A surge of stand-up comedy has swamped the region over the past few years, with comedy clubs cropping up and international comedians standing in front of shadowy brick walls in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea.
That wave is now hitting the Kingdom, with the first ever international stand-up comedy night this coming Tuesday at Pontoon club, from 8pm. Under the banner of the Comedy Club Asia, US comic Ward Anderson, British comedian Shazia Mirza and Australian funnyman Jon Atherton will each perform extended sets.
Before hitting the Penh, the Comedy Club Asia tour took comics to Singapore from November 30 to December 3, and will bring them to Bali from December 7 to 10.
For Jon Atherton, a multi-lingual performer and veteran of the Asian stand-up circuit, the expat experience is rich comic fodder. Jon moved to Singapore with his family 10 years ago, and has been pushing stand-up there since 1994.
“Most of my stuff relates to intercultural relations,” he told 7Days. “Misunderstandings, new insights, the fish out of water. If there is a subtext I guess it is ‘despite language, ethnicity, religion and culture we are essentially one.’”
To illustrate his claim, Jon related some experiences from his time in Singapore.
“The funniest line I ever heard in Singapore was not on a stage and not even by a comedian,” he said.
“Last year, the blind British comic Chris McCausland was visiting. He wanted to get a real feel of the sounds, tastes and smells of Asia. But Singapore is quite sterile and felt to him like anywhere in the west. So I took him, his girlfriend and my ex-wife to an area called Geylang– a grungy, red-light district where you rarely see westerners. The food there is pungent and authentic, illegal dice games flourish, a thousand hookers from all over Asia line the narrow streets. As I gave Chris a running commentary we came to a group of Indonesian girls who were trying to flash their wares. I greeted them, but Chris stared straight ahead. One of them asked ‘Apa masala nya? Dia sombong?’ (What’s his problem? Is he a snob?) I replied he was blind. She flashed her hands in front of his eyes and without hesitating placed his hands on her breasts. ‘No need for commentary mate’ said Chris with a smile. My ex was a bit taken aback and turned to his girlfriend and said, ‘are you cool with that.’ Her reply was priceless. ‘He’s only looking.’’”
Jon said that his time spent in Asia has also given him a view from the ground on the developing stand-up scene. “The YouTube generation has changed the face of comedy. Some think it undermines live comedy and reduces audiences. I think that might be true in the west to a certain extent, but in Asia it has opened people to a new performance art form. Once someone experiences live standup, YouTube just feels like phone sex.
“There have always been comedians in Asia but the traditional Asian act included skills like music, acrobatics, illusion, mime, props etc. Stand-up is very raw. As someone who speaks a lot of different languages, you’re in a pretty unique position to take in local comedy as well as western stuff.”
In sharp contrast to Jon is Ward Anderson, who until this tour was an Asia virgin.
“This is my first tour through Asia, so I’m very excited,” he said.
“I’m thrilled to see an entirely new part of the world. I’m mostly interested to see how the weather is. Back home, in Canada, it’s freezing cold right now. I’m so interested to experience summer weather at a time when everyone at home is dressed in their warmest clothing and sitting next to the fire. I’m also eager to see what it’s like to burn the midnight hour laughing with people on an entirely different continent. I have heard that the people in Cambodge love their laughter and are not shy about letting it out. I’d love to see that and be a part of it. It’s winter in Canada right now, and people are sometimes too busy keeping their hands warm to applaud.
“I’m a regular ‘people person’, and am always excited to immerse myself in the local culture and pastimes. I really like to get out and mingle with as many people as possible and see what makes us all similar. Too many people focus on how we’re all different. That’s not my thing. I like to talk about how we’re similar, and I’m always eager to meet other people in other countries who think similarly about the same things.
“Deep down, we all want to eat, drink, and be merry. I want to do all of those things while I’m there and then tell some jokes about it along the way. I imagine there’s food I’ve never tried before that someone will insist I eat for the first time. I’m just crazy enough to do that. Bring it on.”
In addition to his stand-up career, which sees him flitting around the US and Canada, Ward is famous for his book The Ultimate Bachelor’s Guide, part instructional manual and part zoological spotting guide for the perpetually single. But ironically, the standard-bearer for single-dom is now happily married, and said his act now focuses on the quirks of settling down.
“I just got married this year, so much of my show is about getting older, settling down, and realising what life is like being out of the singles game,” he said.
“It’s also a lot about being, well, human. And being flawed. And the everyday mistakes we make as humans that make other people laugh, even when we feel like hiding our faces in shame. Have you ever talked to a mannequin in a store because you thought it was a real person standing there? I have. That’s the sort of jackass I can be. Did you ever choose a nice slice of cake over having sex? I have. You reach an age where the sex isn’t nearly as interesting as the cake...and that age can be as young as 35. Let’s face it, good cake can be hard to come by. When you’re married, chances are good you’ll get more sex than cake. Take my advice: choose the cake.”
