Each year, the Comedy Festival Roadshow tours to South East Asia and India. This year, the region is returning the favour, bringing comedians back to Australia for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. The lineup consists of Jenhan Kuah (Malaysia), Vivke Mahbubani (Hong Kong), Jason Leong (Malaysia), Brian Tan (Malaysia), Rohan Desai (India) and Joanna Sio (Singapore).
Comedy Zone Asia runs at the Melbourne Town Hall until the 19th April. Tickets start from $19.50 – get them online or at the door.
I was late to the comedy show that night, losing track of time as I slurped through a bowl of noodles, because that’s a normal, unremarkable thing to do in Melbourne. My choice of dinner was not – I don’t think – made in a fit of identification with the theme of the variety show I was about to see, Comedy Zone Asia (CZA), and my dinner partner, who is Anglo-Australian, was also an equally felicitous (by which I mean originally arbitrary) choice. We slipped into the second floor Regent Room after receiving directions from the festival staff; as we’d ascended the gilt stairs of the Melbourne Town Hall those assisting us seemed increasingly surprised that we were looking for the Regent Room ‘Oh. The Regent Room?’ There was probably a particular ‘type’ or ‘demographic’ sitting in the audience at the Regent (both of these words irk me, and so I apologise for resorting to them), just as, equally, there was a clear ‘demographic’ to which those lining up to see the shows in the main theatres belonged. We must have confused the staff, only ever so slightly, you see, because I’m a racially ambiguous-looking Australian of Southeast Asian descent, and my friend is lilywhite and silky, like someone from a Rossetti painting.
But perhaps I’m projecting all this retrospectively. In any case, I’m setting the scene because the open concept, the playful construction of ‘audience’ seemed crucial across the showcase of Southeast Asian and Indian comedians at CZA. For the record I didn’t really look that closely – being latecomers we were ushered quietly into the front row (we uttered silent ‘yikes’ as festival newbies), and anyway, I was there to take in a show, not perform ethnographic research. Still, I was curious, and a couple of times during ‘audience interactions’ (more on that below) I peeped back into the crowd. No wonder the ushers were politely surprised: lots and lots of Asian faces. Not exclusively; I think I spotted some Anglos way at the back after the show; and of course, as I seem to keep assuring you, I wasn’t there to keep count.
Diaspora is an interesting category: slightly dated from a theory-nut point of view, but useful as ever to the rest of us: flexible enough to account for modes of belonging through historical legacies (particularly those displacements that are the result of violent imperialism) as well as operating as a mechanism for intentional, temporary or tactical belonging. Diaspora can talk about a certain political consciousness, one that hopes for, or experiments with the potential for agency precisely around the question of belonging. The feeling of belonging, the sense of shared history, of vernacular knowledge and of lived experience: in an abstract sense, these diaspora words could equally apply to the term ‘audience.’ Audience, in strict terms, is a formation of gatherers who ‘listen together’; diaspora, also, tunes into to the same recurring stories, tropes and jokes. They practice an intentional kind of listening. No less pleasurable for its political dimension, the listening technique, or techne can potentially build and hold communities; it can also rupture connections with other communities and cultural formations. My analogy is obviously not watertight, but I like the thought that certain types of audiences can echo or even simulate particular types of diasporic formations, especially in their suspicion towards power and the powerful. Certainly, audience and diaspora can resemble one another with respect to the concept of ‘dominant’ culture: that which is identified against through negations, oppositions, and disavowals.
Joanna Sio (Singapore) worked a great joke into her set about what it meant to see a white man working as a street sweeper when she first arrived in London. ‘I didn’t know white people knew how to do that! I nearly walked up to him to offer to take over.’ Delivered in her casual, utterly charming mode, the joke gestured to the lived experience of colonial legacy: generally speaking, the only white people in Sio’s part of Asia are rich bankers. Another cheeky moment in Sio’s set compared Hong Kong with Australia, ‘a British colony like Australia, but with Chinese people and no criminals.’ All heads in the crowd threw back in the laughter of recognition; in moments like these, it felt like nearly everyone in the audience hailed from the same regions as the performers. Sio is a consummate comedian: a possessor of razor-sharp wit and an enviable ease, an intimacy with the crowd (who immediately warmed to her) which was all to the good for throwing out those delightful barbs.
