Why you should care

Because maybe comedy can save us. 

Quick, name a standup comic from anywhere in the world outside America or the U.K. Yakov Smirnoff, Gad Elmaleh and … not so easy, is it? Down through the decades, comedy has usually done more to stereotype the rest of the world than to help us understand it. A new documentary aims to change that.

Co-created by San Franciscans Xandra Castleton and David Munro, Stand Up Planet points the way toward a transnational future for what is, after all, the most low-tech art form there is. They send the ingratiating Los Angeles-based comic Hasan Minhaj abroad to meet some refreshingly un-careerist young stand-up pioneers — Mpho Popps from South Africa and Aditi Mittal in Mumbai. Those places, aren’t commonly thought of as laugh riots, but that’s part of the point.

If the Jews and the Irish are funny because they’ve suffered so much, as we’re regularly reminded, then the Third World ought to be hysterical.

Stand Up Planet screens this Monday at the San Francisco International Film Festival — with Hasan Minhaj in the house. It premieres on Pivot, KCET and Link TV on May 14.

Thanks to Mittal and Popps, it is. But Stand Up Planet raises awareness even while it’s cracking us up. Hasan encounters firsthand some of the social problems that these comic trailblazers address, and mock, in their routines: poverty, AIDS, corruption.

One the one hand, poor sanitation is no joke. On the other, it’s the oldest joke in the world, and Mittal plays it for all it’s worth.

Hasan then brings these two gifted stand-ups home to California to meet a few American comedy legends — Bill Cosby, Norman Lear and Carl Reiner, all charming — and, ultimately, to co-headline an international comedy showcase at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard. This would be a dream gig for any rising comic, but for two from the other side of the world, it’s a revelation.

The premise — using standup as a kind of open mike for international understanding — is such a great idea, it’s a wonder nobody ever thought of it before.

The California transmedia consortium KCETLink originally approached the documentarians to develop “a TV series addressing global poverty issues that would actually be entertaining.” An early suggestion to create a reality show — a kind of “Earth’s Got (Stand-Up) Talent” — got mercifully heckled into oblivion. But smarter, funnier heads prevailed, and, with an assist from the Pivot network and the Gates Foundation, SUP premieres this month.

For Munro, the crux of the original assignment “was basically to make hunger, poverty and disease must-see TV.” Turning problems into punch lines is a comedian’s job description — so stand-up was the perfect vehicle.

“But who knew if there were comics in these places? As it turns out, there is a genuine comic uprising going on around the world right now. And, yeah, we were as surprised as anybody that no one had done the idea before. We Googled high and low to make sure!”

They must have Googled Hasan, too, but that wouldn’t do him justice. He’s the show’s secret weapon, an on-camera natural who astonishingly got the gig over the phone. “Hasan checked every box on our list,” says Munro. “He’s an Indian mensch. Young and charismatic: check. Soulful: check. Curious and engaging: check. And most important: Does he make us laugh our asses off?” Yup.

There are huge comedy scenes popping off in Brazil, Nigeria, Egypt, Korea, almost everywhere. It truly is a comic spring.

 

If Stand Up Planet catches on the way Castleton, Munro and most everyone who has seen it hope it does, we haven’t heard the last of international comedy on American shores — or, for that matter, around the world.

It’s inspiring to imagine Aditi and Mpho, the film’s two principal comics from India and South Africa, appearing not just in stateside venues but also in each other’s countries. Maybe even Israeli and Palestinian comics, thanks to the lubricative properties of mutual satire, might someday occupy the same stages.

Castleton sees possibilities everywhere: “There are huge comedy scenes popping off in Brazil, Nigeria, Egypt, Korea, almost everywhere. It truly is a comic spring.”

Munro envisions an international Stand Up Planet Comedy Lab, like the filmmaking labs at Sundance — with world-class comedians mentoring talented up-and-comers from the developing world.

“Everyone likes to laugh. Everyone needs to laugh. Why not do it together?”

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