Why you should care
Because humor speaks volumes about a culture’s values.
Inside a sweaty sports bar in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamese comedian Uy Le bombards a sleepy crowd of local teenyboppers and Western expats with a flurry of quantum physics and game-theory wisecracks in English — you know, “relatable” jokes. Then he moves on to raunchier, more third-rail material: awkward first dates, obeying Mom and, gasp, playing hooky from work. His oversize spectacles creep down his nose as he delivers the punch line: “I wasn’t even sick!” He snickers — at his own joke — as the audience giggles quietly.
Welcome to a new breed of buttoned-up humor in Vietnam’s blossoming stand-up comedy scene, where political correctness, subtlety and, er, geeky science jokes fly freely. Granted, the material may not sound exactly edgy to Western ears accustomed to racier material. But taboo topics and socially deviant subjects are given a different kind of treatment in Asia, says the 23-year-old Le, a nerdy graphic designer by day and one of Vietnam’s homegrown comedians by night.
There’s so much opportunity for more provocative material. But we’re still in slapstick phase.
Uy Le, Vietnamese comedian
Perhaps, refreshingly, dick jokes don’t dominate here the way they do in North American or European comedy clubs. And you probably won’t hear a crude “yo mama” joke around these parts either, especially since respect and deference to your elders is paramount in Vietnamese society. In fact, riffing on political leaders, parents and sex can come off as “crude,” and those are just a few of the many red lines that some Asian comedians would never dare to cross. “Asians have long lived behind closed doors,” keeping private matters like family, political beliefs and intimacy out of the public arena, adds Le.
So, even if laughter knows no bounds, the type of jokes and their fine-tuned delivery do. Indeed, humor can get lost in translation between cultures and continents, particularly when moving eastward, says Peter McGraw, director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Humor Research Lab. Clever puns, wordplay and inside jokes often lose their comedic oomph — for example, the Chinese would hardly LOL at American jokes about rednecks, and staid Germans would likely sneer at Asia’s love for lampshade-on-head routines.
But in parts of Asia, humor must overcome more than just geographical boundaries, says McGraw. Asia’s history is steeped in Confucian and Buddhist traditions, which, in turn, influence how humor is concocted and received through values like politeness, kindness and respect. “There are strong norms against expressing emotions in any public or professional place,” McGraw adds. “You don’t joke around with your boss, unless you’ve gone out and had a few too many beers.”
Meanwhile, Western humor techniques like sarcasm and exaggeration are frowned upon. Instead, Asia’s unwritten humor code is couched in gentle, indirect reproach or reprimand. “Asians are more reserved,” says Le. “Here, comedians are more self-deprecating and tend to take a stab at themselves, while elsewhere, others are more outward in pointing fingers at others.”
Despite relatively more sober gags, there’s still plenty of belly-splitting humor to go around. Le is following a long line of amateur Vietnamese comedians plying their trade in a growing number of stand-up competitions and comedy showcases taking place in the country’s largest cities. Plus, these fledgling jokesters are getting more time on the stage with leading professional comics who travel overseas to get a taste of Asia’s rising stand-up landscape, like Ireland’s Martin Mor and Canada’s Lars Callieou. And this year, Ho Chi Minh City held some of the first major international comedy festivals ever to grace the country’s comedy joints, including the Saigon International Comedy Festival and the Magners International Comedy Festival. Both drew thousands of spectators, ready to yuk it up.
But there are still some sore spots to reckon with if you want to succeed as a comedian in Vietnam. The “chronic lack of gigs” usually keeps fresh-faced comedians from fully honing their craft, says Nick Ross, a comedy festival organizer based in Ho Chi Minh City. And often, the same people tend to perform in the small number of shows that pop up every week in hole-in-the-wall venues.
Over at the headquarters of Comedy Saigon, the hub of Ho Chi Minh City’s budding comedy community, American-born James Dilday sweeps away cobwebs from the corners of a coffee shop’s back room. Here, under a stage with a leaky skylight, he teaches 100-plus aspiring local comedians the tips and tricks of the stand-up trade during monthly workshops. They’re keen to learn, but it’s a long way from here to the Comedy Cellar in New York, or the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles — the Broadways of the comedy world for emerging stand-up comics. “There’s so much opportunity for more provocative material,” says the comedian Le. “But we’re still in slapstick phase.”
Which may not be all that bad a place to start. Navigating the land mines of Vietnam’s comedy scene and learning how to work around potentially controversial themes “forces you to find what is universally funny,” Dilday says, as he tidies up the space for the next crop of pupils. Lesson No. 1? In Vietnam, blond jokes don’t translate all that well — who’d a thunk?