Humour is very specific in different cultures. What one group finds funny could fall flat in another, or be down right insulting. Take for instance my family tradition of puns. This British dry wit is taken to a whole other level at family gatherings in which informal pun showdowns take place among the Cobbledick brothers. They try to one up each other with made up play on words, and the result is, well, cringe worthy.
I also listened recently to an episode of This American Life about Gad Elmaleh, a star comedian in France, trying to make it in America. It turns out French comedy is much more theatric and jokes don’t always translate well.
So when the opportunity came to check out the “Malaysian King of Comedy” among others at the Crackhouse Comedy Club, we jumped at the chance. One way or another, this was going to be funny (and blog worthy)!
Laughs were plentiful that evening. The humour was clever and witty.
There were jokes about being on the set of a Malay movie (set in Switzerland, but filmed in Chiang Mai – same, same), what the last supper would have been like if Jesus were Indian (a fantastic banana leaf feast) and even a musical tribute to Justin Trudeau (described as riding a moose and followed by a flock of Canadian geese) sung to the tune of The Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World.” A wild haired Bahasa act also had the audience roaring with laughter and made me wish I could speak the language.
At the end of the evening, it did take a more serious tone. Malaysian humour is largely based on racial stereotypes. The three main ethnic groups here, the Malays, Indian Malaysians and Chinese Malaysians, all poke fun at one another.
In an environment like the comedy club, it is friendly enough, but in everyday life racism in Malaysia is felt at a much higher level. As a foreigner (at least one who is a brand of white), it’s easy to be oblivious to the racism that exists. But locals often comment about it, and many feel the problem isn’t getting any better.
On the long weekend meant to celebrate Malaysia’s independence, emotions were running high. The headliner, Douglas Lim, had recently returned from sold out shows in Melbourne and he was impressed with the harmony amongst people of all races in the city.
He ended his act comparing the current state of Malaysia to a dead bird on the road – “unnecessary.” Lim’s point was that while birds should never be spending their time on the ground (but rather flying safely in the air), so too should Malaysia be prospering – with its abundance of natural resources, an educated population and beautiful landscapes. But instead, it remains grounded and spinning its tires stuck in the mud that is racism, greed and corruption.
Maybe comedy isn’t just about getting a laugh. Maybe it’s a powerful way to push people’s thinking – worldwide. Either way, it’s a great way to spend an evening.