks it was beneficial to start my career in Manchester in a more confrontational environment, because it gives you the confidence to deal with a tough crowd. She’s seen countless talented southern comics have an unruly crowd and totally freeze up. I feel like I am in control’.
¶ The night I came to see you, I spoke to a couple of guys in the smoking area. One said he was asked to leave early because he was relentlessly interjecting. He claimed the performers actually benefited from it. Some comics could roll with that, but it is easy to misunderstand a rehearsed “improvisational” bit and shout over a word which has been deliberated over. And beyond that, I’m sure it would be fucking annoying.
‘That is what many people think: that it is helpful, that they are as funny as you. But they are not’.
¶ Given that you studied the mechanics of comedy, and all your friends are comics, and you’ve probably been exposed to a lot of stand-up, do you enjoy it as much as you did when you started, or do you find yourself being more critical when in the audience?
‘I don’t enjoy open mics anymore. Initially, my idea of “the best comedy” was stuff in a dank, dirty basement. But now I have to tune out if I’m at an open mic or a new material show, unless I’m given a reason to get off my phone and listen. Like, I can’t watch you work out this hacky bit. It’s just going to make me depressed that this is the new school. Sometimes it does make me happy to see a new unique voice, even if they haven’t honed their style yet. You can always kind of see where they might go in a couple of months. And you think, once it clicks, they’ll be there, and that’s exciting to watch.
I flip-flop with whether I like watching comedy. The last time I did, I had my palm on my face the entire time. I hate whimsy, and I immediately tune-out if I see a person that’s older than me acting like a kindergartener. It’s harder for me to swallow the jokes, no matter how good the writing might be. It just makes me cringe.
The JFL42 festival is going on here in Toronto, and I’ve tried to go and see more shows. You learn a lot. I saw Sam Morril’s hour a couple of days ago and it was just so tight, and the way that he dealt with the crowd pulling back, and the little quips he had, in saying, like, “oh, it’s funny, I love playing in Canada, because when you guys don’t like something, it’s not like you ‘boo’, you all make a sad sigh, but it’s collective and powerful”. Calling it out as it’s happening is a really good tactic, and I’d like to find my own way of doing that’.
¶ I read that you took improv classes as a twelve-year-old?
‘That’s true! I did the conservatoire with Second City. I didn’t get into the arts high school that I wanted to, and that was my Mom’s consolation prize — which was actually way better for me. I did it until the end of high school, then I started doing comedy. On the university programme, the onus was always on stand-up, because you can make a living performing every night without relying on somebody else. I should’ve been an improviser. I fully hate the medium now. I have this joke with my friends, that improv comics should go hang themselves... It’s so fucked.
The worst part about performing stand-up at the beginning was the loneliness onstage. Nobody to bounce off. Nobody to save you. Nobody to laugh with you if it doesn’t work. It’s just me. But then, the flip side is that if it does go well I only have me to thank’.
¶ There is a trope that comedians choose this career to reclaim a sense of self-confidence or control — that if you can make the bully laugh they’ll leave you alone. I know generally at twelve you aren’t burdened with the shuddering shame that comes with adolescence, but it strikes me you would have to be confident to start something like improv class.
‘Yeah, I enjoyed it. I remember going downtown to take these classes and I thought, shit, all these city kids are like super cool. I was consistently annoyed that others wouldn’t share the focus, and that I was perhaps a little too shy to step out and drive the idea sometimes. There was one kid who was in almost every scene of our last show, and even then I remember thinking: maybe you should just fucking not be.
You wouldn’t be able to do what we did now, I think. I remember just doing a bunch of ethnic accents, and that would be my schtick. I suppose the naivety of being a young kid… I couldn’t just play a wife or something, I had to be some kind of different race’.
¶ Well, I can think of another Canadian who’s suffering at the moment because of that… Are you writing anything about Trudeau? It seems a good fit for your material.
‘I probably should! Everyone is talking about it, though. Maybe when I’m back in the UK, I’ll put my spin on it. South Park’s gonna have a field day’.
¶ Is there a comic artefact out there that you listen to or watch or read and think, “fuck, I wish I made that?”
‘I think Anthony Jeselnik’s album ‘Shakespeare’. That would be something I would want to do in my lifetime. It still holds up, and it’s about ten years old now. The writing is so concise, the laugh-per-minute is very high. It uses a lot of misdirection and I find that if I haven’t listened to it for a while, it still surprises me. Even the structure of his jokes, there is this science to it. I remember times I have come home drunk and just put on that album. Maybe a bit sad, but it hasn’t grown weary on me yet. That is something unique: that rewatchability or relistenability is something I wish I could achieve’.
¶ And before that, as a child of the 90s. Was there something that formed you — even something you didn’t like, deconstructed, and consciously moved away from?
‘Just Shoot Me, that show formed me. It was always on TV. So damn quick. I guess nowadays you would call it The Office dynamic where everyone is just shitting on each other. That definitely constructed what I thought comedy was. And also Three’s Company, that 70s sitcom. It was just super fun, and it still comes through today, I think. I used to like Friends a lot as a kid, and watched that and Will & Grace with my mom as it wasn’t too raunchy, though I didn’t get a lot of the jokes’.
¶ Friends is cancelled now — haven’t you heard?
‘Yeah, I mean. They lived in New York City and they had hardly any people of colour in their group, so… That was a valid critique. I think Ross had a black girlfriend towards the end of the last series but that was literally it’.