Q&A: Yangon-based comic on how to be funny in Asia

American architect and comic William Childress will perform at Equinox on Friday
American architect and comic William Childress will perform at Equinox on Friday. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Q&A: Yangon-based comic on how to be funny in Asia

When William Childress isn’t designing the Yangon skyline, the American architect is cracking jokes at Myanmar’s first international comedy club. Childress, who got his start at the Kung Fu Komedy club in Shanghai three years ago, will perform on Friday night in Phnom Penh.

How “American” would you say your humour is?
I do perform my act while draped in the Stars and Stripes and bedecked with a hat made out of a real American bald eagle, so if that’s American then I’m guilty as charged. (Correction: I actually perform in slacks and a dress shirt, preferably black in colour as it is slimming and doesn’t show flop sweat stains.) My style is influenced largely by the American humour I grew up knowing, but has been changed by three years of performing in front of international crowds and having comics in the Asian scene turn me on to some of their favourite performers.

Have you run into any strange cross-cultural mixups?
I remember performing a corporate gig for the Scandinavian Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. There was no stage in the venue and they were about 100 seats short, so we were performing at eye-level with tall statuesque blond Scandinavians just standing. Standing and barely laughing at a single joke. The comics would huddle up between acts and talk about how bad we were tanking. After the show, however, almost every ABBA-looking person told us how much they loved the show and how funny it was. We asked why they didn’t laugh, one guy blankly responded: “We are Scandinavian.

We do not so much laugh.”

Have you ever tried performing in a foreign language?
I tried doing it a little bit in Mandarin, but I just remember talking to the woman who owned the bar afterward, and she said: “You’re saying it right; it’s just not funny in Chinese.”

Have you ever run into censorship issues?
I don’t think we’re a blip on the radar in Myanmar, but in China we definitely knew there were certain issues we couldn’t talk about. It was never directly expressed by any Chinese censor, but when you get the 40-year-old Chinese guy who comes to your comedy show who doesn’t speak any English, and just sits there holding a camera and recording the whole event, you know something’s up. When somebody would go up on open mic and start talking about Tiananmen Square or something, I’d jump up and tell them to shut up.

Any hope of making comedy your full-time job?
I plan on doing standup and working in architecture for as long as possible. Designing a building and crafting a joke share some procedural similarities. You start with a broad concept brought about by observation or inspiration and you refine it time and time again, all while trying to stay true to your original intent and anticipating the whims of the client (or crowd), and ultimately you present your work for approval and wait to see it lauded or shot down.

In other words, I have to be very diplomatic with my answer as I doubt my boss or company would like me pining about a life as a pro comic. Architecture pays the bills, y’all.

William Childress will take the stage at 9pm on Friday at Equinox. Entrance is $3.

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