In a club with a bevy of Asian babes at your side who aren’t your girlfriend – and you say you work in tourism? “People are judging you, fucker.” It takes a confident man to stand up before a crowd in Phnom Penh and insinuate that someone is a sex tourist. British comic Imran Yusuf braved it last week during a night of stellar stand-up to mark the return of Comedy Club Asia to Pontoon after a summer hiatus.
The gangly North Londoner is hotly tipped for stardom. He first emerged on the British comedy radar as the star of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. After winning the gong for Best Newcomer, he was given a slot on the BBC’s . When he gets back from Asia, he has a national tour lined up.
In Phnom Penh with Canadian comic Allyson Smith last Wednesday night, he was a big fish in a small city. You could excuse him for getting lazy. But he had done his research on the crowd. Tailored banter came thick, fast, and close to the nail. He lampooned sexpats and NGO righteousness like a local. Of his own wage - “Fuck your NGO salaries, this is real wealth.”
At times he verged on the arrogant edge of cocky. Some material was a little barbed – one gag about how only girls were stupid enough to read horoscopes and celebrity magazines was lazy. Flimsy assertions detracted from the good-hearted, tongue-in-cheek feel of the set.
But charm won through. Each time he put forward his ego, he recalled it with a self-deprecating anecdote. How adoration by beautiful Scandinavian women inevitably soured into rejection and humiliation. Failure on the baseball field as a goonish adolescent.
As a East African-Indian-Brit, born in Kenya and raised a Muslim, one of his first experiences of racism was being called an “English muffin” while at a New Jersey high school. “That,” he said, “was a form of prejudice I had never encountered.”
From tales of sexual mishap to chirpy chat about his scrambled ethnic identity, it was all dispatched with the relaxed ease of a pro.
Sadly, the same couldn’t be said of Allyson, an ex school-teacher from Canada who ditched the chalkboard for the stage, as she told us early on in her set. Her credits include national radio and an hour long TV special, but she seemed ill at ease. While Imran jauntily flirted with his audience, Allyson’s stabs at crowd participation usually fell flat. “Who was a Brownie as a child? Raise your hands.” Nothing. “Who kept a diary as a child?” Tumbleweed. A teacher’s well-meaning entreaties to an unenthusiastic classroom.
If sheer energy won a crowd, Allyson would have taken the night. Bubbly and brimming with charisma, she was a natural performer, at her best when spitting foul-mouthed one-liners. “Who’d have a bun in the oven when you could have a cock in the kitchen?” A pub delight.
But as a professional comedian, her form could have been tighter. She strayed too long on anecdotes that went out with a whimper where there should have been a cracking punch-line. She was guilty of repeating jokes to cajole the audience into a giggle. Her tendency to titter too long after a joke and self-congratulate started to grate.
Nonetheless, she was a decent warm-up to Yusuf, who truly brought the house down. A real coup for Comedy Club Asia, and a sign of good things to come from Cambodia’s first ever stand-up night.