Slapstick, comedy pairings, clowns and a French twist. Professional comics talk Cambodian humour and reveal what tickles their funny bones.
Ta Song Sis perches over the balustrade of his apartment balcony, pulling his face into ridiculous contortions and clownish expressions. 7Days photographer Pha Lina, shooting the Battambang born photographer for this story, erupts into giggles. Song Sis could have walked straight off the CTN stage he regularly performs his slapstick humour on and into his apartment.
Song Sis’s face is weathered by laugh lines creased around his eyes, a mop of dark hair swept over his forehead. A huge grin, capable of twisting itself into hilarious shapes, envelopes his face. “I have no idea what makes me funny, what makes people laugh at me or want to watch me, you know.
It’s hard, sometimes we get a laugh and sometimes we don’t. There’s no formal training to this. I guess you have it or you don’t,” he chuckles.
Song Sis has garnered fame and acclaim from a wide cross section of Cambodians with a penchant for comedy: children and grandparents and all in between tune into his television performances on almost all of the country’s stations: CTN, TV9, TV11, TV3, Apsara TV, Bayon TV, to name a few. “I’m also performing live around the countryside and in Phnom Penh. It’s all improvised with us oldies, we’ve all got a lot of experience, so we don’t need to prepare or role-play before, we’re confident,” he says.
Song Sis is loved for his playful mannerisms, plays on words, coy smiles and high-pitched voice. Young fans particularly like when he dresses up as the opposite sex.
The 68-year-old says most of the popular Cambodian comedy involves a cast of performers, singing songs and acting on stage.
“I do sing alone, but also often perform as a group, four or five of us. Sometimes we’ll have a duet and I’ll perform with another lady. I usually only perform on weekends,” he says.
Song Sis has been making people laugh for some time now – he started at the age of 21, initially singing traditional music, Pleng Kar, in rural villages around the country.
“I started then performing short skits at weddings, and people loved it. From time to time, more and more people came to watch and follow the act until today.
“I wouldn’t say I was funny as a child – I was a simple child like most others,” he says.
When asked what he thinks sets Cambodian humour apart from that of other countries, he says that in Cambodian culture, naughty language and “immoral words” often attract the most laughs.
“It’s quite different from comedy in the West. In the US, England, Australia, maybe they have these techniques and trainings and experience that we, due to our history, have missed out on. We rely on vocabulary. Sometimes they just mime, or perform with gestures; they don’t say a word and get audiences to laugh.
”I do like watching international comedy, when I find the time, watching different styles from all over the world.”
Sitting in CTN’s studio on National Road 5, 30-year-old TV comic Knhong is talking about her screen persona. “I am mostly a really mean woman [the evil stepmother] who is always screaming, blaming and complaining. I try to destroy the life of the others.”
Pre-rehearsal, at 8am, she’s dressed in a Barbie-pink outfit, with a bun so stiff with hairspray it seems one could crack a coconut on her hair. “In person, I am not mean at all,” she says.
Beside her is famous Cambodian TV personality Peak Mi, 33 – her comedy partner. With his leopard-print collar and sleeves, gold jewellery and black patent-leather shoes he makes a suitably loud partner for Knhong.
In one of the TV shows they shoot together, he plays the prince. “In the end, I win, get married and become King,” he says.
The comedy is a straightforward morality tale: good triumphs over evil. The pair dress in traditional Khmer clothes, staging family intrigues alongside fairytale plots.
For Peak Mi, a witty script is key to humour – there is no reliance on slapstick.
“What makes people laugh is intelligent speech and clever words that are tied into a sentence in a witty way,” he says.
But not only good characters can be funny. Evil stepmother Knhong makes the audience laugh, too.
“People like that I speak very fast and with confidence,” she says.
Knhong says she wants to be a comedian for the foreseeable future because in comedy “people don’t care about beauty.”
Humour comes naturally to her, she says.
“At home, I always talk a lot to make the whole family laugh.”
Peak Mi dreams of a career as a singer, and with his spotted collar, he looks a bit like a Tom Jones.
But even if he doesn’t land a Sex Bomb, his flair for comedy means he has little to worry about with women.
“I always try to flirt with ladies in a funny way, and I am successful because they like it,” he says with a grin.
Comedian Yann Defond once conducted an experiment to see who laughed harder at their comics: Cambodians or the French? He tuned into the French comedy radio show Rires et Chansons and then timed the audience laughter against his own Sunday Music Concert audience, on CTN. The French won, hands-down.
A natural clown, though no longer working for the CTN comedy troupe, Defond managed to cross steep comedy and cultural terrain performing for the popular Khmer-language variety program. As a consequence, he’s given a fair amount of thought to differences in humour.
“I think Cambodian people are very easy to make laugh . . . They are ready to laugh,” he says thoughtfully. But French humour pushes limits that Cambodian humour doesn’t, he argues. French audiences feel a greater sense of release.
Slapstick, big egos brought down a notch, verbal wit – Defond finds these to be universally funny. Yet other standard tropes didn’t quite hit the hilarity mark he was expecting. While developing skits for a Pchum Ben-themed show, Defond and his colleagues were taking turns thinking of funny ways their characters – ghosts and ghouls – had died.
“I wanted to explain that my cat had been in a tree and I went up [there after it] and fell down onto the road,” Defond explains. His character had stood up, unharmed, and been run over by a truck. Classic Warner Bros stuff. His colleagues’ reactions, however, told him this made no sense at all.
“Maybe the Australian or French would laugh, but the Cambodians didn’t think I was dead – they were just waiting for me [to confirm I’d been killed].”
Defond is an admirer of top biller Prum Mahn, who he thinks tests the limits of censorship more than other comedians.
“For me, the role of the comedian is to make people think about society and the rules of society,” he says. He is concerned by a shoot-the-messenger mentality towards comedians.
Recently, he too was told to tone it down – for French Week, of all things. The university where he was asked to perform asked that he refrain from making jokes about the school.
“In the time of Moliere, comedians were quite popular, but society was very bad – and [comedians] had a bad reputation. Nowdays, it’s not like that because the French understand that it’s not real. Cambodians don’t.”