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Vietnam's Female Comics Show How to Unapologetically Be Yourself on Stage

In recent years, Vietnamese women have gained a foothold in Vietnam’s comedy scene, despite it largely being dominated by men. But as the industry grows, the evidence of a gender gap seems to be increasingly clear.

Saigoneer had the chance to interview three Hanoi- and Saigon-based stand-up comedians — Kim Thanh, Yến Nhi and Minh Tú — right before the country went into social distancing. With shows temporarily postponed due to COVID-19, the young women are taking this time to work on new material, while hoping to reunite with audiences soon. We spoke with the trio of comics and learned about the inspirations, challenges, and opportunities that they have come across on stage. 

How They Began

Though it might seem paradoxical, the pandemic has inadvertently opened more doors for young people to explore different career paths, and one of those options is stand-up comedy.

Võ Yến Nhi, who goes by the stage name Nhi Võ, joined the industry simply because she finds herself good at coming up with funny things. Last September, Nhi found out about Sài Gòn Tếu, the city’s resident stand-up comedy club, and started performing at their open mics, where she was able to rehearse her act. Soon enough, she was dubbed the "Queen of Open Mic" for holding the longest streak of performances.

Nhi Võ. Photo courtesy of Sài Gòn Tếu.

At the other end of the country, Haha Hanoi's Kim Thanh, who previously specialized in improv, acquainted herself with stand-up comedy during the pandemic. Emerging from last year's lockdown, the Hanoian comedy club began experimenting with stand-up comedy per their founder’s suggestion, eventually making it to the Vietnam Comedy Competition.

Meanwhile, Vũ Minh Tú is somewhat of a veteran, as she has been involved in the stand-up scene for nearly four years, mainly doing sketches in English. For Tú, stand-up comedy is a way to heal from mental health issues, which she said negatively impacted her friendships, career and linguistic competence. She turned to stand-up comedy because it is a form of storytelling, a creative outlet in which she gets to open up about herself, while also entertaining the audience.

Vũ Minh Tú has been in the game for nearly four years. Photo via Standing Bar

"Being on stage is like taking part in a thrilling game. It's frightful, yet exciting and addictive. And once you have channeled all your energy into performing, you also find the solution to your problems," Tú describes what it is like to be on stage. 

"Isn't that a bit too much for a girl?"

Even in countries like the United States or United Kingdom, where stand-up comedy has long been established, statistics show that the makeup of the industry is still predominantly male, and men still get the majority of bookings at shows. In Vietnam, where stand-up comedy is still new, this disparity is even more perceptible, as audiences are already familiar with comedians who are men, but not so much for women.

“For female stand-up comedians, the first obstacle is probably having to spend more time on doing makeup than our male colleagues,” says Nhi jokingly. However, she admitted there are indeed prejudices in the industry against women, especially when they want to speak their minds. From a young age, girls are taught to “stay hushed,” to be obedient, to not show their inner thoughts. This continues into adulthood.

A few of Kim Thanh’s male colleagues claimed that female comedians have a hard time finding a partner because they “pay too much attention to details and show a lot of attitude about it.” Some men are also uncomfortable with having a girlfriend who is funnier than him.

Tú was even physically harassed during a show, but when she tried to report this, her colleagues and the bar owner refused to believe her. “It is very difficult for women to speak up in a male-dominated environment since there are so few of us. Even our truth gets sidelined,” she says.

Thanh performing at a Haha Hà Nội show. Photo by Duy Khánh. 

When a woman does stand-up comedy, such prejudice is perpetuated through criticisms like "she’s not as good as the guys," or "how dare she say such vulgar things." Many come to shows with an ill-conceived bias and expect their performers to be ladylike, and are shocked when they start talking about explicit things.

This sort of gender stereotype has a great influence on the comics' creative process, making them cautious when penning new jokes, especially when obscene topics are involved. But Nhi Võ managed to turn the trope on its head by delivering a sketch about how society’s expectations invade women’s autonomy even in their excretion matter.

Nhi Võ turning the trope on its head with a sketch about using the toilet as a woman.

In a way, female comedians can turn these barriers into source material. Tú admitted that she used to constantly do acts about gender stereotypes, but eventually, she felt that she needed to find a solution to address the problem, and not just dwell on it. This reflected her progression as a stand-up comedian. Knowing when to move on and explore new subject matters, according to Tú, is how she grows as a performer.

Tú also has her own metrics when it comes to evaluating the success of an act. For her, stand-up comedy is a kind of psychological therapy, so even if no one laughs, as long as she feels happier, the performance has served its purpose.

What's Next?

Stand-up comedy has yet to reach its full potential in Vietnam. With increasing internet coverage and digitalization of entertainment, it is just now taking advantage of social platforms to reach more audiences.

Tú said that young Vietnamese have the privilege of accessing knowledge from different sources, which allows young performers to learn and research issues more thoroughly. However, she believes that they should not limit themselves to superficial topics taken from abroad, but should dig deep into their own culture, and tell their own stories in the most captivating way to audiences.

While female comics face challenges, the scene's newness means that there is still room for them to build a career and a personal brand. In the near future, Nhi aspires to be recognized as a professional stand-up with a special to mark her career growth. Kim Thanh, on the other hand, is set on performing with music. She aims to accomplish a 20-minute set, a duration she's never experienced before. Meanwhile, Tú wants to spend time enriching her life experience to gain new material, not specifically in stand-up comedy, but just simply bringing laughter to audiences.

No matter how intense, sensitive or negative life experiences can be, the stand-up comic needs a certain level of commitment and trust in oneself to connect to audiences. Well-aware of this, Thanh, Nhi and Tú are constantly improving their craft to carve out a unique space in this new art form.

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