I hope to follow the careers of all five of the exciting performers in CZA, but I must admit that the host, Vivek Mahbubani (Hong Kong), instantly stood out to me as the biggest one to watch. He warmed the room with an amazing riff on being stopped by a Hong Kong policeman with a last name ‘like a terrorist’s,’ and everyone sat up a little straighter. This guy has something to say. With his distinct and unusual brand of humour, Mahbuhani knows how to drift across dense political ground, swiftly locating the points that puncture the deepest. For saying all this, though, the work never felt heavy: there was a mad momentum about his short, in-between-the-sets sets that seduced and teased the audience. It would be well worth seeing his solo show. Ah, if only I understood Cantonese. That’s right – Melbourne Comedy Festival is showcasing an hour-long Cantonese comedy show by Mahbubani. For the readers that do have Cantonese, do yourself a favour: see this show.
It’s not my intention to ‘lump’ the Malaysian performers together; unfortunately I have run out of space, which is a shame, because it seemed to me that the strongest audience responses were given to these performers: Jenhan Kuah, Brian Tan and the headliner, Jason Leong. It’s not my place to say, being naïve in this respect, what a ‘Malaysian’ brand of humour might entail. And more importantly, it’s probably not even very useful or relevant to consider such a totalising proposition. These were very different types of comedians, but I did notice that there were a few jokes that relied on shared cultural assumptions, or tropes; local experiences that I don’t know very much about. The riffs on Malaysian criminality stand out particularly as the ones most lost on me: thieves stealing from thieves? Bad customer service? The crowd loved these bits, and I learnt something, even if I didn’t quite know what I was laughing about. I don’t know much about comedy, but I think that these kinds of moment signal that the show is a good one, running out along some unexpected edges. Leong had a longer set than the rest, which provided an opportunity to construct further-reaching arcs over more wide-ranging material. I had a lovely moment of recognition, or perhaps, rather, a moment of feeling ‘Asian,’ when the subject of Chinese-style parenting came up in what turned into a mirthful riff on his mother’s terrifying, wrinkly ass. ‘Any Anglos in the room?’ Jason enquired, gazing towards the back. ‘Ah, you don’t know. Where you grew up, children have “rights.”’ Ouch. Yes, I remembered. It was funny, a personal novelty, to be in the majority during that joke.
I have to save a final word for Rohan Desai (India), whose deconstructed approach to the stand-up format was, quite simply, winning. I think this is a difficult format to get right, and for some reason this particular style is one I’m reasonably familiar with, though I’m no comedy expert. Desai never broke out of character, which seemed to descend around him like an invisible prison of self-consciousness as he walked onto the stage, found his mark, and extracted his handwritten notes. The mode of the shy and awkward: done well, it’s so lovable and endearing. It’s so funny. But why? I think there’s something about this method that is quietly terrifying, not for the evident shyness per se, but rather, for the very question of how long the performer can go without breaking. Desai is a master of silences; each prolonged fumbling of the paper in his hand was a sly challenge to the audience. Could we handle it? How far could Desai go? ‘Now it’s time for some audience interaction,’ he stated, deadpan. He went all the way, and each tortured line landed with miraculous timing.
I wonder where the title of this undeniably strong variety show, Comedy Zone Asia, came from? Perhaps these titular words are simply the most practical way of describing the transnational experiment, a temporary grouping of artists that share certain ‘Asian’ experience and knowledge, and yes, perhaps even some ‘Asian’ comedic styles, but also differ in equally many ways, as inhabitants of distinct Malaysian, Singaporean, Hong Kong and Indian geographic and cultural spaces. The question, to what extent does ‘Asia’ work as a transnational cultural zone, let alone a comedy zone, is too difficult to adequately address in such a short review. But I will say that the concept of a ‘zone’ in an intermezzo, or temporary and tactical sense, works incredibly well as a provocation to consider what is possible when these kinds of connections are advanced, and brought to new audiences. Clearly, a new and vital kind of comedy is possible: CZA has built obvious momentum already, and I strongly recommend many more to see it. I sometimes worry when ‘Asian’ is used as an umbrella cultural term that, without a political dimension, might resemble a food court: somewhere for the privileged (usually white) global consumer to come and sample an undifferentiated ‘Asian’ cultural experience. But CZA is no food court. Across all the acts I saw a tacit, exciting refusal to ‘self-orientalise,’ or on the other hand relate, or be relatable to a ‘dominant’ culture. This was one for the audience, however heterogeneous, provisional, or temporary that gathering of people might have been on the night. And it felt really good to be there among them.