The name Vahé Berberian immediately brings to mind the image of an Armenian man with long silver hair wound up in braids. But his signature look isn’t the only thing Berberian is famous for; his stand-up comedy performed almost entirely in Armenian are what have made his a household name. For the past 13 years, Berberian has brought captivating, relatable comedy to Armenian communities through his shows. With the premiere of his 5th tour, Yeté [Եթէ], the comedian taps into a new comedic theme while still maintaining his cultural backdrop.
With the majority of shows already under his belt, Berberian plans on performing Yeté a few more times before he begins his world tour in September. The overall success of the show, which has sold out at almost every venue, reveals the possibility of a few more performance dates being squeezed in before he leaves. Those who have already been to one of the recent performances of Yeté can attest to the excitement and hard-hitting nature of it.
So what can audiences expect to see in his newest installment? The show’s poster depicts two versions of Berberian arm wrestling with himself. And in Yeté, he talks about stresses in real life, like the idea of marriage, his anxiety-inducing mother, and even visiting Armenia. He explains, “Yeté is about anxiety and what gives me anxiety. I have experienced anxiety and researched it and I try to find humor in it. By belittling it, I conquer it.”
Berberian himself is pleased with the way the performances have been going, mentioning how much his following has grown since his first show. “People tell me it’s my best show so far and I’m stunned by the amount of people who relate to the topic,” he admits. While his first ever stand-up experience, Yevaylen [Եւայլն], was performed in front of just 120 people, Yeté has been bringing in crowds of over 260.
The success of his shows is not only seen in the U.S., though. From Buenos Aires to Beirut, Berberian has been amusing and performing for diasporan audiences the world over. But changing locations so often proves to be a bit of a challenge as far as language barriers go. “No matter how similar the culture is, certain semantics and punch lines are difficult to translate,” he explains.
In Yerevan, he once asked a stage crew member about the batteries inside a microphone. When the latter couldn’t understand what the word “battery” meant, Berberian took them out of the microphone and showed him, only to learn that in Armenia they’re referred to as element. “Think of what would have happened if this was the punch line of a joke! I would be staring at a room of blank faces!” he jokes. He also reveals that at each international performance, he adds a little of the local dialect into his monologue to enhance the audience’s experience—whether it be Spanish, Turkish, or anything in between.
The Armenian language reminds Berberian of his childhood, a feeling shared by many of his fans as well. This nostalgia, paired with his infatuation with the language, was what inspired him to perform in Armenian. “When I did my first monologue, it was a lot about reminiscing and memory. There are things you only remember in a certain language, so it was almost like I had no choice,” he explains. While he’s been offered to perform his routines in English (and tried it once or twice), he says he’s just not interested in that sort of thing. And while culture and Armenian-ness are the backbone of most of his material, Berberian is more concerned that artistic expression is prevalent in his comedy.
Berberian comes from an entirely art-centered background, and always makes use of introspection and understanding when writing new material. His most heavily relied on approach is comédie larmoyante, or tearful comedy, which is a sentimental kind of humor that relies on a tearful resolution. He describes how, after a performance of one of his plays, “Gyank” [Կեանք], an audience member told him she was “biologically confused” because the play had left her crying and laughing at the same time. Throughout my own conversations with him, I see the important relationship between comedy and tragedy. “After understanding something completely, you try to find the humor in it and perceive and express it from that angle,” he says.
This meshing of two emotions is also manifest in his other artistic endeavors. Whether it’s painting, directing, writing, or acting, Berberian admits there is always a “whimsical quality” to his work and that he enjoys the “blurred line between seriousness and absurdity.” As a true artist, he looks for the hidden humor in everything he does and taps into it to produce material for his shows. “It comes naturally now to me,” he says. “I write seriously, but I’m a sucker for a joke. If there’s a chance for a joke, I’ll do it.”
“I’m devoted to my art. I can’t do anything else!” he kids. Berberian does wish he could work on painting and writing more, and reveals he’s been toying with the idea of directing a movie for some time.
Aside from his witty performances of Yeté, Berberian works on an exciting improvisation-based performance every Sunday with a group of seven other Armenian actors. He describes it as one of the best new things he has experienced, and admits that he would do it every week if he had the chance.
One of his greatest accomplishments, however, has been his ability to generate interest in Armenian culture and art among the youth of the community. He describes his studio as a hub for local artists where discussion and energy are shared, where a “commune of Armenian identity” is formed. “I always tell kids that without your cultural identity, you’re flat. Being Armenian gives us all a new dimension. It is possible to be cool and Armenian at the same time.”
Berberian is able to both make people laugh and touch them at their core—whether that means simply relating to their Armenian background or highlighting the humor in a rather tragic situation. As his most personal show, he hopes that Yeté, will really get that “Wow, that’s exactly how I feel!” type of reaction from his audience. From what we’ve heard, it’s done just that.
"The Armenian Weekly," August 22, 2013