It is the final twenty minutes of MyTV’s Sunday Music variety show and the comedy sketches are about to begin. Multicolour lights hit the stage as the show’s trumpety theme song cues in a lanky, barefoot Frenchman in jeans and a bandana, sneaking across the stage.
“I am a thief!” he boasts to the live studio audience, in fluent Khmer. “A thief with a blackbelt!”
It’s the weekend of Pchum Ben and the time is ripe for jokes about vengeful ghosts, robbery and lazy children.
“I can rob, steal and kill. On Pchum Ben - everyone’s left home!”
The Pchum Ben skit has been the most popular since he joined CTN’s MyTV troupe in March this year, says comedian Yann Defond - or ‘Mr Yann’ as he is known to audiences.
Needless to say, his obnoxious axe-wielding thief is taken down a peg by a clown-faced ghost, who in turn, is angry at not being fed by his neglectful daughter.
“I like Mr Yann very much!!” enthuses one Youtube commentator.
“Most of the shows are about making people laugh as well as educating them,” Defond says. “In the comedy there are always good and bad people - and the good people win in the end.”
The skits are mostly unscripted and include improvisation – and more rehearsals would not go astray, he adds, almost despairingly.
His uncertainty may stem from the fact that before his career on one of Cambodia’s most popular television networks, Defond was not a comedian or a professional performer of any sort.
Rather, the Lyon-born 33-year-old was a graphic artist working in a printing house, with a talent for languages and a devout faith.
In 2003 he came to Cambodia to volunteer with the Catholic Church for two years and was left deeply affected by his time here.
“I think it’s a part of myself,” he tries to explain in English, “like when you have a friend for life. It’s the same with Khmer people... (they) are very easy to be with.”
Back in France, he set about mastering the language and enrolled in a class full of mostly French-Cambodians. By the time he started however, the class had been running for four weeks and he was scrambling to catch up.
“It was difficult for me to practice. I decided to concentrate on the script because I could do that by myself...So when I arrived in Cambodia, I could read and write a little – it was quite easy to learn how to speak.”
When he eventually returned to Cambodia in 2009, he spent the first month doing nothing but study language at the Cambodian Catholic Cultural Center in Phnom Penh. Afterwards he tried to get work as a graphic artist, but found his skills were undervalued by clients, compared to France.
“At school, the teachers always told us we were artists but in Cambodia, you’re not an artist because you can draw,” he says. “Most people only wanted to pay me for the realisation, but not the ideas.”
When it came to performing, however, he found the lack of an arts establishment could work in his favour.
The then-29-year-old dusted off a long-held dream to be a comedian and decided to try it out on his adopted country.
“In France, I thought, ‘If I go back to Cambodia, I will try and do performance. Because as a volunteer, I saw that (the arts) was very different.
“In France, first you learn and after there are steps and you are one artist among many. But in Cambodia? No. I know that my success is not because I’m the best comedian –my partners are better than me – but because I’m not Cambodian.”
In 2011, he made the first bold step toward his new career, in the form of parody karaoke song Chang Chha, sung in Khmer, and filmed with a friend in a rural village.
In it, the lanky Defond, in sunglasses and a krama, welcomes a friend home from the city back to village life. The song was performed live on TV3 and led to the birth of Defond’s alter-ego, ‘Prap Soviet’, a play on pop singer Preap Sovat.
At the same time, he had landed a job producing a weekly television show on TV5, that ended up facing the axe.
“We went to CTN to talk with people (about taking on the TV5 show) and to visit the studios. After we spoke with the manager, I saw a man running around the parked cars outside,” he says “I asked the secretary who he was and they said he was a producer at CTN.”
A keen marathon runner, with a tendency toward slapstick, Defond sprinted after the man, introduced himself and was told to come back for a meeting.
As well as producing at TV5, Defond had also been working on his own pet project: a sitcom, set in the countryside, about a shop owner and his customers. The hook would be that the customers would only be heard as voices behind the camera, and the vendor (hopefully played by Defond) would react to them.
The producer wasn’t interested, but instead offered him a spot on the popular comedy troupe of MyTV’s Sunday Music.
Defond says he is now “always” recognised on the street and judging from the reception at the Post office, is something of a celebrity. So it is a complete surprise, to say the least, to discover that he lives a more modest existence than any western foreigner in Phnom Penh I know. He found his flat (one of 600) shortly after he arrived, in an industrial park built to house factory workers.
“Everybody knows me as a comedian but they don’t know that the most important thing (to me) is Jesus Christ,” he explains. “My life is given to Jesus and to the poor, especially the factory workers. I made the choice to live with poor people.”
The very fact he was able to move into the place, so near to those he wanted to help, he believes was “a sign from God.”
He doesn’t say whether his comedic success has been similarly blessed.
Much of Cambodian humour is visual and based on simple, but fundamental premises, he says.
“But with CTN I was sure I would be a success because Cambodians have an idea of the barang and my performance was to the contrary of this idea – and it was funny.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Rosa Ellen at [email protected]