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Here's a good one: Asia is comedy's next frontier
Once public taboo, jokes about sex, bribery and political persecution are helping build a thriving stand-up scene
In a café in Bangalore, a comedian leads off with a joke about Kingfisher Airlines stewardesses, and gets mild titters from the audience.
“The men are smiling,” he teases.
The comic, Sanjay Manaktala, then tells a story about dressing up as a police officer to play out a sexy fantasy with an Indian girlfriend: “I told her ‘You’ve been a naughty girl.’ She said, ‘Oh my god! Here’s a hundred bucks.’”
This time, the crowd erupts into a roar, the bribery reference, a common problem within India’s police force, hitting its mark.
Comedy has long been a barometer of social consciousness and in Asia, recent development of this most nuanced of art forms can provide enlightening glimpses into local life.
India's comic progression
U.S.-born Manaktala is part of the Asian comedy circuit, which has moved beyond its origins as an outpost of the London and New York scenes to develop its own brand.
Open mics are proliferating in venues where there might once have only been a cover band or DJ.
While international acts like Russell Peters remain a cash cow for large venues, smaller shows, such as those run by The Polished Bottoms, Manaktala’s Bangalore-based troupe, foster local acts.
Papa CJ is perhaps the best known Indian comic who regularly fills out venues in the country.
With 125 million English speakers to court, stand-up has gained a strong foothold in India’s pubs and clubs, progressing toward “intelligent observational humor,” according to Manaktala.
On a given night, there may be jokes about the IT Industry, reverse outsourcing, Bollywood, arranged marriage or John Mayer.
In Doha, Qatar, Halal Bilal (the stage name of Bilal Randeree), a South African comedian of Indian descent, works to engage the crowd: “Are there any Israelis here?”
A hand goes up. “I thought so -- I saw an ‘occupied’ sign on the toilet.”
After a crash of laughter, he moves on to being stopped by airport security, where he's questioned: “Did you pack your own bag?” A pause. “What Indian man under age 25 packs his own bag?” he yells.
Comedy in Asia and the Mideast offers useful insights not just into the issues of the local society, but also about the nature of comedy in these cultures.
Said Purple, a rookie comedian and new addition to Stand Up Comedy Qatar (SUCQ), Bilal’s troupe in Doha, begins by instructing the crowd, “First things first, you are allowed to laugh. It’s a comedy show!”
It's a learning experience for both audience and comedian.
Muslims in religious dress aren’t allowed to attend the shows put on by London’s Laughter Factory at the nearby Ramada Plaza hotel, and SUCQ is just two years old.
Bilal began performing on his own and now has two dozen comedians and audiences of 200.
SUCQ comedians experimented with performing in Arabic, but found that jokes, along with audience expectations, don’t always translate.
“With such mixed audiences at our shows, the content needs to fit,” Bilal explains. “It’s a lot of Doha-based material.”
'Comedy a healthy part of society'
Quill Potter, an English-born comedy promoter in Singapore, argues that comedy is a bellwether for the opening of these markets.
“The [Singapore] government has a pragmatic approach," he says. "We’re connected by the Internet and [comedy] is a healthy part of a functioning Western society. It shows that Singapore is opening up.”
Potter sees the emulation of stand-up as a natural step for societies mimicking the West through technology and fashion, especially when that comes alongside greater political freedom.
He's watched local talent mature through the open mic scene.
“They’re not stealing jokes off the Internet, they’re doing intelligent comedy about their lives,” he says.
But he bemoans the red tape he faced putting on shows in Mumbai a few years back, including endless license fees -- the kind of corruption Manaktala hit on in his act about police.
It is these “I get it” moments between audience and performer that make the scene.
“Five years ago it was karaoke,” Manaktala says. “Comedy is something different.”
Tokyo-based comedian Spring Day, a U.S. expatriate and performer at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, began her career in Tokyo a decade ago after seeing an ad in the paper, later joining the Tokyo Comedy Store.
Day is enthusiastic about Tokyo’s appeal for up-and-comers.
"(In Los Angeles) you go to an open mic and they see you as a paycheck,” she says, adding that New York has a similarly competitive scene, driven by the push to turn pro or turn a profit.
“In Tokyo, there’s no money involved,” she says. “We want to help you get started.”
Tokyo also boasts good-sized audiences, in contrast to open mics in New York or Los Angeles that may be attended only by other comedians looking for stage time.
