The comedians downed doubles after their show at Pontoon last Monday, after fleeing the techno that followed their act, with one quipping “unlike children DJs should be heard but not seen”.
It’s what they refer to as a “bit”, which they made a point of stressing is not a joke. “Comedians rarely tell jokes,” former waitress and psychology graduate Zoe Lyons explained. Bits are insights that can be woven into routines; jokes die with a punch line. Bits can keep growing; their possibilities, and their combinations, are infinite. Comedians are bit collectors.
Lyons had just closed the third edition of The Comedy Club Cambodia and she and fellow stand ups Greg Sullivan and Jonathan Atherton were gathered around a table on the nightclub’s patio. Their banter was rapid, pausing only to order drinks.
“We’ll get a drink here because there is a good chance we won’t have to pay for it,” Atherton advised his colleagues, who – unlike him – were in Cambodia for the first time. They all order doubles, multiples of them, even though they had to catch a flight at 9am the next morning. Atherton was correct. His girlfriend picked up the bill.
“Stand up keeps you up for awhile,” Lyons said, explaining why they did not rush back to their hotel. “It’s adrenalin not alcoholism,” Sullivan added.
Lyons had been the last of the three to perform, which is the toughest slot because it is difficult to maintain momentum after laughter has peaked twice, the three agreed. The UK native, who described her style as “observational comedy”, had managed to find material in Phnom Penh, even though she’d only arrived at lunchtime.
Her bit was about Cambodian families, extended ones, piling onto motorbikes, and how children made ideal “airbags”. “It was obvious, but not too obvious,” she said, explaining how she selects street side observations in new cities that can be woven into her rambunctious routine in a way that connects it to a foreign audience.
Lyons and Sullivan were on a regional tour, with one night in Phnom Penh. Performing together, they had learned how to play off each other.
After the show they swapped notes while unwinding in an atmosphere they described as “intensely free”. “There are no limits. There are no inhibitions,” Atherton said of the after-show gatherings of comedians. “We try to out shock each other,” Lyons said, between a barrage of anecdotes that could not be told on stage. Everything from pedophilia to the sexual anatomy of an elderly woman’s corpse was game.
Sullivan, whose routine was the most cerebral, the slowest moving, and the most meditative of the three, noted that “there is no comedy without tragedy”. “If you got all my favourite comedians on an island it would be a country of sadness and atrocities,” he explained.
Still, comedians sometimes get side tracked by personal tragedies. Atherton described in painful detail the time his mother died and he was booked for a show in Singapore, where he is based. “Even the moment before I went on stage I was not sure whether I’d be able to cope,” he recalled. “But the minute I stepped on the stage it became spiritual.”
As soon as he finished this story, Sullivan – in a soft, soothing tone – offered a kind of solace: “That whole dead parent thing was so 15 years ago.”
“The only way to compliment another comedian is with an insult,” Lyons explained.
“A disproportionately high rate of comedians were molested as children,” Atherton said. Lyons disagreed. Sullivan did not join the debate but talked about what happened to him as a boy. “Comedy saved me,” he said, adding that therapy also helped. “There are two types of comedians: damaged or dealing with the damage.”
He also offered two explanations for the comic impulse. “Either it is a gift from a beneficial power to help us cope, or it is an evolutionary mechanism that allows us to survive.”
Atherton traced the roots of what he called the “joyful compulsion” from ancient rituals and village shaman through to the medieval court jesters who donned a fool’s cap in order to tell the truth. What’s different now is the venue. Since comedy became a business “the jester has been outsourced”.
All three agree that comedians tend to be anti-establishment, but for Sullivan this came with the proviso that they be “paid handsomely by the establishment to do it”.
Atherton pointed out that the need for comedians was increasing. “In an age when states are cultivating fear to control us, comedians are more necessary. Humour diffuses fear.”