Many years ago the Canadian stand-up comedian Russell Peters performed live in Bangkok. I was in the audience along with a large crowd of Indian Thais and Sikh Thais. Russell – born to immigrant Indian parents – looked at the Indian Thai audience in the front row, and joked that “Well, I see that most of the tailor shops along Sukhumvit and Nana are closed for the day.” The crowds burst out laughing. You see, Indian Thais do own a lot of the land and tailor shops along Sukhumvit road. Moreover, that’s the price you pay for sitting in the front rows in his show.
So, why are there no Thais at the international comedy festival tickling the audience’s funny bone? Before I answer this, let’s step back and understand Asian culture broadly. Asian culture is collectivistic, which means it’s based on the collective whole. It is rooted in family and community, where relationships take precedence. Standing out like a sore thumb is discouraged. By way of contrast is the West that champions individualism. You are unique as a person. You choose your date, your marriage partner, and your career out of your preference, not what your parents want. There is a reason Asian immigrant parents want their children to be doctors. Being doctors in the 1st world means being highly paid, which affords their parents a comfortable and respectable lifestyle. (Whether this suits their parents’ interest more than their children’s, I’ll let you ponder that.)
In an individualistic society like the US, Australia, and the Netherlands, standing out is encouraged. So is being expressive. Individuals are urged to form their own thoughts and opinions. That’s why in British-Australian education, essays are the main assessment mode. In essays, you state your thesis, along with your reasoning. The whole point of the exercise is less about finding out the truth (like in hard sciences) and more about the instructors inspecting your arguments.
Thus, on the macro-level, stand-up comedians will overwhelmingly come from individualistic societies in the West. They are encouraged to stand out and ‘stand up’ for their beliefs. Whereas in the East, they conform and toe the line.
Another reason is that in the East (and the Middle East) it’s less free politically. The cost of humour could be extremely high. Imagine a Chinese mainland stand-up comedian poking fun at Xi Jinping – calling him “Winnie the Pooh” or “Kung Fu Panda”. The very next day, he’ll disappear; his Chinese social media account blocked. Two months later, he’s on national television declaring his love for Xi Jinping. He becomes a “born-again Communist”.
Or a Saudi comedian making fun of his king and Islam. The very real possibility that he’ll end up like Jamal Khashoggi – an unpleasant death at the Saudi embassy in Turkey, is high.
Let’s look at Thailand. Probably the most successful Thai comedian is Note Udom Taepanich. He is good at what he does, with his family-friendly jokes appealing to most Thais. However, he won’t be on the international stage anytime soon unless (1) he speaks English – the lingua franca, and (2) his content is suitable to the predominantly Westernised audience. The same goes for other Thai comedians like Koh Tee who crack jokes on TV game shows and at pubs and restaurants. They can crack any jokes so long as they don’t challenge the authority.
Speaking of politics, I find some of the jokes the three-fingered protestors use rather funny and creative. (Though the butt of those jokes may think otherwise.)
Here is what impresses me the most. The rise of Malaysian Chinese comedians on the global stage. Born in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, Ronnie Chieng graduated from Melbourne before moving to New York. There, he thrived, starring in Crazy Rich Asians, and landing his own gig on Netflix. Also worth mentioning is Jason Leong, a native Malay Chinese and a medical doctor-turned comedian hitting the global stage. His corporate clientele includes Ford, Accenture, and CIMB bank.
In Australia, Egyptian-Australian comedian Akmal Saleh always makes me laugh. Nothing is taboo for him, including terrorism and sex.
In this country, it’s a shame a lot of people – especially the older generations – are too sensitive to see the value of comedy. A middle-class Thai family will frown on their daughter dating a comedian, when in fact humour requires intelligence, wit, and lateral thinking. To make people laugh is as valuable a skill as coding. Insofar as Thai culture is about ‘face’, laughter and face cannot be in the same sentence. If only Thais knew the real value of comedy. Jerry Seinfeld got paid $1 million per episode. His casting team were each paid $600,000 per episode. Not bad for a 1990s sit-com allegedly about nothing.
If you read this far, you should know by now which countries comedians thrive in. Democratic countries that give people freedom of thought and expression. Places that celebrate multiculturalism and tolerate diverse views, where English is the common language, with a large middle-class population. Stable countries, in short. After all, it’s hard to make the Burmese laugh when the military junta are beating them up in the middle of the night for holding dissenting views. To the repressive regimes, diversity is the enemy. To open societies, diversity is strength.
Not incidentally, the above places also nourish start-up companies, encouraging their citizens to experiment. In this sense, the connection between stand-up comedy and start-up companies is closer than we realise.
Now go and make someone laugh. Their brains will release endorphins, the best natural medicine. And they’ll thank you for it.
**Photo credit: ThaiStandupComedy**