I must admit from the outset that I felt a weird kind of discomfort with the title of the show, ‘Comedy Zone Asia’. It’s a discomfort I’d rather not analyse too closely, as it might reveal some home truths about my own racial identity, and we white people don’t cope well with shit like that. But it’s how I approached the show and so I feel I should be upfront about it.
The one other ‘Comedy Zone’ show at the Festival this year features all white/Anglo comedians from around Australia wearing hi-vis vests. They get the name ‘The Comedy Zone’. But this show, ‘Comedy Zone Asia’, is orientalised from the start with the othering, generalising addendum ‘Asia’, and it doesn’t get the definite article ‘The’, or even an indefinite article ‘A’…although, Asians do tend to have trouble with articles in English….
Did I mention I’m a language teacher? I’m a language teacher. That may come up again.
Mercifully, I was relieved of some of this unfunny mental baggage when the host of the show, Sharul Channa (Singapore), within seconds of coming on stage, spoke straight to the elephant in the room:
“Any non-Asians in the audience?” she asked us. I could see the audience was about 50-50 Asian/non-Asian, but I still only raised my hand just high enough above my lap so that I could easily lower it again if no other whities put their hands up.
“Okay, Asians: I want you to give the non-Asians permission to laugh at racism, just for tonight.”
“And non-Asians,” Channa quickly followed up, “I want you to give the Asians permission to…”
…What? Laugh at how racist white people are? I think I must have missed it, feeling too relieved that I didn’t need to worry about the racial divide any more in the show. That, or I had some racist mental block against the idea of giving Asians permission to do anything. (I should probably disclose at this point that my partner is Asian…)
Sincerely, though, it was smoothly and wittily done by Channa: setting up this permission from the outset for us all to relax and enjoy the show, and to be united as an audience – laughing away the Asian/non-Asian dichotomy that the show’s title promoted. Instant, humourous rapport established…and an ever so subtle jab of reminder that the tension will be ready for any of us to pick back up again once the show ends, when we go our own separate Asian and non-Asian ways.
To be honest I expected there to be a lot more racist gags across the show than there were, especially given the title of the show and then this set up from Channa. In fact, the humour was much more diverse and generally more sophisticated than this. Race-related jokes were there, of course, but all of the comedians went far beyond simply making jokes that were racist, and even beyond making jokes about racism in Australia (surely so tempting when there’s just SO much material?!) or elsewhere.
It’s humour that makes me think, as well as making me laugh, and that presents a fresh and different perspective on old and entrenched social ills, that I really appreciate. In my view, the two comedians in the show that did the best job of this were GB Labrador (Philippines) and Andrew Chu (Hong Kong). With an easy and engaging stage presence, Labrador managed to deliver a steady stream of witty one-liners and self-deprecating anecdotes that were laugh-out-loud funny for the whole audience, all the while touching on big and complex ideas such as poverty, colonialisms and their legacies, influences of Western pop culture on youth identity, aging and futurisms, and so on. Keeping his own multifaceted identity at the centre of his commentary throughout, Labrador finished with the apt disclaimer: “Just remember I’m a third world comedian, so my jokes are underdeveloped too.”
Andrew Chu brought props into his routine, showing us property advertisements from Hong Kong and talking us through their ridiculous inconsistencies and utter bullshit. The language nerd in me also really appreciated Chu’s effort at making the show more multilingual, telling an entire joke in Cantonese (I think it was Cantonese?!), which it’s doubtful even 10% of the audience understood. The joke was part of a story about being questioned by an Australian immigration official on his stated career on the arrival card: “Oh, you’re a comedian? Tell me a joke.” So Chu tells him a joke in Cantonese, which inevitably falls flat…but becomes great material for his stand-up. A joke about a joke, across languages, that highlights the connection between language and humour, and that points to a probably common assumption among English-speaking Australians and other Westerners that there are no comedians in Hong Kong or China…or, worse still, that the only language of comedy is English. Nicely done, Chu.
Comedians Storm Xu and Daniel Fernandes also made some clever funnies in their routines about what it means to be a stand-up comedian in societies where the profession is quite new. For me, this got me thinking about the role of comedy in an ever increasingly globalised world, and in increasingly racially and linguistically mixed societies like Australia. Since I think I must be some kind of a freak for analysing and intellectualising a single comedy show to the extent I have here, it’s hard to say how much or in what ways it got others in the audience thinking…but it must have at least a little, right? This, I believe, is one of comedy’s most important roles, and each of the comedians in Comedy Zone Asia, brought this to the show with their own individual brands of intelligent and well-delivered humour.
Before I finish, a word again about the host, Sharul Channa, in her bright red and white polka dot dress. Channa did an awesome job of gluing the show together with her intermezzo routines in between the other comedians. One of my favourites was her angry rant against an Anglo yoga teacher who corrected her pronunciation of ‘namaste’. I liked this partly because I also practice yoga and I also have almost no patience for the wankiness and self-righteousness of some yoga teachers – especially the anglo ones. But also, and in line with my preference for culture and language related humour that makes me think, I appreciated Channa’s below-the-surface stab at the ethnocentrism that tends to afflict many monolingual native English speakers, even as they appropriate non-English words and ideas into their homogenising, patronising speeches to others about what is and isn’t authentic.
Ah…ANYWAY. Conclusion: bring on the diverse, witty, thought-provoking, and multilingual comedy shows in the Melbourne comedy festival – more of this please! …But perhaps think about changing the name?
Comedy Zone Asia shows from Tue-Sat 7pm and Sun 6pm until April 17 at the Melbourne Town Hall.