Possibly as a result of surrendering his bachelor’s mantle, Ward made a declaration on his blog four months ago that he was going to “try really hard not to be a dick” any more.
“Oh, I wasn’t always a dick, mind you,” he wrote. “I was probably a nice guy for many, many years. Back before I started making a career in show business and in the creative world, I was most likely quite affable. But, years of constant touring, writing, performing, and hustling has pretty much hardened my once soft demeanor, and I’ve become a bit calloused toward my fellow man.”
When 7Days asked how that noble quest was going, he replied: “According to my wife? Pretty good! According to my agent? I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. It’s easy to be a dick, isn’t it? So much easier than having to worry about other people all the time. There are many, many rich and successful people who have made lucrative careers out of being dicks. What was I thinking, trying to be some nice guy all of a sudden?
“Honestly, so much of that blog comes from living life in showbiz. I think that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the personality conflicts that come from performing (and travelling) for a living. With that, it’s easy to get wrapped up in oneself. I’ve become aware more in the past year of the people around me and tried to curb my ‘dick’ tendencies. I think all entertainers could do that. Of course, it’s easier said than done in a business that makes it all about ME for at least 30 minutes a night. By the way, have you noticed ME yet? Look at ME! Here I am! MEEE! Now, excuse me while I go look in this mirror right here. Ahhhhh. That’s better.”
Shazia Mirza is also accustomed to self-conscious, often biting, reflection. As a regular columnist for The Guardian and New Statesman Magazine, she has been relating highly personal insights about her life, family and religion for years. She told 7Days that comedy fans could expect nothing less from her gig at Pontoon.
“I will be doing material that I do all over the world. I think that just because I am coming to the Far East, why should I do anything different? I am sure people will want to hear funny stuff from a different point of view, but of course I will try and give my observations on what I see in Singapore.
“This is the first time I am coming here, and I am looking forward to getting some fake handbags that I can pass off for real ones when I get back to England and sell them at Walthamstow Market.”
While it’s her first time in these parts of Asia, Shazia is no stranger to the quandaries of travel. In a column for The Guardian in April last year titled “Halal comedy? You might as well ask for halal bacon”,
she wrote: “In all the countries that I have travelled to to perform standup comedy – the United States being a regular destination – I have never been held up or interrogated at customs. Or I hadn’t, until I arrived in Pakistan last week. I spent six hours at Lahore customs, as I did not have a visa in my British passport to enter the country. The people who organised my gig had mistakenly assumed that because my parents were born in Pakistan and I too am brown, they would automatically let me in.”
A customs officer then “looked through my passport, which is filled with US visas. He said: ‘Are you a spy?’ No, I’m a standup comedian. ‘What’s that?’ I tell jokes. ‘And will you be doing that in this country?’ Yes. ‘Oh, is this the entertainment for the Taliban?’ he asked, quite seriously. No, I replied. He said: ‘What I should do is deport you, but if you give me $100, I’ll see what I can do.’”
But despite the inauspicious start, Shazia went on to write that performing in Pakistan was a great experience.
“Pakistan was wonderful,” she told 7Days. “I have performed there three times now. It’s other people’s stereotypical pre-conceived ideas which are generally wrong….I love going to other countries and performing to people of different cultures. Everyone has a sense of humour, even brown people.”
Shazia said that she is looking forward to performing in a country with such a different history and culture to her usual haunts.
“The killing fields I am intrigued about. I am curious about doing a comedy show in a place which may have a strange energy and aura. I am nervous about it.”
But despite any apprehension, it’s unlikely that Pontoon will present a tougher atmosphere than her very first set.
“When I first started. I stood in the middle of a room with no microphone, no stage, hardly any audience, and a man being beaten up outside and three police cars driving round the block, and still everyone listened to me and laughed. I thought if I can do this, I can do anything.”
That’s not to say that hecklers are non-existant in Asia. In fact, Jon Atherton said that it was in Asia where he heard his favourite heckle.
“The brilliant UK comic Stephen Grant was in Singapore,” he said. “He was chatting to a couple in the front row and asked where they met. She replies ‘We met online.’ ‘Fair enough’ says Stephen, ‘that’s cool. What site was it.’ And in a flash an Irishman from the back of the room shouts ‘Ebay.’
“The room fell apart. Even Stephen paid that one. There’s a big difference between destructive heckling and good natured contribution. Alcohol tends to blur the distinction for most.”