Jokes for all markets
David Corbin, an organizer of Mad Cows of Tokyo with Adam Shaw, is on the circuit between Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, where there are standing invitations for comics to perform.
“When comedy is not localized it's actually highly transferable,” he says.
Still, there's a market for jokes about Japan’s obsession with cute things, and the foibles of dating between locals and foreigners.
Just don’t mention the war.
Chris Musni, who runs Comedy HK with Michael Dorsher, credits a highly educated youth base for stand-up’s success in Hong Kong and imagines that young, educated Chinese people will be a big audience in the future.
Jami Gong has been producing the Annual Hong Kong International Comedy Festival for six years (the festival has ties to New York’s Gotham Comedy Club), runs the Take Out Comedy Show in Soho and hosts open mics in Cantonese and English.
He describes Hong Kong as an untapped market being molded by audiences and performers, week by week.
A comic in New York, for example, might take the scene for granted, and must figure out what works for his or her particular persona.
A comic in Singapore or Mumbai must first probe the audience to learn where to push the boundaries, and strike a balance between appealing to and subverting expectations.
Comedy, after all, happens in the space where the surprise occurs.
For Potter, unchartered territory is key to the appeal of Asia’s comedy scene.
“It is in and of itself interesting to hear a Singaporean, where things have been in the past repressed, talk about the government or race,” he says.
“Now they’re really finding their voices.”
Where to see or perform comedy in Asia
Last Fridays at The Crocodile, Sekiguchi Bld B1, 6-18-8 Jingumae, Shibuya (¥2,000 (US$22))
Every third Thursday at The Hobgoblin, 3F Ichiban Bldg. 1-3-11, Dogenzaka, Shibuya (free, requested to buy one drink), tokyocomedy.com/stand_up_comedy_at_the_hobgoblin
Every first and third Tuesday at Double Tall Cafe, Shibuya East Side Building
2F, 3-12-24 Shibuya (free, requested to buy one drink), tokyocomedy.com/new_material_night
Big Night Out at Pink Cow, 5-5-1 Roppongi, Roi Building B1F, Minato-ku, Tokyo (¥1,000-1,500 (US$11-16) -- includes one drink)
Open Mic at Vega Wine Bar, 150-0021, Shibuya Ku, Ebisu Nishi 1-10-16, Westpark Building B1, Tokyo (free, drink recommended)
Third Saturdays, every other month, Night Near the Beach, Soundmarket, Kugenuma-Ishigami 1-13-13, Fujisawa-shi, Kanagawa (¥1,000 (US$11)-- includes one drink)
Laughter Factory at Ramada Hotel, Al Muntazah, Doha (QR110 (US$31), plus drink) http://www.ramadaplazadoha.com/press&news/detail.php?id=61
Thursdays, Fight Comic, and Wednesdays, Stand Up for Singapore, at BluJaz Café, 12 Bali Lane, Singapore ($10 (US$8.10))
Tuesdays, Comedy Masala, at Home Club, 20 Upper Circular Road, #B1-01/06, the Riverwalk, Singapore ($10, $6 students)
Wednesdays, Urban Solace, 32, Annaswamy Mudaliar Rd, Halasuru, Bangalore, Karnataka (free)
B-Flat in Indiranagar 100 Feet Road, Above ING Bank, HAL 2nd Stage, Bangalore, Karnataka (Rs200 (US$3.70))
Thursdays, Comedy Central HAHAthon Open Mic, Counter Culture, 2D2, 4th Cross, Dyavasandra Industrial Area, Whitefield, Bangalore (free)
Alliance Francaise, opp: U.N.I Building, P.B 108, Thimmaiah Road, Millers Road, Millers Road, Bangalore, Karnataka (Rs200)
Jagriti Theater, Ramagondanahalli, Varthur Road, Bangalore, Karnataka (Rs250)
Wednesdays, Open Mic, first Saturdays, BrewHaHa, Hong Kong Brew House, 21 D'Aguilar St., Lan Kwai Fong Central, Hong Kong (free)
Tuesdays, Take Out Comedy Club, Basement, 34 Elgin St., Soho, Hong Kong (HK$50-150 (US$6.45-20))
Comedy Story, 3/F, Palladium Mall, High Street Phoenix, Senapati Bhapat Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai, Mumbai, Maharashtra (Rs400-500 (US$7.45-9.30)