Former journalist Doung Sokea has become one of Cambodia’s most popular comedians over the past few years with two weekly shows on national broadcaster CTN.
He mixes stand-up and quirky celebrity interviews with visits to villages where he leaves audiences spellbound by his ability to spontaneously compose and recite poems to the tune of a chapei (traditional guitar). 7days caught up with him at his home last week where he spoke about shifts in Khmer comedy, and how he stays a step ahead of audiences who are becoming particularly difficult to impress.
Why do you think comedy is both changing its style and growing popularity in Cambodia?
Comedians are becoming less rude, more polite. In the past there was a lot more harsh language and conflict in skits, a lot of domestic violence and slurs. The language was very derogatory. The jokes were often violent. Now, we’re becoming more polite. Comedians are often better educated, they have degrees, and audience tastes are shifting. I think comedy is also becoming more popular because people are working longer and they need entertainment to relieve stress. It also provides a lot of relief from the Pol Pot time. People didn’t laugh much then. Cambodia has a pent up need for laughter, and maybe this is the first generation to laugh so freely.
What sorts of jokes are popular now?
Oh, now we need to update daily. In the past you could go to a village and do a show, then repeat it in another village the next night. Now, people record you on their cell phones and send the videos to their friends. Then know the punch line as soon as you begin to tell a joke. So, we need new material for every show. People want to be surprised, they like jokes about Facebook or the Internet, and they like to hear comedians use English. I can talk in English and then when someone asks me what it means, I can reply “Who knows?” Wordplay, especially puns, is very popular, and playing with words in different languages that have the same sounds as words in Khmer but different meanings is really fun.
Where do you get your material?
I search the Internet, I read newspapers and sometimes I just make it up. A lot of what I do is interviews, and most of it is spontaneous. When I do my show Out of Town, I always create a poem for the village I visit. I do this while playing the guitar, and just allow the words to come out as I think them. There is no script.
You are also known for adding social commentary into your routines, why?
Well, I used to be a journalist and reporter. I worked for the Women’s Media Centre, producing shows about reproductive health, domestic violence, topics like that. So, if I’m doing a routine about romance, for example, I slip in a bit of information about the effects of domestic violence, or how to prevent transmitting HIV, or I remind audiences that sexual harassment is illegal. I like the shift from comedy to seriousness; it also adds a bit of surprise and keeps the audience guessing. The other thing is I don’t participate in advertising for alcohol or tobacco. Both are health threats.
Do you smoke or drink?
I like tequila. Some night we should go out drinking?
For sure, but no tequila: it makes me write blurry headlines. Is it more fun to be a comedian than a journalist?
Yes, I am very happy now making people laugh. When I was a kid in a village in Takeo I had no time to be happy. My parents were farmers. Some of my friends were killed by bombs [left over from the US bombing of Cambodia]. Sometimes, we’d try to set them on fire then run. A few of my friends could not run fast enough. People had no time to laugh then, so I feel very happy to make people laugh. As a comedian I can make people happy. It is my good fortune. Making people laugh is also happiness.